In the context of trade and immigration, borders are often discussed as a means of excluding foreign workers and foreign goods.
In one way of thinking, borders provide an opportunity for states to exclude private actors such as workers, merchants, and entrepreneurs. On the other hand, borders can also serve a far more endearing function, and this is found in the fact that borders represent the limits of a state’s power. That is, while borders may exclude goods and people, a state’s borders also often exclude other states.
For example, East Germany’s border with West Germany represented the limits of the East German police state, beyond which the power of the Stasi to kidnap, torture, and imprison peaceful people was far more limited than it was within its native jurisdiction. The West German border acted to contain the East German state.
Similarly, the borders of Saudi Arabia delineate a limit to the Saudi regime’s ability to behead people for sorcery or for making critical remarks about the blood-soaked dictators known as the House of Saud.
Even within a single nation-state, borders can illustrate the benefits of decentralization, as in the case of the Colorado-Nebraska border. On one side of the border (i.e., Nebraska) state police will arrest you and imprison you for possessing marijuana. They may kill you if you resist. On the other side of the border, the state’s constitution prohibits police from prosecuting marijuana users. The Colorado border contains Nebraska’s war on drugs.
Certainly, there are ways for regimes to extend their power even beyond their borders. This can be done by cozying up with the regimes of neighboring countries (or intimidating them), or through the organs of international quasi-state organizations. Or, as in the case of the US and EU, imposing broader policies upon a number of supposedly sovereign states.
Nevertheless, thanks to the competitive nature of states, many states will often find it difficult to project their power into neighboring states, and thus borders represent a very-real impediment to a state’s power. This can then open the door to greater freedom, and even save lives as certain states impoverish or make war on their own citizens.
The Case of Venezuela
This principle was illustrated yet again this week as the Venezuelan regime opened its border with Colombia to allow Venezuelans the opportunity to purchase food and other supplies on the Colombian side of the border. The Colombian regime is by no means perfect, but for all its problems, the Colombian regime has not reduced the country’s population to desperate poverty amidst collapsing economic and social institutions.
Thus, it is rather easy to buy food and provisions in Colombia while store shelves sit empty in Venezuela.
Fortunately for Venezuelans, Venezuela is contained by the borders of the surrounding nation states, and the ability of the Venezuelan regime to arrest small-time entrepreneurs and and shopkeepers for being “class traitors” ends where Colombian territory begins.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Venezuelan border with Colombia has been closed for some time. Apparently, the Venezuelan state felt there was too much freedom going on in the borderlands — where smugglers and black-market operators were able to use the frontier with Colombia to get around Venezuela’s harsh anti-market policies. The closed border, of course, has only meant that law abiding citizens are excluded from free movement between the countries. Violent criminals, however, function freely in the area, making the Colombia-Venezuela border region especially hazardous.
In spite of all of this, the Colombian border has become a lifeline for Venezuelans now that it has become a source for basic supplies and food, and a partial escape from a life of deprivation forced on the population by the socialist policies of Nicolás Maduro and Hugo Chávez.
Fortunately for the people of South America (and the world), Venezuela is only a medium-sized state, with a total area one-third larger than Texas. One can only imagine how much greater misery could be inflicted on a larger population were Venezuela the size of Brazil or Russia or — worst of all — were it a world government.
The fact that Venezuela is physically limited in size and scope brings relief to those who are able to benefit form the proximity of the border, and those who might trade with foreigners and black-market merchants.
As the AP notes, though, one’s “proximity” to the border can be defined according to the desperation that one endures, as illustrated by the fact that some people have traveled ten hours to the border in order to buy food.
The Benefits of Decentralization and Secession
The physical realities of size and distance once again show us the benefits of political secession and decentralization: those who live a mere two hours from the border will have more opportunities to purchase food than those who live ten hours away. Those who live close to the border might also enjoy more opportunities to physically escape from Venezuelan territory were the need to arise.
