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No, National Borders Are Not 'Arbitrary'

One of the truly dumbest arguments I hear in favor of free trade is that national borders are "arbitrary." I usually get this from right-wing libertarian types, but occasionally from "one world" leftists, too. But it's not true.
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One of the truly dumbest arguments I hear in favor of free trade is that national borders are "arbitrary."

So we shouldn't care about the trade deficit, because it only measures economic activity "inside an arbitrary line on the ground."

And we shouldn't care about deindustrialization or other measures of what's good or bad for the American economy.

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 it were 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. They're a very serious reality of how we live as a nation and a big part of our economic fate.

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