Free market liberalism is a very appealing model for geeks and any other fans of rational thinking, as it provides an extremely elegant and meritocratic model for division of wealth, being both very close to the meritocratic ideal of everyone having wealth proportionate to their contribution to the overall wealth, and to the liberal ideal of placing the fewest limits possible on human freedom. There is one problem, though, even for geeks like myself – this model works very well for infinite (or practically infinite) resources like labour, but not so well for limited resources like land. How does free competition work when it comes to land? Not only is it limited in quantity, in the sense that there is only so much habitable land in the world, but also in quality – If I carve an amazing jade statue, there’s no problem in me owning it and selling it to whomever I please, since it’s the fruit of my labour and technically anyone else can learn my craft and carve an equal one. But if I own a piece of land, no other person can “make” an “equal” one. The value of land is not just the physical atoms it consists of, but also its location in 3-dimensional space; and in that aspect, every piece of land is unique.
And what’s true in the individual level, here is true even more in a national level. How should land be distributed between countries? We’ve made remarkably little progress in solving this problem in the past few millenia of human civilization. Looking through history, the algorithm seems to be divided in two: in “uncivilized” areas (which every society defines in their own way), it’s the law of the jungle. Take what you can, and claim it as your own. This is how the Roman empire saw the great frontiers of northern Europe; How the later European empires saw Africa, America or Australia; How the various Islamic empires saw “Dar ul-Harb” (i.e the non-muslim world) and generally how most entities we consider “empires” expanded their territories. In many cases, two entities saw themselves as “civilization” and the other as a “frontier” to be taken; This is how, for example, the relations between the Ottoman empire and Christian Europe were, for centuries, an endless fight for land; and so many others like them. In this world, land belongs to whichever country can take it.
On the other hand, within each “civilization”, the rules were different. There have been several variations on this theme, but in general: whenever a “civilized” world contain more than one separate entity (i.e it’s not just the emperor dictating who gets what, but many different states living in a gentle balance of power), the land distribution between them is based on the sacred status-quo: by default, nothing should be changed. No matter how just, how efficient, how reasonable it would be: if we change something, then everything is open for change; and then, we go back to the jungle rules, with every entity trying to take what it can.
This system is very good for keeping peace most of the time: but only most. Since this system existed most strongly in Europe, a look at European history is a very good example of the effects of this system: From an attitude of endless war, where each opportunity one state sees to take over land from another state turns into another battle to take that land, we move to an attitude of power accumulation; States build up their power, and look for the proper timing and excuse to change borders in a way favourable to them. This very rarely happens on a small scale – the few recent examples are the creation of South Sudan, and the still incomplete creation of Kosovo and Russian annexation of Crimea.
What usually happens, is that these periods of peace are stopped by a world war. We usually only count two world wars because we say “world” in the sense of “all of Earth” – but if we consider “world” to mean “civilized world”, or all that part of the world where a state cannot freely start a war during “normal” times, then we see many more “world wars” in European history: the Napoleonic Wars, the Thirty-Years’ War, the Seven-Years’ War, and many others. These wars behave like volcanic eruptions: without being able to fight wars regularly, or to change borders without war, pressure is constantly building up. The status quo, in the form of borders, international organizations and structures, and international laws and norms, always favours the winners of the previous wars and reflects the power balance of their time; but as time passes, the real power balance always shifts. Either previous losers or, more often, new countries become stronger, either economically, diplomatically or demographically. These countries become unhappy with the status quo that does not give them a chance to turn their power into actual change of the international status quo. Thus, when enough pressure adds up that one state, or alliance of states, believe they have enough power and enough to gain from completely breaking the order, they start a war and everyone else joins to realign the new status quo in a way favourable to them. As the “civilized world” expanded to the point where we now consider everywhere in the world to be part of it, these “civilized world” wars became actual world wars.
I write this post in light of the big issue that fills our headlines these days – The work towards Kurdish independence. Kurdistan in one of the places with the greatest “pressure” of this kind – meaning, a place where the status quo is extremely far away from the current balance of power. The status quo completely ignores the Kurds, but they have managed to gather so much power by now, that they want to change this status quo to reflect the situation better. Here they face the guardians of the status quo – The states that have built a negative pressure, meaning they were at their peak when the status quo was created, and have declined since then. This mostly includes the main countries of Western Europe and the Islamic world. Why are European countries opposing a Kurdish independence referendum? Do they have a moral justification for worrying about the “unity of Iraq”? The “unity” of a country whose citizens were never asked about creating? Of course not. They oppose it because they like the status quo that reflects a time when they had more power (military, diplomatic, demographic), or even just sheer luck; and they know that reshaping that status quo (and what starts in the Middle East, will reach everywhere) will redefine the world stage in a way that reflects their current weaker situation.
So, what can be done? Are we doomed to continue this cycle of world wars forever? I don’t think so. I think there can be a way out, but it would require a radical new way of thinking about borders. The best example to follow, in my opinion, is democracy – democracy gave a peaceful way of reflecting the power balance between people in a state, thus eliminating the need (at least when the democracy functions properly) for violent revolutions. Right now, people (in the democratic world) who are unhappy with the way their country is managed, can work towards changing it peacefully. But people who are unhappy with current international borders have only two options: count on the goodwill or economic interests of the country they are trapped in (as the nationalist-minded Catalans, Scots or Flemings are doing), or assert their demands forcefully. If we can design a system where borders can be changed peacefully, these pressures will be released and the need for wars reduced or eliminated.
What kind of system can provide that? I’ll share some ideas in the future. But for now, it’s very difficult to guess. But I have little doubt – it will come in our future, and our current days of fixed international borders will someday seem like the primitive past, as we now look at the absolute monarchies of our ancestors.