Historically, people form an idea of the area that they live in: its extension and its boundaries. Groups that settle in a given area for a long period of time develop concepts of common identity and of a ‘homeland.’ Prior to the advent of the territorially monopolistic nation-state, the boundaries of political groups (e.g. tribes) were mostly determined by nature and features of the landscape, and territorial borders remained flexible. With the appearance of the nation-state came a highly developed monopoly on political authority and relative ossification of political boundaries (outside of international conflicts). Diversity and plurality were to be homogenised, an approach that led into assimilation at best and ethnic cleansing and genocide at worst.
The homogeneous national society is an artificial construct, a product of rational constructivism par excellence. Throughout history it has proved impossible to draw lines on the map in such a way that no minorities are created: politically and ethnically division tends to be the rule. On the other hand, profoundly harmful human consequences have followed from attempts to match people to borders, rather than seeking to match borders to people: large scale population displacement and expulsions of peoples from their homelands (also known as ‘ethnic cleansing’). In a certain morose sense, the history of ethnic conflict and the nation-states does illustrate the appalling failures of ‘planning.’
I will argue that from the ‘knowledge problem of the nation-state’ perspective, there should be nothing surprising about this: jurisdictional planners do not have the requisite knowledge to make such calculations, particularly when they foreclose on the possibility of non-territorial solutions. But if kings, founding fathers, and assorted other ‘big men’ aren’t to decide upon the jurisdictional contours of nations and states, then how could such an order come to be?
The problem of the nation-state is how to design a jurisdictional order and assign political authority so as to discover a harmonious allocation of nations, states, and nation-states. But the limits of human reason and planning apply to the carving out of international (and sub-national) borders, not only the political actions that occur within them. And much like the knowledge problem critique of attempts to replicate market allocations with central planning, rational constructivist planning of jurisdictional orders succumbs to what I call ‘the knowledge problem of the nation-state’—the information required for rational jurisdictional planning is distributed among individual actors throughout the polity and thus unavoidably exists outside knowledge of central authority.
The task of the jurisdictional designer is analogous to that of the central planner charged with determining the welfare maximising allocation of resources in an economy. Similar critiques can be mounted against the hypothesis that a welfare maximising jurisdictional design (i.e., an allocation of policies and people to jurisdictions) can be planned for. Just as an economy cannot be seen as a set of equations, neither can the jurisdictional design of a polity be reduced to rational construction: it is impossible to calculate an optimal solution of jurisdictional allocations. The system of equations would require too much information, information that is inherently dispersed throughout the polity. Designing a continuously optimal jurisdictional order is well beyond the bounds of human cognition and machine computational abilities.
We can reinterpret many episodes from history—how things worked, but also failures and grievances—in light of the theory of spontaneous jurisdictional ordering. A cursory reading might suggest that in an ideal world, the optimally efficient allocation of states, nations, and nation-states—whether territorial or non-territorial, disjoint or overlapping—would emerge spontaneously from whatever initial allocation of political authority. The ever-presence of ethnic conflict and political struggle throughout history would suggest otherwise.
More sagaciously, the central claim made here is simply that the problem of the nation-state can be explicated within the spontaneous jurisdictions framework: as the combined expression of non-optimal allocations of political rights (potentially due to a rational constructivist design) and ‘insufficiently spontaneous’ correcting forces. If ideal conditions were met then a political-jurisdictional system would indeed move toward the optimal allocation of jurisdictions and political authority—of nations, states, and nation-states—but such a highly stylised fiction can only ever be a stepping stone on the way to an analysis of a polity with less-than-pure spontaneous jurisdictional ordering processes.
The knowledge problem of the nation-state is most often confronted (‘solved’) with rational constructivist planning, and what is a weak correcting force of controlled migration. While admittedly citizen mobility and differential taxes can act as a price-like mechanism in a territorially decentralised system of jurisdictions, which might suggest an information signalling role, there are inherent limitations to this process in comparison to personal secession and non-territorial governance. A crucial condition for economic calculation is the existence of genuine entrepreneurship and market rivalry; and this condition is lacking when the jurisdictional contours of the polity have been predetermined by a jurisdictional planner.
Spontaneously ordered non-territorial political jurisdictions solve the ‘knowledge problem of the nation-state.’ Non-territorial polycentric democracy is the solution I propose. In the first instance, it is better to have a system that generates jurisdictional rules from within, i.e., constitutionally permit non-territorial secession and enable political entrepreneurship. In the absence of this, cryptoanarchist technologies enable a sort of de facto mechanism for non-territorial secession and governance. Speculatively, I suggest that technological advances, particularly in cryptography and blockchain-based applications, may tip the balance in favour of spontaneous order in the formation of jurisdictions. This would greatly benefit citizens of would-be nations that have been suppressed by the homogenising forces of the nation-state and harmed by the failures of planning.
However, the process of jurisdiction formation and the ensuing dynamics are not always quite so; and we can therefore sketch out a spectrum of jurisdictional orders that are more-or-less spontaneously ordered or consciously planned. Nation-states are not yet perfect ‘constellaxies’ but with technological advance, we might get there. There are various projects aimed at this very outcome—the most promising is Bitnation. This project seeks to use Bitcoin 2.0 blockchain technology to provide the same services of traditional governments (from dispute resolution and insurance to security and much more) in a non-territorial, decentralised, and voluntary way.
Models like this threaten to outcompete current modes of jurisdictional change: de facto jurisdictions would form around networks of individuals rather than forcing latent political groups to conform to pre-existing jurisdictional structures. The upshot is a more dynamic and entrepreneurial solution to the knowledge problem of the nation-state. Political-jurisdictional entrepreneurs (who seek new boundaries, or seek non-territorial realignment) and citizens (who personally move and secede) provide a correcting force to an initially sub-optimal rational constructivist jurisdictional design. The spontaneous order of non-territorial polycentric democracy is capable of adapting to the increasingly complex, intermingled, and multidimensional compound of publics that prevail today. We should fear not the spectre of cryptoanarchy, for it heralds spontaneous order in politics and spontaneous order in jurisdictions, and the answer to the knowledge problem of the nation-state.