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Diversity Requires Freedom

Mises Daily: Monday, November 19, 2001 by

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Jacques BarzunIn From Dawn to Decadence, Jacques Barzun maintained that separatism was the "strongest tendency" of the late twentieth century. He provided many illustrations that "the greatest political creation of the West, the nation-state, was stricken."

Among other examples, Barzun cited the efforts for more independence by the Basques, Brutons, and Alsacians from France; Corsica's desire for independence; civil wars in Northern Ireland, Algeria, and Lebanon; the Spanish Basques fighting to break away from Spain; the breakup of the former Soviet Union into many smaller parts and Russia's problems with Chechyna; Turkey and Iraq's battles with Kurdish separatists; Mexico's rebellious Zapatistas; Quebec's periodic demands of freedom from Canada; and the ethnic and religious strife in the Balkans. Indeed, all around the world, we can find evidence of nation-states being ripped apart and struggling under separatist movements.

Barzun makes mention of "tokens of malaise" even in the United States: a small group in Texas that wanted to regain status as an independent republic, and talk of Martha's Vineyard seceding from Massachuesetts and of Staten Island seceding from New York. We witnessed the divisiveness of the nation in the last presidential election, where dense Eastern urban centers were pitted against broader Western and Mid-Western communities. The election underscored deep incompatible political differences over a broad range of issues.

Even though there are counteracting forces, like the unity temporarily achieved during times of crisis and the efforts of international governmental entities such as the European Union or the United Nations, these factors only mask the turmoil beneath. The far stronger trend seems to favor localization of politics and the electrifying current of separatism.

What might the animating forces of such a trend be? Could it be that, just as government intervention into the economy causes misallocations of capital resources, government intervention into other social aspects of life also causes political rifts and creates antagonistic relations between various groups? Does government intervention into our lives create a situation of the type described by Auberon Herbert long ago?

"Under political organization you mix everybody together, like and unlike, and compel them to speak and act through the same representative," Herbert observed. The consequences of such an unnatural brew were self-evident to Herbert:

It is evident that the most fair-minded man must become intolerant if you place him in a position where he has only the unpleasant choice either to eat or be eaten. Cut the cord, give us full freedom for differing amongst ourselves, and it at once becomes possible for a man to hold by his own convictions and yet be completely tolerant of what his neighbor says and does.

Politics creates a setting where, in the words of Longfellow, "man must either be anvil or hammer." Thus, a vast array of political machinery is created to represent a wide variety of interests and to further those interests at the expense of the other groups.

As a nation-state grows, this mixing of like and unlike becomes more and more problematic. It becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile these differences under the umbrella of one nation-state. The nation-state becomes an unstable compound of pluralities unable to build the contented majority that so often forms the glue of nation-states. It is in this unsettled soil that the seeds of separatism thrive.

The idea that the size of government has natural limits that it cannot exceed without unleashing the nation-dissolving forces of separatism is akin to the Misesian idea that socialism is impossible.

The Misesian tradition has long held that socialism is impossible. The inability of a socialist system to calculate--or, in other words, its inability to determine profits and losses--renders it incapable of basic production. Unable to rationally sort the means available to achieve desired ends, a pure socialist economy (i.e., where the government owns the means of production) would dissolve in utter chaos.

Part of the lengthy existence of the old Soviet Union and other socialist countries can be explained by their ability to reference market prices from around the world. The Soviet experiment was also kept alive by a thriving black market. Ironically, socialism could only exist as a shadow of the theoretical grandeur conjured up by the socialists themselves, because the very markets they sought to abolish still existed.

Murray Rothbard extended the same idea to apply to the nature of competition in markets and used it to explode the myth of the One Big Cartel. (See Murray Rothbard's Man, Economy & State.)

A fear of many observers who support antitrust legislation is that, absent such restrictions, markets would eventually combine into One Big Cartel, where one company owned all the means of production for a given product.

But, Rothbard asked, if on the free market no such combinations had been voluntarily consummated but only created via the force of government (i.e., government-granted monopolies), then why are we to assume that such global combinations are desirable?

In fact, as Rothbard showed, if a firm owned all the means of production, it would be subject to the same chaos as a socialist economy. Its inability to rationally allocate resources would quickly lead to losses.

The free market, then, has its own mechanism to limit the size of any one firm. More powerful than the capricious interpretations of antitrust legislation, these are real incentives and limits.

The lesson of the myth of the One Big Cartel is twofold. It teaches that market forces limit the size of a firm, and it also teaches an important lesson about resource allocation, giving us powerful reasons not to trust governments to carry out this function. Indeed, the theory demonstrates the impossibility of a government-directed economy.

It seems probable that, just as government cannot calculate with regards to economic resources, it cannot calculate when it comes to deciding the noneconomic aspects of social life. The underlying differences between various populations make the problem insolvable; people will always be forced to support policies or do certain things that they otherwise would not support or would not do. Just as a socialist economy like the old Soviet Union had its black markets and reference points in the world's market economies, so too the people coerced by a nation-state have some personal freedoms and loopholes that make life under the nation-state bearable.

Yet as the nation-state grows, as these personal freedoms and loopholes are pressed further, so too the future of the nation-state grows dim. 

Several authors have explored the idea that the nation-state is in a period of decay, among the more recent of them Martin van Creveld, in his The Rise and Decline of the State and in the Soverign Individual, co-authored by James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg. Both would interpret recent events not as a sign of growing entrenchment of the state, but as its dissolution. It is for these reasons that libertarians of all stripes should remain hopeful, in spite of the recent increase in government power and spending--all pursued in the hope of defeating terrorism and/or reviving the economy. 

This country remains incredibly diverse in its political makeup and this diversity will someday reassert itself at the expense of the heavy, homogenizing hands of the nation-state. At some point then, the realization ought to occur that the surest way toward a peaceful, tolerant society is to move toward greater liberties, toward the "full freedom" that Herbert wrote about.


Christopher Mayer is a commercial lender for Provident Bank in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.  Send him MAIL and see his Mises.org Articles Archive.