- “Subnational Elections, Diffusion Effects, and the Growth of the Opposition in Mexico, 1984-2000” (pdf)
- Types of Federalisms, Good and Bad
- “Structural Blockage: A Cross-National Study of Economic Dependency, State Efficacy, and Underdevelopment” (pdf)
- “The Political Economy of Expulsion: The Regulation of Jewish Moneylending in Medieval England” (pdf)
- Why not world government?
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.
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.
I have recently come across an old blog post by Ilya Somin at Volokh Conspiracy arguing against world government. Somin’s argument echoed Michelangelo’s here at the consortium, and in particular one aspect of their argument stands out for being especially short-sighted: That of a lack of competition or “diversity in governance” would be the inevitable result of a world government.
Now, a libertarian world government would be federal in nature, so if Somin and Michelangelo are arguing against a different kind of world government they may have a point (I don’t know of many arguments in favor of world government that are not federal in nature, and it wouldn’t be worth my time to read up on any such ludicrous proposals), but when addressing arguments in favor of world government from a libertarian perspective opponents must realize that it is federation they are skeptical of.
Here is how I address the opposition to a world government because competition (and, thus, diversity) would become diminished:
Libertarians generally argue that federalism is the best option we, as humans, have because it allows for competition between administrative units. This competition is enhanced and respected by the people it affects because of the rules set in place and enforced by a federal authority. So, for example, everyone in the US federation generally has their individual rights protected (there are always exceptions, of course, including blacks, Natives, felons, immigrants, and religious minorities), including freedom of movement. Under this general framework different administrative units come up with different policies concerning taxes, education, transportation, etc. This competitive framework makes policies better overall, in all 50 states, without having to resort to a central, one-size-fits-all policy.
It is true that the US could be better, and it is true that federal democracy may be inferior to anarchy, but it is also true that we live in a world of second bests, and comparatively speaking, the US has one of the highest standards of living in the world so I don’t see why this should not be taken as a sort of rough estimate for where libertarians should be aiming.
Is everybody in agreement that federalism is the least worst workable option largely because of the competition it allows for?
Okay then. It somehow follows, for opponents of world federalism, that if the US federal system were to add every administrative unit in the world into its system that competition would suddenly cease.
Okay, I am being a jerk about this line of reasoning. It actually goes something like this: Because the US and Russia have different systems of governance, they are competing with each other. Fair enough, but it does not follow that this competition is a good thing. If I recall correctly, there are good kinds of competition and there are bad kinds of competition. Walmart versus Target is good competition. Lobbying for political favors is good competition (consider the alternatives, i.e. Russia). Building up military capabilities is bad competition. Pitting human rights-abusing regimes against liberal democracies is bad competition, too, but this last scenario is precisely what opponents of world federalism argue is desirable about the status quo.
World government wouldn’t eliminate competition, it would enhance it by focusing governmental duties on policy issues and standardizing a regime of rights protection based on the notion of the free and sovereign individual.
Comparing the US to, say, Gabon or China is not competition. It is an injustice, and one that ignores the plight of billions of people living under despotic regimes. Competition is not what happens when 5 million people live in a liberal democracy and 5 million more live in a one party socialist state. Competition is what happens when all 10 million people are free to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster whenever and wherever they please, but only half of them pay a sales tax (the other half have banned plastic bags through plebiscite, of course).
Even if my competition-is-enhanced-by-federalism argument does not convince the opponent of world government, the fact that his own argument for more competition, through state sovereignty, should.
Consider the following scenario in regards to competition and world federalism: The state of Durango, in the United States of Mexico, is fed up with Mexico City’s corruption and inefficiency. The leaders of Durango, and a significant population of Durango (say, 60-65%), all would be thrilled to leave the Mexican federation. However, Durango knows that independence would be much worse than federation, so it continues to stay within the Mexican federation and simmers with despair and loathing.
Under the status quo – competition through state sovereignty – Duranguense have no options whatsoever, except to keep electing reformers to political office at the federal level and hope for a reform bloc to coalesce. How is this competitive?
Now, consider the scenario outlined above again. The federation of 50 American states has adopted a statute that allows for disgruntled administrative units elsewhere in the world to apply for admission into the union. Duranguense suddenly have an option. Not only that, but Mexico City suddenly has competition, and little of it can be snuffed out through repressive domestic policies.
Does this make sense? Am I knocking down a straw man? If so, please don’t hesitate to take me to task in the ‘comments’ threads!
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?
Recently, I posted some musings on the writings of many libertarian intellectuals concerning world government. It is important to distinguish, really quickly and in blog form, that libertarians are internationalists, and internationalists are individualists. Indeed, the only logical conclusion of individualism is internationalism.
When libertarians speak of world government, though, we are not speaking of economic planning as has been undertaken by national governments (vigorously and largely unopposed) since the turn of the 20th century. Indeed, Hayek saw the problems we now see with supranational economic planning in his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom: Continue reading
I’ve been doing a little bit of side reading on capitalism and charity and I came across some of Ludwig von Mises’s writings on foreign policy. I’ll have a longer post on his foreign policy arguments in the future (promise!) but for now lemme just say it falls roughly in line with many other classical liberals.
One interesting tidbit about classical liberals like Mises, Hayek, and Adam Smith is that they were actually very much in favor of some kind of world governing body that would be able to standardize laws and further erode the arbitrary borders drawn up by statesmen over the course of centuries. However, they were much more realistic about the practicality of such an endeavor, as well as suspicious of other kinds of international government being espoused by various thinkers (in Smith’s time, this was done by despots and Popes [same thing!], and in Hayek’s and Mises’s time this was done by despots and socialists [again, same thing!]).
This realism should not be confused, though, with opposition to an international governing body charged with codifying a standard, minimum set of global laws concerning trade, private property, individual rights, and, of course, peace.
Again, I’ll have a longer post explaining the foreign policy arguments of classical liberals in the near future, but for now this juicy little tidbit is all I can offer y’all. You can find Mises’s musings on foreign policy in his book Liberalism (available to read for free at mises.org).