unbundling the giant countries
(and how to bundle them into even larger tapestries)
This is an argument for something remotely like the abolition of the giant countries of the world. It began with a focus on the United States — hough one might describe it also as redistribution, reorganisation, or as I neutrally say unbundling, rather than abolition — written by an admirer of many American institutions, and many aspects of American life. My argument in essence is: it’s got too big for everyone’s good, and indeed its own, and there are benefits from smallness. In working this out, some ideas about political authority will emerge. Also some ideas about how individually decent people can collectively be part of something morally abhorrent. It clearly applies to other large nations, too (China, for example) , and in an inverse way to small ones.
I have no intention of publishing this in printed form. I do intend it to stay on my web site and grow, however. So all comments are welcome.
This creates a greater danger of circular argument, but also a more transparent form of mutual support between ideas. And suggestions, as opposed to conclusions, naturally support one another.But if any sections are more central than others, they are non-concentric federalism, and the closely related representation. and weaving..
America: love and hate Americans are ostentatiously patriotic people. They fly the flag at every possible place and occasion, and wear it as an ornament. They pledge their loyalty in schools. At times of national crisis like 911 they slide into an orgy of patriotic emotion. Canadians and Mexicans love their countries too, but they are bemused at all the display. It reminds them a little of the over-demonstrativeness of those who are trying to persuade themselves that they love their spouses or their children. Can one, in fact, love something so big and diffuse? It does seem that there are fewer flags and labels in parts of America that are loved for their own peculiar sake: Boston, New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Key West. (See cities.) The flags seem to accumulate where there is less else to love.
America is an object of hate, as well. Virulent anti-Americanism can be found almost anywhere in the world. And it seems as ritualistic as much American patriotism. The object of hate is rarely as specific as pervasive American film or music, or overall American foreign policy, or the effect of world trade on traditional ways of life, or the political power of multinational corporations. It is usually all of these and more, in an unweighted bundle. Its indefiniteness is often sustained by its ferocity: so intense an emotion does not need to pause to ask what its object really is. It reminds one of the worked up fury of someone who would rather not know which offence has in fact occasioned the outrage.
No anti-Americanism without America. If there were no single nation of Americans, there would be no single object of hatred. There would still be many objects of dislike, resentment, or opposition, as there would be of admiration, loyalty, or support. Different lovers or haters, though, would find they had less in common. As often as not the objects of their passion would be different.
anarchy, state, and secession Robert Nozick’s classic [external link] Anarchy, State and Utopia describes a”“minimal state” guaranteeing only the basic rights of its [citizens (on a very contestable understanding of what rights are basic.) Individuals can voluntarily join more demanding states, in which larger areas of their lives are regulated, but they cannot be compelled to. (It is a harder question on Nozick’s principles whether one can leave an elective citizenship later. After all, a promise is binding as a matter of basic morality.) For example people could band together to guarantee health care and pensions to one another. But these would be voluntary bonds. On first reading Nozick, my reaction was that the possibility of forming a more egalitarian society on this framework was a fraud. For anyone expecting to be better off than average would stand back, so the voluntary mutual aid community would consist mostly of those who could be expected to be a greater drain on its resources. Put differently, those who would gain from redistributive taxation would join, and those who would lose from it would not, so there would be few resources to distribute.
Now I am not so sure. Those who would contribute more than they would gain from progressive income taxes and shared health and pension arrangements are typically those who would do well in business or professional life. But businesses need workers, and professionals need clients. You may not be able to employ or deal with people who are in a physically remote location or a non-spatially isolated polity. So on joining a mutual-aid political grouping part of one’s commitment could be to confine one’s commercial interactions to others in that grouping. That would create a large incentive to others to join it, including those who would contribute more than average to the common well-being. (See cooperation.)
