The Inequality of Nations

This post is linked to this book project, see Googledocs version here. I argued in a recent post that “the modern borders regime was designed to secure international peace,” and since, in fact, the post-WWII era has been an era of unprecedented international peace (though there has been quite a bit of civil war and/or totalitarian violence within countries), a tentative judgment seems to be warranted that it has been quite successful in achieving that important goal. This success comes at a high cost, however, namely: almost inconceivably extreme inequality in every aspect of the human condition.

One of the strangest features of the contemporary world order is that the roughly 200 countries in the world, excepting a few marginal cases where sovereignty is disputed, enjoy a kind of juridical or official equality, even though in every practical respect they are extremely unequal.

Start with geography. Russia is the world’s largest country by territory, followed by Canada, the United States, China, and Brazil. At the other extreme are countries like Israel, Lebanon, Luxembourg, and Singapore, and poorer countries like Swaziland, Lesotho, and Brunei. El Salvador has less than 1/400th the area of the United States. Some small countries enjoy geographical advantages such as good ports, natural resources, pleasant climate, or open borders with the EU, but others do not, such as tiny, landlocked, malarial Rwanda, do not.

Next, take population, which ranges from China and India, with over 1 billion people each, to Fiji, Comoros, Reunion, and Bhutan, with less than 1 million each. Some metropolitan areas, like New York City, have much larger populations than many countries. Small countries are not necessarily at a disadvantage relative to large ones, but at best they provide less scope for the development of a complex division of labor internally, and are more dependent on the global economy to meet their needs.

There is enormous variation among countries in population density as well. At one extreme (leaving out a few very small states) is Bangladesh, with 950 people per square kilometer. The United States, with about 30 people per square kilometer, is towards the other extreme, though plenty of other countries are still more sparsely populated, including some as fortunate as Australia (2.5), and as unfortunate as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (8). The data do not particularly suggest that population density is either good or bad for economic development or political freedom. The most crowded countries include flourishing Hong Kong and Singapore as well as impoverished Bangladesh and the benighted Gaza Strip. The most thinly peopled include Nordic and Anglosphere countries as well as much of sub-Saharan Africa. Still, population density does profoundly affect people’s lives, even if it’s not clear whether the typical net impact is good or bad.

Moving to indicators that are more clearly correlated with human welfare, there are now more than 20 countries where life expectancy is over 80– in Monaco it is almost 90– and most countries have life expectancies over 70. Yet at the other extreme there are a handful of countries, all except Afghanistan located in Africa, where life expectancies are under 50. Some of this reflects geography– sub-Saharan Africa has one of the most dangerous disease environments in the world– but crime, political violence, and public health policy are also important factors. Perhaps the most famous indicator that varies strikingly across countries is GDP per capita. This can be measured in different ways, which affect the ranking of countries and the range of variation slightly, but all the extant lists place a few small countries like Qatar, Luxembourg, Norway, Hong Kong, and Singapore near the top, with the US as the wealthiest large country, big Western European nations like Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain a little below the US, most of post-communist Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East in a broad middle-income range, and sub-Saharan Africa dominating the bottom of the list, with a few others like Haiti, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Yemen mixed in. Whatever measure is used, a handful of countries have GDP per capita of less than $1,000 per year, while at the other end of the spectrum national incomes are above $80,000 per year. The richest countries enjoy average incomes over 100 times larger than the poorest. Of course, there is a lot of income inequality within countries as well.

Politically, the countries of the world range from liberal democracies where people confidently enjoy freedoms of speech and religion and broad scope for political participation, to totalitarian regimes like North Korea, or repressive and authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia, where freedom is tightly curtailed, and where most people have no opportunity to influence public policy, and everything in between. Nowadays, most countries are nominal democracies, but Central Asia, for example, is dominant by de facto dictatorships where the media are tightly controlled by the government and state power is used to prevent the emergence of political competition. Some constitutions, like that of the US, enjoy a deep legitimacy and near-veneration from people across the political spectrum, and provide real limits on the way elected officials exercise their power. Other constitutions, like that of the Russian Federation, can be manipulated at will by leaders like Putin, whose authority is really personal rather than constitutional in nature, based on a combination of personal charisma with force and fear. According to Freedom House, 118 countries qualified as genuine electoral democracies in 2013, while 47 were classified as Not Free.

