Communism

Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall

A happy occasion - but also one with lessons that remain urgent today.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989.

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is undeniably a happy occasion—not only because the fall of the Wall was good in itself, but because it presaged the collapse of communist tyranny throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. But the history of the Wall also carries some important lessons that we have not fully learned even today—lessons about the nature of communism, but also about the importance of freedom of movement across international boundaries.

Most of what I wrote on the twentieth and twenty-fifth anniversaries of the fall of the Wall remains relevant today, and much of what follows is adapted from those earlier posts:

In several ways, the Wall and its collapse are fitting symbols of communism. They demonstrate several truths about that system that we would be wise not to lose sight of. First and foremost, Cold War-era Berlin was the most visible demonstration of the superiority of capitalism and democracy over communism and dictatorship. Despite the fact that East Germany had one of the highest standards of living in the Soviet bloc, it had to build a wall to keep its people from fleeing to the capitalist West. By contrast, West Germans and other westerners were free to move to the communist world anytime they wanted. Yet only a tiny handful ever did so. Decisions to "vote with your feet" are often better indicators of peoples' true preferences than ballot box voting, since foot voters have better incentives to become well-informed about the alternatives before them. Even more powerful evidence is the fact that many East Germans and others fled communism even when doing so meant risking their lives.

Second, the Berlin Wall was an important symbol of the way in which communist governments violated the human right to freedom of movement, one of the most important attributes of a free society. If people are forcibly trapped under the rule of the government in whose territory they happen to be born, they are not truly free; rather, they are hostages of their rulers.

Finally, the sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 vividly demonstrated the extent to which communist totalitarianism relied on coercion to maintain its rule. Some Western scholars and leftists contended that most Russians and Eastern Europeans actually supported communism or at least preferred it to the available alternatives. The events of 1989 gave the lie to this notion. Once the Soviet government and its puppet states in Eastern Europe signalled that they would no longer suppress opposition by force, the Berlin Wall was quickly torn down, and communist governments throughout Eastern Europe collapsed within months.

Despite all of the above, I am somewhat conflicted about the status of the Berlin Wall as the symbol of communist oppression in the popular imagination. My reservations have to do with the underappreciated fact that the Wall was actually one of communism's smaller crimes. Between 1961 and 1989, about 100 East Germans were killed trying to escape to the West through Wall. The Wall also trapped several million more Germans in a repressive totalitarian society. These are grave atrocities. But they pale in comparison to the millions slaughtered in gulags, deliberately created famines, and mass executions of "kulaks" and "class enemies."

The Berlin Wall wasn't even the worst communist atrocity in East Germany. As historian Norman Naimark has documented, Soviet occupation troops in East Germany raped some 2 million German women, executed thousands of political prisoners (only a minority of whom were Nazis or guilty of war crimes), and imposed extensive forced labor on much of the population. It is true, of course, that German troops committed comparable, and often even greater, atrocities in the USSR. But the one set of wrongs in no way justifies the other. Forced labor and concentration camps continued on a substantial scale even after the Soviets established an "independent" East German state in 1949.

Terrible though the Berlin Wall was, focusing on it as the main example of communist injustice may actually lead people to underestimate how awful that system truly was. It is a bit like portraying Kristallnacht or the Night of the Long Knives (both atrocities had death tolls roughly comparable to that of the Berlin Wall) as the main example of Nazi oppression, rather than the Holocaust.

It is right to commemorate the fall of the Wall, and to mourn its victims. But we should also remember that it was just the tip of a much larger iceberg of communist oppression. Indeed, those other oppressive policies were the main reason why so many Germans (and others) sought to flee communism in the first place. The true lesson of the Berlin Wall is not merely that the Wall itself was unjust, but that it was meant to perpetuate other, far more severe injustices by making it impossible to escape them. That lesson remains relevant today, as socialist dictatorships continue to oppress millions in Cuba, North Korea, and Venezuela.

In western nations, the lessons of the Berlin Wall also remain relevant because of the way "democratic socialism" has gained ground in recent years. While most of its advocates do not want to go as far as the communists did, the two ideologies nonetheless share a great deal of dangerous common ground.

In addition to overlooking the broader significance of the Wall for the nature of communism, too many people are also inclined to ignore its broader implications for the value of international freedom of movement.  For millions of people around the world today, like for East Germans until 1989, international migration is the only realistic way to escape a lifetime of poverty and oppression. Yet governments—including those of liberal democracies—routinely use coercion to stop them from "voting with their feet."

That coercion sometimes includes literal walls—like the one President Trump hopes to build on the US border with Mexico—and brutality like that which is all too common at immigration detention centers right here in the land of the free.  To top it off, building Trump's wall would require seizing the property of thousands of Americans who live along the border—a disdain for private property rights that the communist rulers of East Germany would surely find congenial.

Many try to differentiate Western immigration restrictions from the Berlin Wall on the grounds that there is a crucial difference between locking people in their homeland, and locking them out from some particular destination. Alternatively, it could be argued that East Germans were trapped in a more oppressive system than most migrants today. But these distinctions break down upon inspection. I summarized some of the reasons why here:

[Some] argue that there is a distinction between locking people in completely and "merely" preventing them from leaving for a specific destination (such as the US). But surely we would still condemn the Berlin Wall if the East German government had said its purpose was to block its citizens from moving to the West, but they were still free to leave for other communist nations. As a practical matter, moreover, the US border is Mexico's longest and most significant land boundary, by far, and blocking exit rights through that border is a major restriction on Mexicans' ability to go anywhere by land.

Another possible distinction between the two cases is that East Germans were locked into a far more oppressive regime than Mexicans would be. But Mexico's corrupt and often deeply unjust government is far from wonderful, and being confined there would force many potential migrants to endure what may well be a lifetime of poverty and exposure to violence. Moreover, the right to exit is not limited only to citizens of the most oppressive regimes. If Canada or the United States were to block their citizens from leaving, that would surely be a gross violation of human rights, even though Canada and the US are substantially freer and wealthier societies than Mexico. Forcibly confining people to the US or Canada is less unjust than confining them to Mexico. But it would be a grave injustice nonetheless.

