More on Trump’s wall: The danger of overreach

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 31, 2017

I suggested on Friday that President Trump’s 2,000-mile wall could well turn out to be the kind of ill-considered commitment which sends voters back across the aisle in 2020. The risk does not arise from any intrinsic immorality connected with building a wall, but from the likelihood that the wall will backfire in one of five possible ways:

  1. It will cost a great deal yet never be finished.
  2. It will require the ongoing infusion of massive amounts of money.
  3. It will be completed but it will not effectively solve the problems it is designed to solve.
  4. It will not be accompanied by improved migration policies to satisfy America’s massive need for unskilled labor.
  5. The effort to make another sovereign power (Mexico) pay for the wall will sour the United States’ relationships with other countries around the world.

Note that none of these risks are in the moral order. Catholic leaders will articulate the primary moral argument repeatedly as Trump goes forward with the wall—namely that the wall will (a) Adversely affect the weakest and most vulnerable people, who need our help; and therefore (b) Send the wrong moral signals to everyone. Catholics who favor the wall need to remember that people have a fundamental right to migrate, which governments are morally bound to honor insofar as they can do so, within the limits imposed by the common good.

People can, of course, differ in their assessment of the impact of migration on the common good in the United States, and so they can legitimately disagree about the optimum migration policies. But as a general moral principle, people have just as much of a right to move to the terrritory occupied by the United States now as they did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Once again, governments can morally place restrictions on that right only insofar as necessary to protect the common good, in which newcomers participate as well as natives.

In saying this I do not deny that most Church leaders around the world will base their comments on the assumption that any restriction of immigration, except in the case of a serious threat, is necessarily immoral. That is not true, and you will not find me commending bishops, cardinals and popes who act as if there is no difficulty at all involved in making the necessary prudential decisions. Churchmen are not typically good at making practical judgments conducive to the common good. Nor is it part of their office to do so. But they are quite correct in upholding, in the first instance, the right to migrate.

The real problem

My point in all this is that the most likely failure of “the wall” will be not moral but prudential. Estimates of the cost have hit $25 billion and are still rising. Maintenance costs over a five to ten year period are expected to exceed the initial outlay, again and again for as long as the wall is used. One of the critical problems faced by the United States is the lack of political will necessary to live within our national means. The constant accumulation of debt is not only debilitating to government; it almost inescapably drives inflation which, once again, hurts the most vulnerable.

Donald Trump has some good ideas about balancing the budget and reducing the national debt. He clearly understands that dismantling our Federal bureaucracy is the only way to do that. He probably even understands at some level the immense material and moral damage done by the regulatory state. The Catholic Church is late to this party, but as the secular state’s antipathy to both the natural law and Christianity grows by leaps and bounds, even bishops are beginning to grasp Politics 101. To put the matter very simply, they no longer identify themselves so strongly with “the establishment”. But how far will we get down the road of limiting the regulatory State while encouraging intermediary institutions if President Trump makes a fool of himself over the question of “the wall”?

This is what I meant when I wrote on Friday that “for progress in the recovery of virtue to be made over time, those who are willing to govern according to the principles of the natural law must not only pursue the right ends but do so effectively” (see In Potentia: Donald Trump’s Upside, and Donald Trump’s Downfall). The trouble with gargantuan political solutions is that they seldom work out as planned. In this sense, solving the problems of America by building a 2,000-mile wall is, in too many ways, just another version of the modern American impulse to cure the world of her ills by establishing a huge national bureaucracy. It is another way to keep everything under control.

In other words, the gravest danger is the likelihood that our new President is engaging in yet a new form of American hubris. The wall project is, at the very least, inconsistent with getting the Federal budget under control. But the more serious risk is that we are about to engage in a new defiance of the norms and scale consistent with successful human behavior. We may well be creating our own Tower of Babel laid out horizontally. We may be mounting a fresh rebellion against the “the gods”, or even against God Himself, that can only result in our own downfall. It is precisely this hubris, on dramatic display with the best of intentions, that results in what the literary culture of the West calls tragedy.

Competence and overreach

Am I certain that this will be our path? Of course not. But the first rule of competence is to avoid overreach. And it is a constant dilemma of the political process that those in power are repeatedly guilty of overreach. This is so because they typically lack the spiritual strength to keep power from going to their heads.