Countries vary greatly in the degree to which they honor the rule of law, as opposed to being fraught with political and administrative corruption. Corruption is difficult to measure, but one NGO that attempts to do so is Transparency International, which finds the lowest levels of corruption in Canada, Australia, and the Nordic countries; somewhat higher levels in the US, Britain, Japan, France, and Germany, as well as Chile and Uruguay in Latin America; moderate levels in Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, as well as China and India; and the worst corruption in most of the former Soviet Union along with several countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Such extreme variations among the sovereign states of the world make their juridical equality seem odd at best, if not a kind of absurd play-acting. Indeed, one may wonder how such wildly various entities can be instances of the same category. If we use the word “country” or “sovereign state” or “nation” to describe the US, how can the same word also be applicable to an entity as totally different as Togo, or Turkmenistan, or Sao Tome and Principe? However, some legitimate categories do include entities very different in size, strength, and other features. Mammals, for example, vary in size from the mouse to the whale, in speed, from the sloth to the cheetah, in intelligence, from lemmings to humans, but they’re still mammals. Why? What makes a mammal a mammal? Features like hair, sweat glands, and milk to nourish young define mammals vis-a-vis reptiles and birds. Maybe size, prosperity, and institutional quality in nation-states are like color and size in mammals: interesting, but irrelevant to whether an entity is included in the category or not. After all, an American doesn’t think his nationality would change if his country annexed some new territory, or suffered an economic recession, or developed serious problems with political and administrative corruption. Is there some other essence that gives meaning to nation-states, such that the juridical equality of nation-states isn’t a mere historical accident or the geopolitical fancy of an unusual historical epoch, but recognizes instances of a type of social reality independent of the constructs of international law.

Yet if we consider what makes the world’s leading nations feel like nations, then look for the same phenomena elsewhere, we will find almost as much inequality among juridical nations in their resources for nationhood, as we did in size, wealth, and institutions.

Take history. A country like France can trace its history, after a fashion, at least to the High Middle Ages, to Joan of Arc (1412-1431) and St. Louis (1214-1270), and arguably even further back, to Charlemagne (742-814) or the Frankish kingdom of Clovis I (466-511). England can trace its history back to William the Conqueror (1028-1087) at a minimum, and since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 has enjoyed unbroken domestic peace under a constitution that has evolved a good deal but has never been abrogated or overthrown. Spain has been Spain since the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1469, though some Basques and Catalans wish it wasn’t, and its territory hasn’t changed much since the expulsion of the Moors in 1492. Portugal, which became an independent nation in the 11th century and expelled the Moors, establishing its modern borders, in 1250, can claim to be the oldest territorially stable polity in the world. Germany’s historic basis as a polity is much shallower: it was united by Bismarck only in 1870. Long before that, there was the Holy Roman Empire, which however was founded by Charlemagne, a Frank, had territories in Italy, and never bore much resemblance to a German nation-state. Further east, there was a powerful Polish kingdom in medieval and early modern times, which, however, vanished from history in the 18th-century Partitions, only to be restored to independence after World War I when other countries defeated its major enemies and chose to recognize it because they believed in national self-determination, then was conquered first by Nazi Germany and then by the Soviets, who made it a satellite state, and finally it received genuine independence when the Soviets under Gorbachev lost their will to repress, before being absorbed into the EU in 2004. In short, all the nations of Europe can look back to some sort of national history as a precedent for their modern incarnations as nation-states, but these vary greatly in how well they can serve as a basis for national pride or national identity, and in how promising they are as precedents for success. Also, the territories on which these national histories played themselves out rarely coincide with the modern national borders within which countries have to live, giving rise to irredentist temptations.

