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November 18th, 2015 at 11:55 am

Are we moving from nation states to stateless nations?

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Philip Saunders: This is the age of disruption. What we’re witnessing is a shift from territorial monopolies on the use of force as a way of ordering civilization, toward a world of borderless civic networks. Or, in the words of Tom W. Bell, a move from nation states to stateless nations, which extend the dynamics of social networks into areas traditionally monopolized by government.

Digital currencies like bitcoin are already challenging the state’s monopoly on the provision of currency, and it is inevitable that peer-to-peer technology and smart contracts will begin to challenge its monopoly on law and dispute resolution.

This shift reflects the extent to which the internet has already expanded our range of thought and activity. We can easily make friends with people on the other side of the globe who share our interests, we’re now able to buy and sell to anyone anywhere. We can offer our services on freelance sites like Fiverr and Upwork. All of this is amazing, and unprecedented, and there is more to come. Our social habits and economic opportunities have been transformed, and we’re better because of it. Those who believe that an institution designed in the 17th century is going to be able to adapt to the new world through minor changes in policy rather than fundamental institutional disruption are not processing reality effectively.

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It sounds radical. But the truth is that the old-fashioned nation state can’t last forever. It belongs to a particular chapter in human history, and was built for a certain kind of society and economy that no longer exists. Ancient civilizations like Rome and Egypt also aspired to permanence and inevitability, but were swept away by underlying social and economic changes. The same was true for Feudalism. Magna Carta challenged the overreach of King John and created the beginnings of constitutional monarchy and what we now call human rights. The Declaration of Independence challenged the overreach of King George III and created in the West what we have today- the liberal democratic state. But that system is now behaving more and more like a creaky anachronism which violates our liberties, creates inequalities, divides our planet and distracts us with petty arguments about the “left/right spectrum”. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of history is long, but it bends towards liberty. Is the liberal democratic state really “the end of history” as Francis Fukuyama once put it? Is this all there is? Or can we create in the 21st century another leap, on the scale of Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence, into something greater still?

Many believe that the best strategy for dealing with a globalized world is to globalize the state, or make it more democratic, but this is a profound mistake. The problems with Feudalism and the British control of the American colonies were not logistical or administrative, they were moral. What defines a state above all else is its monopoly on violence, and forced participation in a given geographical area. Stacking layer upon layer of authoritarian control from local to global is simply applying a flawed 17th century style of governance in new ways, without questioning the model itself.

The internet points us to a different way: to a non-territorial, networked, polycentric world of voluntary jurisdictions and open exits. Unlike the present model of geopolitical “tax farms” (as some have quipped), a polycentric legal system would not based on geography, no more than Facebook or Twitter or Google is; but rather voluntary assent, where participants can enter or exit at any time, or remain neutral, regardless of physical location. A polycentric legal order in which stateless nations compete for adherents would be superior to our current system from a democratic, egalitarian and libertarian standpoint. Instead of different factions and special interests competing for power in a centralized state, via political parties or corporate cronyism, people with different perspectives can exit arrangements with which they disagree and form consensual communities of their own design. When people are allowed to participate directly and build their world, we will soon see which ideas work better in practice and which ideas don’t work.

The Importance of Exit Rights

This will require a strong commitment by all emerging communities and networks to a civic innovation called Exit Rights- the right to opt-out. Every time you press the “unsubscribe button” on annoying emails, you are practicing your exit rights on a small scale. On a larger scale, I believe the principle is sound and should be universalized to all forms of human interaction and political arrangements. The U.S. Constitution is a good illustration of the danger of creating the “perfect system” on paper without allowing for exit rights. The Constitution created a limited government, restricted by the Bill of Rights to a few central duties. Yet in reality, over the past two-hundred years it has grown into the largest government in history, with the largest military, an endless complex of oppressive regulations and a national debt to the tune of 19 trillion dollars. Things didn’t turn out as planned, to say the least. And many European nation states are in a similar predicament, or worse. Idealists can create wonderful systems on paper, but these ideals over time are inevitably corrupted by short-termists and power seekers. Exit rights will protect future generations from systems that become tyrannical. The freedom of each individual human being to enter or leave a particular political arrangement at any time will be an incentive for future polycentric orders to respect the rights of its citizens, while creating competition between orderies that will drive them toward transparency and excellence.

I believe when this shift happens, there will be resistance, in much the same way that taxi monopolies in Paris and London and New York are fighting the rise of companies like Uber. But in a world where exit rights are cherished, people may still choose to remain legally associated with traditional nations, for emotional or cultural or practical reasons. The key point is that there ought to be no impediment to people exiting their citizenship of existing nation states and forming new and better communities and parallel jurisdictions. As with Uber, there are many special interests which rely on the maintenance of these legal monopolies, who will do their utmost to fight such trends. They need to understand that we are not asking for their permission, and they will be defeated.

In the words of that great anarchist, Bob Dylan, “Come senators, congressmen / Please heed the call / Don’t stand in the doorway / Don’t block up the hall / For he that gets hurt / Will be he who has stalled.”

ut along with the inevitable struggles that will come with such fundamental changes, these ideas present an exciting opportunity for Millennials to take history into our own hands, to take what is already good about the world and build an even better one.

Image credit: Kenneth Lu/ Flickr

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