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Every State Should Be A Microstate | @curaffairs

Every State Should Be A Microstate from @curaffairs
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All the nations of the earth should be split into microstates. This is desirable for many reasons—people would be happier, the planet would be healthier, and conflict would be less frequent. Humans have organized their societies in this way before, and good things flourished. The ideas and institutions developed in ancient microstates have provided the foundation for some of the greatest advancements in the history of human civilization. People love a reboot, and Tiny Nations II: The Return of the City-State would actually be good. 

Not only would it be good, but it would popular as well. People on both the right and the left are quite receptive to the idea of microstates. Nobody likes to have their lives dictated by a group of rulers in a faraway city: there’s a reason why places like D.C., Brussels, or London are often synonymous with arrogance and corruption. Whether you’re a libertarian or a libertarian socialist, the one thing you can agree on is that a vast centralized state is hostile to the development of a just and pleasant society.

Major separatist movements exist in almost every region around the world, and while their individual politics vary to great extents, they’re all reflections of the human desire for local autonomy. In the United States alone, you’ll find the Second Vermont Republic (who want to secede because the “United States is no longer a functioning republic, but a dysfunctional Empire unable to respond to the needs and concerns of its own citizens, the health of our global commons, and the well-being of our shared planet”), the Republic of Lakotah (comprised of people who identify themselves as “the freedom loving Lakotah from the Sioux Indian reservations of Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana who have suffered from cultural and physical genocide in the colonial apartheid system we have been forced to live under”), and the Cascadia independence movement (a growing force in the Pacific Northwest that has attracted more than a few white supremacists).  

As the last example would suggest, there can be a dark side to the urge for separation. It’s not hard to imagine a “reasonable” fascist like Richard Spencer advocating for a white-only microstate by telling black people, “[This] hasn’t worked out. We haven’t made each other happier. We are going to have to take part in this paradigmatic shift together.” In fact, Spencer used those exact words in a fawning Mother Jones profile in 2016. There’s also an argument to be made that many of the worst forms of oppression occur on the local level — as many people who’ve lived in small towns with judgmental communities will tell you, few situations can make you feel as miserable or as trapped. In theory, the state writ large is supposed to offer both protection from such forces and an escape route when they become unbearable. You can always run away to the big city, after all.  

However, there’s no reason that a world of microstates would be incapable of offering similar escape routes or similar protections, just as there’s no reason that it would necessarily entail the creation of “pure” ethnic enclaves like some kind of enlightened Jim Crow. The appeal of a big state, both literally and figuratively, is that it offers an alternative to the local, whether that’s in terms of authority, lifestyle, or physical location. A world of microstates with impermeable borders would be impossible—just look at the United States, which couldn’t survive without the free movement of goods and people across state lines. And this is the richest, most accomplished country in human history: Why wouldn’t a similar model work for the wider world? 

But just for a moment, let’s stop talking about the U.S. Internationally, the opposition to centralized authority is even more diverse. The Zapatistas of southern Mexico have been fighting for decades in the name of indigenous rights and anti-globalization. In the anarchist region of Syria known as Rojava, you’ll find a dedication to eco-feminism and direct democracy. In Spain, support for an independent republic of Catalunya(whose language and culture was repressed by the Franco dictatorship for much of the 20th century) comes from an uneasy alliance of bourgeois liberals, socialists, and nationalists. In the Philippines, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front frames its opposition to Manila in religious terms, while the Wa State of Myanmar is one of many groups in South Asia that seek the right of self-determination for ethnic reasons (though its armed forces are more robust than most, thanks largely to a brisk narcotics trade). 

The point is: Regardless of their politics, culture, or social background, the vast majority of people don’t like to be controlled by absentee masters. It’s why every colonial empire collapses after it expands past a certain point, and why extremely large countries (ex. the United States, Russia, China, Brazil) must rely on brute force and heavy surveillance to maintain control over their populations. Big states are an expensive, repressive proposition; no wonder everyone hates them, or at least claims to.

