Saturday, January 25, 2020


Lew Rockwell describes the recent origin of the nation-state.

It is useful to back up just a bit to remember that the nation-state as we know is a modern invention, and not an essential feature of society. In many ways, it is, as Bastiat said, nothing but an artifice that permits some to live at others’ expense. He was of course speaking of the modern state, particularly that of nineteenth-century France, and all that he wrote applies in our time as well.

But states were not always structured as we know them today. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the late Middle Ages, societies in Europe were governed not by bureaucrats, elected councils, regulations, or any kind of permanent structural apparatus of coercion and compulsion, but by competing cells of authority that were woven together not by ideology, but by separate function. The merchant class managed its affairs, the church had its purview and courts, the international traders developed their code, feudal lords were masters of their domain, free cities managed themselves, the family was largely autonomous, and the state, such as it was, consisted of extended families and lines of rulers who dared not transgress their traditional authority.

Every institution was supremely jealous of its power and authority. The emergence of liberty from feudalism occurred not because any institution brought it about but because they all stayed within their realms, cooperating where necessary but also competing for the loyalty of the public. All the institutions we associate with civilization—universities, stock markets, charities, global trade, scientific establishments, vocational schools, courts of law—were born or recaptured from the ruins of the ancient world in these supposed dark ages without nation-states.

Voltaire once wrote of how kings would conduct their wars, raising their own money and employing their own soldiers, always acquiring or losing territory and usually up to no good. But for the most part, though they dominate the history books, their activities had little or no impact on the people. It was during this time, historian Ralph Raico reminds us, that the process of accumulating capital began and the division of labor began to expand — two features that are essential to rising population and prosperity.

The nation-state as we know it — defined by a fixed governing class that enjoys the legal monopoly on the right to use aggressive force against person and property and holds a status that is higher in authority than any other institution — was a development of the breakup of Christendom and the wars of the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century. As competitive sources of authority weakened, the state as an entity separate from its ruler came to be strengthened and consolidated, sometimes in opposition to competing authority centers and sometimes in cooperation with them.

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