- Intellectuals and a century of political hero worship William Anthony Hay, Modern Age
- John Stuart Mill: a not so secular saint James Smith, Los Angeles Review of Books
- Irving Babbitt’s history of ideas Simon Brown, JHIBlog
- Classical knowledge, lost & found: a history in seven cities David Abulafia, Literary Review
I came across a collection of essays and blogs by the late Fred Halliday, entitled Political Journeys (2007), published in the last few years of his life. Halliday, who died in 2010 at only 64 years of age, was one of my professors in the International Relations Department at the London School of Economics in the mid-nineties. By some standards he was the big departmental star, not only as a researcher, but also as a public intellectual.
Like most professors he was firmly left wing, a former communist who moved somewhat to the centre. To his credit, his teaching was immaculate: you could not tell his political ideas from his lecturing or the extensive international political theory reading list he gave. He was known for his expertise of the Middle East, revolutions, and his feminism. But he was also a good theorist, and his book Rethinking International Relations (1994) is especially a real treat.
While going through Political Journeys my eyes fell on a piece about ‘the world’s twelve worst ideas in 2007’. Most of them still stand, also from a classical liberal and libertarian viewpoint, and warrant a full discussion by themselves. Yet for now I just list them here, in descending order, with short explanations between parentheses when not self-explanatory:
12. human behaviour can be predicted (against the scientific fallacy in the social sciences)
11. the world is speeding up (large areas I human life still consume the same amount of time as ever before, despite acceleration in other areas)
10. we have no need for history
9. we live in a ‘post-feminist epoch’ (still a need for feminism, given the position of women in most parts of the world)
8. markets are a natural phenomenon, which allow for the efficient allocation of resources and preferences (clearly I strongly disagree with Halliday here, although he seems to mix up real free markets and those characterised by government interference)
7. religion should again be allowed, when not encouraged, to play a role in political and social life (points to the fight against the influence of religion on public life)
6. in the modern world we do not need utopias (aspiration to a better world as necessary part of the human condition)
5. we should welcome the spread of English as a world language (while practical it comes with cultural arrogance by the Anglo-Saxons)
4. the world is divided into comparable moral blocs or civilisations (there is indeed a set of common values shared across the world)
3. diasporas have a legitimate role to play in national and international politics (refutes the idea that diaspora have a special insight into their homeland, and Halliday then points to the negative and backward role in the resolution of the conflicts in their countries of origin)
2. the only thing ‘they’ understand is force (plain colonial and hegemonic thinking)
1. the world’s population problems and the spread of AIDS can be solved by ‘natural’ means (against those who oppose condoms use and other contraceptives)
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
Consider America’s transportation system. I like to imagine that it ought to be a certain way. I imagine a world where a lot of freight travels competitive rail lines. And occasionally a transport truck traverses the country side, maybe to serve a new or small market without a rail road. I imagine a truck entering a town, passing some sort of device that alerts the local police that a vehicle has entered the town without the appropriate toll-paying transponder. Since this is the first time this has happened, the officer hands the trucker an application and signs him up on the spot. Oh! And there aren’t major freeways all over the place. Just a lattice work of efficient highways skirting the edges of towns and winding byways trailing through the country side. Perfect motorcycling roads and beautiful markets all in one.
My perfect world wouldn’t have much room for the fast modern engines we’re used to cars having. Planes and trains are fast enough for long distances and for shorter distances we simply don’t need to go so fast. The technology in those modern engines is malinvestment. That capital exists because interference with markets has skewed the relative financial benefits of different research (e.g. at the expense of investment in technology necessary for seamless and efficient toll-roads). This skewed capital structure also indirectly subsidizes fast-food while implicitly taxing the experience of traveling through, rather than past, small towns.
But what would actually keep it that way? It’s all a bit too good to be true. Am I being Utopian? Yes, but I think there might be some merit in that. My utopia can be thought of a limiting case; one of many possible best-case scenarios. We might conceive of a yard stick akin to Pareto Optimality but in a dynamic setting.
The world can be dynamically-Pareto optimal and have economic profits, but only those that arise as a result of productive entrepreneurship. Actions that create net value should be the only ones that generate profit. And externalities (whether pollution or politics) should be resolved by property rights and liability law. At least in the long run.
Such a world would serve as a benchmark in exactly the same way as Perfect Competition, and I would name it similarly. Perfect Markets (I’m open to suggestions) would be those that are simply too perfect to exist in the real world, but would offer a limiting case against which differing scenarios might be considered.
I suspect that something like this has already been offered but I’m only slowly working my way through one work and it will be a while before I get to another notable work. That first (from the Austrians) I suspect would be (justifiably) critical of what I’m discussing and perhaps it is a project best suited for applied mathematicians. It would certainly allow a good deal of theorem proving and other apparent mental master–… mastery (yes… mastery…). For some time there might be little apparent use or scientific merit in this. But number theory only became valuable with the advent of computers centuries after mathematicians started thinking about the minutiae of numbers. It’s not always for us to say that something doesn’t have a use just because we don’t see it yet. It’s a good idea to let some curious mathematical tinkerers doddle away at problems; they might turn out to have offered a valuable and useful gift to future generations.
I’ve known about the relative poverty of Western Europe compared to the United States for quite some time now, but it’s always nice to see this little tidbit get some love in the national and international press. Fraser Nelson, a journalist at the Spectator (in the UK) gives us the run-down on the numbers. According to Nelson, the UK is poorer than any US state save for Mississippi. Over at Forbes, Tim Worstall points out that the UK is actually poorer than Mississippi, too. Poor Mississippi!