Microstates, on the other hand, seem like much nicer places for humans to be—I happen to reside in one myself, and I can confirm this is true. You tend to live longer there: out of the top ten countries in terms of life expectancy, nine could be considered microstates (of these, Switzerland is a bit of a stretch, but its population is still smaller than New York City’s). It can also be good for your bank account: the quality of life in European microstates like Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, and San Marino is perhaps the highest in the world. While it’s difficult to make a blanket statement about inequality levels in microstates, which generally have a high percentage of both short- and long-term immigrants (in Andorra, for example, around two-thirds of us are non-natives), the 2008 paper Economic consequences of the size of nations, 50 years on written by economist Éloi Laurent found that “microstates have on average higher income and productivity levels than small states, and grow no more slowly than large states.” Ironically, the same forces of globalization that have laid bare the failings of the centralized state have also greased the wheels of its destruction, helping to “further the economic viability of small country size” with “benefits from openness now counter-balancing penalties from vulnerability even for micro-states.” 

This has not gone unnoticed by people of all political persuasions. In an article for the Conservative Journal titled “Why Small Countries Are Richer and Happier,”Hannes H. Gissurarson argued that “a combination of large markets and small states makes eminent economic sense. It also makes political sense.” In Jacobin’s “The Socialist Case for Leave,” sociologist Neil Davidson suggested that the “non-nationalist” reasons why a group of people might desire to assert their own sovereignty (like a genuine disgust with the European Union’s track record of enforcing strict austerity policies) are more influential than conventional media narratives prefer to admit: think of it as “rightsizing” one’s country, except in this case the name is actually appropriate and it’s everyone at corporate getting the axe. 

While leftists should be wary of using right-wing talking points in favor of microstates, it’s not necessarily a problem to share the same objective here. Weakening the huge, centralized states that feed predatory capitalist industries is a good and necessary step, provided that the tools used to do this are first used to defang the Facebooks, BlackRocks, and Goldman Sachs of the world. In the meantime, if the right wants to sing the praises of microstates and accidentally tout the virtues of peace (tiny nations have a hard time fielding large armies or maintaining overseas military bases) and equality (they can’t otherwise impose their will on others as easily as large nations can), why stop them? 

There are, of course, many objections to the idea that all states should be microstates. Some of them can even appear persuasive, while others do not. Regardless, most of them are based on an appeal to realism, pragmatism, or whatever synonym for dullness you prefer. The ones that are not—like the idea that larger political units are better at creating a sense of shared identity across diverse populations or combatting immense problems like climate change—ignore both the spectacularly brutal repression necessary to enforce that shared identity (see: the Chinese government’s ongoing attempts to integrate the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang) and the fact that no current international body has shown itself capable of taking meaningful action against any large nation that opposes it (see: the American government’s successful attempts to torpedo the Paris climate agreement, back out of nuclear non-proliferation treaties, and defy any attempt to enforce international law against Israel.) Our current options are not working: We need to try something different.

Splitting the world into microstates would be complicated, but complicated is not the same thing as impossible. And while we shouldn’t minimize the complexities of turning one big state into many small ones, we also shouldn’t inflate them. Sometimes these complexities exist for legitimate reasons, but other times they’re created (and perpetuated and defended) by a caste of experts whose power and prestige depends on their ability to convince others that they’re the only ones capable of solving the problems they themselves have created. 

David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs contains an excellent illustration of how this works in real life. It focuses on how a German military unit handles its logistical needs: simply to transfer a computer from one office to another, three levels of subcontractors must be involved. A process that should take a single person five minutes (pick up computer in Room A, carry it 20 feet down the hall, deposit it in Room B) ends up consuming a day’s worth of labor from half a dozen people. This is the German military—just imagine how convoluted the process might be in an institution that isn’t so famous for its efficiency.  

Most of us don’t need to be told to be skeptical of bloated bureaucracies and out-of-touch overlords. However, we also have a silent, visceral dread that the establishment has already grown too big to fail, and the best we can hope for is to prevent a decline in our current standards of living. Our situation is precarious, why jeopardize it even further? We know how hard it is to get insulin, to afford fresh vegetables, to provide for our kids or our aging parents. Wouldn’t it be more prudent to make certain reforms to the existing state — like greater transparency or more opportunities for citizen feedback — rather than risking a descent into chaos out of romantic nostalgia for a simpler past? 