art and disunity Vital culture has often happened in small places. England was a backwater in Shakespeare's time. (So it shouldn't fear becoming a backwater again.) In our age Latin America has produced disproportionately much valuable literature and film. (In fact, when later times look back on ours, English may be a literary sideline since the important stuff may have happened in Spanish.) Small places can be oppressive and quarrelsome. So can big places. America produces less of cultural importance than its population and economic power might suggest (a lot, that is, but not such a lot.) But were more brilliant people like Kant in Königsberg, Adam Smith in Edinburgh, Sibelius in Finland, Hokusai in Edo Japan (...and on and on ...) - smallish places in terms of intellectuals and economy, but places where ideas moved - they might not be squashed by the knowledge that in the same country there were twenty just as gifted. Iceland is a very small country, but produces disproportionately much of interest.
canada? The unbundling I am imagining would be the end of Canada too, as we know it. No doubt Québec would be more its own place. No doubt the maritimes would have more in common with Maine and Vermont. No doubt Michigan and Minnesota would be more explicitly parts of the greater Canada they have always in spirit belonged to. (In this connection see Joel Garreau's [external link] The Nine Nations of North America.) All in the context of a very different world structure, without the abiding Canadian need to relate to a giant neighbour while avoiding its embrace.
china too Need I say more? A big place with a big culture, but also variety, that can be stifled by too much unity. And the unity does not work to the profit of all the parts. One can imagine a Chinese union that included all the present provinces, and Hong Kong, - and even Taiwan - and even Tibet. But it would also be a Chinese disunity: many basic important things would not happen at national level.
As a cultural entity China includes Taiwan, Singapore, or at any rate many people living in those places, and the Chinese diaspora. Thinking of China as The Republic cuts all of this off from something to which it can contribute. (This is not just my idea, see [external link] Cosmopolitics.) (And I have come upon references to contemporary Chinese political theorists thinking along parallel lines. Can someone remind me?)
first states were cities. Some cities acquired empires, but there is
a difference between a city and its empire, and a country and its
capital city. Some of the most creative periods have happened in
archipelagos of cities, independent and in close contact: classical
Greece, renaissance Italy. The Chinese world is
a world of cities -
Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore – great
diverse places each with its own character. (See china
The great North American cities stand out from the countries, states,
and provinces around them. Québec City, Montréal,
Vancouver, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, hardly seem
part of the areas around them. Others are more at home in
surroundings: Toronto, Halifax, Los Angeles. But all could stand as
their own places, with enough tradition and enough individuality to
make an independent way in the world. The philosopher Jody Azzouni
has suggested that New York, Amsterdam, and Monaco should secede from
their countries and join together as the world’s first
distributed city. A non-spatial
Each is by the sea and so they are neighbours joined by
but that seems hardly necessary these days. Any place might join any
other place. Closely knit electronic unities could form cybercities.
As [external link] Jane Jacobs taught us, cities are the original political and economic units. Cities are also natural objects of affection: it is easy to love Paris, San Francisco, New York, or Montréal, even if you don’t live there. And if you do, your loyalty is not the manufactured loyalty of an obedient citizen but something much more like loving a person for what is unique about them.
good and bad Suppose
secession had succeeded, and that the confederacy in the American
south in the 1860s had created a separate nation. Many of the effects
would have been very bad. Slavery would have lasted longer and spread
further. And the continent would probably have developed into a
patchwork of little countries, in constant warfare against one
another. Like Europe. But in Europe the lesson was eventually learned
and new institutions developed, in part because the revulsion at
centuries of war. (See love and
They are institutions which allow many of the traditional functions
of the nation state to be carried out by organizations whose
territories are small parts of the domain of a more comprehensive
union, which takes over some functions from the component states, but
not so many that they cease to be states.
The European solution is far from perfect, though many failings are a small price to pay for peace. It is significant mostly in existing. The central idea is [external] subsidiarity, that no function should be performed at a higher or larger level when it can be performed at a lower one .(Taken seriously, subsidiarity erodes the powers of nation states in favour of their parts – departments, regions, provinces – as well as in favour of the union.) It is not clear that the European stratification of nations and union best satisfies subsidiarity. (see non-concentric federalism.)
An added advantage would be to make reunion easier. If a separated region shared its governance with the polity it had separated from, they would have enough of a continuing interaction and influence that eventual reconciliation would not be excluded. It might also doll the motive for succession: things would not be that different before-and-after, and both the original and the divided polities would remain parts of similar overlapping hierarchies.