Both men are calculating wealth with GDP (PPP) per capita, which is what I use as well. GDP (PPP) per capita means Gross Domestic Product (Purchasing Power Parity) per capita. Worstall explains how and why social scientists like using GDP (PPP) per capita to gauge a society’s standard of living:
Just to explain PPP for you. Prices vary across places. In the US food is generally cheaper than it is in Europe, medical care generally more expensive. So what we try to do with PPP is work out what exchange rates would need to be in order to make prices of all of these different things the same in the different places. It’s not an exact science, more of an art. But if what you’re trying to measure is living standards then it’s somewhere between useful and essential as a part of your workings.
It isn’t just the UK that is poorer than the poorest US state, either. Economist Mark Perry did these same calculations using 2010 data back in 2011 and pointed out that only Luxembourg and Norway would be in the Top 30 states were Western Europe and the United States to meld into one federal republic. The rest of Western Europe is on par with the living standards of the American South (which is considered to be the poor, culturally backwards region of the US). Be sure to check out Perry’s 2010 data and compare it to Worstall’s and Nelson’s 2013 data, too.
Careful readers will notice extremely small differences in the calculated purchasing power parity of all three authors (the IMF’s is also a little different), but each data gives us a similar approximation for standards of living in each country and each US state. Suffice it to say here a political union between the United States and the wealthy countries of Western Europe would significantly diminish the GDP (PPP) per capita of the US overall. A political merger with Japan, South Korea, and Mexico would also diminish the overall purchasing power parity of the average US citizen. Canada might (might) make the Top 40 for US states (somewhere between Michigan and Ohio – states of the Rust Belt).
Now, if I had my way, the calculation standards for non-US countries would be the same as they are for US states. That is to say, I think a better way of measuring standards of living would be to break up the countries I’ve mentioned and measure the GDP (PPP) per capita of the administrative units that operate just below the national governments of these states. So, for example, instead of measuring the GDP (PPP) per capita of the Netherlands, I’d measure the GDP (PPP) per capita of the 12 provinces that make up the Netherlands.
Then, in my libertarian utopia, the 50 US states would join together politically with the various administrative units of Western Europe, Canada, Mexico, Japan, and South Korea. Instead of 50 administrative units (the US states) there would be hundreds, maybe even thousands, of them. Talk about decentralization!
Given that a political (and therefore economic and social) merger between Western Europe, the NAFTA states, and Japan-South Korea would diminish my PPP, why should I support such a proposal?
Update 8/30: Some commentators on Facebook have been clamoring for a map, and I found a great website that has devoted lots of time to creating maps based solely on administrative units. The name of the site is Kelso’s Corner and they have a great blog post on the “Natural Earth Vector,” which is the project that maps out administrative units.
It doesn’t have detailed maps of the Anglo-Saxon world or Mexico (presumably because these are so well known), but I found a couple of great maps of Western Europe and Southeast Asia.
Imagine if all of these units were to send representatives and senators to Washington (or a new geographic equivalent): Decentralized political power and integrated markets and cultures would be the new norm for much of the world in a political system based on Madison’s federal republic. I reckon that, in a libertarian utopia, the world would look like this map and be united under Madison’s minarchist federal government:
I understand that my utopia is not much of a utopia (people will still die and there will be plenty of conflict), but I think this is actually a strength rather than a weakness.
I read a lot of blogs in my spare time, and one of my favorites is the Monkey Cage, a blogging consortium made up of technocratic, internationalist-minded Left-wing political science professors. They rarely disappoint. I know what you’re thinking, but if I could choose which faction of the left I would want opposing libertarian policies it would be the technocratic Left. It a movement that has individual liberty in mind and is, as I mentioned, internationally-minded.
Notice also how I take into account the fact that an opposition to my own views are a necessary component of my utopia. Too many advocates of liberty don’t realize this when they argue about politics. Which factions would play the role of opposition in an anarcho-capitalist paradise, for example? It seems to me that the quality of one’s perfect opposition is actually quite a good gauge for measuring the quality of one’s political ideal (if I do say so myself!).
Anyway, Patrick Egan, of NYU, has a new post up explaining that the economy was indeed the central issue of the election, and then busts out the data to back up his argument (and help me save face!). I think this is an important point because I’ve already made the rounds around the blogosphere and many otherwise smart, competent people seem to want to chalk up Obama’s victory to something other than the economy.
From Egan’s post: Continue reading
I am currently writing a paper for a political philosophy course on my ideal state (we are reading Plato’s Republic). I have made it a democratic one, despite some serious misgivings.
I realize that the people can be easily fooled by sophists and schemers, but in the end, I think that democracy represents very well the dignity of the common man. In fact, I am tempted to think that democracy is the best form of government, despite Churchill’s lament.
How democracy is structured is probably more important than if it is the best form of government. Our federal republic is pretty good as it stands (unless you are Ruth Bader Ginsberg, of course; according to her, South Africa has a much better constitution than our own), but there have been some serious flaws discovered over the centuries.
Can you name a few? The compromise on slavery and the inability of the Supreme Court to enact the 14th Amendment to protect black Americans from Jim Crow laws both stand out prominently in my view. Furthermore, can any of you come up with a better way to utilize the democratic process that is so integral to the dignity of the individual?