[This article is Chapter 1 of Breaking Away: The Case for Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities. Now available at Amazon and in the Mises Store.]
Because of their physical size, large states are able to exercise more state-like power than geographically smaller states—and thus exercise a greater deal of control over residents. This is in part because larger states benefit from higher barriers to emigration than smaller states. Large states can therefore better avoid one of the most significant barriers to expanding state power: the ability of residents to move away.
The significance of this in practice becomes more clear if we consider the extreme and hypothetical case of a world with a single state. In this case, a person has no other choices at all. The number of actual choices equals zero, since our hypothetical megastate has a monopoly over the entire world. That is, a single global state is the most powerful state possible and a fully-formed state in the strictest sense. It has a complete and total monopoly of force over its population since its citizens cannot escape the state even if they emigrate. There is nowhere that they can emigrate to.
On the other hand, a world composed of hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of states (or regimes of varying types) would offer many choices to residents who might wish to change their living situation.
The smaller states become, the more practical relocation options become for residents. This is due to the fact that proximity to the resources and people one desires to be near does matter as a real physical constraint. If one can escape a large state’s jurisdiction only by emigrating one thousand miles, this is a considerably different situation than in the case of a small state from which exit requires only emigrating fifty miles. In the words of Kirkpatrick Sale, these smaller states are closer to “human scale.”1
The realities of time and distance and travel mean that emigration to distant locales will limit one’s ability to share time and resources with family, friends, and loved ones left behind. Emigration to a location within a few hours’ drive, on the other hand, requires far fewer lifestyle changes.
Similarly, if emigration requires adaptation into a radically different culture and language, this will further limit the practicality of emigration for those who are not fluently multilingual. Thus, states have benefited considerably from the fact that many states enjoy monopolies on linguistic areas (which states reinforce through strategies like public education and the designation of “official” languages). For example, if one speaks only Swedish, one has a big incentive to stay in Sweden, and if one only speaks Greek, the personal cost of leaving Greece can be very high indeed. Even in the case of English, which is seen as being spoken internationally, it’s significant that a majority of native English speakers live under a single state—the United States. The implications of this for potential emigrants are evident.
But, once states can extend their monopolies over vast expanses of land, linguistic areas, and cultural areas, emigration becomes even more difficult. States in these cases are more easily able to increase their taxation and regulatory power over a population without danger of losing significant amounts of tax revenue due to migration.
In the case of a small state, however, many of these cultural, linguistic, and distance-based barriers are greatly lessened. Were the United States actually composed of fifty (or more) truly independent political jurisdictions, residents could emigrate from region to region with less trouble in terms of adapting to local languages and culture. In the case of a move from Virginia to North Carolina, for example, it would still be practical in many cases for emigrants to regularly return to visit friends and family with relative ease.
This would become all the more true were these jurisdictions reduced in size even more—to the size of a metropolitan area or even a municipality.
In fact, we often see this at work even in partially decentralized political jurisdictions. In the US, for example, Americans and businesses often move across city and county lines to avoid certain regulations, to lower their taxes, or to take advantage of better amenities.
When the city of Chicago in 2006 imposed a number of high regulatory hurdles against Wal-Mart, the retail giant elected to simply move one block away from the Chicago city limit, thus depriving the city of tax revenues, but allowing Wal-Mart access to Chicago’s consumer population.2 If subunits in a confederation are appropriately small, “emigration” might be a matter of moving a few miles down the road, making the practical cost of emigration very low indeed.
Life In a Microstate
Now, imagine a world composed of tiny states the size of small cities. The smaller the better. In our hypothetical world, let’s imagine the city of Arcadia, California has become an independent republic.
The city is eleven square miles with fifty-six thousand people. It borders at least five other cities. In other words, were the city an independent entity—we’ll call it the Republic of Arcadia (ROA)—any resident need only move a few miles to change the government under which he or she lives.
Were the ROA to impose a large tax increase or a series of new onerous regulations, many residents would elect to move away. This situation would still impose costs on the new emigrants. They would perhaps need to sell their houses or businesses, which is costly in terms of time and money. By moving, they’re leaving their preferred place of residence—which they had demonstrated by their previous actions was Arcadia. Now, however, they must live in a place that is their second or third choice, all else being equal.