Another possible way to justify the distinction is to analogize national governments to private homeowners or clubs, who have the right to keep people out for virtually any reason they want. But that theory has deeply illiberal implications for natives, as well as potential immigrants. If taken seriously, it would justify giving government almost as much totalitarian control over our lives as the government of East Germany once wielded over its people.

Economist Bryan Caplan has some additional criticisms of the distinction between "locking in" would-be migrants and "locking out." Among other things, he explains how the East German policy could easily have fallen within the latter category, if the communists had been willing to make a few modest modifications. Ultimately, both types of policies represent massive coercive government intervention to prevent people from taking advantage of opportunities offered by free markets and civil society.

I would add that some of the people forcibly kept out by US and other western nations' immigration policies are indeed fleeing East German-like levels of oppression. Consider, for instance, Venezuelans fleeing the horrifically oppressive socialist government of that nation, or Cuban refugees fleeing communism, who are now often barred from staying in the US, thanks to a cruel policy reversal by President Obama, which Trump has kept in place.

The oppression facilitated by Western governments' immigration restrictions is, at least in most cases, not nearly as great as that perpetuated by the Berlin Wall. But the two injustices are nonetheless similar in kind, even if—usually—different in degree. Our governments' policies are not nearly as bad as those of the East German communists. But we should aspire to a higher standard than that.

We should celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Wall. But, at the same time, we should make a commitment to ending similar injustices that  remain all too common today.

 

 

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  1. I wonder if all the historical victims of communism know their existence is mainly remembered to make a shallow political point against any enforcement at all of migration limits?

    1. Say what you will about Prof. So mind singular focus.
      When it comes to marking shallow political points with the victims of Communism, you and yours kinda take the cake with the lame red-bating of Dems and just about all post-New Deal policies.

      1. That’s one of the dumbest examples of whataboutism I’ve seen, complete with callbacks to 75-year-old grievance justification.

        You pretend not to be a completely partisan ***hole sometimes. The mask slipped this time.

        1. Yeah it was whattaboutism. As such, do not take it to invalidate your criticism of Prof. Somin’s point. But also take it as a chance to look at your own Manichaean view of politics.

        2. I say I’m partisan all the time, who says I pretend objectivity?

          1. I’m not even sure what your whataboutism is supposed to he here. Somin has to cry about walls keeping people out because he’s insane, but you didn’t mention it.
            Is it just your repulsive move to suggest border controls are “red-baiting”?

            1. It goes specifically to Ben’s comment about making ‘shallow political points’ showing an impressive lack of self-reflection.

              No, I’m not saying border controls are red-bating.
              There are a few on here who argue that not having a wall means you must secretly want communism, which is kinda red-bating, but that’s not a general tactic; it’s usually those who see communism behind every policy.

              1. showing an impressive lack of self-reflection

                LOL!

      2. I can concur w/ Prof Somin to a certain extent, since I conceive that migration is a Prime Natural Right. However, his perspective seems to ignore consideration of the causes and motivations of migration which might constitute a restriction on this right.

        If the migration is a consequence of geographical or environmental conditions that require it, viz, natural conditions, then generally restrictions should be minimal. However, if it is a consequence of unnatural conditions, viz, governmental action or inaction resulting in social or economic distress, then restrictions on emigration – at least certain ones – are justified.

        However, even in the former situation any right of emigration must also consider the vested rights of persons already inhabiting the localities into which emigration is sought. Their rights cannot be adversely affected.

        IMHO, I don’t believe these distinctions are sufficiently recognized and employed.

        1. This is the issue I have with this line of argument, though I frame it differently.

          Exclusion of others is just rights of association – I don’t like (disliked_group), and if we all don’t want to associate with them we exclude them from joining our polity.

          The alternative argument that we have to let them in because their preference to associate with us overrides our preference not to associate with them has clear idiotic results without even going to the absurd inputs. Actual Nazi wants to attend your synagogue in uniform? You can’t exclude him, that would be just like the Berlin Wall. Actual KKK members want to attend a private NAACP retreat in their hoods while burning crosses? You have to let them in or it’s just like the Berlin Wall.

          Now bigots who want to exclude people because of an inherent class are still bigots, but the problem with communisms boundaries wasn’t that they wouldn’t let you out per we, but that they forced association. Paraphrasing Eddie Izzard, with communism your choice was “communism or death.”

          That’s where then”you can move to any other communist country” line fails it’s still forced association. The only moral position is that anyone who wants to leave can go to anywhere they’re welcomed, along with the reciprocal – no one can force you to let them in. In this at least ten SJWs complaining about colonizers are right on the underlying principle, though wrong in the way to address past wrongs (unless they’re also hardcore believers in the God of Abraham, and that the sins of the father carry down the generations – that’s at least consistent).

    2. “I wonder if all the historical victims of communism know their existence is mainly remembered to make a shallow political point against any enforcement at all of migration limits?”

      You must be new here . . . or ignoring for partisan purpose Prof. Somin’s conduct that predated Trump-led conservatism’s recent turn toward authoritarian bigotry.

      Why does the Volokh Conspiracy attract so many downscale clingers?

      1. “Why does the Volokh Conspiracy attract so many downscale clingers?”

        Yeah, you do show up here often.

    3. Evil has many faces and many lessons. Would you only remember one?

    4. Hat tip to you Sir. But Somlin’s long had an unprincipled “any weapon at hand” style of argument when trying to advance one of his favored but unpopular policies.

  2. The comparison between the Berlin wall and the border wall is a poor one. You seem to miss the critical distinction made by those who argue for the locking out/locking in distinction.

