Friday, June 19, 2015

The King is Dead, long live the Westphalian nation-state

Kings and Queens are pretty much an anachronism these days. England has their royals but they are figureheads, they don’t have any real power to rule. Where there are kings, we think of them more like dictators. With a few exceptions, as always. But in the time of Kings and kingdoms, it was unheard of to not have a King.

If a King died, whether it be by old age, in battle, or more suspicious circumstances, he was replaced by another from a royal lineage. Hopefully the transition was a clean and peaceful to the eldest son, but if that wasn’t possible, a nearby King would likely move in and claim the territory. Sometimes a Queen or child King could hold the kingdom together, but that was less likely to last.

This was seen as some sort of natural order. As if the very blood in your veins made you a royal. Being born a peasant had equal meaning for what you would do with your life and what you were capable of. The many notable exceptions didn’t seem to matter. Royals who inherited their position failed miserably and peasants rose up to be great men and women. Power rested in the hands of a few and overcoming it seemed impossible.

We got rid of kings because we got tired of their childish bickering destroying so many lives. In 1648, after a century of wars, mostly over details of how to worship Christ, a peace treaty was signed that created the modern nation-state. Some argue that the wars were actually over territory and resources, and of course all wars include those goals, but the treaty specifically stated religious freedoms as part of the deal. The King could have his territory, but he couldn’t punish people for worshiping differently than him.

I tell this story not only to explain where religious freedom comes from, I’ve been over that. I want to point out that something that appears to be the natural order can be changed. The natural order that is accepted in the modern Western nation-state, dominated by capitalism is, that if you are rich, you deserve it. Because we are free, we can gain and accumulate wealth freely. We can use our intellect and energy to create value and be rewarded for it. If you work hard, you will be rewarded. Sounds good.

It is good. But it only works if people are honest, if they don’t lie and cheat their way to fortune. We know people do it, but we so want to believe in the power of the free market to select the best people and reward them accordingly, that we ignore that. We dismiss those who are caught as outliers. We punish the little cheaters, the starving boy who steals an apple, and let the bankers charge outrageous fees and the insurance companies deny benefits.

This corrupts the system and wealth accumulates at the top until all of our politicians are millionaires because it takes millions of dollars to get elected and laws get passed that you can spend billions on an election because the thing that is supposed to measure your value in a free market is now a commodity that can buy more freedom. “More freedom” is not a lie like “more equal” was in George Orwell’s 1984. Freedom can be bought at the expense of others. But as we did with kings, we can change that.

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