Saturday, 12 March 2022

There Is No Such Thing As Countries

As any map will show you, the world is divided by political borders into spaces called countries. People and things can live in, come from, or go to these places.

But countries are not any more than that.

Firstly and most obviously, countries are merely a social construction. They are collectively produced fictions (like money, or religions) rather than mind-independent objects (like stones). Being fictional does not mean that countries do not matter, but it does mean that they only exist so long as enough people agree to act as if they do.

Secondly and more significantly, countries are places not agents. Places on a map cannot have interests or goals or take actions to achieve them. To think otherwise is to confuse the properties of one kind of thing with another. This category error infects not only general talk, but also much otherwise careful journalism and even academic analysis. For example, the influential Realist school of international relations is founded on the axiom that countries do (or ought to) act only in their national interest. This trades on two category errors: that countries (rather than governments) can act and that they have interests. The result is confusing and unfalsifiable nonsense about buffer zones, access to resources and so forth that is about as helpful for understanding, predicting, and managing conflicts as an astrological map.

I. Category Mistakes

What lies behind this error is the eliding of spaces on a map with the organisations that rule them. Organisations are collective agents like armies or corporations in which groups of human individuals are converted into a hierarchically coordinated and powerful actor in their own right. Unlike countries, organisations are a kind of collectively produced fiction about which it does make sense to attribute interests and which can actually do things, often very significant things. What we call governments are a particular kind of organisation, one that has achieved the power to make and enforce rules over the inhabitants of a country, for example by hurting those who dare to disagree with it and by preventing outsiders from entering. In Max Weber's famous definition, it "successfully claims a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence". This power is called sovereignty and it is an attribute of governments, not countries.

It is extremely common to confuse a country with its government and also with a third separate kind of thing, the people who live there. This leads to statements that are strictly meaningless at best and deeply misleading at worst because they are category errors on the order of 'Green ideas sleep furiously'. 

Take this typical statement: 'Russia has invaded Ukraine'. Countries cannot invade each other. Invasion is an action in pursuit of a goal, and places on a map lack the capacity for either. What is actually going on is that 'the organisation that rules Russia is challenging the sovereignty of the organisation that rules Ukraine'. 

This is not 'just semantics'. The two statements have quite different connotations. If we can't tell them apart we will end up foolishly blaming things that happen to come from Russia (like university students) or are merely associated with Russia (like vodka brands) for the terrible things now happening in Ukraine. This will fail to do anything about the real cause of the problem: the organisation controlled by Vladimir Putin. It may also be used to justify grotesque cruelties, such as the collective punishment of civilian populations in Russia or the mistreatment or expulsion of ethnic Russians living abroad.

The confusion of countries with their governments is very deeply entrenched and can be found in all kinds of contexts. For example, modern countries and their current populations are routinely blamed for historical injustices such as colonialism. Of course it makes no sense to blame a place or the people who happen to live there right now for the evil actions of long-dissolved governments. Yet humans seem to have a built in drive to assign blame that rises in proportion to the awfulness of an event and leaves us reluctant to accept that sometimes no one and nothing can reasonably be held responsible. Philosophers are unfortunately not immune to this drive and some have devoted great efforts to developing complicated arguments for the guilt of current inhabitants (always, it so happens, of rich western countries). Sometimes this is merely a waste of time. Sometimes it may be a dangerous distraction from achieving consensus on the real problem to be addressed, such as around climate change.

Sometimes the error goes the other way, and the actions of non-government organisations are confused with the actions of governments/countries. For example, a great many people believe that countries literally trade with each other, when what is really happening is various people and commercial organisations trading with each other across political borders. It no more makes sense to say that 'the UK' and 'Italy' trade with each other than it does to say that 'London' and 'Manchester' trade with each other. Likewise, it is true that international trade takes place under the (often jealous) watch and rules set by the relevant governments, but this does not mean that the governments themselves are trading with each other. 

At least two intellectual failures stem from this misunderstanding of how trade works. Firstly, a great deal of passionate opposition to global injustice turns on the misconception that rich countries extract cheap resources and goods from poor countries by exploiting their superior bargaining power to offer unfairly low prices that poor countries can't refuse. But insofar as companies are free to compete with each other for the best deals there is no such systemic advantage because there is no single monopsonist buyer with whom all the workers have to negotiate. Wages in export industries reflect average productivity across the economy (i.e. workers' other options), not the relative wealth differential between pairs of countries. (Further: see comment section)

Secondly, it has long been recognised that trading relationships foster mutual interest, understanding, trust and friendships across cultural and political borders. Many people have therefore supposed that peoples linked by many such relationships would have too much affection and shared interests to ever go to war. The mistake here is forgetting that the agent that resorts to war in pursuit of its interests is the government, not the people doing the trading. Hence all those interpersonal relationships and warm feelings can easily turn out to be irrelevant to a government's decisions about war and peace.