Some other parts of the world, such as India, China, and Japan are as well-endowed with the historical resources for modern nationality as are the countries of Europe, but others are not. Most borders in the Middle East and Africa are legacies of colonialism, with many modern African borders having been drawn at the Congress of Berlin in the 1880s, by the Europeans who were then carving up Africa in an orgy of imperial aggrandizement. The division of Spanish America into Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, etc. has to do more with historical accidents during and after the wars of independence from Spain, than with any fundamental social reality or any deep aspirations of the people. The United States, an unusual case, has a powerful basis for national unity in its collective memory of its war for independence against Great Britain, and its commitment to freedom and democracy embodied in its 18th-century Constitution. The basis for national unity in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand seems somewhat weaker, particularly given their much longer affiliation with Great Britain, whose monarch is still the head of state in these countries. One gets the sense that to be an American is to have a creed to live by, whereas to be a Canadian is rather convenient and advantageous.

Or take race. Of course, since World War II, it has gradually become more or less politically incorrect to take race into account at all. But in the past, people have usually cared a good deal about ancestry, so that to be a German, say, was to have German ancestry. Indeed, this was still more or less the case until a reform of German citizenship law in 1999. In some places the idea that nationality could be acquired, or could be a matter of politics or law or personal choice as opposed to blood, still strikes people as paradoxical. We might suppose, then, that a good basis for national unity is the genetic homogeneity of a country’s people. In fact, genetic diversity varies greatly among nations, with some Andean countries being the most genetically homogeneous, some sub-Saharan African countries the most genetically diverse, and North America and Europe somewhere in the middle. Bolivia, then, might be a nation-state in a real, genetic sense, but what about Kenya?

Again, take language. A country like Norway has a common language that sets it apart from the rest of the world, which its inhabitants overwhelmingly speak. Speaking Norwegian is highly correlated with Norwegian citizenship. The United States more or less has a common language in English, though an estimated one in five Americans speaks a language other than English at home, including many who were born in the US; but this common language does not set Americans apart from all non-Americans, since English is also the prevailing language in the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand, and has many native speakers in South Africa, and has an enormous number of second-language speakers worldwide. Meanwhile, in India, there is no language that is spoken by a majority of the inhabitants. Hindi is the most widespread first language, with 41%; English plays a dominant role in commerce and government but is spoken well only by an elite. Yet India enjoys a certain genuine national solidarity, as an ancient civilization with three millennia of history to look back on, and especially, with the religio-cultural legacy of Hinduism to draw on as a source of identity. Countries like Malawi, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and other African nations are linguistically fragmented without the benefit of civilizational union.

Other candidates could be tried, such as religion, culture, political ideology, and so forth, but it begins to seem clear that the notion that the world is comprised of 200 or so nation-states is a fiction, because these nation-states have nothing in common. They are in no sense, except the superficial juridical one, the same type of entity.

When a person is born into the world today, their situation in life is in large part determined by their place of birth. They may be born into a free, prosperous, liberal-democratic nation-state, of which they are recognized as valuable members, and in the context of which they are invited to work out the stories of their lives. They may be born into so-called “countries” that are little more than historical accidents, of which they are seen as citizens only in international law and not in the eyes of most other members of those nations, countries where the rule of law is lacking, countries fraught with corruption, countries almost destitute of opportunity, where their rights are not respected. Nationality is an asset or a burden individuals are born into without their consent, and a source of enormous inequality among people. People often profess to believe in egalitarianism, in “all men are created equal,” in the desirability of treating everyone equal, of securing equality of opportunity and perhaps a certain degree of equality of condition, etc., etc. It is hard to see how one could justify regarding statements of this kind as anything but the most ludicrous hypocrisy if they are not understood to imply an urgent determination to do something about the inequality of nations. Or to be more exact, to do something about how the comprehensive dissimilarities of the entities labeled sovereign nation-states in international law gives rise to huge inequalities in the opportunities of individuals to flourish.

When one considers this vast inequality in every dimension, to the point of complete incommensurability, of the world’s “nation-states,” a certain conclusion may dawn on one which is difficult to articulate, but let me put it this way: any moral claim which is indexical with respect to countries is presumptively invalid.

What does that mean?

