Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. While nothing can diminish the gravity of that moment, both in terms of its symbolism and its herald of the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse, we miss a vital lesson if we end our consideration at that time and place.
It’s easy to compartmentalize history, to think of events in other times and places as wholly detached from our day-to-day existence. However, to put a different spin on the old phrase, those who forget history don’t flinch as its repeated. In many ways which matter, figuratively and to lesser degrees, the Berlin Wall still stands.
Consider that the physical wall was not the real barrier to freedom for those trapped behind it. The real barrier was a set of ideas. Among those ideas was the notion that an equalitarian utopia can be crafted through the application of force. Put another way, the intellectual leaders of the Soviet Union believed in better living through less freedom. When the people placed under their boot objected and sought refuge through exodus, the Soviet answer was to lock them in.
Skip ahead in history to December 2011. Boeing, in an effort to benefit from a less restrictive business environment, had chosen to construct a new production facility in right-to-work South Carolina instead of Washington State. Their employee union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, appealed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) – an appendage of the federal government – to file a case against Boeing alleging violations of federal labor law. The case was dropped only after Boeing relented to wage increases and expansions in Washington State.
More recently, companies like Minnesota-based Medtronic pursued a tactic dryly called “tax inversion,” which essentially relocates a company on paper to a foreign country to avoid federal taxes. Robes were rent in ideological indignation as the likes of Senator Al Franken called for “closing the inversion tax loophole.” The Treasury Department moved quickly to change rules and discourage further escape attempts.
Indeed, the American people largely approve of such figurative wall-building. A Star Tribune Minnesota poll found two-thirds of respondents who believed “the government should outlaw corporate inversions.” Put another way, many of your neighbors would vote to wall you in and take your property.
Fundamentally, what is the difference between these modern American examples and the purpose of the Berlin Wall? The answer is nothing.
If we’re going to celebrate the collapse of the Berlin Wall as a herald of freedom in a century plagued by totalitarian regimes, then we better get our heads screwed on straight regarding the principles involved. It’s not enough to tip our hat to a moment in history if we fail to recognize its relevance to our time. If it was wrong for the Soviet Union to wall its citizens within its borders to subjugate under onerous laws, then it’s always wrong, no matter who is doing it or to what degree.
Men should be free to act upon their own judgment, in pursuit of their own happiness, voting with their feet and their dollars as much their ballot. Any effort to constrain that ability, to keep people from moving to or doing business in more competitive jurisdictions proves no less tyrannical than building a wall to physically imprison them.
(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here.)