II. Representation of the People

Why can't the inhabitants of a country be said to have interests and take actions? Why can't we say 'The Ukrainian people want to be free'?

The problem here is that the inhabitants of a country are not one agent but many. We frequently speak of nations as if they were a kind of unitary organism, but this is not true. The inhabitants of a country will naturally have many things in common (interests, languages, values, rulers, history, etc), and some of them will even be members of the ruling organisation, but this does not make them parts of one giant collective agent. Humans are highly social creatures but not parts of one social organism. We are not bees.

The only kind of creature that could achieve such unity is an artificial construction, i.e. an organisation (like Hobbes' Leviathan). But a people is not an organisation, and even if it were, the price of such unity would be the subsumption of individuality under hierarchy. (Which is why this very idea is such a staple of totalitarian political fantasy.)

Frontispiece to Hobbes' Leviathan 1651

Claims like 'The Ukrainian people are fighting for their freedom' fail because the unitary entity implied by the phrase cannot exist. There are people in Ukraine, but there is no general will of 'the people of Ukraine' deriving from their shared blood, culture, relationship to the soil, or whatever. Recently, a good many people in Ukraine have expressed strong loyalty to its ruling organisation and even signed up to be unpaid members of it and to kill or be killed in defence of its sovereignty. But this is due to the strong desire many Ukrainians share of not being ruled by Putin's organisation and its obvious salience during an invasion. Ukrainians 'share' a loyalty to their current government in the sense that a great many individuals happen to have it in common, not because it is an essential aspect of being from the country of Ukraine. Indeed, enough Ukrainians have disliked their government in the past to have revolted successfully twice in the last 20 years. And just a few weeks ago the Ukrainian population seemed much less unified in their loyalty to the present government. 


If you want to work out what the inhabitants of a country want there is no national interest or soul of the people to consult. There is no alternative to asking them what they care about, and giving them the chance to talk to each other about it, and then finding some fair way to represent the resulting partial agreements and persistent disagreements. Such social choice exercises are tricky even in the best of circumstances, which is why democracy feels so unsatisfactory to so many. Where governing organisations do not care to allow their people to talk freely to each other to share and transform each others' ideas social choice can be entirely blocked. So when such governments claim to be acting in the interests of their people, or their place on the map, we should be duly sceptical. Especially if their actions, like those of Russia's government, seem to go against many generic practical interests (such as for a prosperous economy and not having your children conscripted and killed) that humans tend to share no matter where we happen to live. 

Governments routinely claim to represent the country and inhabitants that they rule over, and this is often presented as evidence of their legitimacy. But there is no plausible way besides democracy in which such a relationship of representation could be established (and even there it is fraught). In practise when a non-democratic government claims to represent its people it is simply expressing a demand that other governments to recognise its local monopoly on violence. As a practical matter it might be prudent to respect such a government's power to obstruct outsiders from interfering with how it rules the people in the area under its control. But we should not mistake this kind of pragmatic accommodation with an acceptance of such governments' claims to be representing anything but their own interests. Just as it is easy to conceive of a gap between the interests of a business corporation and the interests of many of the people amongst whom it operates, so it should not be hard to see the gap between the interests of governments and those of the people they rule over.

So what are the interests of governments? In one sense this is straightforward: to survive and to serve the interests of their members in proportion to their relative power within the organisation. In what Douglass North and his co-authors call 'natural states', governments are merely coalitions of powerful elites who have come to a mutually beneficial arrangement for the sustained extraction of wealth from the population under their power. (One can think of this as the difference between being farmed as livestock and being hunted.) There are still only a few societies in the world governed by open political competition and impartial legal institutions where the interests of governments can be said to depend upon fulfilling their own promises or the expressed preferences of a substantial proportion of their inhabitants.

In many cases the coalitions of the elite in natural states become dominated over time by just one individual. Here, as with Russia's government, the dictator's own particular interests and whims will count for most in determining the organisation's actions (though still subject to his overriding concern to maintain his rule over the government and the government's rule over the territory and population). This does not mean that the Russian government's invasion will necessarily turn out to be in Putin's interests (people make mistakes; gambles go wrong) but it does mean that we should not suppose that it represents the interests or the will of the Russian people.


People live in countries and are ruled over by governments. It is important to keep each of these three elements distinct and clear so that we can prevent the relentless category errors that confuse public discussion of international affairs. In particular, we should pay more credence to actual people and less to the organisations who claim to be their legitimate representatives merely because they have the power to hurt them. There are many tyrannical governments in this world. Their leaders may declare that they act in the name of the populations and territories they rule but they remain the ones responsible, the ones who should be held to account.

Note: A previous version of this essay was published on 3 Quarks Daily

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution: Thomas R. Wells is a philosopher in The Netherlands. He blogs on philosophy, politics, and economics at The Philosopher's Beard.