    If Americans keep out those who are fleeing Venezuela, for instance, one justification for doing so is that Americans aren’t the ones oppressing Venezuelans, Maduro is (and Chavez before him). On the other hand, the East Germans were the ones oppressing East Germans, and so by putting up a wall, they were helping to perpetuate the oppression *they* were causing.

    I know the country/home analogy has a lot of problems, but locking someone *in* my basement is obviously worse than locking someone *out of* my basement. Your open borders über alles worldview is leading you to make critical logical errors.

    1. But getting Mexico to pay for the wall (which of course they won’t do), or to make it’s own efforts to keep people from crossing into the U.S. (which they do seem to be doing) obliterates the distinction, since it then becomes Mexico keeping people from leaving Mexico.

      1. Mexico has laws requiring illegal immigrants to go back to their countries of origin.

        Apparently the Trump administration got the idea that Mexico wasn’t enforcing its own laws as diligently as it might (at least for those transiting across Mexico toward the US).

        The Mexican govt agreed to step up enforcement of its own laws so that illegal immigrants get sent back to their country of origin.

      2. It’s been obvious all along that you could force Mexico to pay for the wall. All it would take is a heavy tax on remittances, perhaps refundable on presenting proof of legal residence in the US.

        The problem is that Congress doesn’t want the wall built, and so they don’t want Mexico to pay for it, and a tax on remittances would require legislation.

        I don’t think Trump knew going into this just how adamant Congress was, (Including Republicans!) about making sure the border remained undefended.

        1. Did Trump ever even propose this ridiculous idea?

          1. White House weighing a tax on remittances to Mexico to fund border wall

            It is literally such an obvious way to do it, that it occurs to everybody who thinks about it, and isn’t committed to declaring it impossible.

            1. Well, Brett, that is a pretty weak claim about the “White House” considering it. One guy, being nice to an AL Congressman.

              Have they sent a proposal to Congress, discussed it in public, done anything to suggest they are really advancing the idea?

          2. And, what exactly is ridiculous about the idea?

            1. bernard11 would rather not respond than admit that he called Trump ridiculous.

              1. I call Trump ridiculous, and worse, all the time.

                Here is what is ridiculous:

                The proposal from Rogers is for a 2% tax on remittances which, if it does not reduce remittances, would generate about $1 billion/year. That won’t do it. And note that that, per your link, is if all remittances to Mexico are taxed, not just from those here illegally.

                There seem to me to be some issues here. Tax remittances to Mexico, but not to other countries? Is that even constitutional, given that we are not at war with Mexico, hyperbolic “invasion” talk notwithstanding. Plus, here I thought you were a libertarian.

                It wouldn’t be too hard to evade this. Find someone to carry cash over the border. Save up and take a lump sum when you go yourself. Remit through a third country. You don’t have much faith in markets if you don’t think lots of methods would appear.

        2. Oh the wall. A $100 saw and blade can cut right through it.

          1. That is such a lie. Give me a link to where I can buy this blade that can cut through a concrete clad in steel ballard. I want one of those.

            1. They’re referring to a reciprocating saw, also known as a Sawzall. And they’re specifically designed to cut through metal, wood, and other materials. It’s not an instantaneous process, you basically need to sit there with a loud electrical power tool tool for at least 15 minutes, cutting.

              In a way however, this is a fake argument. No fence is indestructable or unsurmountable. It it wasn’t an industrial power tool, it would be a blasting charge. If it’s not climbable, they bring a fence. But these all require more resources and more time to breach, which allows more time for responders.

              1. The biggest problem is that the fence isn’t closed. You can walk around the ends of it.

                1. Nah, the biggest problem is that is doesn’t have MG42 armed East Germans watching it.

                  1. The biggest problem is that there people like you who actually would like to see guards shoot people trying to cross.

                    1. Used to be, a group of people flying a foreign flag, trying to cross your border uninvited were called invaders, and they were met appropriately.
                      The guards don’t have to shoot everybody, just a few instances, every one else would get the message.

    2. If a non-American is unhappy, that matters a lot to some people. Americans’ lives and livelihoods are inconsequential in comparison.

      1. Interesting comment from the side that dismisses (or discounts) the interests of black Americans, gay Americans, female Americans, educated Americans, Americans who reside in successful and modern communities, Muslim Americans, Hispanic Americans, agnostic Americans — and is intellectual political heir to the people who for centuries targeted Irish Americans, eastern European Americans, Asian Americans, Italian Americans, Catholic Americans, Jewish Americans, other Asian Americans, other Hispanic Americans.

        1. I can’t believe you keep commenting. I think people here have learned you have nothing to offer except name-calling and they don’t read your tedious nonsense. I certainly don’t.

          1. I can’t believe clingers like you are still wasting everyone’s time by trying to be competitive in the culture war. America has rejected your stale thinking, imposed liberal-libertarian progress against your wishes, and painted you into a shrinking corner from which you try to defend bigotry, superstition, nationalism, and backwardness.

            Accept your defeat with dignity, recognize that the better ideas have won, and try to become productive.

            1. If the ideas were better they wouldn’t have to be imposed.

              1. Wrong. Better people should curb bigotry, for example, by restricting bigots’ conduct. Better people should clear fairy tales from science classrooms against the efforts of those who wish to suppress science and warp history. Better people should impose environmental protections on those who wish to abuse the environment. Better people should protect children by imposing decency on those who desire to abuse children. Better people should impose progress on clingers.

                1. Oh, good. So we can start restricting your conduct? Because you are far and away the most bigoted commenter on these discussion threads.

                2. Better people need to find a piece of land, put a wall around it, and then build their utopia. Leave the rest of the world alone.

    3. Flat out wrong Flatulus!

      By locking your basement you are locking people in the space outside your basement. You fiend!!

  3. “Many try to differentiate Western immigration restrictions from the Berlin Wall on the grounds that there is a crucial difference between locking people in their homeland, and locking them out from some particular destination.”

