Tear Down Those Walls

Once again today, we should see the Wall, “this brutal division of a continent,” as a cautioning tale that walls set up by governments do not work.

This year is undoubtedly a special year of remembrance for all defenders of liberty. Thirty years ago, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. And with it vanished any conviction left that the Communist experiment that was taking place for decades on one side of the wall was a success. Communism was destined to fail from the start. But seeing this symbol being destroyed and people from both East and West Germany embrace each other as one joined the other finally as a free people, was, in a sense, the final nail in the coffin for the Soviet Empire.

We’ll get to that anniversary in a few months. One significant event in the run-up to the eventual fall of the wall was taking place two years earlier today, on June 12, 1987. The Soviet Union was crumbling at that time already, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the new General Secretary of the Communist Party, had started implementing first quasi-liberalization reforms – of course, only to save the Soviet Union from its imminent downfall, but reforms nonetheless. And yet, that wall was still standing there, splitting Europe.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan had already argued in years earlier that the wall should be long gone. In 1982, at a visit to Berlin, he was wondering why that wall was even there. Five years later, he was even more blunt, when he famously called on Gorbachev to finally get rid of it and let the people be free:

General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

The wall had existed since 1961. It divided a continent, split families and friends apart. But, most importantly, it locked in hundreds of millions under an authoritarian regime. The wall was, in Reagan’s words, “a restriction on the right to travel,” but more so, “an instrument to impose upon ordinary men and women the will of a totalitarian state.”

The results between the free and the unfree, or, to put it in economic terms, largely capitalist and largely socialist countries, were clear: the West became wealthier at an ever increasing speed. The GDP per capita in the U.S. was slightly over 3,000 dollars in 1960. In 1989, it was nearly 23,000 dollars. Countries like South Korea and Japan embraced the market economy at least to some extent and saw massive growth occur. West Germany, completely destroyed after World War II, experienced its Wirtschaftswunder, i.e. economic miracle, thanks to the radical pro-market reforms of Ludwig Erhard.

The Soviet Union and its satellite states, meanwhile? As Reagan noted, “in the Communist world, we see failure, technological backwardness, declining standards of health, even want of the most basic kind – too little food.” For the President of the U.S., standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, this made the case abundantly clear:

After these four decades, then, there stands before the entire world one great and inescapable conclusion: Freedom leads to prosperity. Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations with comity and peace. Freedom is the victor.

Today, once again, there is much talk about “beautiful walls,” about erecting new barriers to pass. At least when it comes to immigration, the demands for a wall are, however, quite different than in the Soviet era. Back then, as Reagan noted as well in 1982, “the Iron Curtain wasn’t woven to keep people out; it’s there to keep people in.”

In 2019, walls are planned for the exact opposite reason: to keep people out. This is not to say that there should not be any immigration control whatsoever – Europe’s refugee crisis has shown over the last years the naïveté of full and unequivocal open border advocacy.

And yet, too many – including today’s U.S. President – do not only advocate for stricter borders because of terrorist threats, a more expensive welfare structure due to immigration, or significant cultural disruptions (going all the way to increasing antisemitism), as is certainly a part of immigration. It is rather, today, because outsiders are seen as a threat per se, as ones who take away jobs, that flood “our” universities, that potentially vote for the wrong party, or, God forbid, even take their families with them and “invade” the country.

That is, today’s demands for stricter immigration often go against exactly those that any country in the world would usually want to welcome: in the case of the U.S., hard-working people that want to be part of the grand American project as well. Those that arrived at Ellis Island – or, less impressively today, at JFK or O’Hare – to build a life and family in this vast array that can still be considered the freest place on earth.

We should also not forget those arguing in favor of the ideology that waited behind that wall in the east. Socialism is popular again these days, because it supposedly works much better than capitalism. Tell that, one is animated to say, to those that lived through it behind that wall, that tried to flee from it but were shot attempting it (and, one might add, tell that to those fleeing Caracas today). For almost three decades, the Berlin Wall was a stark warning of why socialism, centralization, and walls in the form of all kinds of barriers around economic and social affairs, can’t and will never work.

Once again today, we should see the Wall, “this brutal division of a continent,” as a cautioning tale that walls set up by governments do not work. They lead to disasters, and keep individuals from striving for fulfilling lives. It is time to tear down some walls again, regardless of whether they are regulations, red tape, tariffs or actual walls. But in contrast to three decades ago, we need to start with it back home, in the “capitalist” West.


  • Kai Weiss

    Kai Weiss is the Research Coordinator of the Austrian Economics Center, a board member at the Friedrich A. v. Hayek Institute, and a graduate student in politics at Hillsdale College.

The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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