There can be [external
link] prisoner's dilemmas between jurisdictions. The
populations of two trade partners may both be better off with minimum
wages and protections fo workers, but only so long as both have
them. If one does and the other does not, then the country
unprotected workers trades at an advantage and undermines the
institutions that make capital serve popular needs in the
is a motive for large jurisdictions. (Absence of war is
and it is an instance of the same, given that 'arm' and 'disarm'
often form a PD.) It is a danger for limited jurisdictions
as those I am suggesting. Unprofitable competition between
smaller units that would be eliminated if they were absorbed into a
larger one. My hope is that suitable use of non-concentric
federalism can solve this problem. (And thus that my tapestry
little states will be peaceful.) Working this out rigorously
would be the intellectual core of a really satisfactory treatment of
the issue. But the rough idea is that the citizens of
jurisdictions would by their membership of other over-lapping
jurisdictions have a motive not to hurt their own interests and those
of people they were allied with. (You don't make war against people
who you trade with, or whose good will you need to support your
legislation about family law.) The currently proposed
regulations for euro-bonds illustrate some of the idea: the larger
jurisdiction allows each smaller one to govern its own economy but in
return for managing joint borrowing exerts financial - rather than
legal-authoritative - pressure that their budgets be
responsible. (Bonds above the allowed threshold would not be
backed by the community, and would require a much higher interest
Another example is given by the cooperative/competitive relations between nations with regard to their levels of taxation and benefits. Again, the overlap of institutions and jurisdictions is an attractive measure.
eurozone troubles Europe has problems, and Europe is an example for me of ways the world should go. Does the current crisis disprove the whole idea? No. (Of course.) Europe is suffering from problems of honesty, and problems of irresponsibility. Many European countries were and are not straight about their budgets. And many hoped that by hiding behind richer ones they could evade their own problems. There are two lines of solution. One is the standard idea: place monetary policy at the highest, Europe-wide, level of government. In fact, place most finance and budgeting powers at that level. That is the standard thought. But given the controlling power of money, this threatens one thing that is central to the aims of many lovers of a united Europe, being one and still being very definitely and distinctively many. It would create a pressure for uniform social policy, for example. The alternative is what I call weaving, to hold jurisdictions together not by the force of a layer above them, but by an overlapping of their governing institutions. A weaving solution would involve representatives of European countries on the boards of one another's central banks and one another's finance committees. Crucially, representatives would be woven into bodies that were privy to information about whether budget and deficit figures were accurate, crucial to imaginative [external link] eurobond proposals. ) More weaving would be better, and much more than this is possible, with the weaving institutions I describe.
There is a deep mistake in the formulation of European [external] subsidiarity. It is in thinking that we can anticipate all future needs and problems when we design an institution. Of course we should try to anticipate. And the European union is based on a treaty between traditional nations, preserving their autonomies in ways that were essential to getting them to sign on, requiring a complicated renegotiation for changes. But subsidiarity -- what functions are served at which levels -- should not be settled apriori. It should be continuously rethought. We can do this by keeping the global constitution minimal, and encouraging overlapping local and function-specific treaties, some of which would delegate considerable powers upward, but which could be rescinded by renegotiation between a manageably small number of parties. Non-concentric and weaving to the rescue. Seen this way the bogey of a "two speed Europe" [external] link is nothing to fear. But we should aim for many speeds and many wheels.
American colonists had many complaints against the British
government. One, perhaps not the greatest one but a significant
factor, was the British desire that the native Americans, not be
pushed too far west. Seen from London, there was plenty of room on
the East coast for the settlers, and the native population could
re-group with some security beyond the Alleghenies. Favourable
British treatment of the native Americans is one reason why numbers
of them sided with the British during the revolution.
Suppose that this position had prevailed, and the land to the west of the mountains had become Indian Country. Might it have survived in some form as a something like a nation? Would this have changed the range of cultures to be found on the continent? We will never know. Perhaps the First Nations, as we call them in Canada, across the continent can unite as a non-spatial polity at the right level of a non-concentric structure.
internet as home Spatially gathered universities have already faded, as centres for research, with the rise of invisible colleges of people bonded by common interests. National boundaries have no place here. But groups of people interacting at a distance will make rules, social contracts, governing who belongs and what they can do.It is inevitable that electronic communities will take over some of the functions of traditional political organizations. The traditional organizations must to adapt to this.
constitutions as we know them now are concentric. That is, several
geographically smaller units fit into a larger unit, which
constitutes the nation. Usually there are more than two levels.
