Border Security: What and Who is it Good For?

Photograph Source U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Robert Frost was clearly on to something when he declared a liberal to be a “man” (sic) too broadminded to take his own side in an argument.”  There is much to be said too for “good fences make good neighbors,” a wise, avuncular pronouncement, not at all mean-spirited.

Those words no longer seem quite so benign after Donald Trump and his wall, the one that was supposed to span the entire southern border and for which Mexico would pay.   Trump’s wall is a kind of fence, and it is hard to see how it is good for anything, much less for making good neighbors.

Could it be that, on border security, Frost, a hard-nosed, cantankerous poet, a political ally of Henry Wallace and John Kennedy, harbored sentiments similar to Donald Trump’s?

I hope not.  It would be disheartening to think that a major American poet and “a racist, a conman, and a cheat,” a major embarrassment to the human race, would have anything of importance in common.

In more normal times, this would go without saying.  But, of course, these are not normal times.   This isn’t entirely Individual Number One’s fault.  But, for the world’s current state of befuddlement, no one is more culpable.

If we want to Make America Great Again – not in Trump’s sense, but according to what those words actually mean – then, insofar as the facts allow, we should honor, not demean, the giants of American letters.

And if we want to stop wallowing in befuddlement, we should dissociate morally serious thinking about boundaries that keep populations apart – and walls that could help secure them — from the machinations of a conman, hell bent on turning as many white, (mostly) middle aged, (mostly) male victims of capitalism’s decline into instruments of his own venality and self-aggrandizement.

Were our institutions less undemocratic, were they more like their counterparts in other liberal democracies, Trump would be easy to dispatch — even if, as would have been impossible, he had somehow managed to get the Republican nomination in 2016 and then gone on to win enough Electoral College votes to defeat Hillary Clinton.

Instead we got what you get with institutions concocted some two hundred and thirty years ago by well-off planters and merchants for pre-industrial, newly independent British colonies that were dependent on slave labor — directly in the South, indirectly everywhere else – and already on the way to realizing its “manifest destiny” by perpetrating the physical and cultural genocide of indigenous peoples and administering the theft of their lands.

Now Trump wants some of those lands walled off – to keep brown skinned Mexicans and Central American refugees and asylum seekers out.

Must we despair?  The jury is out on that, but the answer, most likely, is No.

As long as wise and moral voices are heard, there is hope.  Therefore, when Robert Frost tells us that good fences make good neighbors, we ought to take his words seriously, notwithstanding their resemblance to Donald Trump’s.

Calls for bipartisan amity notwithstanding, Democrats and Republicans who take Trump’s words seriously, and who, taking up the cause, blather on about the importance of securing our borders, need be taken seriously only insofar as they hold and wield power. There isn’t world enough and time to consider their nonsense.

This is what the unwelcomed “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” on our southern border these days are discovering to our shame.

But maybe, just maybe, the pendulum is swinging back.  With the new Congress installed, there are hopeful signs – emanating mainly, but not only, out of its so-called “freshman class.”


With few exceptions, America’s borders were open, at least to Europeans, before passage of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924.  Before that, nativist animosities were often acute.  But with transportation into and out of the country difficult, and labor in chronically short supply, efforts to keep people out never gained much traction. This was as much the case along the southern border as at Ellis Island.

Land on the American side had once been part of Mexico; and so, as elsewhere in that country, the people living there were, for the most part, of mixed indigenous and Spanish origin.  After the United States took over those territories by war, and by hook or by crook, Anglos and other European settlers moved into them in great numbers, turning the Mexicans living there into a disempowered minority.

They are not the only ones, but their numbers reinforced by immigration in the years that ensued make them the largest of those minority populations.   In each of the states adjacent to the Mexican border, from Texas to California, minorities are becoming majorities again.

For some, this is a cause of backlash. Trump is not the only Anglo politician exploiting their discontent.

On the right, the idea has taken hold that there are too many immigrants here already and therefore that both legal and illegal immigration should be cut back if not curtailed entirely.

