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June 26, 2008

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Shuggy

"What are the problems which are best solved by national governments rather than global government or smaller-scale authorities (and the individual is, of course, a very important small-scale authority)?"

This is an interesting post. The first thing that struck me was the use of the phrase 'nation-states'. There, in fact, have been very few of them historically, which is one of the reasons I'm ambivalent towards nationalism: nationalists argue as if their original position should be taken for granted and that the burden of evidence falls on everyone else. I find this annoying because historically it's bullshit and I for one quite like the fact that I *don't* happen to live in a nation-state.

However, despite this, the historically dangerous fiction of the 'nation-state' has one overwhelming thing in its favour. What problems are best solved by national political systems? The problem of who governs and what the people can do if they want a change in government. In other words, the 'nation-state' has historically been the theatre of democracy and there is, in my view, absolutely no evidence to suggest that trans-national institutions like the UN or the EU are capable of answering these questions better than nations for the simple reason that neither of them can be considered democratic in any meaningful sense.

Mark Wadsworth

What Shuggy says.

It all has to do with economies and diseconomies of scale. There is such a thing as the 'right size' unit of government, i.e. local councils for policing, transport etc and national governments for defence and a sort of feeling of 'belonging' and that's about it.

Anthony Zacharzewski

Zimbabwe is not really a problem of nation states, it's a problem of Westphalian states. If Zim were in the EU, for instance, it would not have been allowed to get in the state it's in.

Answering the more general question, nation states are romantic ideals that have got stuck in our heads, as romantic ideals are wont to do. They are not the right physical or economic size for anything, as the variety of sizes suggests, but they don't have to be. They are, or they have been in the West, the political definition of 'us'.

I think that nation states are weakening, though. Populations are disaggregating, not only physically as the Economist says, but emotionally and politically too. This is not necessarily a good thing, particularly if it leads to resistance to tax transfers and shared endeavours like the NHS.

ad

I tend to agree with Shuggy: in the nature of identity politics, a democratic state is likely going to have to be a nation-state.

Immigration on a very large scale would presumably require some kind of assimilation into the 'nation'.

Peter Risdon

I was going to comment, then read Shuggy's. Spot on.

ortega

Allow me to add to what is very well put by Shuggy that Ralf Dahrendorf, once european commissioner, said that being the EU a 'nation-state' would not be allowed to be a new member because of its lack of democracy.

chris

I agree that "nation-states" (for want of better phrase) have historically been associated with democracy to a less small degree than larger units. It goes without saying that the EU is inadequately democratic - though the EU was not the point of the post.
But it's truer to say that democracy emerged first from sub-national units - the Anglo-Saxon moot.
In theory, democracy can be achieved in units of any size - from the household up to the world. So why's the nation-state the optimum unit for embodying democratic principles? Is it just that we stick with it because it has done so (in some cases) for these last few decades? What I'm asking is: is the dominance of national governments in political thinking an example of path-dependence, or does it have genuine advantages over smaller or larger sizes?

james higham

Nation states are the last bastion against global continent shift, politically. It's the only way we're going to survive. That's why Mugabe proceeds relatively unopposed bytr the west - di you see Milliband's comment? The global drive in the upper echelons is for people to react against nation states.

Rowland Manthorpe

Good post as always.

You're paraphrasing Daniel Bell's epigram that in the future the nation state will be ‘too small for the big things in life and too big for the small things’.

Similar thoughts here from a former new Labour honcho: http://www.thersa.org/about-us/matthews-blog/archives/june-2008/the-nation-state---where-to

