About a decade ago, Democrats (including Obama and Clinton) supported the erection of a border wall. Republicans, broadly speaking, were generally uninterested in immigration and highly critical of spending a dime more than they had to, on virtually anything other than the latest model of fighter-jet.
Sometimes, change can feel timeless.
Naturally, the reversal of positions we see raging in today’s debate over Trump’s proposed border wall has internal-political motives (what will help certain congressmen keep their seats, vie for higher power, etc), which the responsible citizen ought to ignore in favor of the relative merits of the proposal in question. But given the tendency for political operatives to employ reasonable-sounding arguments in a malleable fashion, dependent upon what is expedient for their own ends — as evidenced by the tendency for political parties to flip positions on certain issues — it becomes important to be able to put aside the talking points and think things through from the beginning. This is what I will try to do with this post.
Let’s start with a shared frame.
Nations are important because they provide stable contexts (language, culture, customs, institutions, etc), within which individuals and small communities can effectively protect, maintain, and build legacies which are the cornerstone of life and civilization. Broadly speaking, both Democrats and Republicans are (or ought to be) pro-nation, and arguments can be made both for and against the erection of the border-wall on the basis of the national interest (which is also the correct moral frame of reference, since such a wall would be paid for by tax dollars which are pre-allocated for the interests of the nation anyhow).
From this frame, there are essentially four arguments against the wall that are made:
- Immigration is good
- Wall is too expensive
- Wall is ineffective/better alternatives
- Wall is immoral
And there are basically three arguments for the wall that are made:
- It will protect us from criminals
- It will protect US wages
- It will protect our culture
These arguments will henceforth be referred to by the letter “A” (against) or “F” (for), and their corresponding number (e.g., A4 = wall is immoral).
Let me walk through all of these arguments and the possible counters to them, so that we can move towards a more philosophically rigorous opinion on the utility of building a Southern border wall.
A1: Immigration Good
This argument holds that the border wall robs America of potential citizens, or at least economic agents, who actually invigorate and improve America above and beyond whatever harms may also come with illegal immigration. Between the cheap labor, ethnic food, “new blood,” and the international relationships that develop as a result of moving populations, America’s interests would be best served by not building a wall, and perhaps even by encouraging immigration, legal or otherwise.
This argument is made as often by “conservative” libertarians (particularly anarcho-capitalists) as it is made by liberals, though often for different reasons. Libertarians usually lean more heavily on free-trade and cheap labor arguments, while liberals tend to prefer to cite the positive effects of cultural diversity.
The trouble with the economic version of this argument (which will also apply to argument F2) is that it is very difficult to verify exactly what the overall effect of immigration is on the economy. The problem is not with the lack of data, but with the inherent subjectivity in one’s choice of metrics. While immigration does tend to provide a cheap labor supply, which can boost the overall GDP numbers, this deflated labor cost can hurt the native blue-collar class. Thus, immigration appears less as a net boost, and more as a kind of redistribution of economic power towards the upper tiers of the population. It helps the Kochs and the Soroses of the country, whose numbers are closely correlated with the national GDP, but it doesn’t do much for the middle and lower classes. This may be taken as a possible criticism of the use of GDP as a measure for the economic well-being of a country overall.
This counter is not a knock-down, since as previously stated, it is difficult to gauge exactly what the overall long-term economic effects of immigration are. But the equal plausibility of this alternative account undermines the certainty of the claim that immigration is good, and that we should not protect our border any more than we already do.
I believe that the economic argument is stronger than the cultural one, since historically speaking, immigration has always been a source of chaos, conflict, and even destruction, where culture is concerned. Even the new “hybrid” cultures which emerge from cross-blended nations, which are not necessarily a bad thing, are almost always the result of decades (more often centuries) of bloody and bitter violence between warring factions. The claim could be made that the growth of these new cultures (and, necessarily, the destruction of weaker cultures) is worth the heavy cost in time, tradition, and bodies, but to make such an argument would be unprecedented among the sorts of people who most often argue that we should embrace diversity today, since the prevailing reason behind this advocacy tends to be the desire to minimize, or even eliminate, war and inter-group conflict.
This argument holds that while the wall may do some good, the benefits of the wall are not worth the inordinate cost that thousands of miles of concrete and/or steel would impose on the taxpayer. The national interest is better served through fiscal responsibility than through spending vast sums of money on improving the border security we already have.