    It remains an important distinction – A distinction that is valid

    1. I didn’t hit him, he ran into my fist.

    2. Alternatively, it could be argued that East Germans were trapped in a more oppressive system than most migrants today. But these distinctions break down upon inspection. I summarized some of the reasons why here

      It’s pretty disingenuous to post the thesis, say ‘nuh-uh’ and then not post the argument.

      I don’t agree with Somin’s thesis, but the responses to his posts are rarely arguing so much as they are venting anti-immigrant spleen.

  4. The taking of property along the border with Mexico is different from eminent domain takings for building a freeway in what way? Both are for a public, not private use, and both compensate the owners of the land.
    There is a Federal right of way along almost all of the border anyway, going back at least fifty years. And the actual border is fifty feet to the south of most of the wall – just ask Mexican squatters who had their back yards disappear during construction.

    1. There was a good interview circulating about six months ago. A local news station went to border town on the Mexico border to interview people about wha effect a wall might have. They all supported it because it would mean the illegals would no longer trudge through their community. Obviously though online tech companies have scrubbed the footage.

      1. You mean like minorities in high crime areas who support stop-and-frisk, and it’s largely an issue for people who leave their offices and go home to Martha’s Vinyard or gated communities?

  5. I think it is fair to say that we have forgotten history and the sheer evil of communism. Given the fact that people flock to Bernie Sanders and other communists like their ideas are fresh and new is disgusting. It is basically the modern equivalent of supporting the Nazi party back in the 1930’s. Liberals should be disgusted with themselves.

    1. The flip side of the Bush is Hitler silliness has come to roost once again on the other side of the aisle.

      1. The difference is that the communists on the left actually believe it will bring us the age of aquarius.

      2. Uh-oh, thread over.–Godwin

    2. I think a lot of them remember the evil and long for its return, such is the hate they harbor for people in America not like themselves.

  6. It’s too bad we didnt get rid of the communists and socialists in America.

    1. You can’t really kill an idea, even a dumb one.

      1. You can thoroughly maim it and leave it comatose in the gutter, though. And then curb stomp it every time it tries to get up.

        The problem here is that, while WWII forced the Right to thoroughly repudiate and purge fascists, the fact that we ended up allied with Stalin, (Even though he’d started the war on Hitler’s side.) gave the left just enough cover to not purge their ranks of the communists.

        Calling yourself a Marxist, rightly, ought to be the same sort of career and social suicide calling yourself a Nazi is. But it isn’t, because the left has been successfully corrupted from within by the communists they didn’t purge.

        1. WWII forced the Right to thoroughly repudiate and purge fascists

          Ever heard of, say, Franco? Pinochet and a host of other Latin American dictators who enjoyed plenty of support on the right?

          The right has a strong admiration for fascists and undemocratic rulers in general. Erdogan? MBS? Putin? Trump loves these guys. And he loves the world’s biggest Stalinist – Kim. He, Trump, is going to be as much of a fascist as he can get away with, and you love him.

          1. Neither Franco nor Pinochet were remotely fascist. Nor for that matter was Hitler. Italy was fascist.

            You’ve ambled into the delusion that any authoritarian regime that isn’t explicitly communist*, must be fascist. Fascism as a name for such a jumble of contradictions – including the Aztec Empire and Zulu Kingdom – becomes a meaningless idea.

            However it isn’t a meaningless idea, as this explains quite well :

            http://www.la-articles.org.uk/fascism.pdf

            The (quite different) idea that it’s OK (indeed a duty) to slaughter your opponents, or indeed anyone who might not fit into your plan, in pursuit of an ideology whereby the state directs its subjects, is called Leninism. Hitler was a good Leninist, though no Marxist.

            * though “communist” China is probably the closest thing to fascism that we have today.

      2. He didn’t lament our failure to snuff out the idea, only the people who hold it.

        1. I think Brett overlooked that.

        2. The only way to snuff out an idea is to kill everyone whose ever heard of it.

    2. The Day of Reckoning is coming. And it will be glorious.

      1. My 1:46 PM comment was supposed to be a reply to your comment here.

      2. And you hate the Communists because they killed so many people they thought would get in the way of building their paradise.

      3. No it’s not.

        Other than you meeting your maker with death threats on you lips.

      4. People like me will prevail in the culture war, and people like you will become increasingly irrelevant in American political life, throughout our lifetimes, Jimmy.

        In America, you — like the Conspirators — will get to whine, and rant, and heckle, and complain from the sidelines, but the liberal-libertarian alliance will continue to shape American progress against your preferences and against your efforts.

        In particular, education will defeat ignorance; reason will defeat superstition; tolerance will defeat bigotry; science will defeat dogma; modernity will defeat backwardness; inclusivity will defeat insularity; freedom will defeat authoritarianism; strong liberal-libertarian schools will defeat backwater religious schools and censorship-shackled conservative-controlled campuses; modern, successful, educated communities will defeat shambling, inadequate backwaters; and progress will defeat pining for good old days that never existed for most Americans.

        So whimper all you wish, Jimmy, but you will toe the line established by your betters.

    3. Getting your bigoted, ignorant preferences stomped in the culture war has make you cranky, Sam.

      And, increasingly, politically irrelevant.

      1. Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland
        November.9.2019 at 4:37 pm
        “Getting your bigoted, ignorant preferences stomped in the culture war has make you cranky, Sam.”

        Constantly making an ass of yourself in public should ensure your embarrassment, you bigoted asshole.
        It seems your stupidity predominant.

      2. Still clinging, Ralk?

  7. Yes, you and your friends who wax euphoric over a fantasized extermination of your political opponents are wonderful people. You’ve obviously learned all the important moral lessons of 20th century communism. You should be very proud.

    1. [This is a reply to Jimmy the Dane’s 1:03 PM comment.]

