In defense of the nation-state

This post is a response to Vipul Naik’s recent post on open borders versus no borders, but I thought it deserved a separate post. A defense of the nation-state against a critique like Vipul’s must be (a) a defense of there being any state, plus (b) a defense of state being national in scope.

First, the state. Vipul is an astute reader, and his being left in some doubt as to where Principles of a Free Society comes down on the question of state legitimacy is a very intelligent response to the book. At first, the book seems to be building up a defense of a Lockean social contractarian state, with natural rights, property, social contract, etc. But mid-way through this exercise, there is a concession that the social contract defense of state legitimacy, though Principles suggests that it’s the best available, is not very successful. An anarchist reader might conclude that all historical states are illegitimate, and go on to try to imagine a stateless world, and to develop a program for how best to pursue it. But I don’t really do that. Vipul suggests I’m a “minarchist.” I had never heard this nifty word before but I assume it means what it sounds like: a believer in minimal government. That’s a decent characterization of me, though possibly it might pin me down more than I would like. At any rate, I’m not an anarchist. Why not? (Principles doesn’t single out anarchism for refutation since it’s such a small minority view.)

Vipul distinguishes “anarcho-capitalism” from “anarcho-socialism,” but that’s not the typology I would adopt. I would distinguish pacifist-anarchism from all kinds of anarchism that allow some violence. If the definition of the state is an agency that claims a monopoly of violence, then one way to be an anarchist, a non-believer in the state, is to completely reject all violence. The New Testament can be read as a template for such a way of life. It isn’t really a political program at all. To such basic political questions as how are people to be defended from assault?– the answer of the pacifist-anarchist is, “They aren’t. We’ll try to prevent assault through moral suasion, and our non-violent example may have great power to achieve moral suasion. We won’t know until we try. But whatever happens, we must refrain from violence.”

Alternatively, you can accept violence in self-defense, and maybe defense of property or something, but deny that violence should or legitimately can be monopolized by one agency called the state. That leads to speculations about competition and cooperation among private security agencies and whatnot. To me, that’s just the state by another name, and I don’t really see “anarchism” in this sense as being as distinctive or coherent as the term suggests. Perhaps I’d translate some versions of anarchism as: All currently existing states are illegitimate, we need to dissolve them and establish new states, legitimately based on voluntary consent. But I think there are systematic reasons why such a project can’t be achieved, or at any rate can’t be planned and permanently, sustainably established. To put it differently, I doubt that any political equilibrium is attainable without coercion that lacks a warrant in the defense of natural rights, or to put it in pithier language, without injustice. The Christian church may, I suspect, be an example of a “state” that has been based on the voluntary principle for two thousand years, though one would have to appeal a hypothesis about its secret, invisible history, and write off a lot of coercion by official ecclesiastical hierarchies as not “really” the work of the Church. In any case, even if this is true, it would be the exception that proves the rule. Also, a purely voluntary state, a state without injustice, might, I suspect, be attainable briefly by a generation of peculiar virtue and under the influence of a particularly admirable personality. But fallen human nature would reassert itself. Apologies: this paragraph was perhaps unusually speculative and vague.

I think the “common sense morality” which Huemer and Caplan like to take as a starting point isn’t entirely valid as a starting point because its content is importantly shaped by the experience of being the citizen of a state. But my “natural rights” approach is akin to Huemer/Caplan’s in that it starts an ethical inquiry from the “micro” level, and from our moral intuitions. I won’t say more on that, however, until I’ve read Huemer’s book. But I think that in practice, aspirations to utopian nonviolence, unless one takes the monastic path and tries to realize them at a personal level, should be tempered with a good deal of deference to the flotsam and jetsam of tradition and to the imperatives of fundamental eye-for-an-eye justice. And while idolatry of the state is one of the great, permanent dangers of the human condition, it’s usually best willingly to accept the leadership of a moderately just and beneficent state, when it’s available.

So much for my defense of the state. What about the nation-state?

The first thing to observe is that nation-states are a novelty. The Roman Empire wasn’t a nation-state. Athens and Sparta in the golden age of classical Greece were not nation-states. Carthage wasn’t a nation-state. Egypt might qualify, but not, I think, Babylon or Assyria, and not the Persian empire. Some of these, along with the Han empire in China and its various successors, might be described as civilization-states, an entire civilization, united in a single polity. The Chinese kingdoms of the Warring States period before the Han don’t seem to have been nation-states either. Ancient Israel was something like a nation-state, and it would be interesting to know to what extent ancient Israel provided, through the culture of Christianity, the template for the modern nation-state and, by extension, the global regime of nation-states that exists today. Several modern European nations– England, Poland, Russia– seem to have had “Chosen People” complexes at some point in their history. Still, there were no nation-states in Europe in the High Middle Ages. France was not a cultural and linguistic unity at the popular level. What unity it had was feudal in character: France was the area where all the ascending links of vassal to suzerain converged in a certain king. Its borders shifted a good deal from Charlemagne’s time to that of St. Louis, and kept shifting thereafter, down to the end of World War I. Of course, by 1870, the people were thought to deserve a say in the matter, and the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine by Bismarck’s Germany was an outrage. In the later Middle Ages, national consciousness began to take shape in England and France, foreshadowing those modern nations. Italy and Germany were not nation-states at all then. Italy was home to many city-states during the Renaissance, which were then absorbed into non-Italian empires; and the “Holy Roman Empire” in Germany, which eventually came to be dominated by the Hapsburg dynasty, was not at all like a nation-state, with its weak centralization, its variety of subject peoples, and its antique and dynastic principle of legitimacy. Incidentally, the Hapsburg Empire, in which the Austrian school of economic liberals was born, may deserve more respect as a possible template for modern polities. Only in the late 19th century, as the nation-state model became normative, were Italy and Germany created as nation-states.

