This piece was adapted from Summer 2016 Issue of City Journal
Borders are in the news as never before. With Muslim refugees flooding into the European Union from the Middle East, and with terrorism on the rise, a popular revolt is taking shape against the so-called Schengen Area agreements, which give free rights of movement within Europe. The European masses are not racists, but they now apparently wish to accept Middle Eastern immigrants only to the degree that these newcomers arrive legally and promise to become European in values and outlook—protocols that the EU essentially discarded decades ago as intolerant. Europeans are relearning that the continent’s external borders mark off very different approaches to culture and society from what prevails in North Africa or the Middle East.
The truth is that formal borders do not create difference — they reflect it. Elites’ continued attempts to erase borders are both futile and destructive.
A similar crisis plays out in the United States, where President Obama has renounced his former opposition to amnesty by executive order. The populist pushback against unchecked immigration from Mexico, Central and South America gave rise to the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump—predicated on the candidate’s promise to build an impenetrable border wall—much as the cascade of asylum-seekers into Germany has fueled opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Driving the growing outrage in Europe and North America is the ongoing elite push for a borderless world. Among elites, borderlessness has taken its place among the politically correct positions of our age — and, as with other such ideas, it has shaped the language we use. The descriptive term “illegal alien” gave way to the nebulous “unlawful immigrant,” then “undocumented immigrant,” “immigrant,” or the entirely neutral “migrant” — a noun that obscures whether the individual in question is entering or leaving.
Today’s open-borders agenda has its roots not only in economic and political factors — the need for low-wage workers who will do the work that native-born Americans or Europeans supposedly will not, and the desire to flee failed states — but also in several decades of intellectual ferment, in which Western academics have created a trendy field of “borders discourse.” What we might call post-borderism argues that boundaries are mere artificial constructs, methods of marginalization designed by those in power, mostly to stigmatize and oppress the “other” — usually the poorer and less Western — who arbitrarily ended up on the wrong side of the divide.
“Where borders are drawn, power is exercised,” as one European scholar put it. This view assumes that where borders are not drawn, power is not exercised — as if the Middle Eastern immigrants pouring into Germany do not wield considerable power by their sheer numbers and adroit manipulation of Western grievance politics.
Dreams of a borderless world are not new, however. Plutarch claimed in his essay “On Exile” that Socrates considered himself not just an Athenian but instead “a citizen of the cosmos.” In later European thought, Communist ideas of universal labor solidarity drew heavily on the idea of a world without borders. “Workers of the world, unite!” exhorted Marx and Engels. Wars broke out, in this thinking, only because of needless quarreling over obsolete state boundaries.
The solution to endless war, some argued, was to eliminate borders in favor of transnational governance. H. G. Wells’ prewar science-fiction novel “The Shape of Things to Come” envisioned borders eventually disappearing as transnational polymaths enforced enlightened world governance. Such fictions prompt fads in the real world, though attempts to render borders unimportant — as, in Wells’ time, the League of Nations sought to do — have always failed. Undaunted, the Left continues to cherish the vision of a borderless world as morally superior, a triumph over artificially imposed difference.
Yet the truth is that formal borders do not create difference — they reflect it. Elites’ continued attempts to erase borders are both futile and destructive.
Borders — and the fights to keep or change them — are as old as agricultural civilization. In ancient Greece, most wars broke out over border scrubland. The contested upland eschatia offered little profit for farming but possessed enormous symbolic value for a city-state to define where its own culture began and ended.
Throughout history, the trigger points of war have traditionally been such borderlands — the methoria between Argos and Sparta, the Rhine and Danube as the frontiers of Rome, or the Alsace-Lorraine powder keg between France and Germany. These disputes did not always arise, at least at first, as efforts to invade and conquer a neighbor. They were instead mutual expressions of distinct societies that valued clear-cut borders — not just as matters of economic necessity or military security but also as a means of ensuring that one society could go about its unique business without the interference and hectoring of its neighbors.
Few escape petty hypocrisy when preaching the universal gospel of borderlessness. In 2011, open-borders advocate Antonio Villaraigosa became the first mayor in Los Angeles history to build a wall around the official mayoral residence. His un-walled neighbors objected, first, that there was no need for such a barricade and, second, that it violated a city ordinance prohibiting residential walls higher than four feet. But Villaraigosa apparently wished to emphasize the difference between his home and the street, or was worried about security, or saw a new wall as iconic of his exalted office.
Those who deride borders are unwilling to address why [people choose to cross them], leaving their language fluency and native soil — at great personal risk.
While elites can build walls to insulate themselves, the consequences of their policies fall heavily on the nonelites who lack the money and influence to navigate around them. The contrast between the two groups — Peggy Noonan described them as the “protected” and the “unprotected” — was dramatized in the presidential campaign of Jeb Bush. When the former Florida governor called illegal immigration from Mexico “an act of love,” his candidacy was doomed. It seemed that Bush had the capital to pick and choose how the consequences of his ideas fell upon himself and his family — in a way impossible for most of those living in the southwestern United States.
More broadly, those who deride borders are unwilling to address why tens of millions of people choose to cross them in the first place, leaving their language fluency and native soil — at great personal risk. The answer is obvious: migration, as it was in the 1960s between mainland China and Hong Kong, as it is now between North and South Korea, is usually a one-way street, from the non-West to the West or its Westernized manifestations. People walk, climb, swim, and fly across borders, secure in the knowledge that boundaries mark different approaches to human experience, with one side perceived as more successful or inviting than the other.
Western rules that promote a greater likelihood of consensual government, religious tolerance, an independent judiciary, free-market capitalism, and the protection of private property combine to offer the individual a level of prosperity and personal security rarely enjoyed at home. As a result, migrants make the necessary travel adjustments to go westward — especially given that Western civilization, uniquely so, has usually defined itself by culture, not race, and thus alone is willing to accept and integrate those of different races who wish to share its protocols.
Many unassimilated Muslims in the West assume that they can ignore Western jurisprudence and yet rely on it in extremis. Today’s Pakistani new arrival in London might wish to follow sharia law as he knew it in Punjab. But implicit are two unmentionable constants: The migrant most certainly does not wish to return to face sharia law in Pakistan. Second, if he had his way, institutionalizing his native culture into that of his newly adopted land, he would eventually flee the results — and once again likely go somewhere else, for the same reasons that he left home in the first place.
Borders amplify the innate human desire to own and protect property and physical space, which is impossible to do unless it is seen — and can be so understood — as distinct and separate.
Similarly, when undocumented Latino youths disrupt a Donald Trump rally, they often wave Mexican flags or flash placards bearing slogans such as “Make America Mexico Again.” But note the emotional paradox: In anger at possible deportation, non-citizens nonsensically wave the flag of the country that they most certainly do not wish to rejoin, while ignoring the flag of the nation in which they adamantly wish to remain.
Borders are to distinct countries what fences are to neighbors: means of demarcating that something on one side is different from what lies on the other side. Borders amplify the innate human desire to own and protect property and physical space, which is impossible to do unless it is seen — and can be so understood — as distinct and separate. Clearly delineated borders and their enforcement, either by walls and fences or by security patrols, won’t go away because they go to the heart of the human condition — what jurists from Rome to the Scottish Enlightenment called meum et tuum, mine and yours. Between friends, unfenced borders enhance friendship; among the unfriendly, when fortified, they help keep the peace.
Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a contributing editor at City Journal.