On Federalism, Nation-States, and Other Matters

On Federalism, Nation-States, and Other Matters

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on March, 2013)


Robert Heilbroner argues that our “sense of identification,” which is to say, identification with persons or groups of persons we tend to affiliate and bond with, is limited to national identification at best. Rarely if ever, according to Heilbroner, do we transcend the ethnic bond to become a part of something greater than us, something that’s also meaningful and lasting, like a brotherhood of men, for instance, or people of a kindred spirit, whatever! It’s the weakest link in his chain of reasoning. 

Everything else — including his positing of nation-states as though the ultimate in our political arrangements, as our crowning achievement when it comes to political organizations — follows!


Heilbroner marshals reasons, some of them cogent, others less so, in support of his thesis — that nothing short of resolute political authority can stave off the global dangers and challenges facing humankind. And considering the paradigm he’s working with, we may agree with him to a point. 

It’s his claim that the requisite kind of authority must reside in nation-states and nation-states alone that’s in dispute here, and that gets him into all sorts of difficulties. And if we proceed on the assumption that global problems and challenges facing the human prospect require global solutions — a fairly straightforward premise not only when taken at face value but also in terms of Heilbroner’s project — we must conclude that he failed miserably.


One example should suffice. As part of genuine concern with our ability to meet and to respond to global challenges which face us, we can’t fix our sights on the immediate present but must concern ourselves with the future as well — of our children and grandchildren and so on. And the reason is obvious. Some of the dangers Heilbroner is alluding to, like global warming or the eventual depletion of Earth’s resources, aren’t likely to impact the present generation sufficiently to require us to alter our lifestyles and drastically so — only the future ones. 

In short, the proper stance on behalf of anyone who, just like Heilbroner, is genuinely concerned with the species and the planet’s survival is to take the long view, which is precisely what he does, as he invariably must. Heilbroner’s last chapter, in fact, a fitting conclusion to the Inquiry, bears a catchy title, “What Has Prosperity Ever Done For Me?” Rhetorical as this question may be, we’re treated there nonetheless to all the correct answers. We do bear a definite responsibility to future generations, to the future of humankind!


But here’s the catch, Catch-22. Since Heilbroner is so utterly convinced (i) that national identity is the best we can do and (ii) that it’s contrary to human nature to form bonds and affiliations which transcend ethnic or national boundaries, a question arises. 

What’s the cash value of saying that we can ever break the pattern and do the unexpected, if not now, then soon? 


There’s no basis whatever for making this kind of inference! If the Yanks can bond and associate only with other Yanks — and if the same goes for the Mexicans and the French, and so on — then how can we possibly bond with future generations of nondescript ethnic or national origin or with the entire human race in fact? How can we do it if we can’t do it here and now? 

The whole idea is preposterous, and building upon it is like building on quicksand. Yet, that’s precisely what we must do if we’re to take the long view, determined as we may be, indeed, as we must be if we’re to repel the global dangers and challenges that face us. 

The bottom line is, Heilbroner’s just too caught up in the web of contradictions of his own making to make any sense at all. He’s simply incoherent on the subject. The very idea is incoherent!


Now, let’s be clear about one thing: it’s Burke’s idea that Heilbroner is regurgitating here. 

But Burke’s idea wasn’t meant to apply to the humankind at large, only to human society in a particular space and time. It was a society bound by a set of common norms, values, and mores, ways of habit, of thought, and of doing things, bound by a shared ethos, however defined or circumscribed. 1

Hence Heilbroner’s rather incessant stress on national identification to provide Burke’s immortal words (see note 1) with a context as broad as possible — in order to endow those words with a hoped-for meaning. But it all falls short in the final analysis if the object is humanity itself, all of humanity, that is, there being no limits, no boundaries, no borders. 

So yes, if the object is to come up with global solutions to global problems, then nation-states, independent and forever warring nation-states, are not the way to go. For all his erudition and sophistication and some two hundred years or so of hindsight to boot, Heilbroner had not advanced very much beyond Burke. And the same is true, I’m afraid, of conservative thought in general.


Macpherson’s words, by contrast, are like a breath of fresh air:

From this [technical change in the methods of war, and all that it implies, is Macpherson’s primary concern!], the possibility of a new rational political obligation arises. We cannot hope to get a valid theory of individual obligation to a single national state alone. But if we postulate no more than the degree of rational understanding, an acceptable theory of the obligation of the individual to a wider political authority should be possible.