That the nation-state is a comparatively recent development is a clue that we should not expect it to prevail permanently as the worldwide norm for political organization. Still, there is a good deal to be said for it in the meantime.

There is a deep connection between the nation-state and democracy. If democracy is “rule of the people,” who are “the people?” The answer is usually this or that “nation,” and it’s not obvious what else it could be. (“Nation” and “people” can be near-synonyms, of course.) But what’s a “nation,” anyway? A common language is the most obvious marker, but that’s clearly not a universal rule. India is one nation (I suppose) with many mother tongues; the English-speaking world consists of at least six independent nations; and there are even more Spanish-speaking countries. The unity of India is probably best understood as a function of Hinduism and history with a little help from geography, and all of those factors sometimes help to define nations, but none are necessary or sufficient. Britain and Ireland were one polity for seven hundred years, but are now separate. Similarly Russia and Ukraine, which also (for the most part) share a common religion. Italy was a geographical expression before it was a nation, but there is no particular geographical logic to the separation of France from Germany from Belgium from the Czech Republic, etc. Germany has long been home to both Catholics and Protestants. For that matter, though Catholicism is crucial to Irish identity, yet there is a “Church of Ireland” which is Protestant. And of course, Catholicism is the common religion of many nations without being a reason to unite them into one. There’s a lot of historical accident here, and the best definition is probably Benedict Anderson’s (suitably arbitrary) “imagined communities.” To define the nations is to define the sets of people who, under democracy, govern themselves. To drive the point home, note that one of the characteristics of democracy is the tolerance for a “loyal opposition.” Loyal to what? Not to the present government, exactly, else they would not be an opposition. Loyal, rather, to the nation, a reality deeper and more permanent than the ruling regime.

Democracy is a sort of idol in our times, and tends to be much overrated. It has considerably merit nonetheless, but to appreciate it properly one must start by realizing that from a strictly logical perspective, democracy has grave flaws, to which a kind of myth of democratic beneficence blinds modern people. There can be “tyranny of the majority,” but as Mancur Olson argued, there can be tyrannies of minorities too, small groups that can organize to pursue their special interests while the public doesn’t know what’s going on. More fundamentally, why people vote at all is rather mysterious– one vote essentially never decides an election, so why bother?– and if it’s just that voting is, after all, negligibly cheap, then we shouldn’t expect people to vote in an informed way, since researching politicians’ platforms is expensive. Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter argues that people are “rationally irrational” at election time, choosing opinions that feel good rather than opinions that are true, since there’s effectively no cost to being wrong. When the issue space has more than one dimensional (or when preferences are not “single-peaked”), cycling can arise, where majority rule would cause collective preferences to cycle permanent among three or more alternative policies.In theory, democracy is a hopeless mess.

I think part of the reason democracy works better than this in practice is that people identify with, take an interest in, and care about their nation-states. I know a lot of people who follow politics as one follows a sport. A lot of money gets donated to political campaigns, sometimes by lobbyists with a tacit quid pro quo, but often freely and altruistically, for the good of the country as someone conceives it. People talk about politics in their spare time. All this raises the level of political information well above what would be “rational” for people to acquire. I think it’s a reasonable approximation to characterize people’s behavior as somewhat altruistic in many situations, and especially in the voting booth, where one’s actions potentially affect so many other people. If we imagine people having “vectors” of “altruism coefficients,” what matters in the voting booth may be not so much (a) the extent to which voters are altruistic, since even tiny altruism coefficients (say, 0.01) are enough to swamp self-interest, as (b) whether they are disproportionately altruistic towards certain sub-groups of their fellow citizens in such a way that some groups become effectively disenfranchised. This is why democracy in ethnically fragmented states can occasionally lead to disasters, to racial segregation or ethnic cleansing or civil war or breakdown leading to totalitarianism. Anyway, that democracy, which in theory doesn’t seem like it should be able to work at all, in practice often manages to muddle along tolerably well, has a lot to do with the national basis of most democratic states.