  8. I am no wall supporte, but this does seem like an offensive stretch, likening the Berlin Wall to blocking immigration.

    Which is ironic because he lists other offensive likenings to the Holocaust.

  9. These are grave atrocities. But they pale in comparison to the millions slaughtered in gulags, deliberately created famines, and mass executions of “kulaks” and “class enemies.”

    There is little sleight of hand in that. Puppet though it was, East Germany was never in fact a party to the gulags, famines, and mass executions of the Soviets. Come to think of it, the whole puppet-state assemblage in eastern Europe stands as a refutation of those who insist that communism always ends in mass murder. Not one of those satellite states became a mass murderer. Those governments were dreary, oppressive, totalitarian, and even murderous by degrees. They were indefensible. But they were also communists who did not become mass killers—and that even while they were under the heel of a Soviet state which had done mass killings.

    More generally, we have just seen another thread repeating that communism is the most murderous ideology the world has ever seen. Maybe the past record suggests that. But it is far from being true in the largest sense. In the largest sense, our own nation’s nuclear war doctrine of mutually assured destruction, MAD, is the most murderous ideology—and not only the most murderous ideology ever seen, but also the most murderous ideology possible.

    1. In the usual Democrat way, a story about what might happen is promoted and the actuality of what did happen becomes secondary.

      Watch out for those bogeymen people! They’re really bad (in this story).

    2. Also — and this is critically important — no one can ever be guilty of anything unless America and Americans are also somehow proclaimed guilty. Never even consider thinking the one thing without the other.

    3. Lathrop : Puppet though it was, East Germany was never in fact a party to the gulags, famines, and mass executions of the Soviets. Come to think of it, the whole puppet-state assemblage in eastern Europe stands as a refutation of those who insist that communism always ends in mass murder.

      What a splendidly self-refuting pair of sentences. Well done ! Obviously since East Germany was a puppet, it was in substance merely part of the Soviet Union, like all those notionally autonomous Soviet Republics. Hence East Germany was not itself a communist state, deciding its own policy on mass murder, it was simply part of a larger communist state which had a rich history of mass murder.

      The East German satrapy, btw, did not lack for political prisoners. We may not call it a gulag, but it was pretty gulaggy in reality. But let’s not blame the East Germans since, as you say, they were merely puppets (or Quislings, if you prefer.)

      It is true that communist regimes start with an orgy of slaughter, and if they last, calm down into a more workmanlike dull grey tyranny. But that’s just because they’ve killed most of the potential troublemakers and intimidated the rest.

    4. “There is little sleight of hand in that. Puppet though it was, East Germany was never in fact a party to the gulags, famines, and mass executions of the Soviets.”
      Correct as far as it goes. They conducted their OWN atrocities, and fortunately for your propaganda, they did not have the time to expand them to the level of the USSR. Also, fortunately, a less murderous dictator took over when Stalin died.

      ” Come to think of it, the whole puppet-state assemblage in eastern Europe stands as a refutation of those who insist that communism always ends in mass murder. Not one of those satellite states became a mass murderer.
      […]
      But they were also communists who did not become mass killers—and that even while they were under the heel of a Soviet state which had done mass killings.”
      You are either bullshitting or ignorant; regardless, you should really keep your yap shut. Read “Iron Curtain” (Applebaum).
      There was no lack of mass-murders behind the Iron Curtain, just a lack of raw material (humans) to begin to match what Stalin and Mao did.
      I’ll bet you think Pol Pot wasn’t all that bad either…

      “More generally, we have just seen another thread repeating that communism is the most murderous ideology the world has ever seen. Maybe the past record suggests that. But it is far from being true in the largest sense. In the largest sense, our own nation’s nuclear war doctrine of mutually assured destruction, MAD, is the most murderous ideology—and not only the most murderous ideology ever seen, but also the most murderous ideology possible.”
      What a pile of shit, amazingly stupid even from Lathrop!
      MAD was never an ideology, it was a defense strategy, which worked, allowing ignoramuses like you to post here.
      Communism was and is the most murderous ideology and/or political-economy the world has ever seen, period.
      Are you really that stupid or are you really that dishonest? Or both?

      1. It’s worth pointing out that Lathrop is but the most recent example (here) of supposedly educated beneficiaries of a political/economic system which has raised millions from abject poverty to then turn around and perform the most amazing mental gymnastics to somehow support the one which has guaranteed poverty, starvation and murder to nearly the same number of humans. And to claim to do so for the betterment of same.
        Since we’re not really concerned about the individual lab rat, let’s ignore Lathrop’s abysmal stupidity or dishonesty and examine he ‘why’ of the matter.
        I would suggest the edu/labor-union complex as the best candidate for such stupidity, starting at K-12 and (given that the E-majors are those who do the E-ing and not the doing), continuing all the way through a bachelors degree. And certainly beyond in any ‘-studies’ major.

        1. Sevo, it would not be reasonable to expect a red-baiter to understand this, but criticizing red-baiting does nothing at all to make anyone pro-communist.

          1. Stephen Lathrop
            November.10.2019 at 5:18 pm
            “Sevo, it would not be reasonable to expect a red-baiter to understand this, but criticizing red-baiting does nothing at all to make anyone pro-communist.”

            By “red-baiter” can we assume you mean someone familiar with history?
            And, yes, scumbag lefty apologists who attempt the impossible are ‘pro-communist’. Did you hope not to be called on that bullshit?

          2. BTW, you pathetic piece of shit, I’m sorry to delay an answer to your further bullshit; you deserve it to be jammed down your throat instantly.

    5. We didn’t get to MAD on our own. The Noble Communists were half the equation.

      And while MAD was hardly ideal, you have to admit it worked pretty damn well to keep us out of a nuclear war, in fact it’s still working.