That’s the same argument used by the American health care industry, widely regarded as one of the most ruthless and exploitative institutions on the planet, to scare us away from taking any action that would threaten its ability to wring enormous profits out of the most vulnerable among us. To paraphrase Mark Twain, whenever you find yourself on the side of health care executives, it’s time to pause and reflect. 

“It’s a big change, and big changes are too risky,” is not a good argument against microstates, and it doesn’t deserve an extended rebuttal (if that’s someone’s justification for opposing them, the only way to change their mind is to 1) beat them, 2) show them through lived experience why they were wrong). However, other reasons for being skeptical about splitting up the world’s oversized nations do deserve an honest appraisal. 

Where Would You Even Begin?

If the ongoing clusterfuck of Brexit has taught us anything, it’s that breaking up with a modern megastate can be awfully messy. There are so many moving parts that it’s impossible to keep them all straight, and mistakes are inevitable—sometimes you accidentally lock yourself in your car on your way to a big trade deal, sometimes you forget what passport you have, and sometimes you give a $17.8 million contract to a ferry company only to find out they have no ships 

As economists and think tank fellows are fond of reminding us, modern societies depend on supply chains that are long and devilishly interconnected. Just consider the avocado toast you had for breakfast this morning: the gluten-free bread was made by an Austrian company with flour containing quinoa from Peru and topped with a guacamole-like spread whose ingredients originated in Mexico, which you ate while sitting on a Swedish-designed chair that was manufactured in China from wood grown in Romania as you tapped on a Korean cell phone containing minerals mined in the Congo and taken by Greek ships to be assembled in an Indian factory.

Before they wound up in contact with your mouth, hands, and ass, all of those products had to meet quality standards established by international regulatory bureaux, pass multiple inspections from local national federal agencies, and be transported enormous distances in relatively short amounts of time. 

How do you start to untangle that knot?

There’s no snappy one-line answer to that, so many people assume there’s no answer at all. But that’s not the case—there are multiple answers, and if you’re a medium-smart person with an open-ish mind and five minutes of quality thinking time to spare, none of them are particularly hard to grasp. 

 The first one is: You determine what problems are actually worth solving. Consider the aforementioned gluten-free bread. Does the society of your aspiring microstate really need it to be made from quinoa? It’s a fantastic grain, don’t get me wrong. But if it just… weren’t there tomorrow, would you feel anything more than mild annoyance? If it continued not being there for another six months, how often would you think about it?

 But let’s imagine that you’d think about it every day! Any microstate that doesn’t have quinoa-based breadstuffs isn’t one worth living in*!

*Presumably there would be other things the people of your microstate could live without, like jewelry for cats’ buttholes or the Dentomax Tongue-Smoothener XL™, so you wouldn’t need to expend time or resources to acquire them, which would simplify your microstate’s to-do list.  

This brings us to the second answer to “where would you even begin?,” and that’s by making a plan based on an intimate knowledge of local needs and circumstances. That plan could take an infinite number of potential forms based on an infinite number of potential factors. There’s no way to say, “all microstates would acquire their quinoa by following Plan X,” but it’s not particularly outrageous to imagine that people like Rhiana Gunn-Wright (the lefty policy whiz who helped craft a comprehensive platform for transforming Michigan into something resembling a socialist state, and is now creating policies for the Green New Deal) could come up with a workable idea. If Matt Bruenig and the People’s Policy Project can figure out a detailed plan to end child poverty in the United States—the Long Island Iced Tea of malignant social factors—then other groups of talented and passionate people can find ways to supply a given microstate with quinoa, or asthma inhalers, or electricity, or Indiana Jones DVD box sets, or anything else necessary for a rich and fulfilling life. As Ursula K. Le Guin once said, “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Of course, not all change is for the better. Imagine that in this brave new world of ours, Microstate A gets all of its asthma inhalors from Microstate E. The only connection between the two is by train, which must pass through Microstates B, C, and D to reach its destination. Three separate states with three separate jurisdictions… the situation seems ripe for disaster. Every extra inspection means another hour (at least) that the lungs of Microstate A’s citizens must wheeze and gasp for air. It’s literally a matter of life or deaeth, and we’ve just raised the degree of difficulty. This isn’t to suggest that America’s current health care system is efficent, but wouldn’t adding even more middlemen just make things worse?

