Cascadia--independence movementWhat is the Purpose of a Country?

An article I read today about the possible breakup of Belgium caused me to think: What is the purpose today of a country? Especially a large country like the United States, as opposed to a smaller and perhaps more locally responsive country like, say, Switzerland or a Cascadia nation consisting of Oregon and Washington states.

Aside from some superficial cheerleading aspects (“We’re Number 1.” “We won the World Cup.”), I would list the following as the most important modern characteristics and purposes of a country:

1. A free-trade zone, to give the efficiencies of trade over a sizable market.

2. A powerful army, to be able to assert oneself in the world and boss around other countries.

3. The power of deciding who to let into the country.

4. The power to transfer wealth to politically influential interest groups from a large population of productive citizens.

Briefly analyzing the usefulness (as opposed to the popularity) of these main purposes:

1. A sizable free-trade zone is highly important economically. But in modern times a sizable free-trade zone is no longer identical with nationhood, the most prominent example being the European Union. Similarly, if Cascadia or New Hampshire were permitted to break off from the United States, such smaller country could still be a member of NAFTA. We thus can ignore this claimed purpose of a large country and concern ourselves only with the other three.

2. As to a powerful army allowing us to coerce others around the world and conduct wars even in remote and unexpected places like Iraq and Afghanistan, Spec Listers will differ but I myself think the Swiss model of a strong army basically to defend one’s borders is the better, less provocative, and less expensive (both in lives and treasure) way to go.

3. Deciding who to let into the country, i.e., immigration policy, is important because it affects the future composition of the country, perhaps even the country’s character and economic well-being. In dealing with this highly contentious issue, I suggest it may be more amenable to resolution if it could be dealt with on a lesser scale than the current national United States. For example, if certain regions of the U.S. were eager to welcome large numbers of immigrants from Mexico while Cascadia or New Hampshire were not, separation of Cascadia or New Hampshire into a separate country would, at least as a thought experiment, allow each smaller nation to adopt an immigration policy desired by its citizens. Americans strongly favoring immigration could remain in (or move to) those parts of the former U.S. with laws encouraging freer immigration, while Americans desiring less immigration could remain in (or move to) a Cascadia or New Hampshire with more restrictive immigration laws. In addition to providing these otherwise irreconcilable groups of citizens with the policy that each desires, we would also learn over time which immigration policy will prove more successful. Finally, even before such radical step as separation of a Cascadia or New Hampshire, our thought experiment may be instructive to us on the question of permitting a state like Arizona to follow a somewhat more rigorous policy of enforcing existing immigration laws than, say, California.

4. Perhaps most instructive of all is the final listed purpose of a modern large country: access to a very large group of productive citizens from whom wealth can be transferred to politically powerful interest groups. And by interest group, I certainly do not mean to limit the analysis to one or the other end of the political spectrum. Rather, I mean the entire range of interest groups with power to access and influence the political process, Wall Street, large corporations, labor unions, farmers, the AARP, minorities, etc. And as a small change compared to the financial rewards accruing to the interest groups, also benefiting are the government officials themselves, who tend to be rewarded more with power and acclaim than with cold cash. The key is the very large group of productive citizens from whom $700 billion can be taken for a TARP program to bail out large banks, $1 trillion for a stimulus package to fund every business, labor and government project every powerful Congressman can conceive of, etc., etc. It is the scale that makes it possible. The productive citizens of a more modestly sized, more directly responsive entity like Cascadia or New Hampshire would be far less likely to surrender 50% of their earnings (and acquiesce in their government’s borrowing more than the remaining 50%) to subsidize their politically influential and less productive neighbors. But in the United States, a country of 300 million with still a considerable tradition of individual economic effort and hard work, such fantastic sums can be skimmed off with comparatively minor protest.

Stefan Jovanovich opines: 

There is nothing in the history of American government to suggest that small = beautiful where offense to liberty is concerned. The actual experience of Americans has been that the freedom to light out to the territory has been the principal restraint on the desires of local oligarchies to impose their will on everyone else. (One should always remember that the first official act of the Harvard Overseers was to request that the Governor of the Bay Colony require everyone to attend Congregational church services on Sunday. As the number 1 supplier of ministers Harvard found God - for once - to be on its side.)

An arithmetic caution: The powerful army of the United States - something required under our Constitution - costs less than compulsory primary and secondary education - something nowhere mentioned in the same document - even though there is now considerable evidence that the military's own schools are now the principal source of practical education in the United States.

The immigration debate can be easily solved if the country will answer the larger question that keeps being evaded: what ownership rights in their own country do citizens have? The liberal/libertarian point of view pretends that citizenship as an inheritance or earned right has no property value, even though it clearly does (why else would ICE still be taking bribes?).

Discussions of secession should start by answering the question that states rights advocates have always wanted to leave aside: which debts and assets do the people leaving the Union want to take with them? The advocates of states rights under the Articles of Confederation wanted the liberty that the Revolution had won without paying their share of the debts that the war had incurred; I have no doubt that the patriots for Cascadia will demand the same sweet deal.

The Swiss Army thing really needs to be put to rest. Against actual invaders - the French being the most recent - the Swiss have shown the same record that all small countries do - initial resistance followed by capitulation. That is no argument in favor of having military bases in Turkey, but it is very much an argument against the fantasy that local militias are a guarantee of liberty. Where they have been, it is because they militia had the big battalions on their side. (The British were outnumbered 3 to 1 in their retreat from Lexington and Concord; in the siege of Boston they were outnumbered by the same margin.)

Americans don't surrender anything close to 50% of their earnings to the government; hell, the government is the largest source of their "earnings" (sic) right now. The current debate is over who gets the graft and how much. That is the most enduring truth of American history and - ironically - the source of the nation's salvation so far. Americans work the system until the system stops paying off; then they look for a new one that offers better odds.


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