Cosmopolitanism and the State

I think it’s fair to assume that, on some level, we can distinguish between liberal Libertarians and conservative Libertarians, where the major difference is in the prediction of what a close-to-ideal libertarian society would look like. The liberals predict a plural world where borders matter less and where differences can be resolved through trade, whether through institutions of the market or institutions of governance. Conservatives, especially those least interested in trade-offs and compromise, foresee a world where (some or all) people migrate to form relatively ethnically homogenous communities — this prediction may not be explicit in their writing, but this is my interpretation.1 Both doctrines are consistent with the broad Libertarian value of limited government, they just differ in the prediction on human behavior and values (i.e. the debate is over an empirical question). This division doesn’t always work, but I think it does to a sufficient extent.

While discussing Libertarian populism, Matt Zwolinski bemoans that Libertarian populism is losing its cosmopolitanism. He argues that “thoroughgoing cosmopolitanism”  is”one of libertarianism’s most attractive and distinctive elements.” While I think it depends on the interpreter, I agree with Zwolinski. I suspect it’s because both Zwolinski and I take on a pluralist view of society, which embraces disagreement and where progress is measured, at least in part, by changes to the rules which guide the decision-making process in a plural world. I also suspect that this interpretation reflects certain idiosyncrasies; that is, we are cosmopolitan people (or, at least we [I] think we [I] are [am]). On the other hand, my interpretation of a small sample of evidence also tells me that greater cosmopolitanism is in some way causally related to the institutional change necessary to bring about greater constraints on government.

About a year ago, I was involved in writing a literature review on Catalán nationalism. My family is from Castilla-La Mancha and is deeply nationalistic (a strong Spanish identity), and so, I must admit, I was at first interested in seeing how much of the periphery nationalism was just political rhetoric. It turns out my prior is about 50 percent right, and if I were to adjust this figure I’d adjust it down.2 But, the data shows results that conflict both with the nationalist Spanish interpretation and the nationalist regional interpretation; Spanish nationalism has been declining very quickly and regional nationalism has been declining gradually or remained more-or-less stagnant. The graphs below are missing lines for “Spanish only” and “autonomous community [AC] only” identities, but they show the trends for three different broad identity groups: more Spanish than “regional,” equally Spanish as “regional,” and more “regional” than Spanish (“regional” should be replaced by the region’s actual national identity; e.g. Catalán, Basque, Galician, et cetera),

Spain regional identification— Enric Martínez-Herrera, “From Nation-Building to Building Identification with Political Communities,” European Journal of Political Research 41, 4 (2002), pp. 435–437.

One discernible long-run trend is a decrease in the amount of people who identify as “more Spanish than regional.” Two others, with Galicia failing to fit both, is a stagnant, but also somewhat cyclical, pattern amongst those who consider themselves “more regional than Spanish” and a slight rise in those who identify as “equally Spanish and regional.” (Ironically, Galicia’s nationalist movement, in my experience, is talked about very little. It doesn’t make a lot of noise.) But, equally, or more, important is the fact that a super-majority of people in these regions consider themselves both “regional” and Spanish, even if the latter identity is diminishing in importance.

There are some important and relevant facts that may help put this data into context. First, Cataluña has been subject to at least two major waves of immigration following the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). One of these occurred during the Franco regime, where Spaniards of other regions emigrated to Cataluña, seeking work. The other began in the 1990s and is related to the immigration boom that affected Spain right up until the most recent financial crisis and depression. Many of the political programs to revive the Catalán language and identity were in response to the “threat” of immigration. Second, historically, Cataluña has been one of the, if not the, wealthiest regions of Spain. Barcelona is a major city and port, overseeing a significant chunk of Spanish trade. If trade helps introduce people of different cultures and preferences, it makes sense to claim that Barcelona was, and continues to be, a milieu for the exchange of ideas. All of this suggests that greater cosmopolitanism is to be expected, and there’s evidence that this cosmopolitanism informs the decision of forming a national identity.3 The fact is that the majority of Catalanes have a multicultural identity, including not only a tinge of Spanish and a hint of Catalán, but also a speck of European (see Medrano and Gutiérrez [2001]).