Yes! But that’s only assuming that Microstates B, C, and D’s primary motivations are the  same jealousies, suspicions, and fears of contemporary nation-states. Conflict may be inevitable, but the ways we use to settle it are not. Today’s megastates have made a collective agreement to refrain from attacking each other with nuclear weapons—tomorrow’s microstates could make a collective agreement to refrain from other types of aggression as well (and such an agreement would be in their overwhelming best interests).

How can we be sure it would work, though? Well, we can’t. Life is a process of trial and error, and any strategy to do anything, no matter how ingenious or well intentioned, could potentially fail. But we already live with this possibility in our current large, warlike, inhospitable states—see: the Great Depression, the 1970s energy fiascos, the 1980s recession, the burst of the dotcom bubble of the 1990s, the global economic crisis of the last decade and counting. 

Insisting that microstates are a ludicrous daydream because there’s no sound bite-sized secret to doing it flawlessly overnight doesn’t mean that you’re a savvy master of realpolitik, it just means you have no imagination. 

How Would You Split Them Up?

This is another situation in which your mileage will vary—sometimes to several orders of magnitude. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution: It would be ridiculous to suggest that every microstate should have a population of 150,000 people or that they should all be shaped like tetrahedrons with a surface area of 275 square miles. If the driving force behind the creation of microstates were a desire for human freedom, then their population density, geographical size, and natural composition would vary in significant ways.    

On one hand, this leaves us with a loose definition of microstates as “states that are a lot smaller than the average current states,” which raises some thorny issues. For example, consider the microstate of Vatican City, home to 1,000 souls. My home country of Andorra is also a microstate, yet its population is around 77,000. Proportionally, that’s roughly the same difference between the United States and Costa Rica. Switzerland, which is often the first place that comes to mind when you think of “tiny independent nation surrounded by much bigger ones,” has more than 8.4 million people. With such a vast discrepancy in size, wouldn’t the same patterns of domination and exploitation be inevitable?

 

All photographs by Nick Slater

Maybe? But that assumes “big” microstates like Switzerland—currently the least aggressive and domineering of the world’s nations—would respond to a global trend tailor-made to safeguard their best interests by… immediately going against those interests? It’s possible, certainly, yet it feels more cynical than clever, like saying people with kids are the worst parents.  

It also assumes that big microstates wouldn’t have divisions of their own. But in Switzerland, for example, would it be that hard to imagine if the French-speaking area of Romandy, the Italian-speaking province of Ticino, or the German-speaking lands to the north sought a return to their former autonomy once freed from the danger of being swallowed by their massive neighbors? 

 The truth is, there’s no best way to split the world into microstates. Linguistic and cultural groupings could be a logical option in some cases, while in others it might make more sense for the physical environment—like mountains, deserts, or watersheds (an area whose rivers and streams drain into a common outlet) to dictate “borders.” Here, it’s important to remember that the borders of a microstate don’t need to bear more than the slightest resemblance to what we consider national borders today: the frontiers of future microstates could be treated more like international waters.

Some microstates would likely find this less appealing than others. They might desire hard borders, with strict controls on the movement of goods and people across them. But such an isolationist policy only works if a state is exceptionally large or exceptionally well-endowed with every kind of resource (which usually goes along with being exceptionally large, since it’s hard to find gold, fresh water, and bananas in the same limited radius). The first scenario doesn’t apply to microstates by definition. The second is somewhat more imaginable, but as Carolyn Steel noted in Architectural Review, modern cities can’t feed themselves, and microstates would likely face the same problems (or, to put a positive spin on it, incentives for collaboration). Even if hard borders were a desirable thing, and they’re not, they simply wouldn’t be feasible.     

