Walls: Exclusionary or Restrictive?

Winning essay in the FFW Writing Contest: Write an 800-word op-ed piece on the “Future of Freedom and Walls”. FFW Commemorative Evening was held on November 9, 2017 where Joseph read his Op Ed piece to the audience and accepted his prize.

In 1863, faced with the prospect of laying railroad tracks across the entire country, the Central Pacific Railroad Company had just over 500 workers, when it really needed 5,000. In order to make up for this shortcoming and proceed rapidly, Chinese labor was suggested, and readily accepted. Of the 4,000 additional workers that began in 1865, two-thirds were Chinese. With the help of Chinese laborers risking their lives in order to blast through the Sierra Nevada, the railroad was completed in 4 years.

Fast-forward 12 years. Americans repaid the Chinese for their help in solidifying their manifest destiny and mechanically linking the two coasts by signing the Chinese Exclusion Act into law in 1882. This law was put into place as fear on the west coast of declining wages and increased unemployment grew. It barred all immigration from China for 10 years. In 1892, it was extended for another 10. In 1902 it was made permanent, and would last until World War II. This was America’s first real taste of exclusionary laws. Apparently, the first 10 years treated them so well they decided to extend it for another 50.

This is unfortunately one of the many times that America has engaged in exclusionary behavior. The chief commonality between all of these occurrences is economic fear. Every time there is a bump in the road or any kind of economic anxiety, the quickest, and loudest reaction is placing the blame on the “other.” Most of the time this exclusion is tangible and personal, but sometimes it is more abstract.

After the fervor and hostility toward the Chinese subsided in the early 1900’s, economic fears relaxed and weren’t concentrated on any particular source. However, a new wave of fears, and thereby policies, would sweep the nation a mere 30 years later. One of the worst financial days in United States history occurred in October of 1929 when the stock market crashed, and dove 12% in one day. This caused widespread panic as to the strength and integrity of businesses in America. While the most recent financial crisis in 2008 saw a huge backlash against banks that gambled far too frequently and general speculative activity, this was not the case in 1929. Searching for a way to recover from this crisis, the government installed regulations, not on banks, but on foreigners by way of implementing tariffs.

Senator Reed Smoot, a republican from Utah and Representative Willis C. Hawley, a republican from Oregon, introduced the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930, in response to the worsening economic climate in the country. In the midst of what is now considered the eve of The Great Depression, the prevailing economic thought throughout the government was that more exclusion, and not less, was the way to jumpstart the economy. This bill called for increased tariffs on more than 20,000 imported goods entering the United States, raising prices on American consumers in an already capital strapped economy. While it’s true that most economists note that this increase in tariffs only had a marginal effect on the withering of the economy between 1930-1932, it is important to note that it prevented a much stronger recovery, because when domestic production soared, trade remained mostly stagnant for the next 5 years, contributing to a slower than usual recovery. The protectionism ideology reigned even many years after the worst was over.

These two events are a snapshot of the revolving door that is protectionism sentiment in the United States. There is evidence every 30 to 40 years of a new wave of walls being erected to protect the country from invaders. Whether they be foreign laborers wishing to contribute to the country, or cheap foreign products that help Americans save money. Fear is not rational and springs eternal. Economic fear culminates in knee-jerk reactions and an “every man for themselves” attitude. While these two examples were American, this attitude is not contained to North America; it is worldwide. A nativist streak runs through every country, leaving it vulnerable to the whims and caprice of reactionary citizens. Because this attitude has permeated throughout the world, and throughout history, there is no evidence to suggest these fears, and thereby these walls, will fall anytime soon.

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