Sunday, June 29, 2008

Nation states: fellowship, not size

Chris Dillow asks: “What use are nation states?” He thinks that “nation states are just too small to solve some important problems”, but that “in other senses they are too big”.

Matthew Sinclair takes this up, arguing that “nation states are the best ultimate guarantor of individual rights”. Local communities are rich in direct personal connections, which “make them too easy to bias and sway unfairly”, whereas nation states are big enough to resist any one social network becoming too powerful.

This makes sense – but I think that ‘size’ is probably the wrong thing to ask about. There are two countries with populations over a billion, nine in about the 100-300m range and 12 in the 50-100m range, then 50-odd in the 10-50m range, 70 or so in the 1-10m range, and another 70-something below 1m.

These are not all states as such; there are 221 in this list against only 192 UN members – but even if we discount all the sub-1m territories, there’s still a staggering range of sizes.

Another way of looking at it: the Gini coefficient is often used to measure economic inequalities within a country: if one person has all the money, the Gini is 1; if everyone has the same amount, the Gini is 0. But you can use the measure to look at the population inequality of the world’s countries: using this calculator, I get a figure of 0.84 for all the 221; taking out the sub-1m territories, it’s still 0.76; taking out the two giants, India and China, it’s 0.64.

(For comparison, the country with the highest known income-inequality Gini is Namibia, with 0.74, followed by Lesotho’s 0.63; the USA is 0.41, the UK 0.36, France 0.33 and Denmark 0.25.)

So state size is incredibly varied, and it’s hard to see what policy issues a unit of 5m population and ones five, ten and twenty times that size would all be well-sized to deal with.

What matters in assessing a ‘nation state’ is fellow-feeling: do the people living under the state feel that they constitute a nation? The UK (pop. 60m) works passably well as a nation; Scotland (5m) would also work pretty well. The Republic of Ireland (4m) works well, but a united Ireland (6m) significantly less well. The British Isles together (65m) would fail, as it did in the past, when its population was much smaller.

One approach it is that a nation state is the largest political unit that would work as a legitimate democracy – in other words, the nationhood of a state could be measured by the extent to which any given minority would accept being (freely and fairly) outvoted by a majority. Of course, in countries with no tradition of genuine democracy, this approach breaks down.

So a nation state allows (at least in theory) for the government to be held accountable to the whole population: the electorate accept the government’s legitimacy because they accept each other’s legitimacy.

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