Mises Daily Articles
Why Washington is Worried
Two front-page events from this last week would appear to have nothing in common: 1) the merger of America Online and Time Warner, 2) and a huge South Carolina rally in defense of the Confederate flag and Southern rights. In fact, they have this crucial commonality: both are glorious signs that the nation-state as we know it is coming to an end.
The business merger illustrates that the central state can no longer keep up with the private sector in terms of technology, social influence, or overall cultural and economic power. The Southern rally illustrates that old loyalties to land, history, and tribe are far more powerful and lasting than the artificial allegiance to the central government that the feds attempted to impose in the 20th century. Both events have the reigning power elite, already fearing that it has become irrelevant to the events of the day, sweating blood.
For the central state to remain the dominant player in society, certain conditions must hold. It must have no viable competitors to its claim to total sovereignty. It must have a tenable claim to being the leading technological innovator. It must be the foremost source of information and communication, or at least maintain strong control over the means by which the population acquires information. It must inspire the primary allegiance of the population. Its bureaucracies and agencies must provide the leading means of social and economic advancement.
Armed with these monopolies of power and influence, the nation-state—-the US government in particular—-in the last century and a half has crowded out private associations internally, eating out their substance with taxes and attempting to control every aspect of private life, while committing wholesale slaughter internationally and even internally. As a source of social chaos, economic impoverishment, and global bloodshed, nothing can hold a candle to what the Clinton administration calls the "indispensable nation."
But none of the essential conditions for state power holds any more, and hasn’t for some time. The spectacular AOL-TimeWarner deal creates a communications-technological force that the state can’t possibly compete with on any level. And the massive rally in South Carolina–which took place against the wishes of every member of the power elite–illustrates anew that historical loyalty to regional culture and regional political autonomy is reasserting itself.
Foreigners have noticed, but no one wants to talk about it here at home: America has its own home-grown secessionist movement that is vibrant and tenacious.
To add to the problem–a problem from the state’s point of view, that is–the services it provides exclusively (elections, welfare benefits, tax collection, nuclear-based national defense) are no longer imbued with the sanctity they once were. All are seen as unworkable, uninteresting, parasitic, corrupting, or just simply unnecessary.
Indeed, there are many signs that strongly suggest a central state in decline. Reporters for national newspapers are discovering that hardly anyone is interested in the presidential election. Most voters figure that it doesn’t much matter who is elected because the whole system is a racket–-a sentiment that is deadly to the national election drama. Pollsters are having trouble finding people to participate. Young people out of college can’t be persuaded to go into government work–-not even those graduating from the Kennedy School!
What happens if this trend continues, and the centralized nation-state keeps declining in social, cultural, and economic importance? What will replace it? The answer: the institutions that the artifice called the nation-state, arising in late medieval Europe and reaching its apogee in the 20th century, had originally displaced. Localized civic loyalties, and universal institutions and doctrines arising from traditional Western ideals, will rise anew. In short, if the trend continues, we can look forward to a world that embodies the creed of the late, great Murray N. Rothbard: "universal rights, locally enforced."
The above thesis here is not my own; rather it is spelled out in great historical detail in a spectacular new book: The Rise and Decline of the State by Martin van Creveld (Cambridge University Press, 1999). A professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Creveld’s specialty is the history of revolution and war, but this book is his magnum opus.
Creveld traces the rise of the nation-state from the 14th century to 1948 and its decline from that year to the present, illuminating every issue he touches. So important is this book for understanding the world today that the Ludwig von Mises Institute is holding an international symposium in October 2000 on it.
But rather than attempt to spell out his entire thesis and evidence, consider how clueless left- liberals are when faced with the two events mentioned above. When they see a big business merger, they resort to old cliches about robber barons. They are utterly ignorant about how the new global-technological environment makes the market so competitive that no corporate conglomerate, no matter how much power it may appear to have, can hope to survive without extreme loyalty to the consuming public.
And when liberals see a rally in defense of the Confederate flag, they think only one thing: racism. They are blind to the fact that the South may have changed dramatically since the 19th century in terms of its economic base and cultural makeup, but the political loyalty to the idea of being Southern is deeper and thicker than any alternative dreamed up in the bureaucracies of DC or their partisans in northern universities and newspapers. What the rally signifies is not racism, but a justified political rebellion against the Leviathan state.
And consider too that even those who are playing leading roles in this historical drama are unaware of how the social and economic changes since the end of the cold war fit together. The propagandists for techno-futurism have no use for Southern rights, while the activists who resent the attempt to remove the Confederate flag from the capitol may have no interest in the goings-on in global corporations. But together, they are enacting a revolution before our eyes.
No politicians can stop it; in fact, their very irrelevance is a testament to the historical force of the new realities. What these new realities need instead are intellectuals, who can understand them, explain them, and sympathize with the magnificent implications they have for freedom and peace. Read Creveld, and understand more about our present and future than all the politicians, bureaucrats, political commentators and news-writers combined.