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First Principles

5th March 2008

Are political processes and indeed state structures based largely on 'ethnicity' or 'national' principles Good, or Bad?

As we had an amicable exchange about the latest tensions in the Balkans the other evening, a former senior colleague of mine said something to the effect that it was high time in modern Europe that we put all those ethno-national divisions behind us. Weren't they all divisive and dangerous?

Margaret Thatcher is often cited as the source of the phrase "the facts of life are conservative". After a while many problems stop being Problems and become Facts of Life.

On this basis, even if one hates an ethno-national approach to politics and social organisation, maybe certain ethno-national instincts are part of the way many people do look at the world? If so, maybe it is wise to make some sort of reasonable provision for managing them?

This vigorous analysis tackles such basic questions head-on. 

Here is my own Grand Unifying Theory of Politics.

The core question of politics and economics is Trust. More specifically, under what circumstances can and should one trust strangers?

The greater the ambient level of trust in any given social space, the easier it is to do things quickly and well. People who scarcely know each other or who have never even met can strike sophisticated deals, knowing (a) that other partners are likely to be reliable, and (b) that if things go wrong the local state institutions will honestly help sort out the problem.

Without Trust of this sort, personal and organizational horizons shrink. Extended family networks and associated corruption thrive as the best way of dealing with the trust problem.

Or one trusts primarily members of one's own group/clan/religion/community. And assumes that members of other groups/clans/religions/communities are doing the same, so they are not to be trusted too far since their primary loyalty (like one's own) is not to a fair, neutral process.

All this is massively obvious across the former Yugoslavia space. Political leaders must represent 'their' national communities first and foremost if they are to get elected; voters distrust other communities and make a mainly ethnic/national choice as a form of political fire insurance.

Even in the UK where there is no serious complaint about the intrinsic fairness of the legal system and Trust is at civilizationally high levels, many Scots want a different political structure, viz some sort of independence from England. Likewise Quebec, Kurds, Chechens and countless other examples. The Israeli/Palestinian problem seems capable of being settled only on an ethno-national basis.

Thus the so-called 'nation-state' turns out to be a sophisticated device for enabling trust to operate, often at much higher levels of population. This has created conditions for the surge of economic growth and creativity seen around much of the globe over the past couple of centuries. Greater attention to this fundamental trust issue would pay huge dividends in the international development industry. 

Our success here in Europe (and the ruinous experience of the two World Wars where certain national ambitions ran amok ) has brought us to think that there is a new 'higher' stage of development.

The European Union is a unique example of an attempt to create a wider context of trust at a supra-national level. But it too risks making a fundamental blunder by trying to insist on, or sneakily nudge people towards, a new 'European' uber-identity which supersedes supposedly drearily parochial 'national' identities. 

This won't work. Trust grows in subtle unexpected ways, usually slowly and through doses of unhappy trial and error. It can not be created by European elites telling us all what is good for us. Especially when some of them look to be cheating on their expenses which our taxes have paid for.

Another former colleague recently said to me, "the trouble with you is that you reduce everything to first principles!"

He's right. I do. 

The risk for someone who does that lies in sounding like the wily but annoying Irishman who tells a lost traveller trying to get to Dublin that it is "no good starting from here".

The key advantage in looking hard and regularly at First Principles is that one is less likely to build a tall edifice on wobbly foundations. And perhaps more likely to be a better source of advice as to when something tall and imposing is in fact risking collapse.

First Principles are hard to deal with. With or without a referendum now and again. 

But in the long run they are more trustworthy than Second Principles. Or Third Principles. 

Or ... No Principles.

Older comments:
6th March 2008
cool post dude

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