Note the operative term here, “a broader political authority.” An independent nation-state will no longer suffice, not even a network of independent or interdependent nation-states!

From Macpherson’s radical standpoint, the reason is they no longer command the requisite kind of authority because their legitimacy to govern is no longer intact. From the global standpoint, the standpoint of arriving at global solutions to global problems, a degree of cooperation between said nation-states is a must to get the ball rolling — if not immediately or in any formal kind of way, then soon after. And when the time comes, and the air’s cleared, formally so as well.


I find it telling that, for all the time and effort that had gone into writing the Inquiry, Heilbroner is silent on both counts: 

  1. Questions concerning legitimacy to govern (and the related problem of social justice) are bracketed because the very paradigm within which such questions arise is accepted without question.
  2.  Even the question of arriving at global solutions by a network of independent or interdependent nation-states supposedly working in tandem — surely one of the major concerns that prompted the Inquiry in the first place — is not given its proper due and is simply assumed.

Again, there’s nothing wrong per se with making such an assumption. It’s a fact of life that common interests, especially when they assume the form of perceived threats and dangers which are likely to affect all the interested parties equally, do make for strange bedfellows indeed. 

And we don’t need any sci-fi scenarios or highfalutin tales to convince us of that. The evidence abounds of peoples, of entire nations reaching out to form all kinds of alliances that’d transcend the traditional configuration given by the present-day network of independent nation-states, from global-warming/climate-change conferences to the economically-based hybrid which goes by the name of EU.  


But it goes without saying (and it’s in this respect that Heilbroner’s comprehension has failed him!) that all such instances of “reaching out” –even if they don’t translate to immediate successes and their lifespan may be short-lived at first — are indeed an indication:  

  1. that something’s rotten in the state of Denmark; 
  2. that the present political configuration given by a network of independent or interdependent nation-states, leaves a great deal to be desired; and lastly,
  3. that something new and exciting may be afoot, a movement that, given time, may yet free us from the political stranglehold, the straitjacket we’ve all been wearing and laboring under and provide us with a basis for hope.

In any event, it’s a beginning, a new and exciting beginning. But Heilbroner, in his obstinacy, is forever blind to the possibility, forever clinging like a drowning man to the concept of ever reigning nation-states, reigning absolutely and unconditionally, even down to the end of history. 

There are two reasons for this: first, his obdurate belief that when faced with imminent danger, people will tend to support and obey even the most authoritarian of governments simply because they’ve been so programmed from the get-go; and second, a corresponding and equally obdurate belief — this time unexpressed but implicit nonetheless — that nation-states, thus encouraged, are unlikely to relinquish even parts of their sovereignty under the circumstances.

But surely, the first is a dubious proposition if ever there was one. And as to the second, who is to say what nation-states will or will not do when push comes to shove? Who can vouch for their behavior, for anyone’s behavior, when the common good is at stake? All that we’re entitled to say at this point, we’re in the realm of speculation, nothing but guesswork.


One thing seems certain: we need to rethink the concept of federalism, re-invent it if we must if we are ever to supersede, and move beyond the notion of nation-states reigning supreme as the sole bearers of ultimate political authority. 

We need a brand-new concept, one that might hopefully combine both our need to listen and to agree. We need a concept that would encompass the idea of self-government, a form of government that’d be based in equal parts on a decision-making process commonly adhered to and consensus as well. 

A tall order, you say? But why not? I counter. Should we aim for anything less?


I’ll tend to these and related questions in due time. For the time being, however, let me leave you with the following thought.

If there’s a moral to this story, a fitting conclusion to the recent series of essays on Heilbroner and his magnum opus, it’s got to be this:

Politics trumps and supersedes all other human arrangements and forms of organization, social or economic, because only politics is about justice and nothing but justice. Consequently, only a political solution, properly conceived and executed, can make the required kind of difference, the only difference that counts, because only politics can establish the reign of justice, not only here and now but forever!


  1. [Society, according to Burke,] “is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790, The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke, vol. 3, p. 359 (1899).
  2. I’m referring here, however indirectly, to a recent article, “Economics and Politics: Against Vulgar Marxism,” so that you get your bearings.


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