In our Arcadia example, residents would have multiple choices of other jurisdictions with a nearly identical climate, language, and culture. Moreover, neighboring jurisdictions would likely be more than happy to accept the very people that the ROA’s big tax hike is most likely to drive to emigrate: the most productive and entrepreneurial residents.
Monopoly vs. a “Marketplace” for States
In this scenario, the Republic of Arcadia is still formally a state in the strict sense. But even if the ROA has a state-like monopoly within its territory, this monopoly is limited to only that small piece of territory that falls within the ROA’s jurisdiction. In other words, this “monopoly” is a very weak one indeed, and we are reminded that small states are less state-like than large states.
Of course, the presence of many choices doesn’t mean everyone will always be able to find an ideal situation that meets all of his or her cultural, religious, and economic needs. Even in the world of mass-produced consumer goods, where competition is often fierce, a high degree of choice fails to provide exactly what each consumer imagines to be the ideal product.
Choices are always limited in real life, whether by physical geography, time, or by the willingness of others to voluntarily do business. One does not have the ability to choose a “perfect” hamburger restaurant at exactly the price point one desires, even in a vibrant and entrepreneurial marketplace. It is often impossible to find exactly the automobile one wants with the combination of features and with the appearance that perfectly matches each consumer’s preferences. Unless one is wealthy enough to build a custom automobile from scratch, one can only pick from a number of available choices. In many cases the best we can do is simply to increase the number of options. The same holds true when it comes time to choose a regime under which to live.
Nonetheless, the presence of a high degree of competition and choice among separate regimes offers numerous opportunities to improve one’s situation by relocating to a culturally similar, yet legally distinct political jurisdiction.
We Want More Borders and More States
One objection raised against a system of numerous independent states is the fact that some form of border control is likely to persist, and that multiple borders impose additional limitations on human rights—specifically the right to travel freely. Or, to use a term preferred by economists, we are told borders are bad because they impose “transaction costs” on the populations that wish to conduct business across these borders.
As we will see in later chapters, this concern is misplaced because in practice small states tend to be more open to the movement of goods, capital, and persons. Small states are less likely than large states to close themselves off from bordering regions. Nonetheless, some border controls are likely to persist even in this scenario. This is likely to impose at least a small cost on those who frequently wish to cross borders to visit family or access employment opportunities.
But a multitude of borders brings with it an often-ignored advantage in terms of protecting human rights and basic freedoms: borders also act as a limit on a state’s powers. Put another way, just as borders impose transaction costs on the general population, they also tend to impose transaction costs on states themselves, limiting the abilities of states to exercise their own powers outside their own borders.
For example, East Germany’s border with West Germany represented the limits of the East German police state, beyond which the power of the Stasi to kidnap, torture, and imprison peaceful people was far more limited than it was within its native jurisdiction. The West German border acted to contain the East German state.
Similarly, the borders of Saudi Arabia act as a limit to the Saudi regime’s ability to impose its peculiar brand of brutal theocracy.
Even within a single nation-state, borders can illustrate the benefits of decentralization, as in the case of the Colorado-Nebraska border. On one side of the border (i.e., Nebraska) state police frequently arrest and imprison citizens for possessing marijuana. Those who resist will encounter the coercive violence of the state. On the other side of the border, the state’s constitution prohibits police from prosecuting marijuana users. The Colorado border effectively places a limit on Nebraska’s war on drugs.
Certainly, there are ways for regimes to extend their power even beyond their borders. This can be done by cozying up to the regimes of neighboring countries (or intimidating them), or through the organs of international quasi-state organizations. Or, as in the case of the United States and the European Union, imposing broader policies upon a number of supposedly sovereign states.
Nevertheless, thanks to the competitive nature of states, many states will often find it difficult to project their power into neighboring states, and thus borders represent a very-real impediment to a state’s power. Yes, borders can offer impediments to free trade and free migration, but they also bring with them advantages in limiting the damage done by poorly run or despotic regimes. This can then open the door to greater freedom, and even save lives as certain states impoverish or make war on their own citizens. The existence of a border—especially for those who live near it—can offer greater access to resources beyond the reach of the regime under which one lives.
