Panama City, Panama. Today we are seeing the largest nations in the world pushing their limits. Open societies are pushing the limits of openness. Closed societies are pushing the limits of closure. And we are seeing the consequences when both open and closed societies go too far.
Russia’s wealth has long been concentrated within a closed circle of oligarchs and government officials. But today, Russia is closing even further. It is going to new extremes of censorship to hide its failures and atrocities in the Ukraine war from its citizens. It has embarked on a massive misinformation campaign to spread fictions about Neo-Nazis in Ukraine and aggressions by the Ukrainian government (and China is lending a hand by repeating Russian propaganda through its state media and Foreign Ministry). Russia has now also become closed off from Western banks, businesses, and flights.
But Vladimir Putin’s push for closure is, ironically, leading to a new openness. As the Russian economy crumbles, a flood of over 300,000 emigrants and counting has made a hasty exit from Russia, including many fearing arrest under Russia’s new “fake news law,” which penalizes criticism of the government with up to 15 years in jail. Russia’s emigrants are heading to dozens of destinations around the globe, from neighboring Azerbaijan and Georgia to Turkey, Dubai, Greece, Latin America, and the US. An estimated 100,000 of Russia’s emigrants have been IT workers, and many others have been creative professionals like journalists and entrepreneurs, leaving Russia with severe brain drain. As Russia deteriorates further, these educated emigrants will continue to send real news back to Russia, combatting propaganda and helping to open Russians minds to reality. And perhaps when the news sinks in that Russia has lost over a third of its soldiers and killed thousands of its Ukrainian brothers for no legitimate reason, this will spark enough dissent, even among Russia’s military and oligarchs, that Russia will finally unite against Putin, change regimes, and move toward making a long-closed society more open.
The United States is the world’s leading open society. Openness leads America to take in more immigrants by far than any other country in the world, over three times the total of Germany, the next highest immigrant destination. But even the most open society must recognize limits. Only when borders are established does openness become possible, because otherwise citizens are forever engaged in a struggle for security in a “war of all against all,” as Hobbes put it, battling over what is “mine and thine.”
A war of all against all describes some parts of Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle in recent decades, as rival drug cartels have staked out territory. The only thing protecting Americans from that violence is the U.S.-Mexico border, which at 1,954 miles is the longest border in the world between a developed and developing country.
Until a few decades ago, border enforcement was relatively neglected, as America took openness for granted. Almost anyone could hop a fence into California or swim across the Rio Grande into Texas. But in 2001, 9/11 gave America a wakeup call, and in 2003, the Department of Homeland Security was formed. Yet today, American deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl coming across the border have skyrocketed. A staggering quarter million guns purchased in the US each year flow across the border into Mexico. Texas congressman Chip Roy reported in April that 42 people on the FBI’s terror watchlist had been apprehended along the border since President Biden took office in January 2021, which suggests many others have crossed into the US among the 300,000 “gotaways” reported by the Texas Department of Public Safety in the last fiscal year. America’s natural openness is conflicting with the real need to secure its border.
China is forever struggling to close its virtual border, the Great Firewall. Open communication across the internet represents one of the greatest threats to the Chinese Communist Party’s mission to stamp out dissent. But over 78% of Chinese people aged 16-64 have an account on the messaging service Wechat, and over 60% of Chinese internet users have a microblogging account on Weibo. The CCP shuts down thousands of WeChat and Weibo and other accounts on a regular basis.
It was China’s squelching of open communication which stifled the early reports of COVID when it was first discovered in December 2020. And two and a half years later, throughout this past April and May, China again closed its citizens inside the walls of their homes in Shanghai’s “Zero COVID” lockdowns. Draconian lockdown restrictions and major food shortages in Shanghai have provoked outrage and strong protests, with residents smashing vegetables and banging pots and pans out their windows at night and launching massive criticism at the government online using code words to refer to government officials. The two million people employed by the CCP to censor the internet have been scrambling to squash the protests, but the censors have not been able to keep up with the dissent. And like the Ukraine war in Russia, the years of strict lockdowns in China are prompting a surge in the number of middle- and upper-class Chinese citizens seeking to emigrate. Extreme closures are exposing the limits of China’s closed society.
To be sure, China’s censorship has its advantages. It makes it harder for kids to access pornography and harder for radical fringe groups to spread destructive ideas—like the Great Replacement theory which motivated the May 14 Buffalo supermarket shooter. The shooter became radicalized online, similar to Islamic terrorists in the suburbs of Paris and the East End of London. Ironically, social media are meant to create a more open, interconnected society, yet they often close minds when reinforcement algorithms send users down rabbit holes, as The Social Dilemma vividly illustrates. Even as school shooters and other terrorists take advantage of the freedoms of the world’s most open societies, they somehow become convinced that the walls are closing in on them, such that they have to lash out.
I taught in China several years ago. When I first arrived, I stayed in another teacher’s apartment for a few weeks while I was looking for a place. After three days of watching me swipe in the gate, the security guard knocked on the apartment door and said he needed to take my passport for a day and get a full description of my personal details. During a class later that year, I mentioned that Taiwan’s official status is controversial. The next day, the school’s two CCP inspectors were snooping around my classroom. Very little goes unnoticed in a closed society.
By contrast, nobody stopped the Buffalo shooter even though he published his plans online, and, at age seventeen, he said he wanted to commit a murder suicide at his high school, which led to him spending a day and a half in a hospital for a mental health evaluation. He wore a HAZMAT suit to class. But nobody connected the dots. He was still able to buy a Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle.
The Bill of Rights is America’s great protector of freedoms, the guardian of its open society. But America’s founders understood something that is often lost today: that the Constitution is not designed to make good people, it requires good people. If people are not good, freedoms facilitate immorality. As John Adams put it in his 1798 letter to the Massachusetts militia:
But should the People of America, once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another and towards foreign nations, which assumes the Language of Justice and moderation while it is practicing Iniquity and Extravagance; and displays in the most captivating manner the charming Pictures of Candour frankness & sincerity while it is rioting in rapine and Insolence: this Country will be the most miserable Habitation in the World. Because We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition, Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
Adams saw the harsh reality that the freedoms in the Constitution protect people like school shooters just as much as anyone else. And America’s tendency toward erring on the side of openness and freedom can lead it to overlook even obvious tipoffs. As Adams might put it, school shooters often slip through the system “as a whale goes through a net.”
Openness and closure have never been harder to enforce. China is having as much difficulty securing its virtual border as America is having securing its geographic border. Emigration is fraying a closing Russia as illegal immigration through a porous border is fraying the US. Putin’s challenge of censoring truth online is as great as America’s challenge of stopping radicalization online. Despite Americans’ instinctive openness, decades of deadly overdoses and mass shooting victims remind them that there have to be boundaries, while unruly protests and emigrations remind Russia and China that closing down too hard can destabilize the government’s hold on society and trigger an exodus. The question that remains to be answered is whether these vast societies will push their limits to the extreme such that they lose the things that closure was meant to secure and that openness was meant to allow.