If this sounds like a modern version of the Wild West to you—and you don’t think that’s a good thing—you might be interested to know that the Wild West wasn’t actually that violent, at least in terms of bandits and bar brawls (the U.S. Army, on the other hand, was exceptionally violent in its extermination of Native Americans). This isn’t a recent revelation: as far back as the 1970s, historians like Eugene Hollon recognized that the frontier “was a far more civilized, more peaceful and safer place than American society today.” 

However, to borrow a term from James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, the frontier was also frustratingly “illegible” to the central government in Washington D.C., meaning it was difficult to extract surplus production, consolidate social control, or conscript soldiers from that untamed wilderness.

These, I would argue, are all very good things. Trying to impose a master plan of how to divvy up the planet seems like a brutal and foolhardy task. Meanwhile, there’s a great deal of evidence that, left to their own devices, people will figure out what works for them. 

What Would Prevent the Colonial Cycle From Repeating Itself?

Imagine you’re the personification of Microstate A. You have an excellent location near the ocean, with a warm water port fed by several large rivers. Your cropland is extremely fertile as a result, and you’re also close to the mountains, where many valuable ores and minerals are mined. With this abundance of resources, you’re able to provide a comfortable standard of living for your people, and they’re so content and well nurtured that they produce exceptional ideas, cultural expressions, and material products.  

A short distance away lies Microstate Z. This land isn’t as blessed as yours: it’s almost entirely desert, and the only thing of value it produces is a certain species of small, adorable cactus. These cacti are very popular with your citizens, but since the desert dwellers of Microstate Z have limited growing capacity due to their unsophisticated techniques and equipment, they can only meet 10 percent of your demand for cute little succulents. 

If only Microstate Z could grow more small, adorable cacti, it could provide better roads, schools, and hospitals for its people. It could diversify its economy and improve its educational system and do many other wonderful things—and, as a side benefit, your people would be able to buy as many small, adorable cacti as they wanted. Sadly, Microstate Z just doesn’t have the initial investment they’d need to start the whole process. But if you could just step in to give them a hand… 

 Admittedly, it does seem like an inevitable outcome of human nature, this trend toward ever-increasing bigness, an unstoppable stream of shit forever flowing downhill into our helpless mouths, borne by gravity and the irresistible laws of the market. 

But now, I’d encourage you to picture another hypothetical scenario:

 Imagine you’re regular-you, and you’re making small talk while standing in line at the grocery store. The man behind you bears an uncanny resemblance to Colonel Sanders, and when you complain about the exorbitant price of avocados, he replies that the problem is they weren’t grown by slaves.

 “Everyone knows agricultural products are too expensive to be grown by free laborers,” says the guy who looks like Colonel Sanders. “And besides, the slaves get food, clothing, shelter. They get the chance to learn skills. They get a sense of purpose, and they’re protected from the uncertainties of life on their own. Are the live auctions where we bid on human beings a little uncomfortable? Yeah. Is it unfortunate that sometimes they get beaten or raped or separated from their families? No doubt. Would it be nice if we didn’t have to put chains on them to keep them from running away? Absolutely—all that iron is a big expense! Look, I’m not saying this is a perfect system, but this is how it’s worked for thousands of years, it’s just human nature.” 

The Colonel Sanders look-alike would consider himself a realist. Would you?

 

Human societies don’t have immutable characteristics that compel them to conquer and devour each other, just as human beings don’t have immutable characteristics that compel them to own each other as property. We’ve outgrown the latter (with some notable and hideous exceptions)—we can outgrow the former. 

Any microstate with colonial aspirations would be hampered by practical constraints, as well: obviously, it’s hard to support a powerful military or a sprawling weapons industry without a large population. However, with the specter of drone armies and other forms of automation on the horizon, the most realistic limiting factor is the strengthening of our own humanity. 

Why You’d Like Living In a Microstate

We’ve already seen that a world of microstates is possible and desirable. But what would it actually be like? Again, it’s hard to give a single definitive answer—life in a coastal South American microstate would differ in many ways from one on the Central Asian steppe. 

