Walls: a symbol of decline

A German chips away at the Berlin Wall in November 1989
Nov. 11, 1989: a West German takes hammer and chisel to the Berlin Wall

Donald Trump is using the imaginary threat posed by Mexican immigrants to scare voters, and has proposed building a wall on the southern border of the United States. The European Union agreement with Turkey on refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan serves a similar purpose, as do the fences now being built in several European countries.

States and governments that feel threatened build walls. It is a sign of a declining, protectionist system trying to avoid the challenge of competition that the proper economic and political systems allow.

Walls can serve two purposes: They can prevent a population from fleeing an oppressive or inefficient system and they can create an illusion of security from foreign invasion.

Walls can be physical, to serve military goals and prevent migration, and they can be regulatory, to hinder the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. They can also be psychological, such as when one’s family members are threatened.

Walls built to defend a country have never been effective, but they do convey a dangerous illusion of security. Famous examples include the Roman Limes Germanicus, the Great Wall of China, and more recently, France’s Maginot Line of the 1930s. They all failed.

The brand of socialism practiced by the Soviet Union and its satellites needed walls to prevent their citizens from moving to free Western countries. The Iron Curtain divided Europe with barbed wire, watchtowers and minefields. Those who managed to escape had to endure threats against their families. That system was also a failure.

Walls will not prevent immigration to Europe and the U.S., which will soon face labor shortages as their populations age. The EU’s deal with Turkey is the European version of Mr. Trump’s wall. That European politicians are essentially paying Turkey to take the refugees their countries do not want shows their utter inability to handle the challenge. Mr. Trump’s proposal shows that he believes a border wall will be popular with a majority of American voters. These are alarming signs for the U.S. and Europe.

Fear of Islam is a potent element in this “debate.” Western secular states and the principle of freedom they espouse are built on the Christian tradition. But Western societies feel less and less rooted in Christianity and are abandoning its principles out of indifference and expediency. This results in a loss of values.

A tolerant society that is based on strong Christian values would not need to fear groups who practice other religions, but it would be in a position to require that immigrants respect its basic principles.

Walls will never protect cultures that are not prepared to recognize, defend and live up to their values. The only thing walls achieve is limiting freedom on both sides.

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