Chapter Eight: The Future Of The State

VII. What Is Left For Nation States?

Robert Cooper2 portrays the nation state as in decline. 'Post-modern' nation states (mostly in Europe) are no longer interested in aggressive expansion; instead they practice open-ness and rely on treaties to guarantee their integrity as states. Other states are at earlier stages of evolution. And as described in Chapter Two, many cohesive, cultural groups such as the Scottish, the Basques or the Kurds are likely to achieve (or reclaim) national identity during the first half of the 21st century. But while there will be more countries, they will have less power.

Nation states probably reached the apogee of their impact on individual lives in the middle of the 20th century. Although they now have incomparably more powerful tools to know about and control individuals (CCTV, computer data-bases, legitimate or illegitimate recording of electronic communication) these will come to be deployed, as we have seen, over an ever-reducing range of activities. Government has also proven to be spectacularly incompetent in managing and applying technology, so that the actual level of surveillance or knowledge of individuals lags far behind what is theoretically possible. They will catch up, in the end, but by then they will have responsibility for only a limited range of affairs; their main role will be to act as the eyes and ears (and sometimes the muscles) of a range of global agencies.

Subsidiarity, or the principle that the making and application of laws should be carried out at the lowest (nearest to the people) level of government at which it will be effective, is an enshrined principle of the European Union, if not of many other polities. It runs counter to the centralizing rendency of most governments, and it would appear to run counter to the process of globalization. Taken to a logical conclusion, subsidiarity argues against the existence of national governments, certainly in a supra-state area such as the European Union. By 2050, there will be no persuasive argument for retaining 'national' competencies: in most fields things ought to be decided either at local level or at global level. The same applies in the USA to state governments. However, no-one expects nation states to abolish themselves in deference to a philosophical principle, and it is not going to happen in the foreseeable future.

In fact there is no real tension between globalization and the principle of subsidiarity. Accountants, for instance, have a global community of interest, especially if accounting standards are going to converge internationally, and there is every reason for their rules to be formed and administered internationally. On the other hand, the issuance of planning permissions is clearly something that should take place locally (according to national or supra-national laws, by all means). However the subject of planning permission raises other, more global issues such as environmental rules and the controversial subject of 'human rights'.


2 Cooper, R (1997) The Post-Modern State and the World Order, Demos, London