First, the word “indexical.” Indexical words have meaning relative to the speaker. When I say “I,” I mean “Nathan Smith”; when you say “I,” you mean _______. When I say “my wife,” I mean Catherine Smith; when you say “my wife,” you either refer to some other woman, or a failure of reference occurs because there is no such entity. When I say “my house,” I am referring to a certain green country cottage off of highway 99; “my state” is California; “my city” is Fresno (I suppose); “my church” is the Orthodox Church; “my profession” is economics professor; and so forth. You could utter all those phrases, too, but you would refer to different entities. Non-indexical expressions such as “Fresno” and “California” and “the first president of the United States” and “petunias” mean the same thing regardless of who utters them.

An indexical moral claim is a moral claim that contains indexical objects, e.g., “one ought to be faithful to one’s wife,” or “one ought to obey one’s parents.” For me, the claim “one ought to be faithful to one’s wife” means that I ought to be faithful to Catherine Smith, but for my friend Seth, it means that he ought to be faithful to a different woman, named Lauren as it happens. “One ought to obey one’s parents” means that I ought to obey Steven and Merina Smith; it does not mean I ought to obey Brent and Sharman Wilson, though it does mean that my friend Seth ought to obey those people. (Never mind whether the moral claims are true. I’m simply explaining what I mean by an indexical moral claim.)

Moral claims that are indexical with respect to countries would include “one ought to love one’s country,” “one ought to know something about the history of one’s country,” “one ought to seek to understand the laws of one’s country,” “one ought to be loyal to one’s country in wartime,” “one ought to stand ready to serve one’s country at need,” and so on. Now, I think there are plausible arguments for these and many other moral claims for an American, and they might cross-apply to Germans, British, French, Japanese, and many other well-constituted nations. But I think the radical differences among the nation-states defined in international law are such that none of them can be generalized. “One ought to be content to stay in one’s country if no foreign country wants you as an immigrant” is a plausible moral claim– for an American. It does not follow that the same claim has any force for anyone whom international law classifies as a subject of Burma, or China, or Mexico.

In particular, “social contract” type arguments can’t be cross-applied to all the world’s “countries” indiscriminately. In spite of Michael Huemer’s exceedingly lucid and largely valid argumentation in The Problem of Political Authority, I feel that tacit social contract arguments do have some force in legitimizing the government of the United States. But to treat most other countries in the world as social contract-based regimes is a travesty.

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

2 thoughts on “The Inequality of Nations”

  1. I think this is a fantastic explication of why the nation-state is a morally unacceptable mechanism for determining people’s negative rights to earn a living and live with their friends and family. If you win the birthright lottery, congratulations, you get to live in a political and economic system that allows you to author your own life story! If not, too bad, hope you don’t mind starving to death in a system that is incapable of providing institutions to support individual economic and personal growth! This reminds me greatly of Eli Dourado’s great summary of the egalitarian argument for open borders at — “If there is such a thing as moral progress, then history will judge current opponents of open borders just as harshly as those who in the past made excuses for state-sanctioned aristocracy.”

    People may argue that it’s impossible to setup a new version of the nation-state that offers the things we enjoy from it today (security of persons and property, social safety nets, etc.) while opening the borders. But how do we know that? All the studies of immigration’s fiscal impact to date show very minimal impacts to the welfare state; in many countries, the impacts are actually fiscally positive. It is not difficult to imagine ways to firewall the welfare state while opening the borders. You don’t need to abolish the state or establish a world government. You just need to be willing to rethink existing ideas about the state, as I’ve written about before:

    What really frustrates me is that even when people understand that it’s morally unacceptable to declare “Tough shit, you were born unlucky, hope you don’t die in a sweatshop” on the basis of the nation-state, they refuse to rethink anything about how we conceive of the modern state. Instead the concern runs along the lines of: “But we can’t rethink border enforcement, because then the welfare state will collapse!”

    As one mainstream liberal put it to me, we shouldn’t allow open borders for Syrian refugees, because it’d be inhumane to deny them access to the welfare state. It’s maddening how much we let the concept of the state box us in — to the point that we’d rather let a dictator gas his own people to death because they are subjects of his state, instead of allowing those people cross our borders because we’re worried they might have trouble supporting themselves economically in our state.

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