May 26th, 2020

On the arbitrariness of nations

Many political activists who are against the idea of countries and nations argue that the placing of borders is largely arbitrary. Historically speaking, political borders tended to be placed at the location of "natural borders" such as rivers or mountain ranges, features of the physical geography which seemed to serve as natural dividers of nations since people tended to not cross over these features much. This made sense from a historical perspective: A villager who was dependent on their local community for basic means of life probably didn't have much reason to cross a river or a mountain range to some distant location, and so people who spoke different languages or had different ways of life tended to naturally expand up to the point of these natural borders, but not further than that. With our modern awareness of global geography, however, we become aware of how unequally this system of land distribution works: People who historically settled in regions with broad expanses of open, flat land end up with huge territories, while people who settled in mountain ranges end up with tiny nations which could hardly defend themselves in the event of a foreign invasion or economic competition.

Then too, political states often ignore natural boundaries, such as the present-day Romania, which was historically bound by the Carpathian mountains but which was arbitrarily given a huge piece of territory on the other side of those mountains after World War I, resulting in a country split by the mountains which is really more like two nations living on either side of that divide. And of course, assignments of territory change over time as countries come and go: When I was born, countries like Ukraine and Belarus did not exist because they were just parts of the Soviet Union, and there were two Germanies. In school, children learn the names of countries and the capitals of those countries, and we're taught this information as if it were something to memorize, something which remains constant, when in fact it is subject to change. To be fair, much of this information is relatively constant: The locations and capital cities of most countries are not likely to change in your lifetime, and even the borders of "disputed regions" remain remarkably stable over time, but people who grew up believing that the capital of West Germany is Bonn or that Prague is the capital of Czechoslovakia needed to re-learn this information in later life. And when you do this, you come to the realization that countries and borders are arbitrary constructs formed by agreement between politicians: Some political leaders get together and arbitrarily define borders on a map, and the people who live in the thus-formed countries are expected to adhere to those decisions and treat borders as if they're set in stone, when really they are fluid and subject to change with time.

All of this is true, of course: A nation's borders are not defined according to laws of science, and they may change with time, typically as a result of some arbitrary decision by some group of politicians without any involvement from the public. Where political activists make an unfounded leap of logic, however, is when they conclude that because this is the case, therefore borders shouldn't exist. At first, it may seem to make sense: Since borders are arbitrary and there is no "real reason" for them to be where they are, then we don't need to take them seriously and can violate them as we please, right?

What this argument ignores is that everything which people do and everything which people value is arbitrary. Everything which happens in human lives and human relationships is arbitrary. Think of all the friends you know and how you came to be friends with them. Perhaps you met them at school, or at a party, or some other social gathering. Now imagine this: If you hadn't attended that school, you would never have met the friends you made at that school; if you hadn't attended those particular social gatherings, you would never have met the friends you made there. By the same logic used by anti-border activists, this means that you should not have those friends, because the fact that you met those people is an event of random chance caused by the arbitrary decision to go somewhere when you could just as easily have gone somewhere else. Whatever school you attended, you didn't have to attend; your parents could easily have lived or moved somewhere else, which would have resulted in you attending a different school. So since the fact is that all the people you've met, you met due to random chance, therefore you shouldn't have any of those friends.

On a more geographical note, think of the building you live in. Even if you do not own or rent your own residence, it's likely that you sleep in some building at night. Now ask yourself: Who decided that that building should be there? Did the general public get to democratically vote on whether that building would be put there? Because if not, then that building was put there by someone's arbitrary decision, and they didn't have any natural right to put that building there. If you believe that borders should not exist because they are the result of arbitrary decisions and historical luck, then you also have no right to be wherever you are right now, because whatever place you reside in is also a place that was built by random historical chance and someone's arbitrary decision to put that structure there.

Indeed, the fact that you are alive at all is the result of an arbitrary decision. You probably have two parents. These people became your parents through a physical action which they could have just as easily decided not to perform. What demands that the person who is your father had to have sex with the person who is your mother, resulting in your birth? The fact that you were conceived and born is an event as random as any other; if your parents had not met, your father or your mother could just as easily have been an entirely different person. If you believe that borders should be abolished because they are determined by some random person's random decision, then this also means that you should be killed, because your birth was the random and arbitrary decision of the people who are your parents.

The reason why people value things like family, friends, and geographic locations--and yes, the latter includes the concept of a "nation"--is not because they are scientifically necessary. A person can live without family and friends; yes, you need two parents to be biologically born, but after that you can live alone, because nothing requires you to have human contact. Yet people choose to make friends anyway, not because they have to, but because those friends are important to them, and no one says "You made your friends randomly and arbitrarily, so they should be abolished". The same is true of family: When two people have a child, that is the decision of those parents, and no one says "Those two people decided to have a child, and since this was an arbitrary decision made without the child's involvement, the child should be killed". The same principle holds true for a nation: Yes, of course the nation could be different, its borders could have been drawn differently, and there is no scientific necessity for it to exist, but a nation, like a family, like a group of friends, provides a person with a place to call home, a sense of identity, and a social, political, and economic framework within which they can build a life. As such, it is of enormous importance to people. The idea that nations should be abolished just because someone decided to create them is insane, or at least, no less insane than saying that all people should be killed because someone decided to create them.

Why is it sad when a person dies? Because of the loss. That person could just as easily have not been born: If their parents hadn't had sex when they did, that person would never have come into the world, and no one would have mourned their absence; how often do people cry for hypothetical people who could have been conceived, but weren't? Tragedy comes from loss, from the passing away of something which had already existed which was valuable and important to people. Nations exist because they are valuable and important to people, and while there is no imperative that they must exist, there are good reasons for them to exist, yet no reason to get rid of them. Nations are arbitrary because everything is arbitrary. As the Germans say: "Alles kann, nichts muss": Everything can be, but nothing must be. Your life is a random event which you did not choose to begin, but you can still do something with it while you are alive. Just as music both unites people and divides people, borders do the same, but that is not a reason to get rid of them, because defining a space and a community which is "yours" is as much a human need as any.