At the same time, I do think we can identify some common and important characteristics of life in a microstate, of which the most notable are: 

  1.   An intimate connection to the physical environment
  2.   Frequent daily contact with a broad cross-section of people 
  3.   The sense of “being home”

These sound suspiciously similar to the reasons often given in support of small town living. Many people with personal experience of life in such places can, with minimal prompting, give you a profanity-rich description of their downsides—the boredom, the narrow-mindedness, the feeling of being trapped.

However, sometimes scale matters, and just as the restrictions on a family’s budget are more rigid than those on a country’s, the constrictions of small town life are far more severe than those of a microstate.

But anyway, living in a microstate is just different than living in a small town, despite the superficial similarities, and rather than attempt to persuade you of this with studies and statistics, I’d like to tell you a little about life in Andorra.

These anecdotes come with the usual caveats: they describe only a single place, they don’t represent every possible experience and point of view, and they are subjective interpretations of things I chose to consider or omit. I’d like to think that I see things at least somewhat clearly, but I’d be lying if I said my glasses weren’t tinted a light rosé. And yet, if you ever found yourself in Andorra la Vella, and you asked ten random people outside the shops on Avinguda Meritxell what they thought about life here, I’d bet at least one kidney that you’d hear ten more-or-less similar stories. They’re not comprehensive, but they are illustrative.

First, a quick bit of background. Andorra is a “midsize” microstate located between France and Spain, about three hours northwest of Barcelona. It’s been around for more than a thousand years: according to legend, Charlemagne granted nationhood to the local mountain clans after they helped repulse a Moorish invasion from the south. It’s the only country in the world whose official language is Catalan, and while it’s not part of the European Union, it uses the euro as its currency. The country is a co-principality, with the President of France and the bishop of a nearby Spanish town serving as its co-princes (the French president is generally too preoccupied with the affairs of his main state to concern himself with what goes on here, though the Spanish bisbe is often obnoxiously engaged).

Here’s what Pete Seeger had to say about the country in his 1962 song, “Andorra”:

In the mountains of the Pyrenees

There’s an independent state

Its population five thousand souls, and I think it’s simply great

One hundred and seventy square miles big,

And it’s awfully dear to me:

They spend less than five dollars on armaments, and this I’ve got to see.

Throughout the song, Seeger sounds incredulous that such a place could exist (in case you’re curious, the last line was inspired by a New York Times story about the country’s military budget, which consisted of 300 pessetes—about $4.90—for purchasing blank rounds of ammunition to be fired as salutes at official ceremonies). More than fifty years after it was written, there’s still something unbelievable about it. 

 When you arrive in Andorra, the first thing you notice is how encircled by mountains it is. There are only two roads to enter the country, one leading from France in the north and the other from Spain in the south (there are also some small smugglers’ paths called contrabandistas, but these are not for the faint of heart or weak of engine). It feels like entering Narnia or some other enchanted kingdom—once you slip through the narrow mountain pass, you emerge into a lush green forest valley, sparkling beneath a crisp blue sky, the sun so close it tickles your cheeks.

Andorra has the kind of cool, clean air you wish you could drink, and the snowcapped peaks off in the distance are a constant reminder that You Are In Nature. The feeling is deliciously, intoxicatingly wholesome—and it’s also the reason Andorra attracts more than ten million tourists a year (skiing, hiking, and mountain biking are some of the most popular activities). 

From December through April, the entire country lives on the ski slopes. Every kid learns to ski as soon as they can walk—it’s not uncommon to watch a pack of five-year olds flying off jumps like sleek little ducks behind their instructor. When the weather turns warm, the valleys are full of hikers with their dogs and families with their barbecue sets, while the forests buzz with the sound of trail motorbikes splashing through muddy creeks and scrambling up the rocky slopes.  

For such a tiny country, it’s surprisingly easy to find places where you can feel like the only person on earth, and the view is usually incredible. Climb to the top of the Casamanya mountain, and you can see what seems like the entire Iberian peninsula. Go off-pista at the Canillo ski slopes, and you’ll find yourself in a winter wonderland so pristinely picturesque it’ll make your eyes bleed. 

