The Brahmins, the hieratic caste of the mainstream media, the ayatollahs of European centralisation, the so-called “experts” (the same people who failed to understand Brexit, Trump, the elections in Germany/France/Italy, and nevertheless are still lecturing us, in their usual patronising tone), have been offering for years their solemn pronouncement, as a modern version of the Delphic Oracle: the nation-state has died, it is an obsolete notion. End of the matter.
As regularly happens, they turned out to be wrong. The nation-state is still alive, and someone may raise the suspicion that it’s they who are obsolete, if (still talking as they are) not yet dead.
We cannot deny that nation-states have often given rise to, inspired and harboured statist, protectionist, interventionist, and centralising economic policies.
In their oracular statements, they have been making at least four logical mistakes. First: in an environment of popular resentment, in an atmosphere of rage towards politicians and traditional institutions, many electors are inclined to trust only the levels of government on which they can directly exercise their control.
Second: most of the existing supranational and transnational institutions (from the EU to the United Nations) are in the middle of an existential crisis, dominated by non-elected bureaucracies and untransparent procedures, which are not likely to attract popular trust and support.
Third: in the Western electorate, as David Goodhart has explained, we are witnessing a comeback (even a revenge, perhaps) of the Somewheres and a retreat of the Anywheres. If you are tied to a territory, to some traditions, you are less likely to accept the idea that fundamental decisions might be made far in time and in space from you, and far from your concrete chance to ask politicians to account for that.
Fourth: you may like it or not, but when so many people perceive mass immigration as a threat, as a process which is increasingly getting out of control, the notion of national borders gains once again a strong meaning.
In the presence of such conditions, why on earth should nation-states have disappeared?
Anyway, as classical liberals and free-marketeers, we know very well how nuanced and complex things are (and will be). On the one hand, we may enjoy the show of this humiliation of the Brahmins: we had warned them that every attempt to wipe out the dimension of nationhood was a cultural and political mistake. Moreover, we are well aware that the precious gifts – which we inherited – of political liberty and electoral democracies have been produced just by modern nation-states. Mankind (or peoplekind, as Mr Trudeau recently tried to rename all of us) has not produced anything better, so far.
Most of the existing supranational and transnational institutions are in the middle of an existential crisis, dominated by non-elected bureaucracies and untransparent procedures, which are not likely to attract popular trust and support.
But, on the other hand, we know that there is another side to the story. We cannot deny that nation-states have often given rise to, inspired and harboured statist, protectionist, interventionist, and centralising economic policies. Many people (on the Left and also, unfortunately, on the Right of the political spectrum) believe in a more assertive economic role of the state. To them, the nation-state is the perfect tool to impose high taxes, high public spending, a positive prejudice towards public initiatives and nationalisation, and a negative bias against private business.
So, to settle the conundrum, we must embrace a political risk, and make the most of our awareness of the contradictions we must face.
As an embankment against the waves, we should choose the very same notion of competition which we praise in the free-market, and bring it into the institutional arena. The key concept is: let’s make free nations compete among themselves (inside and outside the existing international institutions) so that lower taxes and lower-regulation systems can act as a model for the others. The time has come to encourage (for example, inside the EU) not a centralising federalism, with Brussels imposing autopilot on 27 countries, a monstrous strait-jacket of uniformity from Portugal to Scandinavia, but a sort of competitive federalism, to see which model performs better from a legal, fiscal and regulatory point of view.
Mrs Thatcher’s prescient Bruges speech remains a cornerstone and an inspiration, 30 years later. The best option for the future is a willing cooperation between sovereign states.
In that, Mrs Thatcher’s prescient Bruges speech remains a cornerstone and an inspiration, 30 years later. The best option for the future is a willing cooperation between sovereign states. From this perspective, instead of wasting time on the abstract details of the EU’s institutional architecture, we could finally focus our efforts on the political will to carry through effective reforms in every nation.
All over the world, fiscal competition has finally started: now, it’s up to every state to be part of this global contest to grab resources, high-skilled talent, investment and opportunities. It would be mad, on the contrary, to choose a forced homogenisation, paving the way for Brussels to level up taxes and regulation.
Nation states can prove – once again – to be the least dangerous, the least intrusive among the existing institutional schemes.
In this perspective, nation states can prove – once again – to be the least dangerous, the least intrusive among the existing institutional schemes. As players of a new global competition, they can help us get over two historic “divorces”: the divorce between nationalism and classical liberalism, and the divorce between nationalism and individualism.