Arnold Kling  

Nation-building Debated

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Max Borders makes a case that nation-building can work.


What's more, while institutions can and usually do develop or evolve over time -- much in the same way that DNA evolved from auto-catalytic processes and from simpler amino acids, and these from yet simpler molecules -- once genes are understood and isolated, they can be transplanted, or "spliced."

This genetic analogy suggests the presence of a rule-set, and actors in a given situation will find it beneficial to play by a rule-set or not. They are more likely to comply with new rules if there are positive, self-reinforcing incentives to do so (as well as harsh consequences of non-compliance). The more Iraqis come to understand the incentives generated by positive rule-sets, the more likely positive orders will emerge. But this may require a period of adjustment.


Borders pays attention to those who disagree with him, including yours truly. In fact, I give Borders credit for linking to Gus diZerega, who writes,

I take my Hayekianism pretty seriously. Societies cannot be easily molded, the task is too complex, local knowledge is too important.

...Western imperialism killed millions - on a scale that proportionately is not necessarily that much better than what happened in Communism. It did it differently. But it did it. And in the process developed many of the institutions later put to such use by the Communists and Nazis, such as concentration camps.

I think the best we can do is set an example and encourage others to adapt that example to their own circumstances...smaller countries that we do not have to deal with should be made clear pay a price for the forms of government they have. But the price should not be in being bombed or occupied by us.

I do differ from my more firmly anti-interventionist colleagues on two issues. First, I think that the doctrine of state sovereignty is such bunk that we are justified in invading and stopping any government that is committing mass murder on its own people...

Second...I think we are justified in invading any country whose democracy government has been overthrown...to re-establish the democracy.


I call your attention to the phrase "the doctrine of state sovereignty is such bunk." I think that expresses an important libertarian view.

Look around the world. How many governments are there that you consider legitimate? Obviously that depends on your definition of "legitimate," but I set the bar somewhat high, and offhand my guess is that fewer than 30 percent of the members of the United Nations qualify.

What follows from that is that the UN itself can hardly be a legitimate body. That's what makes me totally baffled any time someone looks hopefully to the UN as a solution for some problem.


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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Robert Speirs writes:

"Western imperialism killed millions"? What bunk. The introduction of Western science into benighted nations saved far more lives than the violence attendant to it - most of which would have gone on anyway within and among the benighted - cost.

dearieme writes:

Eruptions from the Old World into the New led to millions of deaths caused by Old World diseases. The spread of the Black Death from Asia to Europe did too, which you can blame on Oriental Imperialism if you wish. Eruption from temperate climates to tropical within the Old World also killed massively - but this time, it was the newcomers who died. To compare any of this lot with Communism seems to me to be a sign of brain death.

Yeongsuk Kim writes:

I agree that societies are not easily molded, but they certainly do evolve over time, and that rate of adjustment depends on the institutional environment.

While I'm certainly not one to consider myself an interventionist, I look to my home country as a source of optimism for the Iraq question. The Korean war lasted 3 years, killed 54,000 Americans, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans, and about a million Chinese and North Koreans. South Korea didn't become a functioning democracy until 1987, 34 years after the cease-fire.

This leaves me a little schizophrenic as a libertarian. I was opposed to the Iraq war, but as a direct beneficiary of 'Western imperialism', I thank my lucky stars for the intervention in Korea.

I'm with Robert Speirs. Imperialism was a net benefit for the people who experienced it. Look at Africa today, it was a lot better off when it was ruled by Europeans.

nUN writes:

oooo
You touched a favorite subject. a New UN

Imagine a UN with a General assembly which included every state entity ( and a few non-state entities if you could decide which made sense to include). This group would have very limited powers.

But on top of that was the Ruling Assembly which would be composed only of Legitimate States.
(some sort of democratic government, certain freedoms, certain levels of Rule of Law, certain ways of having an open economy with transparent rules for business etc.) This would be the real core of the new UN.

On top of that would be the NEW Security Council composed only of members of the Ruling Assembly.

So...
This new Security Council might exclude the current Russia and the current China. It might include India.

There would be clear and specific steps a country could take to become Legitimate.

...

Sean writes:

State legitimacy and therefore sovereignty is directly tied to the ability of the state to resist invasion by force of arms. Therefore, if you don't have nuclear weapons, your state is probably not soverign.
Execeptions could perhaps be drawn for nations that no one else really wants to invade, eg. Iceland.

N. writes:

It is my understanding that when the UN was first formed, the charter included provisions for a military arm designed to enforce the institution's rulings. This never came to fruition, of course, and that in itself is enough for me to be skeptical of the UN as anything more than a paean to discourse between nations. A governing body that cannot apply lethal force is reminiscent of a Victorian bobby trying to keep the peace: "Stop, or I shall have to ask you to stop a second time!"

I find the idea that a democratic nation can emerge from a tyranny by applying the right incentives both compelling and intuitive. After all, at the heart of any policy recommendation is the concept that populations react to incentives at the margin, and can thus be coerced into doing x by tweaking y. The problem, of course -- and what keeps things complicated (and interesting) -- is that it can be tough to suss out exactly *what* behaviors are being taxed or subsidized. Even so, I am convinced that they (these incentives) can be disentangled, even if they may not always be obvious or politically feasible.

Take, for instance, the idea of losing to win. I don't think it would be too controversial for me to suggest that one way strong group identities form (or emerge, if you will) is by overcoming obstacles or collectively defeating an opponent. In the case of Iraq, I think we have invariably become that opponent. The trick, then, is to get the right guys to beat us. Isn't that really another way to frame the mission objective? Aren't we working hard to eliminate the need for us to be there? To be kicked out by a coalition of unfriendly but otherwise democratically inclined forces is one of the more favorable outcomes I can envision.

Even if you don't think this particular example is valid, I hope it kind of illustrates the need to engage a certain amount of imagination when considering how to achieve one's ultimate goal (especially in the instance of nation-building). It doesn't just take intelligence (which we have in spades, I think), but wisdom (which I'm afraid is not easy to convey to an impatient constituency).

I think nation-building as we consider it can conceivably be done, if done with the grace and insight that a parent has for a child or a teacher has for a pupil. Which is tough to say without sounding arrogant, I know, but at the same time, I think a good parent or teacher is profoundly humble and uncertain of himself, as well as quick to admit mistakes and earnestly try to redress them. The trick is to discover what actions affect which behaviors in what way, at the margin, and to have the patience to see those marginal gains through.

And as for the moral imperative, is it possible to assert that we have the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but that the peoples of other nations do not?

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