Parag Khanna definitely reads Notes On Liberty. From his latest op-ed in the New York Times:
Devolution is even happening in China. Cities have been given a long leash to develop innovative economic models, and Beijing depends on their growth. One of the most popular adages among China watchers today is: “The hills are high, and the emperor is far away.” Our maps show a world of about 200 countries, but the number of effective authorities is hundreds more. [check out “Federalism, Chinese Style” by Gabriella Montinola, Yingyi Qian, and Barry R. Weingast for a fascinating look at the ongoing devolutionary trends in China – BC]
The broader consequence of these phenomena is that we should think beyond clearly defined nations and “nation building” toward integrating a rapidly urbanizing world population directly into regional and international markets. That, rather than going through the mediating level of central governments, is the surest path to improving access to basic goods and services, reducing poverty, stimulating growth and raising the overall quality of life.
Connected societies are better off than isolated ones. As the incidence of international conflict diminishes, ever more countries are building roads, railways, pipelines, bridges and Internet cables across borders, forging networks of urban centers that depend on one another for trade, investment and job creation.
- People were writing about devolution all the way back in 1995, so Khanna’s insights aren’t particularly new or exciting. This is true; if you’ll remember my recent post on federalism as an alternative to imperialism you’ll recall that Adam Smith was making the same argument as Khanna in 1776.
- Contra Khanna, states have always been in competition with other forms of governance (not government). Khanna needs hard empirical evidence to prove that the devolution he writes about is as prominent and fast-moving as he claims it is.
- Other academics, mostly economists, have been claiming precisely the opposite of what Khanna is arguing; namely that states have been increasing in size and scope over the past few decades. Drezner hesitantly errs on the side of the economists, who at least bring data to the table, but claims that there is probably a middle ground between Khanna and the economists.
As far as throwing out ideas to back up the devolutionist argument, it might be a good idea to look at the nation-state’s loss of monetary sovereignty to supranational (or quasi-national) organizations in the West. Or the separatist tendencies of regions within supranational organizations like the EU that threaten to break up nation-states. Or the fragility of African and Islamic states, as evidenced by the dictatorships and wars often found in these regions. Or the multilateral trade agreements that are becoming more and more inclusive, and more and more complicated. There are probably many more, and if you can think of any feel free to leave them in the ‘comments’ section.
With all of this said, Drezner has a point. The state has found a number of ways to counteract the various effects of globalization, and proving that the state is in decline is, for the moment, extremely hard to do. Yet Drezner’s point says nothing about Khanna’s overall argument, which is merely that devolution is a good thing and ought to be embraced by more progressively-inclined people.
The interesting question here is not the current situation of the state itself, but rather if a consensus can be forged, among thinking people, around the idea that political decentralization and economic integration leads to freer societies. Until a consensus built around this idea can be reached among intellectuals, I fear despotism will reign in most parts of the world at most times.