Borders, Fences and Neighbors.

I live in eastern Washington State just 30 miles from the border of Idaho and about 160 miles from the Oregon border. When I cross the border from Washington to Idaho, if there weren’t a sign telling me I was doing that, I wouldn’t even know it. At least when I cross from Washington to Oregon I have to pass over a substantial barrier, the Columbia River. Every time I cross any border from state to state in the United States, I give thanks that there are no checkpoints or passports to deal with. As I look out my kitchen window I also see the fences between my yard each neighbor’s yard, and in every direction I look there are fences separating the backyards of every home, but practically none in the front. We’ve all heard the phrase, “good fences make good neighbors” and psychologically, it’s really true. Because none of these fences is much of a physical barrier, so why are they even there? You can answer this question for yourself in a simple thought experiment: Imagine your home property without a fence between it and neighbors on each side. Don’t you feel a little bit proprietary about yours?

Our fences are generally not walls, and our homes are not literally castles, yet a very common cliche is “a man’s home is his castle.” Where did that come from? There are no actual castles in the US, only ostentatious homes that are “castle-light”, more like palaces for non-royalty. Castles are large residences or a group of large buildings that have been constructed with strong walls to protect against attacks. In other words, castles are fortified residences. A palace, in contrast, serves primarily as a residential place, occupied by royalty, heads of state, or heads of a church (such as bishops and archbishops). Unlike castles, palaces are not fortified against attacks, but rather designed for comfort and elegance. A fort is different from both castles and palaces in that it is not a residence, but rather a military fortification. These structures have been built specifically with war in mind and are used to defend specific territories.

In modern Europe, castles, palaces, forts and walled towns are mainly tourist attractions. But in the days before Europe had national borders, castles and walled towns were necessary defend the very lives of those who lived in the nearby territory. Medieval Europe knew nothing of borders in the modern sense of the term, every ruler added to his dominions to the extent he was able. The ruinous efforts to conquer France by five generations of English kings during the Hundred Years War (1337 to 1453) offer a good example of what a world without strong national borders looks like. Borders between nation-states are NOT equal by any means.

Let us consider the concepts of cohesion versus coercion. The United States are is a great example of national cohesion. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Syria and Iraq are or were examples national coercion. The problem with states held together by coercion is that once the oppression of the state is lifted the result is not freedom, but dissolution and war. What is actually the difference between countries based on cohesion and those based on coercion? It isn’t diversity of ethnicity, religion, native language, national origin or any other manifestation of the variety of the human experience. The United States probably contains every possible variation of those characteristics. In fact, Washington and Idaho themselves probably contain just about every variation. Yet I can drive from Washington to Idaho and not even know I’m in a different state. We take that for granted. It is a huge blessing and a historical anomaly. This reality hasn’t always been smooth. Our great civil war–the issue of slavery aside–was really a war to determine whether this would be one nation or a bunch of separately governed nations. The aftermath showed the cost of getting your own way despite the advantages of union. What ultimately makes a cohesive union rather than a coercive corral is a unifying idea.

The idea that civil government exists for the benefit of the governed never existed before our nation. The phrase “consent of the governed”, the idea that a government’s legitimacy and moral right to use state power is only justified and legal when consented to by the people or society over which that political power is exercised, was radical at the time, and now is not only accepted in Western nations (and taken for granted as the “way things should be”) but copied by non western nations as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, India and Israel. So when we read and hear about “borders are wrong”, “abolish I.C.E.” and other such smug and ignorant rants, let’s renew our appreciation for our ability to drive across borders within this great cohesive nation by driving across the nearest state border (my apologies to those living in Hawaii. Alaska and the middle of Montana–just make a vacation out of it.)