Libertarians and World Government, Part 3

I have briefly blogged about the problem libertarians face when confronted with world government and the inherent internationalism of their creed before (here and here), but none of those musings were as deep as I’d have liked them to be. I think I have a better understanding of this puzzle now, and therefore you’re gonna get a longer than usual post.

First up is the task of confronting the skepticism of all government that comes from most American libertarians. This is a skepticism that becomes all the more hostile as the level of government rises. So, for example, many libertarians are contemptuous of local government but don’t mind it all that much. This contemptuousness rises a little when the next level of government is involved: that of the administrative unit (in the US this is known as a “state” for reasons I hope to explain a little further below; elsewhere the administrative unit is usually known as a “province”). When the federal government is involved, in US politics, the libertarian becomes deeply suspicious and hostile to its intents and actions. Much of this is warranted, of course, and the American libertarian usually allows the federal level of government room to maneuver in matters of foreign policy and the courts (the two legitimate functions of the state).

When a level of governance rises up any further than that, though, to the regional level (NAFTA, CAFTA, etc.) or the supranational level (the UN, World Bank, EU, etc.), the animosity displayed towards government is vicious and reactionary rather than thoughtful and penetrating. Again, much of this is warranted, as these levels of governance usually act beyond the scope of democracy and seem only to serve the interests of those who belong to the regional and supranational organizations (unelected – i.e. politically appointed – bureaucrats). The nature of these “higher levels” of government is the main reason the patron saints of modern-day libertarians – the interwar economist Ludwig von Mises and the legal philosopher FA Hayek chief among them – were highly critical of the creation of these organizations (as well as the short-lived League of Nations).

It does not follow, however, that the inter- and post-war libertarians disavowed the earlier writings of classical liberals on world government. Indeed, Ludwig von Mises himself, in his 1927 book Liberalism (pdf), observed:

Just as, in the eyes of the liberal, the state is not the highest ideal, so it is also not the best apparatus of compulsion. The metaphysical theory of the state declares—approaching, in this respect, the vanity and presumption of the absolute monarchs—that each individual state is sovereign, i.e., that it represents the last and highest court of appeals. But, for the liberal, the world does not end at the borders of the state. In his eyes, whatever significance national boundaries have is only incidental and subordinate. His political thinking encompasses the whole of mankind. The starting-point of his entire political philosophy is the conviction that the division of labor is international and not merely national. He realizes from the very first that it is not sufficient to establish peace within each country, that it is much more important that all nations live at peace with one another. The liberal therefore demands that the political organization of society be extended until it reaches its culmination in a world state that unites all nations on an equal basis. For this reason he sees the law of each nation as subordinate to international law, and that is why he demands supranational tribunals and administrative authorities to assure peace among nations in the same way that the judicial and executive organs of each country are charged with the maintenance of peace within its own territory.

For a long time the demand for the establishment of such a supranational world organization was confined to a few thinkers who were considered utopians and went unheeded. To be sure, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the world repeatedly witnessed the spectacle of the statesmen of the leading powers gathered around the conference table to arrive at a common accord, and after the middle of the nineteenth century, an increasing number of supranational institutions were established, the most widely noted of which are the Red Cross and the International Postal Union. Yet all of this was still a very far cry from the creation of a genuine supranational organization. Even the Hague Peace Conference signified hardly any progress in this respect. It was only the horrors of the World War that first made it possible to win widespread support for the idea of an organization of all nations that would be in a position to prevent future conflicts. (147-148)

What Mises and other interwar liberals missed in regards to establishing a supranational state is the very nature of the US constitution. Interwar liberals were more interested in pointing out the blatant inconsistencies of the multilateral institutions being erected after the war than they were with elaborating upon the idea of a world state. My guess is that they viewed the world state as too far out of reach for their goals at the time, and thus fell back on the ‘balance of power’ option (pdf) that was still popular among liberals at the time. The US constitution is, at its core, a pact between sovereign states to join together politically for the mutual self-interests of foreign affairs and legal standardization (a standardization that is very minimal, as it allows for plenty of flexibility and competition).

This pact, aside from explaining why US administrative units are known as ‘states’ rather than ‘provinces,’ is the key to slowly building a world state that is both representative and liberal (in that it exists to protect the rights of individuals first and foremost).

One of the biggest weaknesses of the US constitution to date is its inability to expand upon the notion that it is a legal charter outlining the duties of a supranational organization. Creating a mechanism that allows for the recognition of foreign provinces  as US member states by incorporating them into the federal apparatus would be a step in the right direction. This mechanism would obviously have to be slowed down in some way. It would have to be approved, for example, by two-thirds of all state legislatures (Utah and California say ‘Yes’ while Georgia says ‘No’) as well as two-thirds of both legislative bodies in the federal government (67% ‘Yes’ vote from both the House and the Senate).

