Thursday, April 10, 2008

Getting Past the "Nation State" Mantra

Anamaria's points about different ways to get past the mantra of "nation state above all else" are valid. I think her questions are necessary. And she's absolutely right about rethinking the ways we teach history and political science.

In addition, though, I'd like to ask this, of her and of anyone else who cares to answer. If we are to think in terms of what we, our small communities, can do about local and global problems, can we also think in terms of the nation state? Or does the one preclude the other?

This issue, or something like it, is one I've long struggled with no little or no avail. On the one hand, I buy Aquinas's argument that the law has an important teaching function, and that this teaching function is an important part of achieving the common good in a given society. At the same time, Cavanuagh's point that the nation state's purpose was never the common good and was always consolidation of power strikes me as fundamentally convincing. But if the nation state is not charged with the common good, if it structurally and conceptually should not be, then it seems that the laws it creates should focus less on instantiating any positive notion of the good than on simply giving people the space to create communities that can focus on such a good.

The obvious response, I think, is that, like it or not, the nation state is precisely what we have. And that despite the nation state's structural and conceptual problems, we as a citizenry have a duty to try to pass laws that serve the common good. This argument accepts the problems inherent in giving one central authority a monopoly on coercive force within a given geographic boundary as a given, but then argues that it is what we've been given so we might as well do what we can to use it as a tool for the common good.

In response to this argument, I turn to the economic theory of the second best. Second best theory relies on the assumption that if every one of a number of conditions are met, the economy will function perfectly. Its adherents argue, though, that if one of the conditions cannot be met, there is no reason to assume that fulfilling each of the other conditions will produce the best possible outcome. That is, an additional imperfection is as likely to offset the damage caused by the first as it is to compound it. As a practical example, assume that the perfect way to make a turn in my car is to slow to 20 mph and turn the wheel 20 degrees. If my brakes are out, and I can't slow to less than 45 mph, it would be ridiculous if I tried to turn the wheel 20 degrees to achieve the next best possible turn. I probably need to turn the wheel much more drastically in order to make the turn as well as possible given the condition of not being able to slow down.

I wonder if we can't apply this same reasoning to the nation state. If the nation state is a less than optimal tool for instantiating the common good, it might be that the best outcome for achieving the common good is to strip the nation state of all responsibility for it. We can accept that in the best possible society law would have a teaching function, and still we might be better off without it given the nation state's limitations.

Anybody have any thoughts? Can we give the nation state some responsibility for the common good? Or, given the obvious limitations of the nation state, must we seek the common good through local communities only?

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