Friday, November 20, 2009

In A (Not So) Big Country

People seem to love smaller versions of larger things. The human brain seems to be hard-wired to be drawn to the miniature. The examples are legion: babies, Matchbox cars, puppies, cocktail hot dogs, Danny DiVito.

For me, I have always been fascinated with small countries, formally known as microstates. Or, to put it in terms both crude and politically geographical, when it comes to countries, I am not a size queen.

I guess this fascination started by playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? on our good, old Apple IIE (yes, they DID make something before the iPod) back in 1987. I could not believe that a places like San Marino or Andorra were real countries.

My fascination was fed by many early watchings of the great 1959 Peter Sellers movie The Mouse That Roared, that details the trials and tribulations of the microstate of Grand Fenwick.

I suppose it culminated with a visit to the 1994 American Numismatic Association convention where I actually shook the hand of an actual government official from a microstate (the director of the San Marino Monetary Authority).

Yes, if you were wondering, this whole being nerdy is far from being a new thing...

So, what is the draw of these places? Why are they at all interesting?

First off, the sheer lack of size in comparison is a good jumping off point. The entire country of San Marino has about as many residents as the Chicago suburb where I grew up. You could comfortably fit the entire country of Liechtenstein within the bounds of the City of Madison, WI.

Great, so what? These facts lead one to wonder: how did these tiny countries slip through the cracks? How did they remain independent even when their large, powerful neighbors fought bloody wars, shifted borders and coalesced into nation-states?

I think in a lot of cases, these places were just too small, remote and unimportant in the grand scheme for the great powers (such as they were) to expend the effort to crush and subdue them. They are not a threat, so why bother?

The flip-side of this is also interesting. The people of these microstates could have easily appealed to become parts of their larger neighbors, to grab the coat-tails of a European up-and-comer, to be a part of a unified, powerful nation. But they didn't. The spirit of independence, pride and sheer bloody-mindedness appeals to my political sensibilities.

These places are also pleasingly anachronistic in all the best ways. Because of their remotness and relative unimportance to wider political, economic and social forces, the past lives on in these places more than most.

Take San Marino, for example. They are probably the oldest constitutional democracy on Earth, having been so since 1243. Their military consists mainly of a corps of crossbowmen.

Or Andorra. Their government is a relic of a fight between Spanish and French nobles over a chunk of the Pyrenees in the thirteenth century. Andorra has two heads of state, descended from the successors to those noble claims: the Bishop of Urguell in Spain and the President of France.

In a larger sense, though, I must consider that I look at these places as a native of a "big country," one of the great powers. Some in this position might look at places like Monaco or Malta and think, "well, who dives a good goddamn about little, piss-ant countries that time forgot? What did they ever do for history. They are the places that don't matter."

Not me, however. I see these places as interesting experiments, tested by history. In isolation and ignorance of the powerful, these countries made it work. They kept their independence, ran their lives and moved at exactly the pace at which they felt comfortable, not driven forward by the inexorable forces of geopolitics through the ages.

They also provide interesting examples of how sovereignty can operate on a small scale and how democracy can function best when it functions smallest. What I mean is that when the government and politics of a place can be tailored closest to the needs and wants of the people who live there, things tend to work out better than national-level decision making.

As a libertarian with strong anarchist leanings, this notion appeals to me greatly. Think a small piece of territory cannot be sovereign and survive? Think again.

More than mere geographical or historical curiosities, the microstates of the world offer a window into a different way of life.

Maybe I believe, at least where governments are involved, that small is indeed beautiful.


the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

My favorite has always been Liechtenstein. When I discovered it was the last vestige of the Holy Roman Empire, I got giddy.

I also learned that Maltese is perhaps the closest to ancient Phoenician.

Free Corsica.

Will Shannon said...

The other interesting things about Leichtenstein:

1. Their dialect of German is one of the closest to the Late High German of the Middle Ages.

2. Their monarch is the only one in Europe with any real political power. The duke can introduce and veto legislation and dismiss cabinet ministers.