Walls are rising all over the world: on the U.S. border with Mexico; on India’s borders with Bangladesh and Myanmar; between China and North Korea; on Hungary’s borders with Serbia and Croatia; between Botswana and Zimbabwe; between Pakistan and Afghanistan. And more. But at the risk of sounding like a fortune cookie or a folk song, the more important walls are in our minds. American attitudes toward immigrants, for example, are not primarily about a physical wall at the border. Everything important that I know about walls I learned from Robert Frost and his 1914 poem, “Mending Wall.” Here is my list of Frost’s Eight Laws of Walls:

(1) If walls are not periodically reinforced, they tend to crumble. As Frost wrote: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down.”

(2) We often cooperate in building walls, even when we aren’t sure it’s a good idea. “I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;/And on a day we meet to walk the line/And set the wall between us once again.”

(3) Walls don’t just block outsiders; they also enclose insiders and can heighten grievances. “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offence.” (Frost seems to make the quaint and outdated assumption that giving offense is a negative thing.)

(4) Building walls can be, among its other functions, a pleasant game. “We have to use a spell to make them balance:/‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’/We wear our fingers rough with handling them./Oh, just another kind of out-door game …”

(5) When considering wall-building, one should distinguish between wandering cows and stay-at-home apples and pine cones.

(6) Good fences are not the basis for good neighbors, although that idea seems deeply comforting to many people. “He moves in darkness as it seems to me,/Not of woods only and the shade of trees./He will not go behind his father’s saying,/And he likes having thought of it so well/He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

(7) Even when people seem incapable of looking beyond their walls, they need to figure out the alternative on their own. “I could say ‘Elves’ to him,/But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather/He said it for himself.

(8) Even when others are eager to build walls, you can still meet with them — now and again — and chat.

 

Along with the physical walls, both around countries and around local gated communities, intangible walls come in social and economic versions.

Social walls are built along many boundary lines: political party, race or ethnicity, neighborhood, nationality, religious affiliation (or lack of it), immigrant status, gender, sexual preference, education level, job status and others. The problems arise when we hunker down behind the barricades of our own group, secure in the presumption that there’s nothing to be learned from listening to those we have consigned to the other side.

Economic walls include those along national borders affecting international trade, but also the many ways in which the well-to-do and the nearly-very-rich limit access to the neighborhoods in which they live, the schools their children attend, the credentials and social networks that lead to many jobs, the health care providers they use and more.

In the June issue of the Atlantic, Matthew Stewart offered a provocative essay about economic walls built by “the 9.9 percent” — that is, not the top 0.1 percent, but the rest of the top 10 percent.

He writes: “[A]round the world and throughout history, the wealthy have … taken their money out of productive activities and put it into walls. Throughout history, moreover, one social group above all others has assumed responsibility for maintaining and defending these walls. Its members used to be called aristocrats. Now we’re the 9.9 percent.”

“But wait a minute,” I hear you say. “Of course, other people build walls because of close-mindedness, lack of empathy, bigotry and selfishness.

“But the walls are completely different that I erect between myself and those belonging to other political, religious, racial, ethnic, neighborhood, national, gender, sexual preference, and economic groups. My walls are a necessary act of self-defense.”

Such an argument isn’t always wrong, but it often seems lacking in self-reflection. It reminds me of one of the philosophical paradoxes of self-defense arguments.

Long ago, when an invading army was attacking a walled city, it would gather up noncombatants from the countryside and force them to march ahead of the army. When the leaders of the walled city saw the huge mob arriving, they would fire in self-defense, hitting the noncombatants in front. The (previous) noncombatants in front would then fire back, in their own self-defense.

Presto! You have a battle between two groups who both have a legitimate claim to be fighting in self-defense.

Before you push back twice as hard, it’s worth considering the possibility that those who bumped you were being pushed as well, by some combination of social and economic forces, together with charismatic leaders. And those who ultimately benefit from the battle are standing back behind the scenes.

I’m not a fortune cookie or a folk song, so I won’t blow the trumpets for all the walls to come a-tumbling down. We all need our boundaries, and sometimes the boundaries need defending.

But building walls has costs, and should be done only after due consideration. It’s not always the better angels of our nature that encourage us to build walls.

Wall-building often begins with bricks of authenticity, honesty and virtue, but at some point the construction materials shift to an exuberant and exhibitionistic boorishness. Are your walls giving you cover for searching out the motes in the eyes of others, while ignoring the beams in your own eye?

Are you building a wall or an echo chamber? Are you building a wall or a fortress? Are you building a wall as part of a base camp for future aggression?

Walls that are built with enthusiastic participation from both sides will be the strongest. When you build a wall, you might want to contemplate those who are most actively helping to construct that wall from the other side — and the extent to which you really wish to cooperate with them.

If you have an uncomfortable feeling that your walls are causing you to move in darkness, perhaps you could try letting them slide into disrepair — just a little, just for awhile — and allowing elves to sneak through the cracks.

Timothy Taylor is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, based at Macalester College. He blogs at http://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com.

 


“Mending Wall”

By Robert Frost (1914)

 

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need the wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,

But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather

He said it for himself. I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father’s saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

 

From the Poetry Foundation website (www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44266/mending-wall).