Nimble nationality will define state capacity

One thing perhaps we can agree is that Israel/Palestine serves as a cautionary tale.

Israel/Palestine is the story of a failed state. Two populations, which define and distinguish themselves in terms of identities deemed immutable by virtue of history and religion and ethnicity, have failed now for decades to come to some accommodation under which they might peacefully coexist and jointly govern the small sliver of land they occupy between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea.

If it weren’t for the all the dead bodies, it would almost be farcical. All of these big words — “rights” of national self-determination, of return, claims to history and indogeneity — just obscure and perpetuate and justify failures to address the most basic prerequisites of human flourishing on a territory the size of a postage stamp. It’s like academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so small. Only now with murder.

People live in places. People’s welfare is determined much more by the quality of the communities that occupy those places than by anything they can do as individuals. You may be very good at your work. You wouldn’t have done well in Somalia.

The first prerequisite of flourishing for any geographically situated human community is peace. But peace, Thomas Hobbes reminds us, is not the human default. We are quarrelsome creatures. Peace only obtains when some form of authority emerges that serves as a basis for coordinating punishment of freelance banditry within a territory, and for coordinating defense against marauders from without.

Both “nation" and "state” are names we give to this kind of coordinating authority. But the two words suggest quite distinct approaches. A “nation” is a community of people inculcated with some shared sense of who they are and how communal life should be arranged, who generally act in accordance with that sense. Members of a nation discourage violations of that shared understanding almost instinctually. Those who act in accordance with the shared understanding are welcomed in the collaborations that render a community prosperous and lively, while those who defy them face exclusion and stigma, and, for severe violations, improvisationally organized vigilanteism. A "state" is quite different. States are made of formal institutions and laws, written codification of how people are to behave, superintended by a hierarchical body which enforces its authority via a near monopoly in practice over coercive violence.

The "nation-state" is the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of human coordination at scale. It takes from nation a commonality of understanding that renders authority largely self-enforcing. It takes from state the stabilizing backstop of coercive enforcement, and also the dynamism that centralized codification — and therefore a centralized capacity for recodification — can engender.

There are tensions between the two approaches. Laws can change faster than shared understandings. The shared understandings of a nation constitute the sacred. Nation-states must sacralize the everchanging law itself, must inculcate not just an understanding of how we live, but a meta-understanding that how we live is mutably governed. Today’s laws are owed the same reverence today that yesterday’s were owed yesterday, even when they are mutually contradictory. Conversely, the formal bureaucracy of the state must be attentive to and not outstrip the nation’s capacity to make sense of itself. The nation must be able to recognize in the changing law adaptations and improvements of how the community understands itself, rather than its undoing.

Beyond peace, the quality of a geographically situated community is a function of how effectively and adaptively it can coordinate, and at what scale. A geographically situated community different elements of which are at war (however literally or figuratively) with one another, or are simply not mutually intercoordinating among one another, will be weaker and less prosperous than a community capable of recruiting its full population into coordination with little internal contestation. Holding constant the quality of internal coordination, larger nation-states will enjoy greater prosperity and military power than smaller nation-states. (Small nation-state that seem to defy this logic usually have some much larger patron with which they are deeply integrated in trade and which attends to their defense.) In practice, there are often tradeoffs between scale and quality of coordination. But when those can be overcome, bigger is better.

So a nation-state is a natural monopoly subject to economies of scale. The essence of a state is a near monopoly in practice over coercive violence. The essence of a nation is a shared understanding that promotes effective coordination across the community. For economies of scale to be realized, mutually compatible, if not identical, understandings of how to act must be widely held. If a nation-state means to prosper and defend itself, it must cultivate some form of national identity that its population will almost universally adopt.

Historically, the main solution to this problem is assimilation. France becomes a nation-state when it erases its historic provinces, to which grand stories and identities once attached, and replaces them with bureaucratic departments. This was openly a project to supplant provincial identities with a new understanding of self and community that would be shared across the full territory of the French state. To this day, the French nation is evangelical and assimilative, willing to make equal citizens of all who enthusiastically adopt its shared self-understanding, discouraging to the point of persecution communities on its territory that insist upon understandings which the larger polity does not deem compatible.