On the center and left, people are kinder and gentler, but still generally in accord with that sentiment. There are sharp disagreements on means, however, and the level of polarization is intense.  For that, thank Trump and his wall.

Because they are still standing by their man, House and Senate Republicans are for that accursed wall. Most of them do seem to understand that the idea is ridiculous, but that is not the point.  Trump wants a wall, and so a wall there must be.

Democrats think just the opposite.  Untrue to form, they have somehow managed to constitute a genuine, quasi-militant opposition.  Even the ones who won’t take their own sides in arguments are on board.

Nancy Pelosi called the idea “immoral,” but I don’t think she quite meant what she said; she put those words together for rhetorical effect.  Her aim was to show the Donald who is boss.

She was signaling that, in the negotiations underway at the time over Trump’s partial government shutdown, she was not going to give an inch.

In the end, she did concede enough to let Trump pretend that he had gotten a good enough deal to save face.  This was not an indication of weakness on her part, but of shrewdness.

Had she rubbed his nose in it, and than had the shutdown dragged on, she could have lost the support of a large segment of the Democratic caucus, along with that of some eight hundred thousand federal workers, countless independent contractors, small business owners whose livelihoods depend on those workers and contractors, and the millions of people who depend on the work they do.

Her obstinacy worked as planned; it enabled her to hand Trump an ignominious defeat.

In the Obama years, it was Republicans who triumphed through obstinacy.  Now all their obstinacy did was dig their graves deeper. The tables had turned.

True to form, Trump has never quite admitted, probably not even to himself, that he was bested by a girl. Quite to the contrary, with the help of Fox News and other rightwing propaganda operations, he has been able to get quite a few Republican numbskulls to share his delusions.

The conventional wisdom among those whose heads are screwed on better than the average Republican’s is less that the wall is immoral, but that it is stupid.  That it surely is; but there is a case to be made that it is immoral as well.

Pelosi is not the one to make it, however, because she, like other liberals, probably does believe, in her heart, that border security matters as much as Trump thinks it does, and therefore that there is a place for walls, after all.

It is not clear just what Pelosi thinks is immoral.  I suspect that, for her and for other mainstream and not so mainstream Democrats, it has less to do with keeping (desperate) people out than with the ethnic slur on Mexicans and Central Americans that the Trump wall would cast in concrete — or steel slats.

Compared to all the other immorality going on at the southern border – the children separated from their parents and kept in cages, the punitive detentions of asylum seekers, and the rest – ethnic slurs are small potatoes.  They are irksome, however, especially to liberals of the Clintonite type.

Clintonites are comparatively indifferent to the metaphorical sticks and stones that ruling class flunkies use to break the metaphorical bones of neoliberalism’s foes, but they can be counted on to take offense when Mexicans and Central Americans are called derogatory names.


Thus in the topsy-turvy world of Trump era American politics, liberals have been taking their own side quite effectively, while conservatives, like Democrats of old, have become the hapless fools.

They have all but abandoned the ideologies they used to champion, even the free market theology that formerly defined their politics.  This came to pass not for sound, readily available and widely understood reasons, but because their first priority has been to stay on the Donald’s good side.

It would therefore be fair to say that a Republican is a man (sic) who is so spineless – and so lacking in integrity – that when Trump tells him to piss, he pisses.  Republican women are no less servile and base.

The contrast with genuine internationalist is especially stark.

Internationalists think of themselves as “citizens of the world,” a designation that turns up frequently on opinion surveys that manage somehow to escape junk mailboxes.

In practice, though, world citizenship is at best a state of mind.  In a world divided into states, where every square foot of land is spoken for, the only citizens there can be are citizens of particular states.

With the rise of international institutions and international law, sovereignty, supreme authority over particular territories and populations, is no longer what it used to be.  As a military superpower with a currency that is still the world’s reserve, the United States still pretty much calls the shots for itself; but elsewhere, in Europe especially, this has not been the case for some time.  Therefore the borders that separate states and their peoples from one another aren’t what they used to be either.

