The Case for More States in Africa? Anarchy, State or Utopia?

Yes please! There is an old article in the Atlantic arguing that more states are just what Africa needs, and I’d like to highlight why I think more states are a good thing, and at the same time pick up Dr. Delacroix’s argument on states and libertarianism from a little while back and explain why I think that more states are a good thing and why Dr. Delacroix doesn’t really understand libertarian thought.

Now, I know more states seems at first glance to be a counterintuitive position for a libertarian to take, but upon second glance I hope to show you why this isn’t true.

First up, from the Atlantic‘s article:

The idea that Africa suffers from too few secessionist campaigns, too few attempts to carve a few large nations into many smaller ones, flies in the face of conventional wisdom. One of the truisms of African politics is that traditional borders, even when bequeathed by colonizers without the least sympathy for African political justice, ought to be respected. The cult of colonial borders has been a cornerstone not only of diplomacy between African nations but of the assistance programs of foreign governments and multinational non-governmental organizations.

I’ve pointed this out from a number of different angles previously here on the blog, so I don’t want to delve too deeply into this, but the article, written by a professor of journalism at Arizona State, has more:

This is especially true for the U.S. and Europe, which spend billions on reconstructing failed states such as the Congo. But letting these countries reform into smaller nations might actually reduce conflict, increase economic growth, and cost less in foreign aid. That, by the way, is Englebert’s argument in a nutshell in his paper, “Let’s Stick Together: Understanding Africa’s Secessionist Deficit,” published in African Affairs in July 2005 […]

The logic of division has worked in Europe. Who really considers Belgium for example, to be too small? (If anything, that country’s political problems come from being too big, and it is many ways already divided in two.) Or Finland, which is home to far fewer Finnish speakers than there are Igbo speakers living in an area of Nigeria my wife sometimes calls “Igboland.” And, besides, why should size be any objection in a world that cheered the birth of Slovenia and Slovakia? Did not the independence of tiny Kosovo receive the full measure of support from the very Western nations who worry that Africa might someday fracture into a hundred nations or more?

Again, readers of this blog will not find anything new in the Atlantic‘s piece, but I would like to connect the argument that more states are better for the world to Dr. Delacroix’s argument that libertarian policies would lead directly to anarchy, and that this is an ill-advised position to take because the state has, historically, been responsible for declines in violence within a society when they are implemented. Allow Dr. Delacroix to speak for himself:

Implicitly, and even explicitly, libertarians desire a reduction in the power, scope, and reach of the state vis-a-vis civil society. The ultimate situation to which this wish would lead is anarchy. The word simply means a social system with no chiefs, no formal leaders, no durable power structure, no government without an end in sight. The word means above all the absence of coercion as a way to get things done in society […]

It seems that everywhere and at all times, no state, or a weak state are associated with a very high frequency of killings. The differences in homicide rates between state and non-state societies appear to be expressed in orders of magnitude. Hobbes was right, Rousseau was a ninny!

This is a common enough argument, and as such I think it’s important to draw it out and lay it bare (and to rest) for all to see. After feeling out Dr. Delacroix’s argument a little bit more, it has become clearer that Dr. Delacroix and other ex-Marxist conservatives are writing about states in general, and not just nation-states. Because of the technicalities associated with the word state, I think it would be better to refer to states in Dr. Delacroix’s terms as “polities” rather than as states. After all, is the US really a state, or is it a federal republic? Is China really a state, or a conglomerate of different regions united under a strong central power?

I could go on, but I think readers will know what I mean now. If you don’t, please don’t hesitate to ask (or argue!) away in the comments section!

Contrary to the accusations of Delacroix and others, libertarians don’t generally argue that polities are undesirable (see Rothbard, an anarchist, for a contrary account, though). Most libertarians can generally be described as minarchists, a faction that argues polities are not only integral to societies but only if they are limited to enforcing contracts and providing for the common defense of a society. This entails that a polity has a de facto monopoly on law and defense (that’s “defense” with a “d” followed by “fence”).

In order to establish a monopoly on both law and defense, individuals must be convinced or coerced into adopting a set of rules to be governed by. Coercion, of course, does not imply legitimacy, which is why libertarians oppose imperialism in all its forms, but if factions give their consent for a polity to enforce the rules and provide for a common defense of a society’s land that have been created (usually over a long period of time though trial and error) then coercion is absent and a polity becomes legitimate.

I understand that unanimity in decisions is virtually impossible and that there is always a minority faction involved in any decision, nevertheless consent to be governed by a majority of a society’s individuals is still the best form of governance. Eat your heart out Hobbes, because John Locke is here to prove you wrong and steal your girlfriend. Of course violence decreases in polities when they are created by the consent of the governed! Even in cases of imperialism, it is not true that the conquered are coerced into their new positions, for if the conquered are not agitating for freedom, there is a good chance that they prefer being governed by the conqueror more than they do the previous polity. Consent to follow a conquering polity’s rules is still the mode of operation.

Delacroix, like many other conservative ex-Marxists, confuses Leviathan with consent to be governed.

One of the reasons neoconservatives like to attack the idea of the minimal state is not because of its utopian flavor, but rather because it chains down Leviathan’s ability to reach beyond its borders and impose itself on other lands. Or, in other words, the minimal state restricts a polity to enforcing the rules and providing for the common defense, and thus is an inconvenient impediment to imperialism.

One can still have a society with government, formal leaders, and a power structure without resorting to coercion. Just follow the rules that are consented to by a majority in a slow-but-sure fashion. Now, I know what you’re thinking: this is all good and well, but how does this tie in to an argument for more African polities?

Easy! Because the states as they are now arranged do rely on consent of the governed (hence all of the violence and famines that the West reads about in the press). Now some intellectuals argue that the colonial boundaries can be saved with a more robust federalism, and I’m not opposed to this in theory, but in practice most African polities (and, really, post-colonial polities) have implemented federal systems to no avail.

Letting these post-colonial polities dissolve into smaller states would allow the individuals within the new polities more wiggle room to come to terms in regards to consenting to a certain set of rules that will govern their societies. If you have trouble envisioning this, or you are skeptical that letting African polities dissolve and be replaced by hundreds of new ones will work, just think about how hard it is for the US to come to agreements in matters of politics, and then pretend that the US is not composed of individuals who have shared the same cultural norms for the past 400 years.

A better way of looking at it, and one that I have pointed out before, is to look at Europe realize that it shares roughly the same amount  of polities as does Africa (50-ish) despite being four times smaller. I bring up the comparison with Europe because in the Old World things like ethnicity still have a strong hold on how individuals identify themselves with their various social spheres. Rather than the 50-ish number of  polities in Africa that we have today, a better way of solving Africa’s problems would be to let the polities currently in place dissolve into 400 polities. Or 500. Then, I think, Africans would know peace and prosperity.

2 thoughts on “The Case for More States in Africa? Anarchy, State or Utopia?

  1. […] What will be interesting to see is where this bold experiment leads. How can 44 countries with poor institutions come together to form a free trade pact? I am hoping this will lead to more states in Africa. My logic goes something like this: stronger economic ties will hasten the demise of current African states’ superficial institutions, while allowing informal institutions to flourish. Because these informal institutions are better at solving coordination problems, they’ll eventually be recognized as states. Here’s how I put it back in 2012: […]

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