EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is a follow-up to October’s Oh, Catalonia!

Let’s look at questions of state legitimacy as a series of Matryoshka dolls, working down to the level of Catalan desires for independence.

The outside doll: the function of the state is to protect its people. Nation-states had to get large to support the complexity of the arms race, with stakes of war having grown to include cultural annihilation. The nation-state had to get good at war or face disaster unheard of since the Mongol invasions. For most of history a nation or nation-state was there to protect her people’s culture and to repel the culture of the alien. Culture was religious, linguistic, and almost always racial.

The one thing a huge, all-powerful state can do well is neutralize another state’s huge, all-powerful threat to her people. There is no evolutionary, non-coercive, counter to a submarine lurking under an ice cap to discharge a missile salvo powerful enough to wipe out civilization. Large, complex armies needed to be built, and in America’s case, dispatched to the wide corners of the globe.

So, a state certainly should exist to secure the peace and rights of its people. If there was an army bearing down on Spain, there would not be a debate over Catalan independence. After all, the USA and the USSR, cultures on completely opposite philosophical poles, collaborated to destroy a greater enemy for their mutual survival (the Western world’s survival, in the case of the USA).

America introduced the concept of the Credal Nation: a nation as an agreed-upon set of values, rules and affirmations, defended by the collection of believers. This is how the American modular creed transcends language, culture, geography (what happens when the values, rules and affirmations become too complex to be broadly culturally agreeable, will be the subject of another missive). The American State was specifically created to secure the political rights of peoples, all peoples (finally). We spent the last century exporting this truly revolutionary idea, wisely and foolishly, futilely and successfully.

This is the middle doll of state legitimacy: the State must be defined rightly, and exists at the consent of the people to serve their interests: civil servants, not tyrants or kings (and when the civil servant becomes king?).

European nations have admirably made this transition. They are, additionally, trying to subsume their national identities into the European Union project. The question of “What is a State For?” was never addressed. If the question of what a state is for was never asked or answered, can resistance to the concept, Brexit and Catalan separatism, be expected to be wholly defined and rational?

The motivation for the EU, at first, was on solid ground, in terms of historically workable state legitimacy, in that the project was trying to avoid the sorts of wars that had, twice, threatened the survival of European civilization. Hell, war threatens man’s very existence. “Just” a limited conventional modern war can force wholesale evacuation of peoples from a region.

Here we come to the last doll; the smallest, most solid, and most resistant to change: common military defense of the universal humanist creed is now the least of the EU’s functions; its commitments and capabilities to defense laughable after the collapse of the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Germany had to charter airlift from Russia to uphold their commitments in Afghanistan. France had to do the same for their operation in Mali. The EU has evolved instead into a giant administrative state.

When we say the nation-state’s job is to protect a people, we are on historically solid territory. When we say a nation-state’s job is to secure all people’s political rights, American style, we are on solid human-rights grounds, which seems evolutionarily stable in its results and persistence. When we say a state’s job is to tax from one and give to another, or to tax from one nation and give to another (the Germans’ governing-coalition-threatening notion of a “transfer union”), or to define one nation’s agricultural products at the behest of another, or to transfer refugees from one nation to another, our framework for what a nation-state is for becomes quite blurry. The task of definition, along with the flip-side of status quo challenge towards change and adaptation, becomes nigh impossible. At the very least, it should be realized that, historically speaking, the super-administrative state is a very new thing. And given the chaos of the results in so short a time, it should be debate-worthy to challenge the quality of the results: Greece, less than 2% of the size of the EU, often threatens the EU’s stability, and would seem to threaten the [EU’s again stability tomorrow][5,] while Greece remains reduced to a seemingly perennial zombie state after the “repairs.”

But most importantly, there seems to be no way back from the EU. This was a zero-sum choice forced on millions of adults by the expert builders of the EU. The scheme was adopted in their meetings decades ago, hatched entirely from their conceit of expertise, while paradoxically having to accommodate their political mandates of compromise without an evolutionary incremental device of feedback or correction anywhere in sight. Yet, permanent administrative law crystal palaces too fragile to change continue to be built (e.g. Obamacare.)

This is the difference as to why NAFTA never threatened America’s political legitimacy. It would have, however, if our economic rights were presided over from Mexico City. The mind boggles at the concept of an American politician having to explain how he took tax revenue from, say, Chicago, and sent it to Chiapas. Only a politician could be perplexed as to how his scheme could be unpopular. Or why his choice might trigger talk of bloody insurrection if there was no other way to voice the people’s displeasure. And when the displeasure comes, his appeal will be to the sanctity of the Administrative law just conjured.

Is this the State’s legitimate function now? We Americans are not vexed (yet) over lawful definitions for the curvature of a banana or how much cacao is needed for chocolate to be deemed acceptable by an inquisitor in Ottawa (chocolate is deemed chocolate by free peoples in the eating!). It’s hard to call a people free if a clerk can slap an improperly curved banana out of our hands. And administrative laws are nearly as untouchable as they are inscrutable. The EU chocolate wars have been raging for 25 years. Administrative laws can endure beyond the age for which they were intended.

How to resist the will of the administrative state? This is, in my opinion, the crucial question behind the political tidal waves that have broken over the USA with Trump, in Spain with Catalan independence, with Brexit, and with France. In every case entire political edifices had to be overthrown to express a need to effect change. And even then? Trump’s sturm-und-drang or no, Americans will surely be frustrated on how little power we have to affect changes to our healthcare arrangements. How will France reorient their employment rules towards greater flexibility? My prediction is that they will be thwarted by Unions and administrators, the engines of the status quo, and the Bastilles will need re-storming. How can Catalan peacefully insist Spain not tax them disproportionately? The second half of Catalan’s argument is the paucity of the service they get for their money. Even if this is entirely perception, politically, perception is fact, and politics is the only ecosystem where a provably wrong idea can be made to live by political will.

I would remind the reader that the State demonstrates no history of competence in managing anything complex. Europe was chock-a-block with state-owned enterprises in the sixties, and not one of them has survived in places where the will of adults with agency can be expressed at the ballot box. That evolutionary force of the government’s bias towards control was chased like an exorcised demon into a herd of [Gadarene swine][10 from industry into administration (where they promptly drowned).

I reiterate my rule: if it takes more than three simple words to define a given problem, it cannot be done without great expense and distortion by centrally planned, non-evolutionary power: “Destroy Nazi Army” and “Nuke The Enemy” both work. “Manage co-mingled, intertwined mental illness and substance abuse” will not do.

It is no coincidence that challenges to the central state’s authority appear with the elimination of the state’s main job (libertarians would say only job) of military defense. It is no coincidence that the function of the nation-state, never a permanent state of affairs, be questioned like never before, with the threat of war faded to near-abstraction.

And the likely outcome of Catalan independence? A negotiated change to administrative laws which should never have affected Catalan in the first place. But would Madrid be talking without Catalan’s outburst? Better to have left the whole ruling arrangement looser.

When an incremental device for change is not possible a radical device for change becomes more likely. Or, God forbid, a revolution, or an independence drive.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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