They still matter, however; therefore, for better or worse, they must be secure.  In practice, this means that, for the most part, the authorities must be able to keep people out that they don’t want to let in.

There are imaginable circumstances in which walls could help with that.   It would be only a little over-the-top to say that they mainly arise in ancient citadels of culture and learning in which the inhabitants feel threatened by barbarian hordes.

Therefore although the position Trump promotes — that building “the wall” is the paramount task of our time — is patently idiotic, and although Fox News and Trump’s other propaganda outlets have been relentless and largely successful in winning benighted souls over to Trump’s point of view, his thinking, such as it is, is not as out of line with mainstream consensus opinion as one might suppose.  Indeed, Trump’s fixation on the wall is just an extreme version of a position around which there is a nearly universal consensus.

The internationalist position on borders and the free movement of persons is extreme too, though in a different way. It emphasizes solidarity, not exclusion. What this entails in practice is unclear in part because there are no practical models; there have not even been examples of internationalist foreign policy ventures anywhere in the world since the Cuban Revolution found itself materially unable to sustain its most generous impulses after the Soviet Union’s demise.

It therefore remains an open question how much or in what ways genuinely internationalist sentiments can be expressed within the broad consensus view on boundaries and walls that currently exists.

Subjectively, this is less of a problem in the United States than in many other countries because truly internationalist worldviews are less common here.  Despite all that has changed since the Second World War, many Americans remain provincial and isolationist, and, in some parts of the population, nativist attitudes have never really subsided.

But even among  “citizens of the world,” borders secure enough to keep out people who want in count for something – because, in the world as it is, with transport easy and inequality extreme, open borders truly would be disruptive of the order necessary for the benefits of internationalism to be realized.

Thus Nancy Pelosi and other mainstream corporate Democrats, along with the gaggles of anti-Trump Republicans who by now effectively dominate the “liberal” cable channels, want border security as much as anyone else – though in a kinder, gentler, ostensibly non- or even anti-nativist way.

This is a problem for “democratic socialists” too.   To be politically viable, the policy departures they want to initiate depend on diminishing inequality and therefore, in practice, on keeping out many people who want in.

And insofar as democratic socialists really are just social democrats — which until they start advocating for social or public ownership of major productive assets is about as close as their socialism can come to the genuine article — there are two other, venerable reasons for them to seek to limit entry into these United States: they don’t want the numbers of workers seeking entry into the labor pool to be large enough to depress wages; and they don’t want to deplete the treasury’s coffers enough to force down public spending on worthwhile public projects and on our already feeble welfare state institutions.

Again, the culprit is inequality.  If people want in for reasons of economic necessity – or, more immediately, because extreme poverty has empowered drug gangs in ways that put their physical security in jeopardy — then issues pertaining to the flow of persons across borders cannot be treated in the same way that corporate Democrats and social democrats too might think about the flow of goods, services, and capital across international borders.

Thus when even the good guys say that they are for border security, as much or more than Trump and the princelings of the party he hijacked, they are not just blowing air.  They are working out the implications of positions they hold – not, in this instance, out of heartfelt ideological commitment, but because the inequalities capitalism generates forces it upon them.

They are, to that extent, tragic figures – good people brought down by the things their circumstances oblige them to do.

There is nothing tragic, just contemptible, about the hypocrisies of Republicans and most Democrats.  They are what happens to those who take the wrong side in the class struggle.


Clintonite Democrats and Republicans are on the same page on this one.  But because the loathsomeness of the latter is purer and their servility to prevailing norms is more perspicuous, it is more instructive to reflect upon them

Pre-Trump Republicans came in many flavors.  There were social conservatives, arguably the least noxious of the bunch, and, slightly worse, fiscal conservatives.  The former champion the manners and morals of decades past, the latter champion pre-Keynesian economics, obsessing over budget deficits and promoting austerity for all – except, of course, the military, the intelligence services, and other pillars of the national security state.

There were also theocrats of various kinds, including evangelicals, and neo-conservatives who, when not aiding liberal imperialists on “the other side of aisle” in their efforts to get a new Cold War up and running, were still, as best they could, fighting the original one.