(cities or municipalities or counties) < (states, provinces, or
regions) < The Nation. In some constitutions entities at a
level, usually one step below the national level, have a significant
level of authority and autonomy. Without some authority at the lower
level the system is not properly federal, but the balance of powers
can vary immensely from a unified state delegating a few functions
for administrative or political convenience to, at the other extreme,
a loose union of ultimately autonomous states.
These are not the only alternatives. The standard federal architecture presupposes that political authority is divided spatially – each entity has its territory – and that the spatial organisation is hierarchical – that there is a top entity that includes all the smaller ones. Leaving the spatial assumption in place for now (see cities), consider how we may escape the hierarchical assumption. Suppose that we have just four smaller entities, call them Aridzona, Bexas, Carolina, and Dew Mexico. These are contained in four larger entities, Eastia, Westia, Southia, and Northia. There could be many more smaller entities and just the four larger ones. A and B are part of Northia; C and D are part of Southia; A and C are part of Eastia; B and D are part of Westia. Does this not lead to conflicts of authority? Not if the domains of authority are divided. Suppose that A and B’s membership of Northia means that their laws governing social institutions – marriage, custody of children, education – are set by Northian institutions and are thus common to both, as are those of C and D by virtue of their membership of Southia. At the same time A and C’s membership of Eastia means that they share laws concerning business practices and trading standards, as do B and D by being in Westia. So unless someone is selling children, no conflicts will arise.
What is the advantage here? A and B may have common social ideals; C and D may have common social ideals too, but different ones to those shared by A and B. But A and C, and B and D, may have many commercial interests in common, which are best served by a common regulation of business. These may be shaped simply by geography.
There are many other ways of distributing government and authority so that it does not fall concentrically. None of them will have much appeal if one thinks that economic life drives social life, social life trumps economic life, or in general that there is some single core concern of government, best regulated with maximum uniformity, whose importance over-rides that of others.
nuevo méxico The stolen places in the south-west, the southern half of California. Yes, of course. Like Québec. But the details are what matter. Which levels of organization, which areas of authority? And given the way people with any ethnicity can spread, and given all the other ways they may differ (see voting with your feet), the best recreation of a lost country may be non-spatialial (see non-spatial polities.)
non-spatial polities In some empires in the past certain people were subject to different laws than others. For example by the abusive custom of “extraterritoriality” in late 19th century China Europeans were subject to the criminal laws of their own countries, not to Chinese law. In the Ottoman empire muslims, jews, and christians were for some purposes subject to different laws, for example those governing marriage and divorce. Present-day diplomats are in a slightly similar position. There was a proposal in Ontario not long ago that families could chose which style of law (common law, sharia, first nations or whatever) to govern informal mediation mandated by a court. (The proposal was abandoned in the face of protest.) In the Roman empire Roman citizens had different legal resources than other subjects of the empire. The general pattern is that although x, y, and z are in the same spatially defined jurisdiction, the interactions of x and y are subject to different rules than those of x and z. This may be because x and y have committed themselves to some form of conflict-resolution that z has not. (See internet.) Thus within a jurisdiction occupying a definite region of space there need not be total homogeneity in the laws to which everyone is subject. The easiest way to think of this is in conjunction with non-concentric federalism: the laws appropriate to that spatial level would apply to all, but the jurisdiction would be “part of” other broader jurisdictions, which would not be associated with definite spatial regions. Some jurisdictions might exist only on the internet, but a person's membership in them could affect their treatment in other, spatially-defined, jurisdictions.
precedents The commonwealth, the organisation of american states, NATO, the Hanseatic league, the original American and Swiss federations, the United Nations, the security council, the WTO. All different, with different ways of exerting their powers and different relations to their component states. And different advantages and failings. There have been interesting developments in international law in past decades, with the founding of the international criminal court, and the intervention of multi-national bodies, authorised by the security council, to protect the fundamental rights of inhabitants of a sovereign (!) nation. These erode national sovereignty in potentially beneficial ways, but ways that bring danger too, that we could understand better. (See cooperation , varieties of democracy.)