I presume that everyone is aware that Donald Trump is not, or not yet at least, made of the same stuff as St. Louis IX of France. Yet even St. Louis, who trusted primarily in God, insisted on going on the Seventh Crusade in 1248, during which he was taken captive in Egypt. He was away from France for six years, and had to be ransomed at considerable cost to the commonwealth—a cost equivalent to roughly one-third of France’s annual revenue. Some years later, Louis tried again, joining the Eighth Crusade. On August 25, 1270, the saintly but hapless King died of dysentery in Carthage.

Perhaps St. Louis should have built a wall? More to the point, what might be the cost of ransoming Donald Trump from the results of his own poor judgment?

Normal experience teaches that if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. Modest goals, goals which recognize significant limits, are far more suited to the common good than plans on a massive scale. I suspect (but do not know) that Trump’s wall is primarily an exercise in showmanship that is doomed to create more problems than it solves. Obviously, I see the future no more clearly than the next person. But I would say that the overwhelming likelihood is failure—failure under one or more of the headings I listed earlier.

We ought to meditate, then, on the potential consequences of incompetent overreach. Overreach will guarantee a swing back to those politicians whose hubris invariably leads our whole nation away from God. As we should know by now, that is a far, far greater problem than illegal immigration. Its moral and practical consequences are very much worse. My point is simply this: The most dangerous domestic enemy is always the hubris of our political leaders. And its chief symptom is overreach.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Feb. 06, 2017 11:49 PM ET USA

    Dr. Jeff, No wall lover here. Space raises question about security. What are other viable alt's w/ less chance for problems & improved security for better border control? Wall is proposed as alt to existing conditions. Trump is a businessman. If better, more efficient, more secure alt's are presented, my guess wall goes away. Wall does not have to be a physical structure. "Good" fences make good neighbors. Good test to see if hubris or collaborative compromise define new Pres.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 06, 2017 10:28 AM ET USA

    bkmajor3729: Sorry, I still don't see it. If my wife happens to tell me she is concerned that my idea of purchasing a million dollar RV-Bus to travel across country is likely to lead to more problems than it solves, it would be unfair of me (though typical, I suppose, of many unfortunate family arguments) to yell at her for refusing to let me take a vacation.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Feb. 05, 2017 2:44 PM ET USA

    Dr. Jeff how else should space15796 interpret your piece? It seems you don't agree w/ the wall but you don't offer any viable alt's to protecting our borders & upholding existing law either. Maybe you have offered such separately but no reference is made to such here. Overreach & Hubris are always a risk: we never know beforehand how those in power will respond to "having power". Give 'space' a break; I'm not a wall lover either but as Robert Frost penned "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors".

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 02, 2017 5:07 PM ET USA

    To space15796: It would seem that emotion led you to see things that are not there. I would dearly love to know where I wrote, in this piece or any other one, that a "state does not have the right to control its borders and protect its citizens". The entire piece is about my concern not that the wall is immoral, but that it will prove foolhardy for one of the five reasons I listed; and that this foolhardiness, if realized, would be of the type that sent voters running back to the party of death in the next election. This is a prudential argument, not a moral one. As for your other point, it is true that one can disagree with the opinion that the biggest domestic threat to a country is "always" the hubris of its political leaders. But it is certainly often the case, and it boggles the mind that anyone could look at, say, the history of the United States over the past 50 years, and not see that this is certainly true for Americans now. It is precisely our political leaders who have led in and even mandated the rejection of God and the natural law.

  • Posted by: space15796 - Feb. 02, 2017 2:53 AM ET USA

    For you to say unabashedly that our "most dangerous domestic enemy is always the hubris of political leaders" leads me to the conclusion that you have not been paying attention for say, the last decade. The statement reminds me of the nonsense we hear from a self-important academics, who also suffer from hubris but think they are immune to such a flaw.

  • Posted by: space15796 - Feb. 02, 2017 2:44 AM ET USA

    When the Vatican tears down the massive wall that surrounds it, I will listen to you tell me that a sovereign state doesn't have the right to control its borders and protect its citizens. Your stretch to find an analogy in the situation with St. Louis is what I would call "overreach". So many words to say nothing even slightly valid.

  • Posted by: gsajjk99 - Feb. 01, 2017 12:04 AM ET USA

    Big programs never work? Man on the moon in 10 years, Panama Canal, D day?

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Jan. 31, 2017 10:11 PM ET USA

    "...people have a fundamental right to migrate, which governments are morally bound to honor..." I think you are confusing the issue. The U.S. has always had an immigration policy - but one with rules to maintain the civil order. As someone who lived in AZ for many years, I assure you that the AZ citizens do not descriminate against Mexican immigrants but are tired of the criminal migrants who bring drugs, gangs, prostitution, etc into our community! A secure border might keep the criminals out.