The Case of Venezuela
This principle was illustrated in recent years by the Venezuelan regime. For nearly twenty years, the Marxism-inspired regime has been expropriating and closing private businesses, while prosecuting entrepreneurs for trumped up “crimes” of exploiting the workers. Consequently, supply lines dried up and the nation entered into an economic crisis in which many goods and services became exceptionally scarce. By 2016, in order to avoid a serious humanitarian crisis, the regime opened its border with Colombia to allow Venezuelans the opportunity to purchase food and other supplies on the Colombian side of the border.3
Unlike the Venezuelan regime, the Colombian regime had not severely limited the capacity and freedoms of the private sector. Colombia had not reduced the country’s population to desperate poverty amidst collapsing economic and social institutions.
Thus, at the time, it was rather easy to buy food and provisions on the Colombian side of the border while store shelves sat empty on the Venezuelan side.
In other words, the Colombian border acted both as a limit on the Venezuelan regime, and as a lifeline to Venezuela’s residents; proximity to the border in this case was an enhancement of freedom rather than a limitation. Those who lived near the border were among the more fortunate residents of the country because the Colombian border became a source for essential goods and services either through legal trade, or through smuggling operations and illegal migration.
Borders As Protection from Supranational Superstates
Another advantage of borders—and the distinct territorial zones they create—is that they impose additional costs on supranational statelike organizations seeking to consolidate power and transform smaller states into mere components of large centralized states.
This can be seen most readily in the case of the European Union where the EU government in Brussels has sought to standardize, harmonize, and centralize power within the bloc. Yet, member states have continued to offer resistance to this centralizing impulse in many cases.
As described by Luigi Bassani and Carlo Lottieri:
What is already happening in Europe is very significant. If present trends continue, the different European peoples…are about to be subject to the authority of a continental super-State. This new government will try to “harmonize” fiscal policies—not to lower taxes, to be sure—and every other type of control of individual resources. At the end perhaps, Brussels will command every political decision and succeed in building a new “imperial” State, alongside the United States.4
For now, however, proposed superstates such as the EU are “still unable to discipline States,” meaning the power of the “continental super-state” is rendered far weaker because the budding international power is regarded as an “outside” force distinct from the persons and institutions within the borders of the resistant member states. The fact that each member state still, more or less, controls its own borders—and thus maintains a separate identity and jurisdiction—limits the power of the nascent EU state.
Bassani and Lottieri conclude there is a “certain irony” here. The smaller states—which are certainly states, and thus come with all the problems one would expect from states—are nonetheless obstacles to the creation of larger, even more abusive states.5
[This article is Chapter 1 of Breaking Away: The Case for Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities. Now available at Amazon and in the Mises Store.]
1. Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale Revisited: A New Look at the Classic Case for a Decentralized Future (White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017), p. 145. In chapter 13, Sale discusses the proper size of the “optimum city.” For Sale, most political jurisdictions are far too large, and Sale suggests a more reasonable size is between 50,000 and 100,000.
2. “Eighteen months after the Chicago City Council torpedoed a South Side Wal-Mart, 24,500 Chicagoans applied for 325 jobs at a Wal-Mart opening Friday in south suburban Evergreen Park, one block outside the city limits….The new Wal-Mart at 2500 W. 95th is one block west of Western Avenue, the city boundary.” Quoted in Craig DeLuz, “25,000 apply for 325 Walmart jobs….Project killed by Chicago City Council,” Craig DeLuz, January 26, 2006, http://craigdeluz.com/25000-apply-for-325-walmart-jobs-project-killed-by-chicago-city-council/.
3. Sibylla Brodzinsky, “Venezuelans storm Colombia border city in search of food and basic goods,” The Guardian, July 5, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/05/venezuelans-storm-colombia-border-food.
4. Luigi Marco Bassani and Carlo Lottieri, “The Problem of Security: Historicity of the State and ‘European Realism,’” in The Myth of National Defense: Essays on the Theory and History of Security Production, ed. Hans-Hermann Hoppe (Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 2003), p. 61.
5. Bassani and Lottieri write: “There is a certain irony in the fact that freedom seekers all around the globe must rely on the States’ unwillingness to comply with the far-reaching political dreams of euro and world unificationists. The contemporary resistance of the State to this historical nemesis of its own logic—the same one that in the past has paved the road to the rise of political modernity and is now digging its grave—seems to be the only realistic hope for individual liberties.” Ibid., p. 62.