In defense of nation states

Published 12:41 pm Thursday, September 27, 2018


Contributing columnist

Yoram Hazony is a well-known Israeli political philosopher. His new book, “The Virtue of Nationalism,” is a rare defense of nation states as the preferred political jurisdiction for maximizing individual freedom and responsive democracy.

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He argues international stability can only be achieved through a balance of power among independent and democratic nation states or among empires. The problem with empires is they naturally devolve into totalitarian regimes who exploit their colonies and have a compulsion to expand their territory.  Has the world ever seen an empire that did not exploit its colonies?  A balance of power among empires is unlikely to last; i.e., WWI.

Does this mean the world would be more stable with only one empire in control of the entire world?  This is a utopian vision, a delusion that must end in a totalitarian empire. Human nature guarantees there is no such thing as a benevolent empire. The most important lesson to be learned from the twentieth century is when utopian visions collapse, there is widespread destruction and millions die. These experiments are enormously expensive.     

Hazony argues the “political distance” between the government and its citizens is maximized under an empire, while the political distance between the government and its citizens is minimized in a small government nation state. “Political distance” is measured by the degree to which politicians and bureaucrats are accountable to citizens; less accountability increases political distance.

For any given government, political distance changes over time. The scope, complexity and political distance change with time. The United States government has radically changed its scope, complexity and political distance since its birth in 1787. Individual freedom and responsive democracies depend on the scope, complexity and political distance between citizens and government bureaucrats. Hence: Big government matters. The rise of the deep state in America is a symptom of the increased distance between the government and its citizens.

The United Nations was justified after WWII by blaming the war on the existence of nation states. It was argued nation states caused the war and something needed to be done to prevent it from happening again. In fact, the war was started by a socialist dictator bent on establishing a greater German empire in Europe. The war was not started by a democratic nation state with a small government.

The undisclosed end game for those opposed to nation states is the formation of a global government without any independent nation states; hence, all real power would fall to the global government. This global government would inevitably be or become a totalitarian regime. The unique histories of both the UN and the EU offer empirical support for this argument. Further, a world populated by democratic nation states is the first best hope for cultural diversity and for peace.

Bob Martin is emeritus Boles Professor of Economics at Centre College.