Why even have a country?

There’s a particular non-argument that those who oppose free trade and reasonable immigration policies fall back on time and again as if it settles everything: “Why even have a country?” (I’ll pass on the easy answer: “You tell me?”) The phrase “Why even have a country?” presupposes that language and borders are more important than values and principles. In fact, values and principles are what have made, and continue to make, America great. Those who want to add a patina of intellectualism fall back on notions of “Westphalian sovereignty” that, for those with any knowledge of the history around the Peace of Westphalia and the US Constitution, are at best irrelevant.

Why even have a country? If the purpose of having a country is shared language, then the country we should be part of is the United Kingdom. The American Revolution was a mistake because shared language trumps fundamental rights. If the purpose of having a country is to respect international borders, I should be living in Mexico. The Texas Revolution was a mistake, because it violated Mexico’s borders. The annexation of Texas by the United States was another one, because borders are more important than the shared values of the two countries that joined.

A country, at least this country, is about much more than borders or language. This country is about a set of shared values. Our country is, hopefully still, a shining city on a hill, ” a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.” If we don’t at least strive for that, I’ll take your “Why even have a country?” and raise you, “Why even build our city on a hill?”

We have a country, or at least a government for the country, to secure our fundamental rights. Among those rights are liberty and property. If government interferes in commerce, other than to protect those rights, it is destructive of the purpose of having a country. When the government itself becomes destructive of those rights, the question is, indeed, “Why even have a country?”

Having had their maudlin emotionalism of the non-argument rebutted with a bit of sentimentality and a dose of logic, the usual fallback position of the populists is that pseudo-intellectual appeal to the Peace of Westphalia. One thing is immediately clear to any serious student of history: Westphalian sovereignty, at least from the passage of the First Amendment to Gitlow v. New York, was never centered in the federal government. The primary reason for the Peace of Westphalia was to settle a series of religious wars and it did so by enacting the principle of cuius regio, eius religio. That is, the sovereign determines the established state religion. In the United States from 1791 to 1925, that was the state governments. “Why even have a country?” Well, for those who honestly want to fall back on Westphalia, the answer is “to have a state religion.”

If the reason to have a country is to protect our cherished principles, to preserve our fundamental rights and to be a shining city on a hill, I’m all in. If the reason to have a country is to restrain trade, limit labor markets, establish state religions, or otherwise trample on those rights and values, I’ll pass.