Monday, April 10, 2006

Walls, Welfare and Illegal Immigration

The subsequent debate over how to “solve” illegal immigration has brought the idea of a border wall to the forefront. This is seen by some as not only a good idea but an absolutely necessary one, an idea whose proponents have given up caring how politically correct or compassionate they (don’t) sound when proposing it. “Good fences make good neighbors” is an adage political conservatives have adopted for this current debate, and history seems to be on their side.

The Roman Empire learned the hard way to build walls. After being sacked in 390 BC by the Celts, Rome built an enormous wall, 24 feet high by 10ft thick. Rome wasn’t sacked again for almost a millennium, in 476. Now, I know some love to compare American “imperialism” with the Roman Empire, and I’m no apologist for Rome. Certainly, many of their campaigns were aggressive acts of empire building. But not all of them; the empire was attacked regularly by the barbarian Gauls, Hannibal, and the Parthians. As Rome won these battles, it acquired more and more territory, but part of what led to its downfall was a confusion of its borders. Only half of 1% of its citizens were in the army, and this made their borders unenforceable. The empire collapsed when its walls were no longer effective, either because invaders had learned ways through the city walls, or because the empire’s invisible borders had become too porous.

Ironically, while the Empire ruled, a great amount of peace was achieved. Before the empire, most of the world knew bloodshed and tribal division. But under Roman rule, “Pax Romana” was a reality for millions. To be sure, there were costs to empirical rule, but many of the subjects found that they lived in peace, with a common language, leader and rule of law. Today, we would not consider this to be an acceptable way of life; every ethnicity and culture has a built-in desire for self-governance since democracy has proven to be a success in so many parts of the world. But at the time, the walls that defined Rome and the empire were crucial for its society to survive. Only when those walls were torn down did Europe decay into the Dark Ages.

For Israel and Palestine, a wall seems to have worked remarkably well. Of course, many groups condemn the wall, comparing it to the Berlin Wall and see it as a sign of anti-humanitarianism. But like the Roman walls, this wall keeps people out more than it keeps them in, so it is a wonderfully humanitarian wall for the people of Israel. (For reasons unfathomable to me, many Christians lament the wall, apparently forgetting the horrors of the Holocaust and the need for a Jewish state. Most Mainline Protestant official bodies regard Israel and America as evil centerpieces of aggression, not North Korea, Iran, China, the Taliban’s Afghanistan or Saddam’s Iraq.) So walls indeed seem to make for more peaceable neighbors, and must be the first priority in America’s dealings with illegal immigration. It is more humane than having no physical wall, but enforcing legal ones later.

But part of the reason there has never been incentive to build a wall is that Americans seem not to mind giving some jobs away. It’s not that Americans won’t do the jobs that illegal immigrants do; it’s that they don’t have to. The problem of immigration is in large part a by-product of America’s wealth and the catatonic nature of the welfare state. When we pay people not to work, why should they? When a nation becomes too wealthy (defined as wealthy enough to pay people not to work), an economic vacuum is created. And who will fill it but those hungry to work in this wealthy country?

So it seems that part of what is needed for a nation to be sovereign (not necessarily politically but economically) is relative poverty. I wonder if a nation needs to be poor enough so that it appreciates work and does jobs some may consider undesirable? Economists recognize this when they speak of the desired rate of unemployment, which coincidentally is as statistically as low as it can possibly be. 4.7% unemployment is considered statistically full employment, so even with 4.7% of America unemployed, the economy has no room to employ them. The question is, will we lose enough wealth in time, and become so desperate that we will truly lament the loss of jobs to illegal immigrants?

No comments: