The Price of Nations

I’m here today at one of those moments where I feel I see an insight, but an insight which I suspect that many others already knew, and have long been trying to explain to me. If you are one of those, I apologize for my thickness.

The insight is this: many of our major policy choices are made largely to promote (or demote) certain social units as our coordination points of allegiance. In particular, in the last century we have assigned many social functions to national governments in order to induce deeper attachments to them, even when they are less effective at such functions than would be other units.

For example, around the world we tend to do the following at the national level: governance, war, law (especially criminal and legal process), regulation, immigrant control, redistribution, medicine, schools, retirement savings, parks, and financing of government.

For a great many of these, I’ve long puzzled over why we don’t instead handle them at smaller or large scales, or not via governments at all. As such alternatives often seem more effective and efficient. But I have to admit that many of us are prone to feel an allegiance and obligation toward whatever social unit provides such functions. E.g., we feel loyal to our doc, even when expensive and not such a great doc.

War has long been very important driver of human behavior, inducing societies to try almost everything they can to induce stronger social cohesion re and allegiance toward our main social unit of war. And for several centuries that unit has been: the nation. Yes, nations have often fought wars as alliances of nations, but even so the nation has been the primary unit of war.

While war might seem like it has faded in importance, and war has in fact been less destructive lately, it is not at all clear that war won’t continue to matter a great deal in the foreseeable future. So, to each nation, it is probably still worth paying substantial costs to maintain and increase its abilities to fight war.

But it seems worth asking if greatly distorting these many other big social areas as we now do is really the most cost-effective way to prepare for future war. Might we instead usefully substitute: more military spending (including conscription), stronger alliances between nations, merging existing nations into larger nations, a harsher and more consistent policy of retaliation against enemies, or stronger pro-fertility, pro-immigration, or pro-growth policies to increase future war capacity?

Perhaps there are advantages to having the same social unit do many social functions, even if it matters less which exact unit that is. However, I’m not sure I can see strong synergies of that sort.

Perhaps some people just feel allied to a unit and want to strength it by adding to the functions it performs, not because that helps in war, but just because of their allegiance; they want that unit to win over all other social units. However, I’m not sure why I should want to encourage that behavior.

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