At least, according to Orestes Brownson in his The American Republic. He observes that history shows that any legal constitution imposed on a people who do not naturally ‘constitute’ a nation fails. Further, any such legal constitution must arise out of a sense of that natural unity, and cannot be imposed by a outside force. Finally, no legal constitution can survive if it is based on theories and goals foreign to the naturally constituted nation upon which it is being imposed.
The French revolution was fresh in his mind, as were various attempts by the British to get their colonies to behave like little Englands. On the other hand, he recognized the success of certain empires, such as the Roman Empire, where the conquering power allowed the conquered to keep their laws and custom as much as possible. An empire – a collection of tribes, peoples and naturally-constituted nations who share in common only that they have the same conqueror – can be quite stable as long as the it respects to a large degree the laws and customs of the conquered.
What will fail, what has always failed in Brownson’s view, are attempts to make a nation by fiat out of disparate peoples with different histories and loyalties. Any legal constitution must be imposed on such nations, insofar as it cannot arise out of their common experiences and histories. Imposed laws rankle, especially when they seem deaf to the concerns of the people on which they are imposed.
A naturally constituted nation is not mystical or magical in Brownson’s view, but arises in the same way that families, extended families, villages, and tribes arise: when people speak the same language, hold the same stories and histories dear, see others as logical potential mates for their children, practice the same religion, and celebrate the same festivals, they are able to recognize they share a natural nation with their neighbors. Also, Brownson doesn’t think naturally constituted nations are necessarily permanent or inevitable. Plenty of peoples never become nations, and nations sometimes die in fragmentation. Tyrannies seem to be the natural state of many peoples – they were unable to rise to nationhood, and can be governed only by force.
Neither does being naturally constituted mean a nation is perfect or pure. Some are stuck under royalty because organization under kings best reflects the nature of that nation. Others harbor what amount to closely related but antagonistic tribes only fitfully forming a nation.
Brownson noted that America was the only naturally constituted nation from which our particular legal constitution could arise. All attempts, either external or internal, to impose representative democracy on people to whom such ideas are foreign are doomed to fail. That a people might become a nation, and that nation might grow to desire representative democracy was the outcome Brownson most fervently hoped for.
Which brings us to the EU and this morning’s exit by Great Britain. What, exactly, in practice, was the EU supposed to be? Certainly not a nation, although it arose at least partially out of a shared European horror at the World Wars. Nor could it be an Empire in the traditional sense, because, in theory, it was to be a voluntary association without a conquering authority.
I think The EU was supposed to be this new thing: a voluntary Empire. Naturally constituted nations such as France, Germany, Italy and Great Britain were to all agreed to be subjects. The deal was that you, a nation in the EU, had been effectively conquered and were subject to the EU bureaucracy, but that, like a Roman province, you’d get to keep most of your local government under EU oversight.
I don’t think it was ever sold this way. It certainly didn’t work out that way, as the EU bureaucracy, following the irresistible natural inclinations of bureaucracies everywhere, could never be happy in such a restricted role. Thus, we have EU rules forbidding restaurants from serving olive oil in bowls or refillable containers, to use a recent example.
Promising ‘economic union’ is a lot like promising ‘hope and change’ – you are being invited to see whatever future you want to see. Someone who wants more open internal borders, removal of tariffs and the opportunity to sell goods anywhere in Europe sees a future at odds with the utopia a communist sees – and yet both are economic union.
Even apart from the inevitable corruption, the goals and mechanisms of the EU were fatally flawed out of the box. A series of treaties between independent nations could achieve the free flow of goods and labor, at least in theory. But the whole point of the greatest champions of the EU was to do away with that traditional mechanism in favor of something new. What that new thing was to be was a chimera composed of nations that were not sovereign. A square circle.