Monday, February 19, 2007

The Nation-State: The Water We Fish Are All Swimming In

A few days ago, an in-law made an allusion to the United States' trade imbalance and how it indicates the ailing state of our economy. I try to avoid talking politics unless I'm sure that the poor, captive victims of my brilliant discourse are interested in what I have to say, but sometimes I have lapses in self control. I launched into an ill-timed dissertation on how the popular idea that we should worry about trade imbalances goes back to the 18th-Century concept of mercantilism. And ended up offending my relatives, who probably couldn't care less about mercantilism, but do care a lot about their having recently gone through a period of unemployment. I may have thought I was talking about fascinating economic theory, but what they probably heard was me saying that I think Bush is doing an A-OK job running the country.

I don't want to write about mercantilism in this post, but I do want to write about another 18th-Century concept that underlies our worries about trade imbalances and most other modern political controversies, from illegal immigration to the Bush Administration's rejection of proposals to partion Iraq into separate Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni areas. It's the water that we fish are swimming around in, but never notice because we think that it is just how the world is. The 18th-Century concept is the "nation-state".

We live in a world where virtually all of the land on our planet is divided up into nation-states. Virtually every person on earth is a citizen of one of these nation-states. Representatives from the nation-states meet in a big building in New York City and negiotiate with each other. We see this as normal, but the nation-state is a relatively new invention, and one that, in many ways, doesn't mesh with aspects of our modern world like globalization, international trade, and the Internet.

A lot has been written about the nation-stated, but here are a couple of interesting articles to start with:

A "Z Magazine" interview with Noam Chomsky on the relationship between states and the corporation.

Murry Rothbard, "NATIONS BY CONSENT: DECOMPOSING THE NATION-STATE" (PDF, 460 KB). This essays explores the difference between nations and the concept of the "nation-state".

Please note that there are lots of things I would disagree about with both Chomsky and Rothbard, but both articles are interesting in pointing out how odd and artificial the nation-state concept is.