No, National Borders Are Not ‘Arbitrary’

April 04, 2016


One of the truly dumbest arguments I hear in favor of free trade is that national borders are “arbitrary.”

[Ian Fletcher| April 4, 2016 |Huffington Post]

I usually get this from right-wing libertarian types, but occasionally from “one world” leftists, too.

But it’s not true.

For a start, calling national borders “arbitrary” is simply irrelevant, in that even if itwere true, it wouldn’t imply what people who say this think it does.

In some sense, it’s arbitrary that I’m me. But this doesn’t make me a fool to worry about where my breakfast is when I wake up in the morning. Lots of important facts of life are arbitrary in some sense. This doesn’t mean it’s rational to ignore them.

This basic piece of common sense satisfies most people on the question. Who cares whether national borders are arbitrary; they’re still there.

In any case, national borders are actually very much not arbitrary.

People who call them so generally haven’t thought through what this concept actually means. “Arbitrary” doesn’t mean “could have been otherwise.” “Arbitrary” means “could have been otherwise and it wouldn’t make any difference.”

But that’s actually not true in the case of national borders. People forget how much difference it really does make, where national borders lie. They represent the physical limits of distinct sovereignties, and it matters who’s sovereign over what.

Try living for a day in a failed state like Somalia, where no government is sovereign in much of the country, if you think sovereignty doesn’t matter. Whatever Kenya’s problems, trust me you’ll head for that Kenya-Somalia border. And you’ll hope to find some guards at that border so you can leave Somalia’s chaos behind you when you cross it.

Or try a slightly less-scary thought experiment. Suppose we just declared one day that the US border now includes Canada. Now what?

Well, for a start, it’s now a non-consensual political unit, rather than two consensual political units.

So it violates the stated political values of both nations.

Point is, national borders represent, among other things, the borders enclosing populations that consent to be ruled by particular governments. You can’t just draw them anywhere. You have to draw them where people consent to have them drawn.

South Sudan just learned this the hard way in 2011. The entire population of pre-separation Sudan just wouldn’t consent to live together. Slovakia and the Czech Republic learned this lesson, more politely, in 1993, for the same reason.

If you don’t care about the consent of the governed, fine. But then a) you’re outside the parameters of accepted principles of political legitimacy in the modern world, and b) you really need to ‘fess up in public about it, else you’re conning people.

Some honest libertarians and Marxists do this. Good for them, as a matter of personal honesty. But I don’t see very many people following them.

It’s also a nasty paradox for these crypto-anarchist libertarians. Take “freedom,” first from everything else and then from borders, to extremes, and you lose the most important freedom of all, the one on which all the others depend: the freedom to choose who governs us.

Or maybe you have a plan for world government instead. Really need to ‘fess up about that one, too.

Still, I’m not surprised. Globalists have been hiding tyranical implications under universalist humanitarism since Robbespierre’s day.

No borders => tyranny. Ooops!

Lots of people snipe at national sovereignty on the naive assumption that if you took nation-states out of the picture, you’d get either a) some sort of utopian internationalist harmony, or b) the perfectly free reign of the liberated individual. But you wouldn’t. You’d get the warlordism of whatever was the strongest remaining bloc of power. Perhaps it would be gangsters. Perhaps ideological fanatics. Perhaps religious fanatics. Perhaps even corporations. Perhaps something else. Either way, it’s a dystopian sci-fi world, not a positive ideal.

If you want freedom, you want sovereigns who respect freedom. You don’t want an absence of sovereigns. Which means you don’t want an absence of borders.

Sovereignty, of course, can lead to all sorts of bad things when bad people are sovereign. Hitler and Stalin both had sovereignty. It’s not a sufficient condition for good government. But it is certainly a necessary condition.

Is bad sovereign government better than Hobbesian chaos? Hitler Germany a worse place to live than warlord Somalia? I don’t know, but I do know good government is better than either, and impossible without sovereignty.

Which is impossible without borders. Which have to be specific and defined to function. Which are therefore not arbitrary and couldn’t be drawn elsewhere without a great deal of legitimate political action to rearrange them — which action would itself depend on legitimate sovereignty and thus on borders.

So please, the next time we’re discussing America’s trade deficit or our other trade problems, don’t tell me national borders are arbitrary. They’re not.

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  • I’m with you that borders are not arbitrary… well regulated borders are essential for autonomy. That statement holds for cells, human beings, corporations, economies and nations; just to name a few. Any autonomous system, that is a system which has its own priorities and acts on them while surviving and operating in a larger environment, must have regulated borders in order to manage its exchanges with that environment. In general, an autonomous system cannot exist in isolation from its environment since it must act within it, receive resources from it and dispose of wastes and heat into it. In general it must compete for resources and protect those it has so that it can use them to pursue its objectives.

    What resources and wastes must a nation manage across its borders? It is any resource (including infrastructure) or waste for which it needs to maintain a different density than is naturally available and freely accessible in the greater environment. We seem to agree that we need to manage the flow of people…we’re building walls, and screening travelers to do that. We are belatedly learning that we need to regulate the flow of information…keeping trade and political secrets, not to mention ISIS propaganda. However, we also need to manage the flow of goods and services, jobs, and money….otherwise the densities and distributions of these resources will degrade to match those of the environment.

    An unfortunate error of micro-economics is to believe in simple miracles. One of those is a belief in the law of supply and demand (which is BS in itself…however that is another essay) as a consequence of rational actors. Economic balances come about through the same fractal mechanisms that maintain balances of fluids, oxygen, CO2, temperature and a host of other variables in the human body… homeostasis. Those balances also require well regulated boundaries within the human body and between the human body and the outside environment: linings of blood vessels, skin, lung tissue, linings of the gut, etc. Homeostasis in the human body is produced by diversity and uncertainties in many dimensions, not by rational thinking. However, homeostasis does not automatically produce the optimum solution…. it can stagnate at sub optimal set points just as economies can stagnate in recession. Those founding myths of economics were produced in the early 19th century… a time when no one understood biology, intellectuals believed in the supremacy of reason, and were ignorant of statistics and homeostatic mechanisms. Like the myth of humors and practice of bloodletting which dominated thinking at that time… it is past time to demolish the founding myths of economics.

    A macro-economic, error is a belief that free-markets exist and are beneficial. Both over-regulated and unregulated markets are destructive. However, free-markets are unregulated and unregulate-able between parties. They are like soccer games played without referees. Within a nation, markets are regulated by culture and laws…. and these either work to maintain a healthy balance between suppliers and their customers, or to favor one at the expense of the other..sub-optimal setting. Both sides still struggle to gain control through organizing into unions, corporations or granges. The most cohesive side, absent regulation by culture and government….gains domination and overplays its hand for tactical profits that undermine strategic health. International trade creates a situation in which there are multiple sets of cultures and laws…. and pushes the whole system to one governed by the weakest of these, or by none at all. This is a playing field which attracts global corporations to build gaps in regulated borders over which they can move resources and profits at will… much like parasites.

    Borders are a critical design element in every autonomous system. They are the first line of a multi-layered immune system…. which is more aptly called “the autonomy sustaining” system. In the long run, it matters not where they are drawn, but that the exchange of all critical resources is adequately regulated across the same borders. The European union is struggling now because its economic borders are not aligned with its political ones. Neither the nations in the union nor the union as a whole can sustain their autonomy under these conditions.

    Ed Lee