      1. Kazinski, read Daniel Ellsberg’s, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Without something like Ellsberg’s insider knowledge, I suggest it isn’t possible to know what it was that has kept our nation out of nuclear war. It is certain, beyond any doubt whatever, that MAD created horrific risks of getting the nation into nuclear war—risks which in instance after instance were avoided by happenstance, or, sometimes, avoided by insubordinate decisions not to follow policy. In fact, MAD is still doing that.

  10. [Some] argue that there is a distinction between locking people in completely and “merely” preventing them from leaving for a specific destination (such as the US). But surely we would still condemn the Berlin Wall if the East German government had said its purpose was to block its citizens from moving to the West, but they were still free to leave for other communist nations

    The US prevents (or tries to prevent) foreigners from entering its own territory (unless they get some kind of permission, the details of which depend on their intended length of stay.) Somin’s hypothesized East German policy blocks its own citizens from entering a different territory. Or rather every different territory except those that East Germany may be confident will enforce a like ban.

    So the substance, whatever form conjuring and wordplay you try- is :

    (1) the US rule keeps foreigners out of its own territory;
    (2) the East German rule keeps its own citizens in its own territory.

    The political importance – obviously – is that the US rule prevents nobody from voting with their feet. Mexicans can go anywhere that will let them in. They have the whole world to choose from, visa-permitting, (including the US.) Whereas the East German rule prevents East Germans from voting with their feet.

    This is crashingly obvious, of course, but since Somin keeps on repeating the same old sophistry, I’m happy to keep pointing it out..

    As a practical matter, moreover, the US border is Mexico’s longest and most significant land boundary, by far, and blocking exit rights through that border is a major restriction on Mexicans’ ability to go anywhere by land.

    So what ?

    “As a practical matter ?” They don’t have airports and sea ports in Mexico ? “New Zealanders can’t go anywhere by land – not excluding between the two main islands of their own nation – but there’s hardly a souk in Morocco that isn’t infested with them. They’re not locked in.

    Another possible way to justify the distinction is to analogize national governments to private homeowners or clubs, who have the right to keep people out for virtually any reason they want.

    The club is good enough as an analogy. And if you can leave it’s a voluntary membership. So yes let’s criticize the US for its oppressive attempts to carry on taxing folk who try to escape – unlike virtually every other nation in the world.

  11. Bryan Caplan’s Mauerland is a reasonable effort at stacking the deck to make keeping foreigners out look the same as keeping citizens in :

    Imagine the East Germany government legally granted independence to a one-mile strip of land along its entire border. Call it Mauerland. All of the citizens of Mauerland are former officers of the East German border guard; their country is just one big, deadly wall. East Germany then abolishes all laws against emigration; everyone is free to leave. Unfortunately, the sovereign state of Mauerland refuses to grant visas or overflight permission to anyone without the East Germans’ approval. When challenged, they say, “Mauerland, like the United States, has every right to keep foreigners out. You keep out Mexicans. We keep out East Germans.”

    But it still fails miserably.

    1. It has to be carefully and absurdly constructed, making it dissimilar to any real world situation, including most obviously, Mexico.
    2. Caplan’s Mauerland is quite ineffective since it ignores the fact that East Germany had a sea border – across which some East Germans did try to escape, and a few succeeded.
    3. Mauerland is highly vulnerable to defection. The West Germans could easily bribe Mauerland to open its borders to through traffic. That Mauerland is wholly populated by former East German border guards is quite insufficient to prevent the possibility of defection. The only thing that keeps Mauerland onside, in practice, is the threat of invasion from East Germany – which torpedoes the contrived thought experiment.
    4. Mauerland did in fact exist. It was called the Eastern Bloc, comprising Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia etc. It was the Soviet Union’s Mauerland. And in practice it did not leave Mauerland to get on with it, it required Soviet domination of Mauerland. And when bits of Mauerland (Hungary 1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) failed to toe the party line, we saw just how independent Mauerland really was.

    1. Though the hypothetical Mauerland has its own gaping holes, the essential gaping hole is that Caplan (and Somin) are trying to engage with “keeping foreigners out is not equal to keeping citizens in” on the formalistic level of the mere existence of a border wall.

      But a border wall is simply a piece in the jigsaw of purpose and effect. The purpose and effect of free nations controlling the entry of foreigners is to protect their own citizens from the adverse effects of the entry of foreigners. It has nothing to do with preventing their own citizens doing their own thing, not excluding leaving their own country to do their thing somewhere else.

      Whereas the purpose and effect of unfree nations controlling the exit of their own citizens is to keep them under the control and direction of the unfree state, by stopping them from leaving to do their thing somewhere else.

      Leaving aside the fact that the US government owes its primary obligations to US citizens rather than to foreigners, to the extent that the US’s immigration rules prevent some foreigners from voting “US please ! “ with their feet, the US is merely deleting one from nearly two hundred menu items for those foreigners who wish to leave their current home. A state like East Germany takes away the whole menu, for the specific purpose of preventing its citizens voting with their feet.

      1. “Leaving aside the fact that the US government owes its primary obligations to US citizens rather than to foreigners,”

        This is the exact point where we disagree with Ilya. He’s fallen into a sort of universalist ethics where a government isn’t morally permitted to prioritize the welfare of its own citizens over that of random non-citizens.

        1. The idea that government is supposed to look out for the “welfare” of its citizens in some positive sense is both paternalistic and anti-libertarian, so it’s no surprise Somin doesn’t agree with you here.

          The government’s only legitimate job is to protect rights. Keeping out immigrants doesn’t protect rights. And I don’t want government looking out for my welfare beyond that – that’s my job.

          1. The idea that government is supposed to look out for the welfare of it’s own citizens is paternalistic in some sense, in as much as it does so by means of rights violations. Without the rights violations, it wouldn’t be a government. Once you’ve decided to even HAVE a government, you’re not being a purist libertarian anymore.

            But, anti-libertarian? No. We’re discussing “libertarianism” here, not utilitarianism. Libertarianism, famously, does not impose positive duties on people, it tells them what they can’t do. (Violate the NAP, basically.)

