Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Walls and Bridges

Imagine there's no walls. It's easy if you try. How would these debates be affected?

Both the previous Mexican president, Vicente Fox, and the new one, Felipe Calderon, have compared the U.S. decision to construct an additional 700 miles of border fencing—authorized in October by a Senate bill signed by President George W. Bush—to the decision to build the Berlin Wall. Fox called the move an “embarrassment for the United States,” and Calderon dubbed the decision “deplorable.”

Actually, the analogy to the Berlin Wall is embarrassing and deplorable. The words “Berlin Wall” and “U.S.-Mexico border fence” should not be used in the same sentence, especially by educated men like Fox and Calderon, who ought to know better.

The first time I encountered this silly comparison was in the summer of 2001 while reading newly declassified minutes from the December 1987 Washington Summit between the United States and the Soviet Union. In their first one-on-one session of the summit, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev squared off on human rights—the issue that Reagan always raised first, and always to the consternation of Gorbachev.

While Reagan told Gorbachev that he was pleased that some Soviet Jews were finally being allowed to leave the Soviet Union, he believed that more should be permitted to emigrate. These hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews were not permitted this basic human right. As he had at the previous two summits, Geneva and Reykjavik, Gorbachev bristled. The eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner snapped at Reagan, telling him that he was not an accused criminal standing trial and that Reagan was not a prosecutor. Gorbachev insisted that Reagan “had no right” to bring up such Soviet “domestic matters.” He then tried to turn the tables on Reagan, pointing to a U.S. Congressional proposal to build a fence along the Mexican border, which, said the Soviet general secretary, was as bad as anything the USSR had ever done.

Reagan realized this was utter nonsense. He replied that a border fence was meant to stop illegal immigration by people who wanted to join a free American society because its opportunities. This, said Reagan, was “hardly the same thing as building a Berlin Wall, which imprisoned people in a social system they didn’t want to be a part of.”

Gorbachev must have felt a little stupid. He hadn’t really thought through the issue. And, indeed, what applied to Gorbachev then should apply to Mexico’s leaders today.

Actually, there is one similarity between the Berlin Wall and the U.S.-Mexico border - both restrict the free movement of people. (Of course, there was/is a big difference on who is doing the restricting.) In this world in which (with some exceptions) we can virtually surf anywhere in the world, what would happen if we could also physically move throughout the world?

One consequence would be changes in the standard of living. When people can freely move from country to country, there will be more pressure for wages to equalize between nations. If anybody and their brother can easily move from Mexico to the United States, there will be more pressure on Mexican employers to raise wages to keep their existing workers. At the same time, there will be more pressure on U.S. jurisdictions to lower minimum wages.

Another consequence would be an equalization of freedoms between nations, although I'm not sure whether people will generally become more free or less free. In the idealistic world, one would think that the removal of the barriers between Eastern and Western Europe would result in all sorts of freedoms throughout the continent. But that didn't happen - ask Peter Berdovsky about his experiences in Belarus after the wall came down.

P.S. I mentioned Bridges. If anyone has a copy of the Kondensed Kliffs Notes poster, please let me know.


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