Ethnostates, on the other hand, are disfavored by the logic I have described. When there exists some prior ethnic group whose traditional self-understanding will serve as the national complement to a formal state, the scale of the nation-state is limited by the scale of that ethnos in the borders of some territory that it dominates.

Ethnicity is not usually conceived as very permeable. You are of our tribe, or you are not. In a world (our real world) where self-perceived ethnic communities are not well sorted geographically, ethnostates cannot achieve the universality of shared identity that an effective nation-state requires. It will necessarily govern subpopulations not of the nation, for whom coordinating authority will derive primarily from the ungloved fist of the state.

Hard power without soft power is always fragile power. Repression and especially conflict are costly — in a fiscal sense, but more importantly in potential coordination foregone. Repression and conflict are constant, when people inhabit territory a state claims but are excluded from the nation, from the shared understanding and identity under which citizens conform to state authority even without any proximate threat of coercive violence.

It is one of history’s typical ironies that “the Jews” and “the Palestinians” have a great deal in common while they murder one another. Both are “nations” whose self-conceptions are incompatible with an inclusive, and therefore effective, state. As long as the narrative that binds each group is membership based on shared history and grievance, each of the nations is necessarily exclusive of the other. The “self-determination” of one in the form of an ethostate requires the continual oppression of the other, poisoning the lives of victor and vanquished alike, unless and until near complete separation or elimination can be achieved. Both Israel and Palestine, as they conceive themselves, are bad projects, practically and ethically. They rot from their seeds.

But the rest of us ought not rest on our laurels. As the Israelis point out when they complain about “double standards”, there is a little bit of ethnostate in most contemporary nation-states. On the one hand, modern liberal states promise to be states for all their citizens, to provide equal rights and equal dignity to all. On the other hand, the same states privilege language and cultural practices historically associated with one demographically dominant ethnicity.

Unlike Israel, however, most liberal states tolerate and encourage assimilation by outsiders. Only Jews can be Jews in Israel. Anyone who moves to France or Germany, who adopts and embraces the language or culture, can become German. The United States is so new, and the provenance of its population is so mixed, that its national identity is openly synthetic and syncretic. But the United States has nevertheless constructed a strong national identity, despite little anchoring in any historical ethnicity.

Modern, liberal nation-states are more resilient than gated ethnostates like Israel, but they are far from infinitely resilient. That word “liberal” often connotes a claim that not only will the state provide equal rights and dignity to individuals who assimilate, but that they will also provide equal rights and dignity to different communities, including communities who choose not to assimilate, who do not join the shared self-understanding that defines the nation tethered to state.

That claim is a pretense, a dangerous conceit. The nation part of nation-state is not optional. Ethically, we might wish for a world in which states could be neutral between radically diverse communities. But states rely upon citizens having understandings of themselves and of social affairs that, again, need not be identical, but must be mutually compatible. It is the nation in nation-state that enables the citizenry as a whole to mostly govern themselves, resorting only infrequently to deployment of the state’s hard power as an unwelcome but sometimes necessary backstop.

The function and purpose of nation-states — effective social coordination at very large and impersonal scales — cannot be achieved relying solely or even primarily upon the blunt instrument of direct state power. Shared understandings and customs that become the basis for tacit, automatic, instinctual, decentralized coordination are not optional. A state is only effective if it superintends a nation. A nation is only effective if, beneath the amorphous evolving haze of custom and identity, sits the defining and stabilizing bone structure of a state.

We are in an era of mass migration, which presents challenges to nation-states, and therefore to the capacity of humanity as a whole to coordinate at scale and prosper at scale, because that happens almost entirely under the auspices of strong nation-states. Our collective failure to achieve “convergence”, under which less developed states would find a path towards matching the prosperity and safety of developed states, means that, for much of the world, migration to a more developed state is your best and perhaps only strategy to give your kids a decent life. Climate change is likely to supercharge migration pressures, as some places grow too dangerous or barren to support their existing populations.