            Libertarianism doesn’t say you have to do diddly squat for other people, it just says you can’t attack them. So government isn’t acting anti-libertarian simply by not trying to enhance the welfare of non-citizens.

            At most libertarianism would say that government must treat the welfare of non-citizens as a side constraint on what it can do to enhance the welfare of the people it IS supposedly working for.

            The rubber really hits the road with the claim that everybody in the world has an affirmative right to come here. And I’d say that’s a pretty weak claim under libertarianism, which recognizes property rights, and the right to exclude others from your property.

            Again, no libertarianism that even admits government can be legitimate is pure libertarianism. But the sort of impure libertarianism that admits government can be legitimate should have no problem with enforceable borders, as long as EXIT is permitted.

            1. So many errors of logic here.

              Not enforcing borders isn’t trying to affirmatively enhance the welfare of non citizens. Meanwhile, enforcing borders is a violation of the NAP, because you have to use force to keep them out (and they have a negative right to move freely so long as they don’t trespass – note only private property can reasonably assert trespass – if foreigners have permission of property owners or *are themselves* property owners, there is no trespass).

              It’s not an affirmative right to come here, it’s a negative right to not be impeded.

              No, government can not assert a property right to the whole country, only land it directly owns. Privately held lands should be able to choose to about whomever the owner wants. Otherwise the government is violating their property rights.

              And you again insist the government should be enhancing people’s welfare. It *should* do nothing of the sort. It should simply stop others from using aggression to reduce their welfare – that’s not an enhancement. Government should provide no positive benefits.

              Finally, I submit a maximally libertarian state should have no conception of citizenship. What purpose could having citizens possibly serve? Be specific.

              BTW, I’m assuming a maximally libertarian state confines itself to Nozick’s minarchist state. If you think it should do more, you’re going to have to justify that.

    2. “Imagine the East Germany government legally granted independence to a one-mile strip of land along its entire border. Call it Mauerland.”

      The hypothetical fails. East Germany was on the metric system. 1.6 kilometer strip maybe. 1 mile? Inconceivable.

  12. Half-time during a college ballgame today.
    The poobahs of TV news in the late ’80s, early ’90s were all patting themselves on the back for how good they felt when the wall came down, as if the story were about them.
    The trotted out that goddam purveyor of fake news Brokaw who, before I changed the channels, began by telling us why this was so important, as if it was a mystery to me.
    Screw the lot of you; you were the ugly spawn of the 3-channel broadcast system and I for one am thoroughly pleased that you, and the wall, are gone.

  13. Somin fails to mention or comprehend that the “dangerous democratic socialists” are rapidly becoming more dangerous, and are relying on a strategy of displacing assimilated American citizens with massive waves of new foreign persons to achieve their agenda, as about 80% of them will vote for the socialists, whether from Asia or south of the border or whatever.

    [Some] argue that there is a distinction between locking people in completely and “merely” preventing them from leaving for a specific destination (such as the US). But surely we would still condemn the Berlin Wall if the East German government had said its purpose was to block its citizens from moving to the West, but they were still free to leave for other communist nations.

    As Charles Krauthammer once noted there is no valid comparison at all between the two situations: “When you build a wall to keep people in, that’s a prison. When you build a wall to keep people out, that’s an expression of sovereignty.”

    So, this is not even a “distinction” that needs defending, because no meaningful comparison has been made, only a wholly superficial one.

    Somin’s sophistry is so strained you have to wonder if he really buys it himself.

    1. The hypothetical he gives above is still a wall built by a nation to keep its own people in as captives, rather than to protect its own people by keeping out those who would circumvent the law while leaving its own people free to go wherever. Duh?

    2. A wall doesn’t “prevent people from leaving for a specific destination” — it merely requires that one goes through appropriate process to do so, which means obtaining the consent of a nation to enter its territory or at least the giving of notice of such entry.

    3. Even if such consent is withheld, and so persons are prevented from entering or taking up residence in a nation, there is nothing wrong with that. The US actually founded its government on the concept of “consent” of the governed, and on the concept of “citizenship.” The idea of citizenship was alien to the laws of the motherland. British common law instead recognized “birthright subjectship”, derived from feudal law, which according to Blackstone involved a “debt of gratitude” that is “intrinsic” and “cannot be forefeited, cancelled, or altered.” That of course is precisely what the founders rejected in the Declaration of Independence, in their act of high treason. James Wilson wrote “Under the Constitution of the United States there are citizens, but no subjects.” The idea was that citizenship is based on consent, as opposed to the accident of birth. The consent is mutual and bilateral. As John Eastman put it, “This, I think, is more in line with the principle in the Declaration of Independence, that we create systems of political government by consent of the governed, mutual consent. The old jus soli doctrine – once born on the King’s soil, always the King’s subject – is something we renounced in the Declaration of Independence.” So all of this is to say, the US and any nation has the right to consent to who enters its borders and who joins its citizenry, and it is the citizenry itself that holds such right via consent of the governed, even as citizens individually enjoy the absolute right to dissolve their association and go elsewhere.

    4. In some other contexts, Somin purports to believe in the decentralization of government power. Yet he never seems to acknowledge the corollary of correspondingly localized self-governance and the sovereignty of the people. In the area of immigration, Somin reverses himself and embraces a totalizing, absolutist form of universal globalism. It is one thing to argue for the freedom of international movement and immigration generally, or the mass importation of foreign persons into any country particularly. Somin would be better off, but declines, to make his case for why such policies in a given context are beneficial and desirable (perhaps he finds the facts difficult to argue in context). But to deny the propriety and right of sovereign peoples even making such determinations is to deny their rights of self-governance, and to impose top-down a global rule– pure ideological globalism in the sense of absolute centralization.

