Home(land security) for the holidays
On the confused condition of the relative size of states -- and what they're capable of doing
The holiday season puts a spotlight on a range of unusual national and cultural traditions -- like an annual Christmas-tree formation flight by the Swedish air force. Certain places loom large in the American imagination -- Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are great examples. We buy products from Ikea and Saab, read books about hygge and lykke, and cover lefse bakes on the evening news (at least in the Nordic-influenced parts of the Midwest).
■ In practice (and with no disrespect intended), the Nordic countries are like medium-sized states. Norway has 5.5 million people, Finland has 5.6 million, and Denmark has 5.9 million. (This makes each of them comparable to, if not a little smaller than, Wisconsin.) Sweden is a little larger, with 10.2 million. But that still doesn't make it as large as North Carolina.
■ Obviously, historical patterns of migration have a lot to do with the effect. But it's also somewhat distortionary: Nigeria has almost 220 million people and Bangladesh has 164 million, but it's a safe bet that the vast preponderance of Americans have heard more recently in the news about any one of the Nordic countries than about Nigeria or Bangladesh, which combined are home to almost 50 million more people than live in the US.
■ This disproportionate share of the common imagination has two peculiar effects that skew our thinking: For one, it leaves us under- or un-informed about the condition of many of our fellow Earthlings, which is a real shame considering how much shared interest we have in resolving trans-national issues. From the Covid-19 pandemic to rising sea levels to the need to protect 82 million refugees, in very few cases does any large problem remain isolated within a single country's borders. The better our sense of scale and proportion, the better our ability to address important questions of cooperation, competition, and resource allocation.
■ The other peculiar effect is that it diminishes our ability to see what might be within our own power. Holding distorted perceptions of other places leaves us with constrained imaginations about what we can do. Being one among many states (that is, E Pluribus Unum), individual states don't have to waste energy on shared issues like defense or foreign policy, like comparable standalone countries of the same size might have to do. Certainly, a state might send a friendship delegation abroad, establish a sister-state relationship, or participate in a trade-boosting mission. But we can do those things at leisure, while Norway has to maintain embassies and Denmark has to keep up its own Army, Navy, and Air Force.
■ Yet, even though our states can share the load of those national-level issues, the public and our pundits often think smaller about those things which we could do much more boldly and imaginatively. Calling the states "laboratories of democracy" is almost trite: There is in fact no reason we shouldn't be willing to think of most countries as our states' peer groups, because they are. So much emphasis is placed on duking out high-conflict debates on the national stage (in forums like the Supreme Court), when we could well see how our peers can reach different conclusions across borders while remaining friendly and cooperative with one another.
■ Americans need to trust ourselves to work many matters out at what we call the "state" level, but what would be the "national" level anywhere else. Escalating too many things to debate in Washington, DC, only leaves us artificially alarmed by one another. In Federalist Paper 16, Alexander Hamilton wrote, "The government of the Union, like that of each State, must be able to address itself immediately to the hopes and fears of individuals; and to attract to its support those passions which have the strongest influence upon the human heart."
■ Even in binding the states together, the Constitution was modeled on responsiveness, imagination, and uniqueness at the level closest to the people. At least half of the states today have as many people as did the entire country when the Constitution was enacted. We naturally homogenize ourselves from state to state a great deal, simply by sharing a common currency, language, and mass media. There's no reason we should endanger our trust in the Union by expecting it to make us more alike than we have to be. The more we trust ourselves (at the state level) to be as capable as our peers, the more we can relieve our continental government of expectations that are too high and risks that are too precarious.