Humanity is not a democracy, but a thing about the humans is everybody gets a vote anyway. You may wish we did not face the challenge of mass migration, but the migrants get a vote, and they say that we must in fact face it. You can adopt the MAGA “America First” response to this new era, but to do so is to elect to become Israel, and to pay the costs — military, economic, and moral — that Israel now is paying. If your main response to growing demand for mass migration is to become restrictionist, then you will have to militarize your borders in order to enforce your restrictions. You will have to become authoritarian internally to detect and deport those who have evaded your restrictions, and to manage security threats created by citizens of your own state who will not assimilate to the nation you propose, because they sympathize with migrants.

Israel is a brittle ethnostate because it cannot or will not bring people who live on its territory or who insist disruptively that they will live on its territory into its national community. It bears large costs to preempt conflicts and to fight them, larger costs in terms of social and economic potential foregone, and worst of all, social deformation, shame, and moral injury from all the murders the path it has chosen does require it to commit.

The states of North America and Europe will be no different if we place ourselves in the same situation.

The alternative to Israel is as it has always been America, the America of e pluribus unum. The United States is not, and never has been, a state without a nation. The America I grew up in had a deep and profound national identity. This was not mere “creedal democracy”, the thin, very intellectual idea that our quasi-worship of the Constitution and a few civic ideas was the basis for our common nationhood.

No, the United States had, and still has, a very thick, tacit and instinctual, national identity. We have customs and a language and weird idioms that we share. We have American food, like pizza, bagels, kung-pao chicken, hamburgers, sushi, and gyro sandwiches. It doesn't matter that these things derive from other nations, or whether they are "authentic" to their roots. They are ours now.

There is nothing more British these days than having a curry. In Germany you find wonderful kebabs. This reflects the most virtuous form of assimilation, where the shared understanding that defines the nation not only accepts migrants as individuals, but adapts the shared natural culture to include and celebrate what they as communities bring. Host country citizens recognize that they gain from “appropriating” the most congenial bits of migrants’ cultures. America would not be America without pizza! Migrant communities feel more welcome when at least some of their old self-understandings are celebrated by their new communities. They become more willing to walk the challenging, painful, road of ceding much of who they have been and how they understood their world in order to adopt something quite different. When migrants’ “ethnic” commodities — foods or foot massages or whatever — are embraced by home country natives, that helps to lubricate their assimilation economically, as it means there are services they are particularly well-placed to sell. Xenophilia is an incredibly adaptive national characteristic, and it will only be more so going forward.

When restrictionists in developed countries say they don’t mind, aren’t against, immigration, they just want it to be legal and ordered and organized, that is fine and they are right. We do not want, should not abide a situation where our laws, whose tacit sanctity renders our national success possible, are run roughshod by new migrants that must learn also to hold them sacred if we are to collectively succeed.

But at the same time, we cannot succeed if the laws we enact are ill adapted to our actual circumstances. To save Miami from sea-level rise, we could ban high tide. We could place militarized cops on the beaches, fire machine guns at each transgressing wave. The tide will still come. Our laws cannot be shaped only by our preferences. Reality will have its say.

As pressures for mass migration accelerate, we will all become some admixture of Israel, Lebanon, and melting-pot America. Some countries will double-down on restrictionism become small, brutal, deformed shadows of the political communities they might have been. Some will accept the tide of bodies into the territory of their states, but prove unable to merge the diversity of communal identities and worldviews that come with those bodies into a coherent nation, leading to reduced social trust, impairment of the nation-state’s ability to coordinate at scale, bitterness among natives and new immigrants both, conflict, and authoritarianism.

But some countries will manage what the United States managed in the 19th and 20th Centuries, to accept the bodies but also join the minds of new citizens into a continually evolving understanding of the nation to which they now belong. Countries that manage this will achieve the economies of scale that nation-states can gain from larger populations without bearing the deadweight, deadly costs of interethnic conflict, militarized borders, deterrent brutality.

No law can make the immigration problem go away. The world is as it is, and the drivers of mass migration are likely to get stronger not weaker. The question before us is not “whether” or “how many”, but “how?” What set of practices and institutions might bring natives and migrants together under a version of national identity sufficiently nimble and attractive and adaptive to join and guide us all?

For nation-states capable of answering this question, the coming era will be a time of growth, opportunity, and national greatness. For nation-states whose identities and self-understandings are incapable of adapting to integrate large numbers of new migrants, it will be a time of crisis, authoritarianism, decline, bitterness, and shame.

We’d best get working on how.