Why not world government? Part 1

Since I joined the Notes On Liberty symposium Brandon Christensen and I have had a series of playful back and forth on the issue of world government. I initially intended to offer a comprehensive response on why I disagreed with Christensen, but after reading through older posts and comments I’ve decided that it would be best to clarify what we mean when we mean by world government. The point of this back and forth is not to have a ‘winner’ after all, but to better understand one another’s concerns and hopefully come to agreement after hashing out the details.

By world government I am referring to a polity that has jurisdiction over the practically inhabited universe. If humanity inhabited Mars, the Moon, Earth, and a few asteroids then a government that had jurisdiction over only Mars would not be a ‘world government’ despite it clearly controlling the governance of a planet. Conversely a monopolis needn’t cover a whole planet; the Roman and Chinese empires were both near-monopolis that controlled much of the practically inhabited world at their respective times. I understand that this might be confusing so I propose the term monopolis, “single city”, to refer to this concept.

A monopolis does not necessarily have to be ruled in a given manner. A monopolis could be an intergalactic feudal monarchy, such as the government of the Padishah Emperor and the Landsraad in the Dune series. Or it can be ruled as a decentralized federation of planets such as the Foundation in its title series. For our purposes we are dealing largely with a federal-monopolis, where several smaller polities exist as part of the larger federation that assures a minimum degree of individual rights are enjoyed by all federal citizens and that a reasonably free movement in goods (and people!) exists.

Is world government anti-libertarian? As a libertarian my knee jerk reaction is to view any government with deep suspicion, with an appropriately larger knee jerk as the government in discussion is larger. That is to say that I distrust the United States federal government more than I distrust the city government of my beloved Los Angeles. Christensen has written on this habit of libertarians to fall into this habit before. I agree with Christensen fully that his knee jerk reaction can be troublesome when it leads libertarians to reject large government policies as a matter of principle without further inspection on the details.

For example the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the World Trade Organization, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and others are ‘large’ government policies that I think all libertarians should support because they promote greater trade liberalization. By no means are any of these agreements about genuine free trade, and they contain several trade restrictions, but overall they have led to a reduction in trade barriers across the world.

I disagree with Christensen, or at least disagree in a matter of degree, in that I don’t think this knee jerk reaction is unwarranted. Individuals have less control over government affairs over as the government unit grows in size. I can go find my local councilman and harass him about my city’s poor budget with relative ease, but doing the same with my federal House of Representative is almost impossible. This lack of accountability to their constituents sets up incentives for public officials to indulge their private preferences. On occasion the private preferences of public officials align with the interests of constituents, hence the existence of things like NAFTA. However the latter is an exception, not a rule, in large governments.

In summary; most libertarians view monopolis as being inherently anti-libertarian. I do not believe that monopolis are inherently anti-libertarian and concede that a monopolis could in theory adopt libertarian public policy under specific institutional arrangements that aligned the interests of public officials and their constituents. I am however skeptical about how likely it is that this can be achieved. Christensen is apparently more optimistic on the matter than I.

A monopolis does not necessarily have to allow constituent members to leave freely. A monopolis could very well have arisen as a product of conquest. For our purposes though we assume that the monopolis allows constituent members to leave freely through some sort of referendum process. Christensen has discussed this in his latest post on the issue.

A monopolis has an over-arching form of ‘citizenship’ that guarantees its individual citizens a minimum of liberties. As I discussed in my last post, I prefer local citizenship, but I am willing to imagine a monopolis where an individual has a federal citizenship in addition to sub-level citizenships.

A monopolis in short:

  • Is a government that has jurisdiction over the practically inhabited universe,
  • Not necessarily organized in any specific manner, but for our purposes we assume a loose federation,
  • Not necessarily anti-libertarian in its public policies (but not necessarily libertarian either!),
  • Not necessarily the product of conquest, but not neither is it necessarily the product of members voluntarily joining,
  • And offers a form of federal citizenship that guarantees a minimum degree of liberties.

I ask that Christensen responds on whether he is willing to accept this definition of a monopolis, or world government, or offer his counter-proposal for a definition before we continue further.

20 thoughts on “Why not world government? Part 1

  1. I used to be a republican, mainly because I come from a small town in Idaho where basically it is against the law to be anything else. However as I travelled the world, courtesy of the Marine Airwings, educated myself, and lived in several cultures, I grew up and knew better. I guess I am a liberal democrat by a loose definition. I tell you this to preface what I am about to say. Our federal govt. is not set up to defend the constitution, it’s constituents, or the country. Right now all it does is represent large wallets. I am going to say more so on the GOP side, but all share the same trough. My hope is for term limits, both fed and state, a set limit for candidate to spend on campaigns, and all the same amount for the same office. A set amount of office personnel to support them when elected, also all the same amount and pay structure. No insurance unless they pay for it. No retirement. No career politicians. You serve set term, you go home. You get paid enough to live on and a housing allowance. You are not allowed to take a dime from anyone or take meetings with people who by definition are lobbyists. If a company or corporation wants something, they get it same as you and me. Gripe, complain, write letters, make speeches, whatever.

