“Before their empire fell, the Romans built walls.” That’s the start of an interesting argument by Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane at The Atlantic against building — or strengthening in certain parts — a fence across our southern border in order to stem the flow of immigrants.
“They began by erecting barriers along the border following the death of the Emperor Trajan in 117 A.D., notably Hadrian's Wall, which belted Britain. Later emperors erected internal walls, even around the great city itself, to ward off barbarians. After 300 A.D., the Emperor Diocletian effectively converted the entire Roman populace into feudal serfs, walling them off from internal movement in a vain effort to stabilize the chaotic economy.” And yet the walls failed to save Rome from the eventual downgrading of their economy as the Empire's Western population and wealth stagnated over the centuries.
Though walls didn’t work for the Romans, Hubbard and Kane claim that hasn’t stopped people from building walls to keep unwanted things out, and each time the results are less than promising. “Despite the cautionary tale of Rome, building walls, both literal and figurative, has remained a habit of great powers in decline — the fateful course taken not only by Ming China, but also Soviet Russia, and even Great Britain.”
Great powers such as Ming China, the British Empire and the Soviet Union are all conspicuously missing from the modern map save for a few stray British holdings. “The psychological impulse to protect a nation's wealth and culture from foreign contamination is an example of what behavioral economists call 'loss aversion' — the idea that people are more concerned about what they might forfeit than gain from change.”
America should do her best to avoid simple isolationism and attempt to keep out immigrants the duo concludes. “Smple-minded protectionism in terms of trade or migration is being exploited by populists in both major parties. What our leaders need to understand is that the only existential threat facing America is not embodied by barbarians at the gates, but by American isolationism.”
The walls of the Roman Empire often proved quite capable of keeping invaders out — the last Imperial Roman city, Constantinople, would stand protected by her walls until 1204 A.D. when she was sacked by Latin crusaders. In contrast the "Iron Curtain" was made to force others in instead of keeping others out. But Hubbard and Kane tell a compelling cautionary tale that when it comes to relying on walls to "protect" ones economy and culture, you shouldn't expect much.
Freeman Stevenson is a Snow College grad and is the DeseretNews.com opinion intern. Reach me at fstevenson@deseretdigital or @freemandesnews
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company