But to be honest, I often get the same feeling walking back from the gym. I listen to the rush of the creek that cuts through the center of town, and I gaze at the colorful slabs of rock that jut up from the edges of the valley, and my face gets hot with so much wonder and delight that I giggle all the way home. 

Other people who live here tell me they often feel the same way. When I was an English teacher, my students came from many backgrounds: bank executives from Madrid, store clerks from Portugal, computer programmers from Argentina, accountants from Russia, bored-ass teenagers from Andorra. When I asked them what they liked about living here, they said (almost without exception), “It’s very beautiful.” 

Here’s another thing I often heard: “It’s so safe.” Crime is almost non-existent here, and it’s not because of the draconian penalties—I’ve known people in legal trouble for a number of reasons, and the consequences are rarely more severe than a moderate fine and some annoying paperwork. Rather, it’s because everyone from the owner of the fanciest five-star hotel to the guy who works the midnight room service shift can afford to live a decent life. It’s amazing how social cohesion and social security go hand in hand. Here, it’s easier to coexist with people who are different from you, because you’re not worried about where your next meal is coming from, or how you’re going to afford your kid’s trip to the doctor. 

I don’t mean to suggest that Andorra is some kind of egalitarian paradise: There are still major distinctions between classes, and between Andorrans and foreigners (along with other distinctions between the various subgroups of both). But the physical realities of living in this tiny country mean that we spend our lives in close proximity to one another, and our routes through life often intersect. Our public spaces are still public, and we mingle more as a result. Here’s one example:

 Shortly after my wife and I moved to Andorra, one of her students invited us to go hiking with his family. He was a C-suite executive of one of the country’s largest banks—not the kind of person with whom I normally spend my afternoons. Still, we didn’t want to reject an offer of hospitality so soon after arriving in our new home.

They picked us up in a nice-but-not-extravagant-car and drove us to the Vall de Sorteny, a gorgeous natural park about an hour away, with the family basset hound drooling in the front seat. As we strolled through the grassy meadows, the banker told me how much he loved his wife, how grateful he was to God for their good fortune, how he hoped that his kids would grow up to be kind and generous people who’d use their gifts to help others. He explained why he didn’t want to buy a big house (“will these bricks make us happy?”) and how he dealt with the stress of his high-powered job (“I go to the community pool and swim a few laps”).  

Here was the most surprising thing to me: he really seemed genuine. As the months went by and I grew to know him better, I discovered that it wasn’t an act—he’d invite the bank’s receptionist over to have dinner with his family, he’d write thoughtful notes out of the blue, he’d hug us when we met in the middle of the street. He worked in international finance and somehow he’d kept his soul. I hadn’t thought that was possible, but I was encouraged to see otherwise.

I’m certain that part of the reason he seemed less odious than his counterpart at, say, Goldman Sachs or HSBC was because of the size of his bank. Even the biggest financial powerhouse of a microstate is like a county credit union next to those great vampire squids. As a result, the scope of his ambitions was far more constricted. It would be ludicrous to even imagine giving himself a $10 million bonus; the bank is too small, it simply couldn’t afford it. I think the size of Andorra mattered, too—even if someone he did manage to take home a check that big, he’d never be able to show his face in public again. That bonus would have come at the expense of his employees (it always does), and here, your employees are your neighbors. You exist in the same universe: you buy bread in the same fleca, you pick up your prescriptions at the same farmàcia, their cosins cut your hair at the perruquera. They form your society, and it’s so small that you can’t just carve out your own VIP niche away from them. You need them to form your own understanding of yourself, and that means you need to understand them, too. 

 This place isn’t perfect, and I don’t want to suggest that it’s full of saints. But at the very least, it gives us most of the pre-conditions we need for a healthy society. It creates an environment that accentuates our best qualities and minimizes our worst ones. In a microstate, even bankers can be decent people. Who wouldn’t want to live in a place like that?

Illustration by Ellen Burch

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Originally posted by Current Affairs on 2019-08-09 11:10:10

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