The history of nation-states is not a pretty one. State creation is often a bloody and very painful exercise. Either states boundaries are decided through years of fighting or as an arbitrary decision by colonial authorities. Once states have been created, violent border disputes aside, states have been responsible for the repression of thousands of its own citizens. Perhaps even more damning, the nation-state framework seems to be an obstacle to addressing urgent international issues, such as global climate change and a growing refugee crisis. The on-going bloody history of states and pressing international issues present strong reasons to consider a justification of the primacy of the state.
This post is not intended as argument against or in favour of the primacy of the state, rather to make the case that its primacy is not an automatic good and needs to be justified for those (like Rawls) who take it as the prime site of justice. There seem to be three key arguments for the state 1) the identities argument, 2) the justice promoting argument and 3) the pragmatic argument. I will go through these in turn to demonstrate that justification for states as the prime site of justice relies on a pragmatic argument: they exist and so we should make them better. I suggest that this leaves room for important work to consider whether there are other more effective institutional arrangements that would promote justice.
So, let us consider the identities argument. The world has many different communities, who have distinctive cultures, histories and ways of approaching politics. As such, they need their own territorially distinct institution to conduct their affairs. Although there are very different communities across the globe, current borders do not match the boundaries between these communities. A quick glance at postcolonial Africa demonstrates that borders do not follow divisions between existing communities. Redrawing boundaries would not fix this. Identities no longer (and arguably never did) map neatly onto distinct and clearly defined territorial areas. The territorially exclusive state enclosing a coherent political community is not a reality. The state is not a natural political unit reflecting distinct political identities. Therefore justification requires some belief that its existence promotes a particular good.
The second argument is the ‘justice-promoting argument’. It goes something like: “Having nation-states promotes justice. We need localised institutions, such as the NHS, tax redistribution, education to ensure justice. The state is the best organization for this. ” This, unfortunately, is not the reality for much of the worlds population. In the Global South, justice-promoting states are not the norm, and often states can produce a considerable amount of injustice. Moreover the poor environmental practices and unfair trade policies of states in the Global North also harm the lives of those in the Global South. The response may be: Don’t dismantle states rather improve the unjust states! But, on what grounds have we decided the state is the best institution? There are other forms of political organization, be it townships, chieftaincies, kinship networks, cooperatives and charities which also promote justice and in many cases are a more meaningful avenue for providing the necessary services of justice. What makes a state the most valuable form of political community?
I think the crux of the ‘pro-state’ position comes to a pragmatic argument. The overwhelming majority of the globe’s population live under the legal jurisdiction of states. Even where, in practice, the state does not exist or it is is repressive, the trend is to improve state capacity and to make it more functional. Therefore let us not waste time considering alternative political arrangements or a more serious empirical consideration of whether the state is indeed a good provider of justice and rather work on ways to improve what is already there.
I am not totally against this final argument. States do exist, and improving them may be best in the short term. It comes down to a practical judgement call. If, in the short term, it is more effective to improve states – this is something we should do. However this is an empirical question. Given the violent history of states and current pressing international questions. Would it be more effective to improve states or create alternative political institutions, which promote justice better? Both avenues deserve careful normative and empirical consideration.