Many people are forced to leave their homes for uncertain lives in
faraway places, because of war, poverty, or oppression. The countries
that they try to get to have mixed feelings about the influx. On the
one hand these are people who need help. On the other hand they strain
the social support networks in the receiving countries. (This is
greatest in countries with developed medical and other care available
This too can be ameliorated by concentricity. If poor and troubled countries elect representatives to the governments of rich and peaceful ones, then each acquires a stake in the running of the other. It is in the interest of rich countries to encourage development and stability in poor countries, so that there is less motive for migration.
representation In democracies people determine who makes the laws and who enforces them, in a great variety of ways. With a traditional hierarchically spatial nation the lawmakers for a given area are elected by the people in it. This can create rivalries between different areas even when they are part of a powerful larger place. Cooperation can fail. Initiatives can be invisible. But there are alternatives in distributed polities. People in one place can elect representatives to be part of the decision-making in a parallel place.(A theme of weaving.) Upper houses, senates, are natural locations for this. One tenth or one third of their members could be from geographically or commercially nearby places. Their role would not primarily be to sway the vote, but to bring the interests in point of view of one domain into another. They would have the vote, though, and there would be moments when this mattered.
One option that this would open would be gentler secession. Catalonia could leave Spain, Scotland Britain, or Québec Canada, without becoming either a rival or an viably small. The Catalans would elect some representatives to the Spanish parliament, and vice versa. There would be more such representatives than in many such horizontal partners, because of the wealth of cultural and commercial connections. At the moment the European Union does what it can to discourage succession list movements, largely at the urging of national governments. But a scheme like this would allow the unities and also the disunities.
varieties of democracy In some member-driven institutions people are their own representatives, and vote directly issue by issue in town hall fashion. In some referenda are allowed under stated conditions. Elections of representatives are first-past-the-post in some institutions and by transferable vote in others. There are run-offs in some places. And so on. Which is best? Silly question. Best for what - there are so many functions democratic insitutions can serve or hinder. We could ask a different quesition. Which variant democratic methods are appropriate at which levels? Intuitively, [exteernal link] participatory democracy works best when people know each other and where the issues are ones on which they can reflect and communicate. Representatives acting on their own best Burkean judgements make sense when the issues are delicate, complicated, or opinion is likely to be manipulated by special interests. So we might imagine a stratification of democratic processes, driven by voter participation at the smaller end and with more aloof senators at the higher end. But this could do with some random anti-establishment tinkering, along the lines of my suggestions about political randomness.)
I am inclined to think that a parliamentary system, plus a largely ritual head of state, charged with morale and conscience more than administration, fits better with a woven pattern. For citizens of a polity might well be reluctant to allow citizens of a different policy to elect their executive president, but the choice of a prime minister is made largely by representatives they have elected, plus a few from elsewhere.
Again, as with issues about cooperation, there is a practically important abstract theory to make: voting theory for interacting polities.One issue for this to think through is how with a system of weaving representatives can at the same time speak for the interests of those who elected them and that of the polity. Whose governing body they are members of.. My instinct is to say that they should just see this as a conflict, and resolve it case-by-case, just as representatives in a traditional parliamentary democracy resolve the conflicts between what their constituents want and what they think should happen.
I am inclined to think that a parliamentary system is more suitable than one with an executive president for these purposes. Members of Parliament then elect a prime minister, and also an elected or randomly chosen head of state whose duties are not administrative but concerned with conscience and morale. For voters would be wary of choosing to be represented by members of different polities that they knew little about, and would be more wary if the election of a powerful administrator could be swayed by the participation of people from other places. Of course, this might change as the virtues of overlapping became evident.