What’s democracy good for? Vaguely, I think it’s a good thing for the people who live under a regime to have a say in how it behaves. Politicians in democracies really do pay attention to what voters want. Voters know something about the laws because they have to live under them. In the aggregate, they have a lot of information relevant to what policies work, and don’t work. Public opinion is a very imperfect vehicle for aggregating this information, but it does seem to seize on and condemn clear cases of corruption and atrocious human rights abuses (at least against citizens), and make policymakers at least try (or at least pretend, but then you can’t fool all the people all the time) to serve the general welfare (e.g., as crudely summarized in macroeconomic statistics). It is sometimes effective in securing and reinforcing freedoms, though these might have to emerge and grow strong at the level of private mores before democracy can be trusted to protect them. Britain was free before it was democratic. The danger nowadays is not so much “tyranny of the majority” as the exaggeration of the extent to which democracy confers legitimacy. There is a widespread sense nowadays that democracies can do anything that they want, that law, or even that right and wrong, have no source, origin or meaning except in the will of the people. The Constitution is the exception that proves the rule, for while laws democratically passed may be (in the US) ruled unconstitutional (other countries have similar arrangements), the Constitution itself is probably assumed to derive its force only from the of certain past electoral majorities. And note that if democracy consists in people having a say in the laws that govern them, then immigration restrictions are the limiting case of undemocratic law, since the set of people who are subject to them is the mathematical inverse of the set of people who have a say in making them. For all these reasons, there is an urgent need to limit the power of the democratic nation-state, but I would not be in a hurry to dissolve it.

If one agrees that the democratic nation-state should have limited powers, there is no logical problem with combining open borders and the nation-state. One can say that it’s a good idea, at this particular historical moment, to organize political power along nation-state lines, but that there are powers nation-states should not have, and one of these is to exclude non-citizens from their territory arbitrarily and by force. They can defend their borders against armed invasion, and probably even against unarmed migrants whom they have good reason to believe constitute an immediate threat to public order or even public health. (By “public health” I mean “freedom from contagious diseases.” The phrase is often used in a more elastic sense.) To the extent that a certain power to tax arises with the provision of judicial support for property rights and provision of public goods– admittedly a difficult question– it extends to non-citizen residents as well as to citizen residents. They cannot justly exclude foreigners simply to prevent their citizens from having to see poverty on the streets, or to avoid incurring moral responsibility for foreigners’ welfare (if such moral responsibility exists, it in any case does not depend on whether foreigners are resident on the national territory or not), or to keep up domestic wage rates. It is desirable to arrange for some change in public opinion, law, and/or international relations that will render this practice intolerable and obsolete, like slavery. But justice allows more discretion to regulate the acquisition of citizenship. More generally, constitutions, law, and political civil society need not be fundamentally revolutionized. Such is a world of democratic nation-states with open borders.

Is that sustainable in the long run? Could the democratic nation-state maintain its essential nature in the presence of huge masses of non-citizens, whose basic human rights would be recognized and respected, but who would have little or no access to political participation? Wouldn’t the democratic character of a state be compromised if there were so many resident non-voters? To some extent, yes, though we should always bear in mind that “voting with the feet” is a substitute for voting in the ballot box, in some ways a superior substitute. There might be a problem with resident non-voters being alienated and trying to exert influence by extra-political channels. Much here would depend on the evolution of political norms. After all, there was a time when the acceptance of the rightful leadership of dynastic kings was as universally accepted as democracy is today. One can envision a future in which migrants took political exclusion for granted and didn’t complain about it, or even think about it. Still, there might have to be deep, subtle changes in the ideology that undergirds political legitimacy, to the detriment of the democratic nation-state model. “Altruism vectors” might sometimes be altered in ways that make the democratic nation-state dysfunctional or unstable– though closed borders is no guarantee against that, either. I suspect that open borders would accelerate the decline of the nation-state.

But I also think the nation-state is destined to decline anyway. We’ve seen that it’s historically novel. I think its rise is a side-effect of the printing press. The printing press reshaped the conversation of mankind on national lines, empowering and homogenizing vernaculars, giving rise to the daily newspaper, inducing the decline of Latin and other lingua franca. Eventually political arrangements caught up to the new consciousness. Now the internet is reshaping the conversation of mankind again, fueling the dominance of English, making it irrelevant where something is published, globalizing social networks. Eventually– but in this case, as with printing/nation-states, it may take a long time– political arrangements will catch up with that too. If this prediction is right, open borders might be compared to constitutional monarchy. They’re a way of ameliorating an institution whose legitimacy, strong for now, is doomed to long-term decline, and easing, even if it might also accelerate, the transition to political arrangements more suitable to the society and economy that the latest technologies are gradually bringing into being.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

5 thoughts on “In defense of the nation-state”

  1. Hmm, I’m not sure the title of your post does justice to its content. I don’t think your view of the nation-state and its legitimacy is really that far apart from mine. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to find any meaningful differences.

  2. So practically speaking, what is the best alternative to the nation-state:
    1. Considering the peculiarities of our identities in the 21st century?
    2. That will be most effective in the long term?

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