From the Comments: What is a “National Interest”? (Why not federalism?)

Michelangelo writes:

I sympathize with your pro-federation views, but it is admittedly a difficult position to argue from a purist libertarian view. I would support offering statehood to Japan and South Korea, as I mentioned earlier this week.* I would not however offer the same deal to Ukraine or the Baltic states. If pressed why I would be okay with federation with one group of countries but not another is because I consider the Ukraine/Baltic region to have little value to American interests. I can see Japan/South Korea federation helping economic growth and military might to the US and therefore in our interests. Note my use of plural pronouns.

From a purely libertarian basis what regions would you offer federation with? Or, if you’d offer federation to all of them, which regions would you offer federation with first? Taiwan might entertain an offer to join the federation tomorrow, but I suspect the PRC or Russia wouldn’t.

*I imagine they’d join as multiple states in practice. I wouldn’t offer Japan 114 seats in the senate, but I would entertain giving them 10 senators.

Why only ten? Michelangelo’s quibble about the number senators can illustrate why federation is more libertarian than isolationism (I’ll get to his question in just a minute).

The Japanese would never accept any sort of union where they give up some sovereignty for other benefits and only have ten representatives in the senate. That wouldn’t be a bargain for the Japanese; it’d be highway robbery. The key conceptual point to keep in mind in this scenario is that there are two sides bargaining and cooperating with each other in order to arrive at a mutually beneficial deal. Japan and the US cease to exist as sovereign political units but become more secure militarily, economically, and politically through a federation with each other.

Contrast this view with what, say, isolationists such as Doug Bandow or Daniel McAdams argue; they want much less cooperation and, by implication, much less choice. Cooperation would be limited to negotiating trade details, arming factions, and coordinating responses to natural disasters. This is radically different from the status quo, but not in a beneficial way. Think of all the things isolationism and the status quo exclude from their policies. People in Japan and the US are overwhelmingly in favor of a continued US presence in Japan. The reasons for this are clear, but as it stands the Japanese are taking the US for a ride. Isolationist arguments are arguably worse, as they’d remove US troops (angering vast swathes of both societies in the process), which would put Japan in a position to fend for itself. Isolationism is “doing something,” and it’s doing something uncooperative.

I agree wholeheartedly with mainstream libertarians about the unfair nature of the status quo. I just think their proposals are equally unfair (if not worse). A libertarian position should emphasize cooperation, choice, and trade-offs above all else. The current stable of libertarian foreign policy experts don’t do this, despite their pertinent critiques of the status quo.

Now, before I get to Michelangelo’s question of who (I promise it’s coming), I want to spend a little time on his proposal for 10 senators, and tie it into the concept of “national interest,” which is a fuzzy concept and hence popular to wield in public discourse.

What is the national interest (or US interest)?

Think it through and write down your answer on a piece of scratch paper you have lying around.

Go ahead. I’ll wait patiently.

Is your answer really the national interest, though? Why is your definition of the national interest true and Walter Russell Mead’s not? Here is how I defined the concept of a national interest back in 2014:

…the national interest is an excuse [scholars and activists use] for a policy or set of policies that [they believe] should be taken in order to strengthen a state and its citizens (but not necessarily strengthen a state relative to other states…)

Now go back and look at what you wrote down as “the national interest.” Am I right or am I right? There’s no such thing as a national interest. Cooperation, choice, and trade-offs do exist, though, and I think they can walk us through a hypothetical federation between Japan and the US.

Michelangelo rightly decries the fact that Japan, a country with 126 million people in it (California has 40 million) should get 114 senators. Yet 10 senators seems far too few to give up sovereignty for federation. This appears to be a stubborn impasse, right? Wrong! One of the great benefits of cooperation is having to learn new things.

The 47+ prefectures of Japan, for example, have been in use since 1888. The prefectures had steadily been declining in number as the Meiji oligarchy began in earnest to nation-build in what is now Japan. Up until the surrender of Japan to the US, these prefectures were not representative and had little say in how each prefect was to be governed. MacArthur’s constitution gave these 47+ prefectures some autonomy in 1947, but recent attempts at reforming the administrative units of Japan have called for the abolition of these prefectures in favor of fewer administrative units that will also have much more independence from Tokyo. The policymakers who want to take this track are not creating these fewer administrative units out of thin air, either. Rather, reformists are calling for representative units to be based on the unofficial cultural areas of the country that have been around for centuries. Check out the map:

This map shows nine regions, but some people argue that there are actually 13-14 cultural regions within the country (a tough problem to have!). source: wikipedia
This map shows eight cultural areas, but some people argue that there are actually 12-14 cultural regions within the country. source: wikipedia

A cooperative approach to tackling free-riding and imperial expenses would be to reach out to the factions that want fewer administrative states with more autonomy. Adding anywhere from 8 to 14 administrative units into the Madisionian system is much more doable than, say, trying to incorporate 47 administrative units, especially since the latter units have little experience with the autonomous governance that federalism requires of its “states.” At most, there would be 28 additional members of the Senate. The costs associated with free-riding would be gone, and the Japanese people would get the benefits of being a part of the most powerful military the world has ever seen.

Would 28 Senate seats be enough to give up sovereignty? I don’t know, but I do know that the status quo is unsustainable and so, too, are current alternatives.