James Schneider

The nation state is an institution without inherent meaning or truth behind it, it is incompetent in many regards, and people appear willing to give them a kicking (SNP, Belgium, or individual US states operating their own Kyoto targets for example). Yet it persists and there is little reason to suggest that it will wither away any time soon, nor is there the suggestion that its role will become more carefully and sensibly delineated as you suggest is necessary. The reason for this is three fold. Firstly, the new smaller governmental or organizational areas of say regions or counties would begin to foster their own identity creating, in essence, a micro state which would guard its "rights" strongly and would dislike the fact that much of its sovereignty lies elsewhere. This merely creates more entities that want to be nation states (national self-determination and all that), ill at ease with each other. Secondly, to supersede the nation state not only requires local communities to step up and take over roles formerly ascribed to the national government, such as education, but also a giving away of powers to a supra-national organization. In order for this to work every component nation of that super structure would have to be on the same time line of self-dismantlement. For "sovereign powers", such as limited fiscal powers, environment, continental transport, development policy, defense, immigration, and foreign policy, to be removed from the citizens of the nation state they will have to be compensated by a much greater control over the rest of their lives. This requires every state within the supranational organization to go through the process together. This is institutionally difficult and some members will not be able to wait and see the benefits before joining.
Thirdly, our political institutions, language, points of reference are built around the nation state. The post WWII order is sculpted around them. We may very well argue that the nation states of Europe would be better served by local rule and the EU and that many African or Middle Eastern States have little to no real reason for existing as they do today. However, it will take something to fundamentally shake, disturb, and cause the reshaping of this order for this to change. I'm not sure we want to see that.

We may not like the nation state. It may be stupid. It may not work very well but any attempt at change will require widespread contempt for the people's wishes. A state, or supra-national entity can not be formed or fundamentally altered in a sustainable manner if the people are overwhelmingly against it. In theory we can see which areas of government should be hived up and which pushed down but in practice, the best we can hope for is increased international cooperation between nation states on issues for which they are too small, and a localization of democracy and the affairs of government within these nation states.
The Nation State is here. We have to deal with that.

Glenn

Difficult to compare USA to other countries. USA is a big quite well integrated market. State government powers are actually quite big in lots of areas - including education, health, economy. US 'nation state' in terms of Federal powers is quite small by comparison to UK for example.

What's important is the subsidiary principles of government - i.e. at what scale is a certain government responsibility or power best discharged - neighbourhood, locality, town, city, region, state, national, supra-national?

There's a good case for supra-national economic policy - e.g. EU open internal markets, or the US internal market. But then these supra national bodies are prone to lobbying from their member states to control trade with the rest of the world.

I quite like supra national markets - markets of scale really drive economic performance - e.g. US, and provide more scope for mobility in times of economic change.

The Euro federalists are arguing that security and diplomacy are also best centralised at the supra-national level. Not sure about that!

Steve

It doesn't really matter whether larger or smaller units are more effective that nation states if people are not prepared to give their allegience to them.

The sense of 'us' that goes with the nation-state allows for democracy, welfare, the rule of law and security. People are prepared to fight and die for others who are part of 'us'.

So far, supra-national organisations do not command the same sense of loyalty. In England, people refused to identify with smaller regional units too.

Unless people feel a sense of belonging to an entity, it will have no authority to do anything.

Shuggy

"In theory, democracy can be achieved in units of any size - from the household up to the world. So why's the nation-state the optimum unit for embodying democratic principles?"

It isn't necessary to discern the precise reason why the nation-state has been the locus of democracy. I have a couple of theories but they're too boring to reproduce. It's one of the advantages that history has over economics; we observe what has been, and by extension, what is. I'm conservative enough to think the latter is inextricably linked to the former. Theoretically democracy could've taken hold in cities - or it could have taken root in trans-national institutions - but fate decreed that it would be nations. My point is that for whatever the reason for this is, it's a relationship that we dispense with at our peril.

Shuggy

"In theory, democracy can be achieved in units of any size - from the household up to the world. So why's the nation-state the optimum unit for embodying democratic principles?"

It isn't necessary to discern the precise reason why the nation-state has been the locus of democracy. I have a couple of theories but they're too boring to reproduce. It's one of the advantages that history has over economics; we observe what has been, and by extension, what is. I'm conservative enough to think the latter is inextricably linked to the former. Theoretically democracy could've taken hold in cities - or it could have taken root in trans-national institutions - but fate decreed that it would be nations. My point is that for whatever the reason for this is, it's a relationship that we dispense with at our peril.

Gerard O'Neill

I live in the Republic of Ireland where we have just had a referendum about 'pooling' some of the power of the 27 nations comprising the EU into a number of new institutions. The referendum failed, in case you didn't hear. The real question Chris is: if we do identify a problem that requires a solution at a 'supra-national' level then how do you persuade those of us living in national democracies to freely say yes? The nation-state may be 'sub-optimal' but there is no guarantee of a a successful transition to a more optimum state of affairs.

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