The hinny canter towards smaller governments (550)

While we wait to see whether an eruption of world-wide impact (radioactively and economically) will or will not occur in the next day or two in the Fukushima reactors of Japan, I’ve been thinking of a little country which I happened to mention in passing yesterday—Belgium (and which, until this morning, I knew almost nothing about). In comparison to Japan, this country is of trivial interest to most of us. Since Belgium has little by way of oilfields, its fate is also of far less concern than the other news event which dominates the newspapers this morning—Libya.

Like Czechoslovakia, Belgium is an artificial country, an accidental byproduct of nationalistic wars which have dominated Europe for most of the last 200 years or so. Unlike Czechoslovakia, which split amicably into Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1993, Belgium has been unable to divide into economically dynamic Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north of the country and economically dependent French-speaking Wallonia in the south (although many Walloons actually want to unite with Germany for even more prosperity!).

The big impediment to peaceful bifurcation is the capital city of Brussels which lies just within the Flanders part but which both sides want to call their own. This city is a kaleidoscopic heap of humanity which also contains a German-speaking minority as well as a large number of North African immigrants who speak several different languages, and thousands of European Union bureaucrats who speak 25 more languages (though usually in English). The latter are there because, ironically, Brussels is also the centre of the EU!

Well, apart from suggesting that the country will never sort itself out until the EU itself starts dividing and Brussels loses its gloss, I couldn’t begin to make a stab at forecasting what Belgium’s fate will be. But I can make the same sort of generalization as in yesterday’s piece. Just as the transnational economic scimitars of the modern world (particularly banks at present) are taking decision-making slices out of nation-state bureaucracies (particularly their treasuries), so the latter are also being chipped away by regional aspirations for smaller governments.

Corsicans and Bretons want to break away from France, Basques and Catalans from Spain, Scottish and Welsh from the UK (even many of the English are now calling for self-determination! and even northerners from the southerners!), Kurds from Iraq, Shias from the Sunni governments of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Tibetans and Qinhainans from China, Germans from the EU, etc. The list can go on.

Genetically, we are a small group species. Nothing will change that fact in a thousand years—if we last that long. Nation-states as we know them are relatively recent institutional experiments and are bureaucratic byproducts of a particular hierarchical military innovation of the 19th century—the mass-conscripted artillery regiment. Both of these are financially insupportable now. Politicians and bureaucrats—who will still be necessary in tomorrow’s world—had better get used to the idea that we are still hunter-gatherers at heart. We will still like to buy the cheapest trinkets wherever they are produced in the world, but we also want much smaller governments in which politicians and bureaucrats are far more accessible than they are now. One of these trends is already occurring at a gallop, the other at a hinny canter—but moving forward nevertheless.

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