In Uncategorized on November 17, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Anarchy is the foundational assumption of classical (“Realist”) international relations. It basically means that states must fend for themselves, and explains why they periodically find themselves dragged into arms races and wars despite the peaceful intentions of all involved. I’ve never seen anarchy conceptually linked to the economic idea of perfect competition, but the two mean essentially the same thing: a fight for survival, with no structural guarantees that the winners remain winners and no intercession on behalf of the losers. Anarchy leads to world wars in international relations, but to the provision of the highest-value goods and services at the lowest possible cost in (an idealized version of) economics. Why is one so destructive and one so beneficial?

I think the answer has to do with the basis on which businesses and states compete. A business competes by offering a value-adding good or service, so the byproduct of intense economic competition is enormous value added. The basis on which states compete is less clear. If they perceive this basis as principally security—protecting their citizens from existential threats—then the byproduct of their competition benefits no one (since security is merely freedom from something and is not really enjoyed in its own right) and defeats itself (since security is a purely relative measure, and erodes as competitors attain it). This is a bit like a corporation thinking its main mission is to purchase excellent antivirus software for its own computers: no one benefits, except the IT department.

This seems to point to a (Constructivist) take on improving the international system: if we can change the basis on which states think they’re competing, then international competition might, by happy accident, actually begin to improve the lot of the bystanders. Indeed, this is probably already happening: most states currently seem to think they’re competing not on military but on economic terms—and the result has been unprecedented worldwide economic development, albeit with all the destructive gamesmanship one would expect from a struggle to the death. In an idyllic world, perhaps states would see themselves as competing on a quality of life basis in order to attract productive, happy citizens—something like US cities.


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