    • While I sympathize with the idea behind term limits, I believe they do more harm than good. California has strict term limits and the result has been the rise of poorly educated politicians who adopt poor public policy, even when they have the right ideas, because they have a poor understanding on how to implement them. Term limits also encourages a short-term horizon view on public policy. Why should someone care about the long term effects of a given policy if they’ll be out of office in four years regardless of how well they perform?

      I favor the adoption of a monarchical system myself where politicians can earn a percentage of tax receipts from their ‘holdings’. This would encourage these officials to take a long view on public policy. There would have to be rules of course.

  2. Be careful to distinguish between governance and government. NAFTA is a government policy relating to international governance, but it isn’t the same as a quasi-international government. The EU is a step or two closer to that idea and is probably worth looking at more closely in relation to your argument.

  3. Thanks for yet another excellent post, Michelangelo. This is a discussion that needed to happen. I can buy your definition of a monopolis, though I wouldn’t be happy with it. I have been blogging about libertarianism and world government largely to tease out its implications in my own mind, so the concept is still a bit murky when it comes out in written form. For that I apologize.

    My preference for a monopolis (among the many varieties that can be conceived of) already exists. It is the United States. Thus, it is a robust federal republic (the EU is a good, second-best alternative). The pre-Rothbard, interwar libertarians, like Hayek and Mises, also yearned for a world government, but had more pressing needs to attend to. I don’t think these libertarians saw that their answer to this question could be found in the Madisonian constitution. (I could be wrong about this; I’ve recently begun reading Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty and have a suspicion that I will find that he did indeed perceive Madison’s system in such a way).

    So, I understand that “world government” is a potentially dangerous idea. This is, in part, why I am pushing my thoughts on the matter from a libertarian perspective. It is not enough to simply react to bad ideas coming from elsewhere. We have to have ideas of our own. We have to think globally and we have to think in terms of systems if we are going to keep collectivists from re-gaining the upper hand. Blogging about this, as we are doing thanks to your initiative, is a good way to go about the task of staying fresh while keepin’ it real.

    I am getting way too far ahead of myself. For the sake of argument (and because I am curious where you are going with this line of reasoning) I agree to your definition.

  4. My thoughts on a world government always circle back to two points. The powerful who lobby for it are, to a person, reprehensible human beings.
    And why do we believe that, when all previous governments that have attained total control have eventually turned tyrannical, that a government that controlled the entire world (or worlds) would be any different? Is the EU a bastion of democracy? And if the Global government did turn totalitarian, who would there be to resist them. It was other countries that fought the Nazis, When all countries are one, who is the body that stands up and says no?

    • I share your sentiments to a good degree.

      Which is why I take a ‘middle ground’. I’m in favor of large federal governments, in the sense that I am in favor of the United States or the EU as federations of several constituent states. The United States and EU both have flaws, but both have also allowed the free movement of people and goods. They have also minimized intra-federation violence.

      The US federal government has done some awful things, but I would be sad to see it break up. In the absence of a federal government I wouldn’t be amazed if California went to war with the rest of the western states to secure the Colorado river.

      But at the same time I don’t favor a world government. I prefer instead a multipolar world where the ‘west’ (the US, EU, and allies) must compete with the Russians, Chinese, and other large federations. I don’t particularly care for Putin or the Chinese communist party, but both regimes act as external constraints on the US federal government.

  5. That very competition can also be seen as a Hegelian dialectic where the two opposing or competing sides are simply growing closer together through conflict. Put two systems into opposition and they eventually end up both looking very similar, though, as this is achieved through conflict, they generally take on the worst traits of their opposite. Thus the merging of say Communism with Capitalism ends in a kind of Fascistic collectivism.

    • Yes, this is something that has concerned me as well. There are certain areas where I want the ‘west’ to compete with other power blocs with but, as you point out, there are also areas where inter-government competition ends up for the worse.

    • It’s certainly a legitimate concern. Cultural Marxists have been using the idea of the Hegelian dialectic as an incremental alternative to armed struggle for at least a century. One might argue that at least it’s relatively bloodless, but I would counter that once they had the world under their thumbs they would quickly show their true colours. Those who drive slowly and deliberately towards power for ideological reasons are usually the most fanatical and the most easily corrupted by it.

  6. Maybe I am jumping ahead in the discussion, but the concerns I have with a single world government are as follows:

    1). There is nowhere to exit to and as such we lose the ability to vote with our feet. My reading of history and anthropology (Boehm) is that this is essential for healthy cooperative societies.
    2). A single state eliminates competing paths, goals and alternative explorations. It reduces us to putting all our eggs in one basket, with potentially catastrophic results.
    3). It eliminates constructive competition and benchmarking between states as they compete for resources and members. It thus reduces the incentive to improve, and promotes change resistance.

    Variation, competition and such are critical to progress. I usually frame it as a competition to cooperate better. And arms race for improved social interaction in a world where nobody can know the best path without putting on their hiking boots…

    Btw, if memory serves, Hayek make arguments similar to these in chapter 17 of Constitution of Liberty.

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