voting with your feet People move, to where they have a chance of what they want: to the 13 colonies, the loyalists who left them on independence, centuries of refugees. The easier this is, the greater the pressure on rulers to give people what they demand, or lose them. We can get some of the force of this within a country if people can take themselves from one jurisdiction to another. This requires the freedom to construct jurisdictions almost experimentally. Ideally, jurisdictions with some character (labour or family law, say) would be easier to form than jurisdictions with others. And if they didn't please their occupants, they would empty. (It goes with this that it is in the interests of the many not to reproduce too readily. We want people to be a scarce and desirable commodity. The black death did wonders for peasants' rights, but there are gentler ways.) Thoroughly Christian America could exist, at some level and in some place, as long as people could get out when they wanted. (Many of us suspect that gay-hostile regions of America will suffer an economic price.) One central function of higher levels of authority, with more spatial scope, would be to preserve the right of individual movement. See the migration section, with references. of this.
Two jurisdictions need to coordinate, but prize their
motive might be the benefits of linked budgets, where each needs
reactions to business cycles that do not undercut one another's
efforts. Another might be welfare policies, where both sides
would like to avoid a prisoner's dilemma-shaped race
to the bottom. They don't want to build another
authority above them. So they interlock their institutions,
two bands of a woven fabric whose threads pass into one another's
space, stitching them together. There are many ways of doing
this. One would be for each to elect or appoint members of crucial
decision-making bodies of the other. There could be Spanish
members of the Portuguese cabinet, and vice versa. There could
be a German "ambassador" to the Greek finance
ministry. Another possibility is provided by bicameral
legislatures. France could appoint twenty members of the
house of lord to its senate. There could be Canadian senators
the Mexican senate, and vice versa, with guaranteed seats on relevant
committees. The membership of crucial committees of Taiwan and
the PRC could overlap. This could reach to the choice of the
head of state - particularly as described in my proposal
for random choice of heads of state -
where neither country would choose the leaders of the other, but each
would have a significant influence. (It is often said that the
choice of an American president is too important to be left just to
Americans.) Imagine a ring of four jurisdictions where each
appoints in turn the non-voting chair of the cabinet meetings of
another, in rotation. Each would have a significant input to
deliberations of the others, but none would be under the thumb of
Weaving interacts in a complex way with non-concentric sovereignty. It makes it easier to manage, but harder to analyse. Suppose Northia and Southia have built an economic level above just them, and Northia and Eastia have built a military level above just them. The two joinings had better not collide. There should be Eastian members of the military decision processes, either at the umbrella or Northian level, and Southian members of the economic ones.That way military expenditures and trade or coordinated budget plans would be brought into harmony.
There are many issues that require global cooperation and global
enforcement of norms. The UN once had the ambition of doing this,
especially through the Security Council, but it is powerless in the
face of national governments in many respects. On the other hand, a
world government on the lines of a traditional nation state, even if democratic,
would be a magnet for autocracy and corruption. The government would be
too remote from the ultimate voters. Perhaps this is now so even in Europe and America.
A patchwork of independent polities, at various levels, in an overlapping woven hierarchy, could be the basis fora plurality ofworld sized bodies with authority. The authority of each be confined to some particular aspect of global concern. But some of these are vital. They would be tied to the regional areas by election of their members from the various qualities various levels. (Not appointment by states, and in the full realization there would not be identifiable states in the sense that there is now.) As a result, they would be in touch with local opinion, the grassroots, all over the place. And since there would not be just one of them, they would not tend to universal dominance. They would stick to their assigned responsibilities. But each would contribute a number of representatives to the others.
xperimental survival Perhaps we can have America, China, and other big places after all. That is, there still can be one place called the USA with about the boundaries it now has. If many people want it. But not as a top level entity. At what level? Too big to be a fair contestant at Olympics, too small to give the rules restricting the movement of millions of people. Perhaps as a level of commercial law and a negotiator in the world trade organisation. Perhaps as a member of the security council. I have doubts whether this is what we would want, but there's no telling what possible people might choose.
I've been talking about unbundling. But it all applies to bundling, too. There's the Arab world, the Caucasus, Australasia (New Zealand retains the right to join Australia if it chooses - but it surely wouldn't bundle without some prior unbundling.) In all cases the sense that the only unification is in the form of a nation hampers our thinking and our possibilities.
© Adam Morton, August 2011, last revised October 2017