Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A useful reminder

Or, "In which I throw the libertarians a bone".

Rob Farley has, as he puts it, "a long, largely unoriginal rumination on the state, coercion, the Odessa Steps, and Tank Man." But I think that probably the most useful thing for citizens of modern states to understand (except for the exponential function) is this:
The most common interaction we have with the state is thus; the state demands property that we regard as our own, and if we refuse to hand this property over it sends men with guns to our house. If we resist these men with guns, they imprison us. If we resist too effectively, they kill us. This is true of every modern nation-state. Liberal democracies differ from authoritarian states in that they allow us to complain loudly about the process, to minimize its arbitrariness, and to have some (very) small say in how our property is reallocated. This difference isn't trivial, but it isn't as large as normally assumed.
Vague, rambling question: The nation-state is as much a product of the technology it draws upon as anything else. Mass conscription only makes sense when armies can be armed relatively inexpensively, and bureaucracies administered easily, and both of these conditions were fulfilled during the latter half of the 19th century.

But, at least in the wealthiest countries on Earth, neither of these conditions is true anymore -- armies are expensive, and even the most ruinously expensive ones (say, the US Department of Defense) are shockingly incapable of executing political missions (say, pacifying a Southwest Asian country.) Administration, meanwhile, is also expensive and always getting more so. (Both of these assertions are contestable -- feel free to do so in the comments!)

So here's the query: are the stresses placed on western nation-states a sign that a) western nation-states are in trouble; b) all nation-states are in trouble; or c) John is reading too much in to the fiscal situation of western democracies, and the nation-state is alive and well thank you.

Bonus question for people who choose answer B: What forms of political organization could replace the nation-state, assuming the rules that Rob Farley outlines are correct -- what form of organization would be a better killing machine?

I'm personally a fan of answer A -- I think the nation-state has already undergone substantial changes in the last 150 years or so, and assimilated them more or less well. I expect it to remain a vital, healthy killing machine well into this century and beyond. (See, I can be optimistic!) However, the political situation in western democracies makes me think that younger, more reform-able nation-states such as India or Brazil may become more competitive killing-machines, on the margins, than western ones. I've written before that I suspect we haven't seen the last Big War in human history yet. We just don't know what it will look like when it comes.

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