“The past is a foreign country — they do things differently there.”
The Go-Between, L. P. Hartley
On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had travelled to support the efforts of striking African American workers. As a prominent leader of the American Civil Rights Movement and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, MLK’s memory is celebrated universally. On the 50th anniversary of his death, it seems fitting to consider the state of civil rights, which he dedicated his life to achieving, not just for African Americans, but for all marginalised citizens around the world.
Civil rights are often understood to be the rights guaranteed to citizens of particular countries, as if freedom and equality can be justly denied to some on the basis of possessing differently-coloured pieces of paper. Across the globe, national borders are now more rigidly defined and strictly policed than ever before, and as a result the idea of countries as sovereign entities with fixed geographical boundaries has become so entrenched that it seems absurd to consider that it could be otherwise. Yet the very imposition of these (often arbitrarily-drawn) borders arguably violates the civil rights of those unfortunate enough to be born in the wrong place, or at the wrong time. A somewhat radical solution to this injustice comes in the form of a world sans countries or nations, governed by a single, sovereign entity. I argue here that such a world would be, at the very least, more equal, more peaceful, and more productive.
To begin with, present-day poverty is largely understood to be a problem of redistribution rather than (a lack of) resources. Though some might argue that aid flows constitute a form of redistribution, in practice, aid is typically wielded as a tool of foreign policy (the carrot, so to speak). As a result, most aid is heavily contingent, generally directed to the most politically beneficent rather than the poorest countries, and cannot be guaranteed to reach the poorest people even within recipient countries. The establishment of a global governing body would alleviate many of these problems and allow for fairer and more effective redistribution. As a briefing from the Institute of Development Studies concludes, “given the increasingly global nature of economic relationships, it seems illogical and unfair to insist that the redistribution of the benefits of globally managed economic activity should be defined by national boundaries.”
A world without arbitrarily-drawn borders would also provide fewer bases for conflict and discrimination. Research has shown that ethnic cleavages, at least, often become salient only when “activated” by politicians in the competition over limited resources. Groups that are sufficiently large to form viable coalitions are pitted against other similarly-large groups, regardless of whether their differences originate in ethnicity, religion, or even language. The dissolution of borders and the more equal redistribution of resources would make such competition needless, thus reducing the potential for conflict between groups. Such a reduction would also naturally decrease the likelihood of human rights violations and crimes against humanity (such as the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims currently occurring in Myanmar, largely enabled by their vulnerability as a stateless minority). And since governing such a diverse population would require a political system allowing for minority representation, a strong case could be made for the adoption of proportional electoral laws. Such electoral systems have been shown to encourage both inclusion and moderation, hence reducing the risk of extremist parties or dictatorships, and instead promoting democratic, representative governance.
But the benefits of a world without borders are not merely social and political—the case against countries is also an economic one. Perhaps the most obvious economic advantage lies in the opportunity to redirect humanity’s attention from petty competition over resources to more productive problems, such as space travel, artificial intelligence, or even prolonging human life. Further, a report by KPMG finds that “government-drafted rules and regulations vary tremendously across jurisdictions and are the number one source of complexity global businesses face.” The standardisation of business legislation and taxes across the globe would reduce barriers to innovation and expansion, thus paving the way to greater economic growth. A global governing body would also be able to overcome many of the problems of collective action that exist today, most pressingly in the area of climate change and environmental protection. The recent Paris climate agreement—which was not legally binding and contained no provisions for enforcement—made clear the impossibility of achieving international legislation within the current sphere of global politics. Removing barriers arising from sovereignty concerns and the lack of credible international enforcement would pave the way towards global collective action on issues that threaten us all.
Yet, while the benefits might be apparent, a world without nations may still seem unimaginable to many of us. Despite our increasingly globalised world, national identity remains important, and rightly so. But the elimination of national borders and governments does not have to be accompanied by a corresponding loss of regional identity and culture. We need only look to Hong Kong to see this—more than two decades after the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule, citizens of Hong Kong remain fiercely protective of their unique culture, an amalgamation of Cantonese, British, Chinese, and everything in between.
Nonetheless, in the aftermath of the UK’s planned withdrawal from the European Union, the world envisioned here might well be a hopelessly romantic vision, and even if realised will doubtless come with more than its fair share of complications. For one, the sheer size of the global population could easily lead to a cumbersome, inert bureaucracy. But the potential advancements that such a world could engender—peace, equality, and productivity being just the obvious few—are tempting indeed, and deserve more than a shred of consideration, especially today, of all days, as we commemorate the life of a man who was steadfast in his commitment to the attainment of civil rights for all.
Samantha Fu is a Master of Public Administration candidate at the London School of Economics. Prior to pursuing graduate studies, she worked on the analytics team for the 2016 Clinton campaign, as an economic consultant in New York, and earned a Bachelor’s degree from McGill University in Montreal.