This argument to be fairly ineffective for two reasons. First, if increased border security does protect wages and stop crime, then it is probable that the wall will financially pay for itself over time. In other words, on economic grounds this argument cannot succeed unless some version of argument A1 (immigration good) is also made. Second, if the border wall gives even a small return on investment, it will be doing better than the Department of Education, NASA, the CIA, or the US Military. Thus the cost argument is susceptible to charges of hypocrisy and being selective with pet-projects (personal interest, not national interest), based upon the standards one must use to judge a policy to be successful or unsuccessful, relative to cost.
This argument holds that the border wall may be worth the cost, but that it simply cannot achieve the desired results. Illegal immigrants may jump the wall, tunnel under, or simply smuggle themselves through customs. Particularly in wilderness areas where Border Patrol response times are high, a physical barrier would be insufficient anyhow: it would require surveillance and communication equipment, which could serve to secure the border just as well without a wall. For this reason, the wall is not worth the cost, not because it wouldn’t be if it worked, but because it doesn’t work. The national interest would be better served by improving communication and border patrol numbers, while instituting “invisible wall” technology to secure the border without costly investment in a physical structure.
This is probably the strongest argument against the wall. It really drives a wedge between the purported end of the wall (border security) and the wall itself by proposing an alternative method of securing the border at a lower cost.
I think this argument can be countered on a long timeline by positing that the wall is a essentially one-time investment, requiring only minor maintenance over the coming decades, while “invisible wall” tech creates an recurring cost, which, up front, would be immensely lower, but over time would gradually catch up.
There is also an interesting argument one can make which posits the symbolic value of the wall. Unfortunately, this symbolic value will be largely political (i.e., Republican) until after the end of Trump’s presidency. But over time, if it is well-built, its physical presence and appearance may have more generalized symbolic utility, since Democrats have supported border walls in the past. An “invisible wall” would have no such symbolic value.
There are two versions of the immorality argument, which I shall refer to as A3(α) and A3(β):
α – Freedom of movement is a human right. By extension, migration — for economic opportunity or safety — is also a human right. To secure our borders is to infringe upon the rights of others by limiting their movement. Since our nation relies heavily upon a respect for human rights, it would be detrimental to the national interest to violate the human rights of aliens.
β – American identity is grounded in certain values and a common ethos, which, from its inception, has involved people (like the Puritans) moving from foreign places in pursuit of freedom and opportunity. Thus denying this opportunity would constitute a fatal rejection of our own identity, and undermine the cohesion of our nation by rejecting the ethos which binds it together.
A3(α) is a fairly radical claim, and relies upon a fairly untenable theory of human rights. Rights are not granted by the state, but are defended by the state, and calling upon a state to defend the rights of non-citizens as a duty is generally unprecedented, and may be outright immoral if the rights of non-citizens are in conflict with the rights (or even welfare) of citizens, since the first loyalty of the state must be its own citizenry.
Naturally, international reciprocity and a general preference for the protection of human rights should naturally manifest in a nation which supports the concept of human rights for its own citizens. Humans are humans, and the language of rights loses much of its power if it is understood to originate in the state (i.e., “citizen’s rights”), rather than in being a human being (“human rights”). More on this and the “rights of Englishmen” in another post at some point. But even if the universal metaphysics of human rights is granted, the obligation to protect the rights of non-citizens does not follow for the jurisdiction-limited state. If the rights of non-citizens threaten — criminally, culturally, or financially — the welfare of citizens, it is a duty of government to protect its citizens; a higher duty, in fact (historically, a first duty) than the protection and enshrinement of rights. Unless one posits “human rights” as an absolute value which trumps all other values, the argument is untenable.
(There is a sub-variant of this argument which focuses primarily on people suffering in the desert en route to the border. Aside from the issues of personal responsibility and legality, the rights of these people are also subject to relegation down the American government’s hierarchy of obligations, as laid out above).
And even if this unlikely proposition is granted, paradoxes arise, such as the question of which human rights are most important. For example, representative government is generally considered a right. If the people vote for a wall (vote for, in other words, the violation of other’s human rights), would it be a violation of their right to representative government? If rights were interpreted broadly enough so as to make human movement across borders a right, then the freedoms we generally associate with rights would be greatly reduced (i.e., the freedom to speak or vote on certain topics), and of course, the right to privacy and to private property would be threatened.
Let’s not even get started with the contradictions that arise where the freedom to conflicting religions is concerned.
In short, the concept of “human rights” as A3(α) requires them to be defined are unrealistic and utopian notions that have no basis in, or relationship to, the rights protected in the American constitution.
A3(β) is a far more interesting and, in my opinion, more compelling argument. There is some truth to the claim that the “American ethos” has to do with migration and freedom, in association with peoples from a variety of backgrounds.