There would also have to be a mechanism allowing for states in the federal union to exit if they so pleased (again in a way that is slow and deliberate so that as many factions as possible could have their voices heard). Contra to some musings by paleolibertarians here in the US, the constitution and the Bill of Rights actually has a sophisticated method of dealing with intrastate conflict within its sphere of jurisdiction; secession is allowed between states, as is the merging of two or more states, although secession from the federal government is so far prohibited (this failing would also have to be addressed before a world state could be contemplated).

It seems to me that the US has practiced unpolished versions of my argument in the past. Texas, for example, seceded from Mexico before becoming a US “state” through annexation.

Does any of this make sense, or do I just sound like a mad man?

12 thoughts on “Libertarians and World Government, Part 3

  1. “This pact, aside from explaining why US administrative units are known as ‘states’ rather than ‘provinces,…”

    I wouldn’t push this line of thinking very far unless you’re willing to discuss the latent desire for feudalism contained in the term ‘counties’ 🙂

    On a more serious note, in what way are the current procedures for incorporating new territories insufficient?

    • I wouldn’t push this line of thinking [“This pact, aside from explaining why US administrative units are known as ‘states’ rather than ‘provinces,…”] very far unless you’re willing to discuss the latent desire for feudalism contained in the term ‘counties’ 🙂

      I’d be careful with bringing up an argument like this in a room full of libertarians, Dr A! The term ‘state’ in the American context was, in the 18th century, definitely used to denote sovereign, independent polities, and I would argue that the term ‘county’ was very much a desire on the part of 18th century elites to transplant feudalism to the English colonies of the New World (especially in the South, where the landed gentry was known to settle).

    • I got so worked up over your comment on counties that I forgot to answer your question:

      On a more serious note, in what way are the current procedures for incorporating new territories insufficient?

      Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a formal procedure anywhere in the US constitution that allows potential administrative units a chance to apply for membership into the federation. From this big, general shortcoming arise a number of smaller ones, of course, but I think the lack of an application process is a good start to think about the shortcomings of the US constitution.

  2. I guess I’m digesting the larger point of this post while fixating on a relatively narrow one. I agree that most libertarians are less suspicious of local government (including county gov’t) than they are of state, federal, and international governments, but I find that fact rather puzzling. About a decade ago, Clint Bolick wrote a nice book, Leviathan, debunking the benign character of local government, and he was just scratching the surface of the issue.

    Isn’t local government a greater and more proximate obstacle to liberty than government farther away? It tends to be more intrusive about a larger number of things than state or federal government, much less international law.

    Examples: A local PD is right there, in your face; think of everything from asset forfeiture to drug laws to the way traffic or parking laws are enforced. The local zoning board structures the use of property right around you, dictating how your property will be used or not used, and taking as it pleases. The public schools eat up your property taxes and drive up the cost of housing. In New Jersey, county government owns an enormous amount of land for recreational or other purposes, and keeps it all out of development. And then there are the absurd paternalistic laws that get traction at the local level. Bergen County in New Jersey still has blue laws. Banning the sale of cars or alcohol on Sunday is a remarkably common practice in the US, and it takes place the local level. Local governments also tend to have enormous latitude to declare “states of emergency” and order things like curfews, as witness Ferguson recently, and Hurricane Sandy a few years ago.

    Putting the point the other way: when local government fails to do what it’s supposed to do, life reverts pretty quickly to the third-world level. Of course, that’s true when any government fails, but I think local governments fail more pervasively and often than most (cf Detroit, Camden NJ, Gary Indiana, etc.).

    Just a small sample, but a pretty telling one, I think. Libertarians need to pay better attention to local government.

    • A great point Dr Khawaja. I think the belief that local government is less benign than federal or international levels can be found in Dr Delacroix’s response below. Do you think the general perception he writes of has any merit to it? That is to say, is change easier at the local level or is this just a pernicious myth?

  3. Brandon: I applaud the effort in general; it’s difficult to do what you are trying to do; not many have tried.

    I am puzzled about why you would cite NAFTA as an example of supra government. Anything that does not have a executive cannot be a “government” in my book. NAFTA is just an agreement entered into by the conventional government of conventional nation-states.

    I am not nit-picking here but making a larger point between the lines while avoiding to make you cry.

    • I am puzzled about why you would cite NAFTA as an example of supra government. Anything that does not have a executive cannot be a “government” in my book. NAFTA is just an agreement entered into by the conventional government of conventional nation-states.

      A good point Dr J, which is why I explicitly used the term governance rather than government when bringing up the NAFTA example. Foldvary is the gold standard on this small-but-important difference.

  4. Irfan: All your points well taken. It’s possible that local government is considered more benign because it is easier to influence and to change than is the federal government. I don’t know if it’s true though it’s a common perception.

Please keep it civil

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