And there were libertarians. Hardcore libertarians are comparatively few in number, but their influence was and still is pervasive in Republican circles, affecting all the other strains of Republican thinking to at least some extent.

Compared to the others, they also have the most intellectually engaging justifications for the positions they hold.  Libertarian views are hardly compelling, though they can sometimes be of philosophical interest.

Of all the many kinds of Republicans there used to be, and some day may be again if the GOP survives Trump, their thinking is the only one that bears directly on fences and walls.

In a word, they are against them – except when they are not.  That would be when class interests supersede ideological commitments, as happens a good deal more than most Republican ideologues suppose.

The idealized markets libertarian ideology prizes are self-regulating systems of voluntary, bilateral exchange. Where they exist, what happens at the societal level is an unintended consequence of the deliberate, ostensibly rational, choices individuals make in their interactions with one another.

For extreme libertarians, all governments ought to do is establish civil order and enforce contracts; they ought not to operate as economic agents in their own right.  Less extreme libertarians, like mainstream liberals, also rely on governments to do what markets cannot.

This would include supplying (broadly desired) goods that markets cannot produce because incentives that would motivate individuals to do what would need to be done to produce them don’t exist.  This is especially the case with so-called “public goods,” goods whose benefits spill over to individuals regardless of what, if anything, they have contributed towards their production.

When this is the case –as it is, for example, with national defense or with fire fighting in congested areas – the story has it that rational economic agents would prefer free riding on the contributions of others to contributing to the production of the desired goods and services themselves.  Voluntary cooperation is therefore out of the question; the requisite labor must be coerced.

States restrict individuals’ liberty through outright coercion, the use or threat of force, or what John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) called “the moral coercion of public opinion.  That would be reason enough for libertarians, like anarchists, to want states gone, but for the fact that they, unlike anarchists, believe, as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) did, that, for such beings as we are, living in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, the alternative would be even worse.

For those who, like libertarians and liberals generally, agree with Hobbes, individuals without states live in a “state of nature” relative to each other.  In states of nature, there are no rules; anything goes. For Hobbes and those who follow him, the resulting disorder is even more detrimental to individuals’ interests than being forced to do what political authorities demand.

The best states restrict liberty as little as possible – as little as is strictly necessary for maintaining conditions in which (free) markets can operate and flourish.

There are many reasons, both theoretical and historical, why Hobbes and liberals after him, including libertarians, thought that to keep a state of nature at bay, supreme authority had to be vested in a single institutional nexus that governs distinct territories.

For Hobbes, the sovereign’s right to compel compliance is unlimited in principle.  Liberalism in all its varieties, including contemporary libertarianism, is a theory of limited sovereignty.  But whether absolute or limited, the sovereign’s power is always geographically limited.  It only exists within boundaries.

This is why clear – and secure – borders are indispensable, why they must be secured.  But this theoretical and practical exigency does not in itself favor particular policies on the movement of capital, on trade, or on how much, if at all, individuals’ freedom to enter or exit national territories must be restricted or curtailed.

Libertarians, and indeed liberals generally, do seek to maximize individual liberty in these areas – not because of their views on states, but because they favor as much liberty as possible.

It is theoretically possible that they would think that entry must be restricted – that walls are in order – to prevent the dissolution of the state back into a state of nature. But that is fanciful in the real world context in which Trump’s wall would exist.

In those circumstances, as in all others, the relevant issue is liberty; and, from that purview, walling people out would be indefensible.

Thus on the free flow of people, as distinct from capital, goods, and services, libertarians have not only lost; they have become the ones not to take their own side.

Free market theology is not what drives real world libertarian politics.  It is a factor, of course, but in practice, the exigencies of class struggle, combined with nativist inclinations, are the principal motivating force.

Of all the political tendencies comprising the “bipartisan” consensus on borders and walls, the libertarians are the most “philosophical” and therefore the most inclined to be moved by principles.  But, in the end, hypocrisy reigns in their circles as much as in any of the others.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).