It is legitimate to theorize in lieu of actual data. But when we get experience against which we can test our theories, the theories must conform to experience. We cannot simply reject empirical reality because it conflicts with our theory.
To begin with, America has had immigration laws since its inception, and had preferences as to where those immigrants came from, in order to optimize cultural homogeneity. To argue that holding to this same view would contradict our national values and character would be a strange statement, given this history.
It must also be mentioned that not all source-populations of immigrants are the same, nor are are all scales of immigration the same. Mexico, for instance, is more likely to give us an immigrant who will then turn into an American than Somalia, but less likely to do so than England. Similarly, a family of five is more likely to integrate with American culture than a mass-migration of 50,000. In both ways, our current immigration situation is closer to the latter, more difficult case.
But perhaps the harshest criticism of this argument is to observe the following difference in the character of immigrants from the alluded-to past and the immigrants of the present they are compared to. The pilgrims and pioneers were essentially departing from established civilization and heading across an ocean into uncivilized wilderness. This dynamic self-selects for those who value freedom and identity over economic well-being, and it is this identity that has greatly characterized the American spirit. Migrants of today, however, are broadly leaving behind second- and third-world countries to come to a civilized, first-world, industrial nation, and are willing to jump through all sorts of hoops in order to do so. This dynamic is nearly opposite that which characterized old America, and selects for a different kind of migrant. The implication that border-jumpers from Mexico are comparable to the Protestants at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock is false. The latter didn’t come here for “a better life.” They came here for religious freedom, at the cost of a better life, as measured by modern econometrics.
While A3(β) is more plausible than A3(α), both arguments can be refuted. The border wall is not immoral.
Summary of the arguments against the wall:
1. Immigration is actually good
Fails because the economic form is inconclusive, while the cultural form is ahistorical.
2. It is too expensive
Fails because it holds the wall to a different standard than other government programs, and refuses to see wall as a potential investment in costs saved in future.
3. Wall is ineffective/alternatives [STRONGEST]
Plausible and reasonably strong when paired with cheaper, effective alternative plans. Can be countered by economic and symbolic value arguments.
4. It is immoral
A3(α) (human rights) fails on logical grounds.
A3(β) (American values) is rhetorically strong, but fails on historical grounds and on the basis of different incentives for immigration, which makes the immigration that made America different in kind than the immigration of today, and not morally comparable to what the wall would be preventing today.
So what about the arguments for the wall?
F1: Stops Criminals
This argument asserts that those who are most likely to immigrate illegally tend to be criminals in other ways too, bringing drugs, gang-culture, violence, and other miscellaneous criminal tendencies into America. Aside from the very act of illegally entering a country being a crime, the process of entering illegally rewards coyotes and other human smugglers (often unsavoury in their own way), while punishing legal immigrants through a kind of unfair equality in reputation and in benefits. A wall would have no impact on legal immigration, while raising the cost of illegal immigration, and hence, on those most likely to be criminals. Therefore, it would be in the nation’s best interest to build the wall.
This is probably the strongest argument for the wall. Given the massive drug problem the United States is currently facing, and the immense power of Latin American drug cartels, a border wall that could even moderately stem the flow of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine would be immensely beneficial, both for the United States, as well as for Mexico (by depriving the cartels of a fair portion of their market, and thus, their money and power). We know that some of the gangs that mule the drugs can be vicious in ways that make ISIS look reasonable — the Zetas and MS13 in particular — and that they have established themselves in California and Texas in part because of our porous border in the desert.
F1 can be countered by reference to A2 (wall ineffective/better alternatives), as well as by pointing out that the majority of dangerous criminals either come through the border legally (through fraudulent forms, bribes, green cards, etc) or could come through legally. Meanwhile, many of the people fleeing through the deserts are not dangerous criminals, but essentially refugees from the drug cartel-controlled world south of the border. Thus, the wall would be insufficient and superfluous, when compared to the immigration policies that would need to be enacted for the wall to truly keep criminals out. In addition, the wall might needless increase the suffering of non-dangerous (though still technically criminal) immigrants.
F2: Protects wages
This argument holds that illegal immigration contributes to a low-skill labor surplus, which drives down the wages of Americans who need it the most (blue-collar workers and those who are impoverished or just getting back on their feet). A significant number of these illegal migrant workers cross the border illegally, and so a border wall would protect American workers. Thus, building the wall would be in America’s best interests.
A related argument has to do with the fact that Mexican migrant workers will often send much of their income home, via money order, thus taking millions of dollars out of circulation in the American economy.