To finally answer Michelangelo’s question (“From a purely libertarian basis what regions would you offer federation with? Or, if you’d offer federation to all of them, which regions would you offer federation with first?”), I’d start with the Canadian provinces and Mexican states (though I would make it clear that any region is welcome to apply for membership). Then I’d approach the Caribbean islands, the administrative units in Western Europe (including the Baltic states but excluding Ukraine), and the administrative units in Japan and South Korea. Good neighbors and military allies.

My reasoning behind this approach is simply that 1) most of these regions are almost as rich as the United States, 2) they have a good history of actually being representative of their constituents, 3) they have a long history of either interacting with the Madisonian system or acknowledging its tremendous benefits, and 4) they have experience with being somewhat autonomous in a federal system (a federal system that is much less liberal than the one found in the US, but a federal system nonetheless).

Again, I’m not opposed to allowing poor regions to apply and join such a federation, but I think they would be less inclined to do so. Why? Because poorer states are more parochial, more protectionist, and more likely to be uncooperative than rich ones. If regions within these poorer states wanted to apply for membership, we should be open to it, but we’d have to recognize that these poorer regions have a long, hard slog ahead of them. They would, for example, have to market reasons for why they should no longer be a part of a poor state, and they’d have to do it under the harsh watch of the said poor state. Not an easy task, to be sure, but it can be done and the Madisonian federation should be open to the idea of picking apart post-colonial states if it means federating with an oppressed (or poorly governed) region.

Why “post-colonial”? Because of Realpolitik. Entertaining applications from the likes of Tibet or Chechnya is too risky. Entertaining applications from Baluchistan or Biafra? I’d have no problem risking the ire of Pakistan or Nigeria if it meant partnering up with people who want a better life and are willing to cooperate in order to get it.

PS: I think the dialogue in the ‘comments’ thread of this 2014 piece is also worth reading in tandem with my thoughts on Michelangelo’s comment here.

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14 thoughts on “From the Comments: What is a “National Interest”? (Why not federalism?)

  1. “…I’d start with the Canadian provinces and Mexican states…”

    Up until recently only Alberta would be a possibility. With the advent of Donald Trump in the political arena in the US, I doubt even the cowboys out west would consider it.

    • You bring up a good point, namely that federation would likely have to occur in piecemeal fashion. The Prairie provinces in Canada and the El Norte states in Mexico would be trendsetters. I recently read an op-ed by a Canadian political scientist in Quebec arguing for federation with the US. Why? Because of Canada’s other neighbor, the one it shares an increasingly fluid Arctic Ocean with…

    • And, of course, a proper libertarian federation would include, say, Alberta and Edmonton while letting Vermont or Washington join Canada if they wanted to. In order for federation to work, there has got to be a way out as well as a way in.

  2. I agree with you that 10 Senators would likely not be enough for Japan, but as you point out I would not support Japan (pop 127 million) receiving so many Senate seats when some existing states (California – pop 38 million) only have two. Any expansion of the US would have to be gradual in order to avoid the new members outnumbering the old members or shifting power too much. Recall that the admission of early states was done in order to assure the North and South factions retained relatively equal balance.

    In this case I suspect the Atlantic states would be concerned about being outvoted by the Pacific states. You’re probably right to propose expanding into the Caribbean. The Anglo Caribbean states (e.g. Bahamas, Jamaica, Belize) and eastern Canadian provinces could counter an expansion into Japan.

    • Michelangelo,

      You are right that there would have to be a balancing act. Rather than geographical considerations, I think gauging an administrative unit’s “left-right” divide would be more beneficial for today’s interconnected world. In the instance of Japan, for example, the policymakers who wanted to rearrange the administrative units so that they conform to traditional cultural areas probably had a good reason for recognizing an even number of such areas (8 or 12 or 14). I’ll bet good money that these cultural areas also form a nice and even left-right divide, too.

  3. After some Canadian and Mexican Providences joined I would like to know your thoughts on why Australia wouldn’t be considered to be next in line. They have been adept at governing in a like minded way as the US as much as Canada has and share our common language. I would think they would want to fall under the umbrella of American military protection, if that is truly the main purpose of this federation, from an increasingly expansionist minded China or India or even Indonesia. It would make sense to me that they would want that protection before Japan or South Korea. Especially with their vast amounts of raw materials. We wouldn’t want that to fall into axis hands.

    • Jeff,

      Good question!

      Australian provinces would certainly be free to apply. My reasoning for favoring Japan and South Korea over Australia is simply that the former states are free-riding.

      My argument is less about being idealistic than it is about confronting directly the problem of free-riding and trying to solve it in an equitable manner (though this may be hard to see!). Federation, in my mind, is the best way to eliminate the costs of free-riding while still retaining the benefits of military cooperation.

  4. A nation’s National Interest is an outcome of pursuing Natural Rights for its citizens. Anything more is imperialism.

    • An interesting argument, Jack, but I don’t completely buy it (I am open to dialogue on this, though). What if, for example, the only way a national interest as you define it can be achieved is by first repelling an attack by an aggressor state and then conquering the said aggressor state to ensure that no more invasions will ever occur?

      Such a scenario (think about the Soviet Union and its war with Germany) surely muddles your clear-cut definition, right?

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