This situation would be improved were even more decentralization realized and the western provinces of Venezuela were to secede from Venezuela, effectively moving the border eastward.
Imagine, for example, if the state of Zulia in western Venezuela were to expel the Venezuelan military and fully open the border with Colombia. Goods and services would immediately begin to flow into the newly liberated Zulia territory and goods would become far more plentiful.
But this wouldn’t just benefit the people of Zulia. The new reality would also mean that the Venezuelan border would stop at Zulia’s eastern border making the freedom of the border areas now more accessible to the neighboring states of Trujillo and Mérida, as well. Residents of Trujillo state, who might have been many hours from an external border before, may be now a mere hour from the border, thus allowing more people the ability to travel to the border or make more extensive use of black markets or even legal markets outside the reach of the Venezuela regime.
Ludwig von Mises understood the benefits of this type of piecemeal secession, noting with approval the possibility of allowing provinces and villages the opportunity to secede from one state and join another, or remain independent. The larger a state is, the more resources it controls, and the greater is its ability to impose higher costs on those who might seek to emigrate or escape the central state’s rule.
Writing on “self determination,” Mises wrote that nations do not have a right to self-determination, but people do, and Mises supported “the right of the inhabitants of every territory to decide on the state to which they wish to belong.” In practice, Mises reminds us, this often means breaking up states into smaller pieces:
Whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.
Certainly, adopting Mises’s plan in this respect would bring nearly immediate relief to many communities currently on the wrong side of the Venezuelan border. Unfortunately, the Venezuelan central government — like most national governments — has rarely shown much hesitation when it comes to brutally repressing “dissidents.” Unless a significant ideological change takes place in Venezuela, it’s unlikely any such local movement toward “self determination” is likely to be respected.
More States = More Choice
In practice, if we favor free choice, free movement, and the opportunity to escape from overbearing regimes, the answer lies in the creation of more borders and more states. While borders can often work to inhibit the movement of goods and human beings, they can also offer opportunities for greater freedom by limiting the power and reach of existing states.
Moreover, since smaller states have greater trouble regulating markets and peoples beyond their borders, smaller states are more likely to have to rely on open commerce with other states in order to survive and thrive.
Were Venezuela smaller and with more international neighbors, the people of Venezuela would have more opportunities for interacting with areas outside the control of the Venezuelan regime while facing greater opportunities in emigration and trade. In other words, the monopoly enjoyed by the Venezuelan state would be weaker, and the residents there would have more freedom of choice.
The answer really does lie in decentralization which leads to more choice, and thus more freedom:
[T]he practical answer to any current lack of choice (i.e., lack of “self-determination”) lies not in the immediate abolition of all states (as no one has ever convincingly described how this might be done) but in the breaking down of existing states into smaller and smaller states…
What Mises describes above refers to formal votes and declarations of independence, but the same effects, in practice, can be obtained through the methods of local nullification and separation as suggested by Hans-Hermann Hoppe here. And, of course, de facto secession, for practical reasons may often be preferable.
The claim is often made by some doctrinaire and impractical anarchists that secession is a bad thing because it “creates a new state.” This is a rather simplistic view, however, given the realities of geography on planet earth. Unless one is forming a new state completely in international waters or in Antarctica or outer space, the creation of any new state will have to come at the expense of some existing state. Thus, the creation of a new state, in say, Sardinia, would come at the expense of the existing state known as “Italy.” Deprived by secession of tax revenues and the military advantages of territory, the state that loses territory would be necessarily weakened.
In addition to weakening states, the advantage from the perspective of the individual, then, is that he or she now has two states to choose from where only one existed before. The individual now has more options from which to choose a place to live that best suits his or her personal lifestyle, ideology, religion, ethnic group, and more.
With each additional successful act of secession, the choices from which each person has to choose grow larger and larger…
If there’s anything the people of Venezuela need right now, it’s more choices.