This argument has some truth to it, but like A4, it suffers from a difficulty in establishing objective standards for verification. Does the harm done to the working class outweigh the benefit of cheap labor to businesses? And if this cheap labor allows businesses to grow, might they be able to employ more people, including some of the American laborers? After all, the increased population resulting from immigration would increased the demand for goods produced by these companies.
This counter is, like the argument itself, plausible but difficult to verify. No doubt, situations like this happen in some cases, and not in others. Overall, I find F2 to be the least compelling argument, although it is interesting to note that here, in attacking the wall, Democrats would be advocating the interests of businesses (perhaps even “big” businesses?) while Republicans, in advocating for a wall, are opposing the interests of business and defending their own working class.
F3: Protects Culture
This argument asserts that American culture is the product of a certain group of people, their ways of life (religion, language, institutions, food, etc), and that bringing too many people in too quickly will dilute and eventually destroy American culture. While some immigration won’t be a problem, the addition of illegal immigration tips the scale, and turns even legal immigrants into part of an existential threat. Thus, for the interests of both the nation and legal immigrants, we should build the wall.
I actually found this to be the most compelling argument for the wall up until I started writing this post. The problem with the “protects culture” argument is that America has received over 65 million immigrants in the past 60 years, and almost all of these have been legal immigrants. The wall, by its nature, can do nothing to stop legal immigration, and to boot, illegal immigrants tend to stick within their own ethnic enclaves anyhow (it’s more difficult to integrate when you don’t have a valid driver’s licence or social security number), and thus, don’t really dilute and destroy the native culture. At least, not nearly as much as the far more numerous legal immigrants, or even legal foreign workers who have no plans for staying.
Thus, those looking at the wall to protect their culture will be looking in vain. Their problem (and my problem) is not a lack of a wall, but the moral and legal possibility of amnesty, and relatively open immigration policies (at least where work visas are concerned). A wall may help a little bit, but it really does not address the problem of cultural dilution at it’s source, which is the scale of immigration, rather than the legality (I have even heard it argued that educated, legal immigrants are worse, because they tend to contribute more to high culture, and thus accelerate the dilution faster than lower-skilled, illegal immigrants). It aims at reducing a different problem.
Summary of the arguments for:
1. It stops crime [STRONGEST]
Strong argument with empirical basis. Can be countered with A2 (physical wall not necessary to secure border).
2. It protects wages
Plausible but fails because it is subjective and difficult to demonstrate. Can be countered by arguing that the value of low-cost labor might equal or outweigh the problem of devaluing native labor.
3. It protects our culture
Fails because wall does not stop legal immigration.
After evaluating these arguments, it appears to come down to A2 (ineffective) and F1 (stops crime). When laid side-by-side, it would appear that A2 addresses F1, while F1 does not address A2; a cheaper alternative “invisible wall” could reduce crime much as a physical barrier could. Thus, not building the wall appears to better serve the national interest.
There are three reasons that I still slightly favor the border wall. These are not arguments that I hear regularly made, but I think they are worth bringing up when considering the issue.
First, an “invisible fence” could be undone by a Democratic (or Republican!) president in subsequent terms of office, especially if the ongoing cost was too high or if it was politically expedient to allow illegal immigration from Mexico (as it was both for Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton). A wall is more permanent. The physical infrastructural investments made under FDR and Eisenhower were some of the best our government has made, especially compared to the bureacuratic ones preferred by modern politicians. The wall would be a return to that kind of tradition: even if it had little effect, at least we would have something.
2. Symbolic Value
Second, I find the symbolic value of the wall compelling. Signals often lead public opinion on matters of value, and a border wall, though largely ineffective, might signal the rightness and timeliness of more thoroughly securing our border through policy. Physical monuments are iconic, and remind us of the values for which they were built. That’s why we make cathedrals.
3. Keeping Promises
Finally, it is good to follow through on your promises. In recent years, we have suffered a wave of presidents who made promises and did not keep them (“read my lips: no new taxes,” “if you like your doctor, you can keep them”). Donald Trump’s singular campaign promise was to build a “big, beautiful wall” from sea to sea on the southern border. For civic trust, and the intrinsic moral goodness of fulfilling promises, it would be good if he ditched the legacy of Clinton, Bush, and Obama, and actually delivered.
On this note, I suspect that many of the Democrats who now strongly oppose the wall, despite supporting or even voting for similar measures in the past, are motivated by a desire to thwart Trump’s ability to keep his promises, thus undermining his political capital and his likelihood of re-election in 2020.
In either case, the United States won’t live or die by the wall. More likely, it will die by the frenetic political division that has half the country believing that Trump’s border wall is a life and death matter.
And because placebos and self-fulfilling prophesies work, these frenetic NPCs may end up being right, despite being wrong about everything else.