    5. As I first mentioned, the voter displacement strategy is the most important strategy — in a way the only strategy — of our own democratic socialists. That is a practical, immediate concern. But it illustrates a larger point. Imagine for example that we were a very socialist country. Further suppose that there were millions of willing migrants of a strictly capitalist persuasion. If you were to displace the citizenry with those newcomers in sufficient numbers, without the consent of the citizenry, you could effectively negate and override the consent of the governed and their ability to self-govern, and force upon them by an act of aggression something they did not want. So immigration can be misused toward ends of aggression. Where’s the libertarian NAP in that?

    Nations and other governmental jurisdictions are not, primarily, land masses. They are not, primarily, sets of rules or abstract concepts. Instead, they are, primarily, the people or the citizens. The act of immigration is meaningful, it is the entering into of a relationship consequential to all parties involved. It may be mutually beneficial, or it may not be. It may be altruistic, or it may be self-serving. It may be based on a theory of consent, and if it’s not based on a theory of consent then it’s by definition hostile and aggressive. People like Somin and Caplan who argue for open borders, if they want to avoid showing themselves to be tyrants, should be arguing for the giving of consent, rather than arguing that consent isn’t needed or can’t be justifiably withheld.

    P.S. The idea that shuffling billions of people to different areas of the globe is “the only realistic way to escape a lifetime of poverty and oppression” is grossly negligent, short-sighted, harmful and false.

    1. It is like the elites are trying to replace some people with others that might favor their politics more…

      1. As I’ve said before, America as shining city on the hill, a beacon of freedom, and in an economically free country, the more the better, are two great reasons for liberal borders.

        These are the two loudly touted reasons currently.

        For the past 20 years, the real reason was very utilitarian — to import workers to shore up Social Security, and both parties looked the other way.

        Reason 4 is a miserable reason: to gain voters, and ironically, ultimately to vastly reduce economic freedoms that make the first two points viable.

        This is the current battleground, and neither party will admit it.

        So we sit here like morons arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

      2. Of course they are. And then, when they flip places like Virginia, they gloat that “the American people have rejected conservatism.” No. The American people have been replaced by non-Americans, and no, having American citizenship does not automatically mean these people are Americans. In fact, most of them are not.

      3. It’s not just “like” that, they openly state and celebrate this fact, in countless op-eds for example.

  14. Isn’t the fallacy of Somin/Caplan’s “the US’s wall is just as bad as the Berlin Wall” argument apparent if we take the “wall” out of it? A wall is, after all, just one way of enforcing a country’s immigration policy.

    So let’s look at the policies. East Germany had a policy of (generally speaking) not letting anyone leave. The US has a policy of (generally speaking) not letting anyone enter without permission. Moreover, I’d assume practically every other country in the world has such a policy. If we credit Somin/Caplan’s argument, mustn’t we conclude that every country in the world is just as bad as East Germany with respect to immigration policy? That seems absurd on its face.

  15. In other words, using Somin’s own pig logic the French had no right to build the Maginot line and the Mongols had a valid complaint about the Great Wall. Pillaging is a right!!

  16. Professor Somin….Your post brought to mind one of my regrets in life. I was a young man when the Wall came down. I was young, not married, few responsibilities, and desperately wanted to fly to Germany just to bring home a piece of that Wall. I knew something great in history was happening. I knew it. I felt it in my heart.

    I never did go; it remains an enduring regret from my early adulthood.

  17. Back when the wall fell, if you would have described the current inventory of Democrat candidates for 2020, you would have been laughed out of town: No way, they would have said.

    Way.

  18. Ilya never loses an oppurtunity to dig Trump. The Atlantic may be hiring; he would fit in

  19. Take your usual Somin border post, with all the crazy it brings around here.
    Add in a shout-out to the Soviet era, with all the red-baiting Democrats are just like Commies crazy it brings.

    And you have this crapshow.

    Congrats.

  20. It was an unarmed citizenry and therefore the fall of Communism shouldn’t have happened.
    Explain.

  21. What makes Somin’s argument so incoherent, is that many of us that are anti-illegal immigration would support greater immigration to the US, but see the inherent unfairness of an “olly olly oxen free” immigration system. Not to mention the corporate private H1B immigration system that stacks the decks for the tech companies.

    1. Not so many of you in this comentariat.

      Or in the GOP generally:
      https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/26/politics/republicans-oppose-legal-illegal-immigration/index.html

      I don’t know what you can do about it, but your party is becoming it’s liberal cartoonish stereotype.

      1. Nice joke. Liberals are acting exactly like Trump has been portraying them for years. What is the next fake investigation they will gin up when impeachment fails after half a day at the Senate?

      2. Actually there is a pretty large GOP contingent for expanded immigration, such as Marco Rubio, Lindsey Gramm, and the GOPE which is admittedly a little on ints heels now.

        But the current Democratic position that getting over the Rio Grande gives you permanent resident status, but nothing else changes for the entire rest of world, unless you are a refugee is nuts.

        1. That’s not the current Dem position.

        2. There’s a large contingent within the party establishment, because they’re bought off by, or, more positively, aligned with, business interests, which see depressed wages as a positive good.

          While the Democratic party establishment supports expanded immigration both to depress wages AND elect a new people.

          Within the voting base of the GOP, not so large. This is just one of the many issues where the GOP doesn’t do a good job of representing its voters.

          And, yeah, look at Senator “Grahmnesty”; He shuts up about amnesties whenever there’s an election approaching. He’s looking pretty good right now, he has to nail down his nomination to run next year. December of next year? He’ll be pushing amnesties again.

          1. Correct. And when the base calls them out, the GOP establishment basically taunts them, saying “What are you going to do, vote for the Democrat?”

          2. What’s Kaz to you, a Republican wanting more legal immigration, Brett?

  22. Anyone who compares the Mexican border wall with the Berlin Wall is not making serious arguments.

    1. Unless you are an open borders libertarian then lots of crazy shit makes all kinds of sense to you.

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