Nightcap

  1. What is a “national interest”? (Why not federalism?) NOL
  2. Libertarians and world government NOL
  3. Sovereignty, the commons, and international relations NOL
  4. Why not world government? NOL

Don’t forget to read through the ‘comments’ dialogues…

Lunchtime Links

  1. Globalization and Political Structure [pdf] | what’s a monopolis?
  2. Protestantism and the Rise of Industrial Capitalism in Nineteenth Century Europe [pdf] | who was James Cooley Fletcher?
  3. Primed against primacy: the restraint constituency and US foreign policy | polystate, book 2
  4. Nation-building, nationalism, and wars [pdf] | against libertarian populism

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Madonna offers oral sex for those who vote Hillary Clinton
  2. Trump-inspired ‘pussy’ ad banned in San Francisco subway
  3. The poverty of democracy
  4. The battle for the Arctic
  5. Countries rush for upper hand in Antarctica
  6. Why not world government? (Part 2)
  7. Meet China’s state-approved Muslims
  8. The good, the bad, and the ugly of Somaliland secession

Why not world government? Part 2

In Part 1 we gave a general definition to what world government, or ‘monopolis’ as I’ve suggested, was. Key to our definition was that a monopolis was neither inherently libertarian nor anti-libertarian. Some readers might scratch their heads and wonder if such a vague definition is of any helpful. After all if a standard dictionary were written in similar vague terms we would have entries that read like:

Broccoli: noun. A vegetable that can taste nasty except when it doesn’t.

Nonetheless I argue that my definition of monopolis is invaluable in that it clarifies that whether a world government is desirable or not depends on the details. This is an advancement over the extreme positions that world government, or any other ‘large’ government, is inherently bad or good in that it allows us to attempt to reach a middle ground. In other words the size of government has a bell-shaped curve relationship in terms of efficiency. Larger governments benefit from returns to scale, but there is a point where these returns to scale become decreasing or even negative. The ideal size of government is at the middle point – but it is unclear where exactly that middle point is.

Federal government.
What is the optimum level of federal government?

At heart I am an anarchist and would prefer a world composed of countless city-states that freely traded with one another. One would still be part of a government, but which government you were part of would be no more important than what baseball team you rooted for. If possible I’d do away with the city-states as well and allow individuals to contract with one another directly but alas we have not yet reached the conditions necessary for that!

Even in my anarchist utopia though there would be the need for a federal government that promoted inter-city trade. Without a strong federal government local states could easily erect trade barriers to protect themselves from outside competition. A federal government’s chief benefit would be in that it would act to reduce transaction costs between member-states.

At the same time there would be a cost to introducing a federal government in my anarchist utopia. A federal government strong enough to defy member-states can use the same power to give itself more duties. Indeed, the individuals who compose federal governments have strong personal incentives to grant themselves further powers. How else can the growth of the United States federal government be explained? At its inception the United States was little more than a trade and common defense pact – it didn’t even have the power to levy taxes and had to request funds from the constituent states. Compare that to today’s US federal government, whose tentacles can be found in almost every aspect of life.

Federal governments do nonetheless face internal and external constraints to what they can do. Federal governments have the ability to defy individual member-states, but they have less ability to confront several local elites at once. Take for example the Real ID act; passed in the early 2000s the Real ID act would have created a de facto national ID in the United States but it has thus far been stalled due to the opposition of several state governments. Externally federal governments are also constrained by competing federal governments. The United States federal government cannot devote itself entirely to dominating its constituent member-states, it must also pay attention to the actions of Russia, China, India, and other rival powers.

It is due to the latter reason that I do not favor world government; I fear that in the absence of competing federal powers the remaining federal government would be able to devote itself to centralizing power away from local elites.
I concede that there are two scenarios where my concerns would be lessened.

  1. In the first scenario the constituent member-states are strong enough that a small fraction of them can restrain the actions of the federal government. This would require a few member-states to be both significantly larger than the other constituent member-states and to have conflicting views on public policy than the federal government. A world federal government would need a ‘California’ or ‘Texas’ if you would.California and Texas could both become independent nations and safely be great powers. This position has allowed them to defy the federal government on several occasions as there is an implicit understanding that they could secure their independence if their long run interests differ sharply from the United States’ interests. Brandon Christensen has often pointed out the importance of allowing member-states to secede from their federations, and here I agree fully with him.

    The existence of a ‘California’ or ‘Texas’ is tricky though. Member-states will only stay in a federal government if they benefit from doing so and there are several scenarios where a member-state like ‘California’ might actually secede. Secession, done rightly, could induce the federal government to seek compromise or internal reform. Or it might attack ‘California’ and assert that secession is illegitimate. Peaceful secession, such as the break up of Czechoslovakia, is certainly possible but they are rare.

  2. The second scenario would be one where the federal government was constrained by its future self. Let us posit a monopolis, a world government, that was secure in its rule. Would the rulers of such a monopolis set tax rates at 100%? Not if they were concerned about future revenues. A monopolis would likely prefer to smooth its consumption over time and to do this it would have to find a tax rate that did not hinder future economic productivity of its citizenry too much. This scenario however would only arise if the ruling elite at the top of the monopolis governing structure were assured that they and their descendants would continue to be ruling elites for the foreseeable future. A monopolis would have to be a monarchy in essence.

In summary, a monopolis would be desirable if the details were properly adjusted to avoid reaching decreasing or negative returns to scale in efficiency. A monopolis would have to face constraints of some sort, which in the absence of external competitors would have to be either strong member-states that could achieve independence if desired and/or a ruling elite that was strong enough that it had no serious concerns about being overthrown. If these conditions could be met then a monopolis would be well worth it.

I for one am skeptical about our ability to achieve these prerequisites, but the argument is no longer a theoretical one. The question of whether a world government is desirable has become an empirical question as we need to find some way of measuring the likelihood of achieving the above mentioned perquisites.

Thoughts? Comments? Disagreements? Comment below.

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.