Let Fake States Fail: Anarchy as a Viable Solution to Artificial States
The boundary of nations can be the result of a naturally emergent process where individuals on the ground choose to align themselves together or borders can artificially be drawn from the top-down for political considerations. Artificial states were often created post-colonization or from post-war agreements without much consideration for how division or unity would affect indigenous groups. At times, some ethnic groups were artificially divided by political boundaries, while other groups wanting separation were forced together into one political unit.
No other continent is affected more by artificial, or fake, states than Africa. Most African borders were created during colonization with few changes made after de-colonization. The consequences from these divisions are substantial. A recent study, Artificial States, by Alberto Alesina, William Easterly and Janina Matuszeski, documents these consequences stating, “eighty percent of African borders follow latitudinal and longitudinal lines, and many scholars believe that such artificial (unnatural) borders, which create ethnically fragmented countries…are at the root of Africa’s economic tragedy.” The authors illustrate that higher ethnic group separation and more artificially drawn boundaries significantly lowers the level of a county’s income.
These negative effects may persist because as outsiders create states, it may become more difficult for individuals residing in political units to overcome collective action problems such as providing public goods and finding ways to define property rights and enforce contracts. In the absence of externally imposed divisions, socials norms may arise encouraging group cooperation and peaceful exchange. The work of Peter Leeson provides historical evidence that this is in fact the case. In pre-colonial Africa, stateless societies inhabited much of the continent; however, instead of chaos ensuing ethnic tribes developed a variety of mechanisms to signal trustworthiness in order to minimize potential conflict and facilitate trading across groups. The imposition of colonial rule, including the creation of artificial states, created noise in this signaling process causing a breakdown in trade, creating ethnic conflict and contributing to Africa’s current poor economic performance.
So what is a viable solution to Africa’s artificial states and the resulting negative consequences? Secession is one possible alternative, or put a different way, let so-called fake states actually fail.
The Fund for Peace Failed States Index classifies a significant portion of African countries as failing – a situation described when a national government is not providing some baseline functions such as providing internal security and minimal provision of public goods. Instead of continually propping up artificial regimes through the use of foreign aid or direct military intervention, the international community should let these artificial states left over from colonialism dissolve into natural territories more closely aligned with individual preferences.
We have evidence that by doing so individuals might actually become better off. Since 1991, Somalia has essentially been stateless, i.e., lacking a central government; however, this anarchic state should not imply chaos or a lack of governance. To the contrary, Somalia has established a reasonable level of law and order based on a traditional customary system that predates colonial rule. Once the state collapsed, many returned to this traditional system.
And it appears to be working relatively well. As documented by Peter Leeson’s 2007 paper, “The government’s collapse and subsequent emergence of statelessness opened the opportunity for Somali progress.” Comparing data on development indicators pre- and post-statelessness, Leeson finds that Somalia’s welfare is actually improving. Benjamin Powell expands on this analysis showing that Somalia’s welfare improvements are increasing at a faster rate than the average sub-Saharan African country.
The basic idea behind why statelessness can be welfare improving is relatively simple and straightforward. If state predation goes unchecked government can actually do more harm than good, reducing welfare below its level under anarchy. Thus, given a choice between an artificially propped up highly predatory government to a group of individuals operating under a spontaneously emerging governance system, anarchy starts to look more like a viable alternative.
This argument holds not only for African states but for other artificial states as well, including Iraq and the Middle East where conflict persists along colonially drawn borders. This “let ‘em fail” view is counter to most advice for fixing failed states. But, I think, when considering possible solutions to fake or failed states, we should consider allowing individuals to rebuild and restructure their own political and economic institutions from the ground up.