Saturday, June 23, 2018

Are nations obsolete?

“A nation without borders is not a nation at all.”
— Donald Trump (September 16, 2016)

People who are in favor of building a physical barrier, such as a wall, along the border between Mexico and the United States sometimes echo the claim that without borders there is no nation, and without strictly enforced immigration policies there is no border. The purpose of this posting is to examine both of those claims and then to examine a presupposition on which both of those claims depend.

Can there nations without borders?

The question of whether there can be a nation without any borders can probably be answered in the negative. A nation is, among other things, a clearly demarcated territory with boundaries that differentiate it from a neighboring territory. The more interesting question is whether there can be a nation without strong borders, a strong border being one that keeps people from neighboring nations or territories out. The answer to that question is clearly affirmative. One need look only at the many nations within the European Union, all of which have borders, but none of which have tight restrictions on who may cross those borders. One can bord a train in the Netherlands and travel to France, passing through Belgium, without passing through a checkpoint. I recall taking a train from Leiden, Netherlands to Gent, Belgium, and the only way I knew I had crossed the border was that my cell phone received a text message from my Dutch carrier informing me that I was now in Belgium and that the rates for a mobile telephone call in Belgium were different from the rates for a call in the Netherlands. (I found it a little spooky that my mobile phone was tracking my whereabouts so precisely that it informed me of all this within seconds of the train crossing the border, but that is another matter.) Passing between two countries in the European Union is now easier than passing from the state of New Mexico into the state of Arizona; sometimes, but not always, I have had to stop at a checkpoint in Arizona to insure the authorities that I have no fruit in the car that might carry diseases that could endanger Arizona fruit orchards. Despite the ease with which anyone can pass between one European nation and another, each nation maintains its own distinctive government, passes its own legislation and enforces that legislation with its own agencies. France is still unmistakably France, and Spain is Spain and Belgium is Belgium. Whatever factors go into making them nations are still intact, and strongly defended borders is not one of those factors.

It is not at all obvious that the United States would cease to be a nation if it belonged to an American Union similar to the European Union, a union in which people could freely cross from Canada into the United States or from the United States into Canada, or from either of those countries into Mexico, either for a short visit or to take up residence and take up gainful employment. Indeed, if there were a union including every nation in North America, Central America and South America, a union in which people and goods could cross borders with a minimum of difficulty, it is difficult to make the case that the situation would have any more of a negative impact on any of the American nations than the open-border policies in the European Union has on the nations of Europe.

Can there be borders without strictly enforced immigration policies?

Once gain, the European Union provides a hint as to how this question can be answered. The members of the European Union do have immigration polices, and they are enforced. A key to the successful enforcement of any law or policy is that the law or policy be enforceable. It should be obvious to most lawmakers that the current numbers of immigrants who have entered the United States to live and work illegally proves that the current laws are not enforceable. If millions of people do not follow a law, the law is probably not enforceable.

The most reasonable response to this situation is not to have a “zero tolerance” policy whereby every person who crosses the border is detained, charged with a crime and deported, but rather to have laws that are a better reflection of the social and economic realities behind the migration of peoples from one place to another. Current immigration laws and policies in the United States fail to take into full consideration why people migrate. Most people do not move from one place to another simply because they like to be in motion. Rather, they go to live in another place because life where they have been living has become untenable or unsustainable. Policymakers in the United States would do far better to look into ways that they might help improve the living circumstances of neighboring countries than to look into ways to keep people from neighboring countries out. Trying to keep desperate people out of an an area that has better opportunities for a fulfilling life that the area where they have been living is a task that only a fool would undertake. The task is not only foolish but heartless.

The question to ask is not “Can there be borders without strictly enforced immigration policies?”, but rather “Can there be enforcement of unrealistically strict laws?” and the answer to that question is obviously No. The United States does not need a wall along its borders. What the United States does need is to wake up the the complex economic and social realities that have led to its borders being crossed by millions of people.

Is there really a need for nations any more?

All of this discussion of whether there can be a nation without strong borders presupposes that nations are desirable in the first place. Are they? The answer to that question requires having a clear idea of what a nation is in the first place. An online dictionary defines a nation as “a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.” Given that understanding, one might ask in what sense the United States has ever been a nation. It has never been the case that the inhabitants of the country have had a common descent, history, culture or language, although there have been attempts at various times either to impose a common culture and language on everyone or to marginalize those who do not speak the same language or share cultural values with those who happen to be in power. Given the ease of travel on the planet, and the networks of communication in most parts of the planet, especially where economic power is concentrated, it is increasingly unlikely that there will ever be a place in the modernized world where all the people in that region have a common descent, history, culture or language. The nation, if it ever had a place in the world, certainly no longer has a place or a function. It is at most an abstract fiction. The human race may well have come to the point where it no longer needs to think in terms of people living in nations. It is arguably the time to begin thinking in terms of people simply living in the world, a world without artificial boundaries, a world in which there are thousands of living languages and cultures and particular histories, a world in which anyone can live and work wherever life and work are possible.

Maintaining the fiction of the artificial construct of a nation entails a waste of resources that the planet can ill afford. The defense of borders (against whom, aside from fellow human beings?) has come to involve the maintenance of armies and navies (and in the fantasy world in which some politicians live, even military units designed to dominate outer space) and immigrations and customs enforcement agencies and departments of homeland security and countless other entities that have no clear function other than to maintain an illusion that everyone on one side of an imaginary line has a common culture and history that differentiates them from those living on the other side of that imaginary line. The very idea of a nation has become a costly and wasteful fiction, one that is entirely out of line with the realities of human life on this planet.

I would suggest that rather than laboring under such pointless nationalistic slogans as “Make [plug in the name of an artificial construct here of your choice] Great Again,” we should consider a far more meaningful and easily achieved slogan such as “Make Humanity Nationless Again.”