With this cosmopolitanism in mind, let’s consider cyclical movements in identity. Look at the “S < AC” line for Cataluña (top left): you see periodic increases and decreases in the proportion of people who identify as “more regional than Spanish.” These changes are multicausal, but identity is sensitive to exogenous conditions. For example, a financial crisis that points to Federal corruption is likely to bias people towards their regional identities, and vice versa. It’s not coincidental, I think, that some of the largest pro-Catalán independence demonstrations are occurring during one of the bleakest moments of contemporary Spain’s economic history. (Game theory fans see Aragonès [2007].)

In the framework of Spain’s political institutions, these fluctuations of identity are important. Remember that modern Spanish democracy came about only relatively recently, following the death of Franco in 1975, and that the debate over the constitution included discussion of periphery national identities. The result is a central government that surrenders quite a bit of power to the autonomous regions (equivalent to American states), and a competitive dialectic has emerged between local and central governments. This implies a dynamic that differs from what we see in the United States, where intra-political conflict is not as visible. In Spain, by contrast, there’s a primitive battle over jurisdiction that is driven, in large part, by the cultural preferences of that region’s society. I don’t pretend to know much about this process,but it’s clear to me that one of the most important factors is the conflict over national identity. In other words, the political dynamic in Spain, or even Cataluña specifically, owes much of its existence to the fact that members of that society are willing to switch allegiance.

My interpretation of what I’ve read on Catalán nationalism has influenced my views on what future governance may look like. Consider the concept of Tiebout competition (Tiebout [1956]). Suppose there are such things as public goods, which are goods that cannot be optimally provided for through the market process. An alternative way of providing them is through government. The main issue with this approach is that we don’t know the process by which the government can optimally allocate inputs towards the provision of public goods. Tiebout’s model of political competition is an early contribution to this debate. According to the model, if there is freedom of mobility, governments that provide an excess supply of public goods will suffer from emigration and falling tax receipts. It is a political profit and loss model. “My” theory doesn’t require the assumption of freedom of mobility. Rather, it assumes that the transaction costs are low enough for territorial changes of allegiance, such that governments have to peacefully compete for land (well, the clients who own that land). It is Tiebout competition, but on a different dimension.

My approach is broadly consistent with light postnationalism. The kind of postnationalism I have in mind would be something like Yasemin Soysal’s The Limits of Citizenship (admittedly, some ideas in this book have seen better days — e.g. the resurgence of anti-immigrant nationalism in Europe conflicts with some of her predictions). One theme in that book is the provision of welfare in a world where borders are becoming increasingly meaningless. For example, what if Turkey is providing for Turks living in Germany? This kind of action would fall outside the scope of a typical welfare system,  focused on those living within a specific territorial jurisdiction. If Soysal talks about overlapping jurisdictions, what I have in mind are fluctuating jurisdictions. Ultimately, “fluctuate” might imply the same thing that it does when we talk about people choosing between internet providers.

I tend to think that cosmopolitanism, pluralism, and limited government are all related, in the sense that freer societies tend to be more plural and more cosmopolitan than their less free counterparts. Part of this comes from a clear belief in the Whig interpretation of history, as far as liberalism goes. “My” theory, however, doesn’t predict that society will necessarily become more free, more plural, and more cosmopolitan, but that if it does become more free, it will also be more plural and more cosmopolitan.


1. Take for instance Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s writing on immigration (e.g. “Natural Order, the State, and the Immigration Problem“). I don’t want to ridicule the article. I think it’s better than some would suspect without reading it, especially compared to Hoppe’s other work. But, Hoppe focuses on the right to exclusion, which to me reveals a preference for exclusive, or relatively homogenous, social groups. Another example is Rothbard’s prediction that a free society requires a ethically homogenous social group (I may be wrong; the only Rothbard book on ethics I own is The Ethics of Liberty, and I haven’t read it in full).

2. For some evidence that may confirm my priors see Thomas Jeffrey Miley, “The Discourse of Language and Nation in Catalonia,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 46 (2002), pp. 46–78. Miley confirms that social/political role is related to identity.

3. Miley (2002) is an interesting interpretation of the political movement to revive Catalan identity. He distinguishes between movements that focus on differences between identities and those which focus on similarities. Miley’s narrative is that Catalán nationalism is driven more by similarities, attracting a more diverse population of constituents.

2 thoughts on “Cosmopolitanism and the State

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