Perils of World Government:

In my last post, I tried to explain why world government isn't necessary to solve the global problems that are often cited as a justification for it. In this post, I will explain why world government is not only unnecessary, but potentially dangerous.

Critics of world government always run the risk of looking like members of the black helicopter brigade who think that the UN/Council on Foreign Relations/Masonic conspiracy is about to take over the world. So let me say at once that I don't believe there is any great conspiracy to establish world government, that I don't expect a world government to emerge for at least several decades (if ever), and that if it is created at all, any world government is likely to be very weak - at first. Nonetheless, there is no question that many influential opinion leaders are warming to the idea of world government because of fear caused by international problems such as global warming and the financial crisis. Therefore, it is worth our while to critically examine it.

In ascending order of gravity and descending order of likelihood, world government poses three major dangers: stifling of diversity and competition; elimination of the possibility of emigration and "voting with your feet"; and the rise of global totalitarianism.

I. Stifling Diversity and Competition.

The whole world is far more diverse than any one nation-state. A world government will necessarily have to trample some of this diversity in order to impose one-size-fits all policies. If it doesn't do so, there would be no point in establishing a world government in the first place. However, given the incredible diversity of the world's people and cultures, it will be difficult to adopt any policy that doesn't inflict severe harm on at least some groups. The problem of dissident minorities has been difficult to address within individual nation-states; it would be far more severe under a world government.

Stifling diversity might also undermine beneficial competition between nation-states. Currently, national governments compete with each other to attract business, investment, and trade, and productive workers. This to some degree incentivizes states to adopt more effective economic policies and reduces their ability to impose excessive taxes and regulations. It also promotes policy innovation, as a successful innovator can get ahead in the economic race (as Britain did in the 19th century; the US in the 20th, and the "Asian Tigers" more recently). A world government would not be subject to this kind of competitive pressure and it could facilitate the organization of a cartel among nation-states to undercut competition at their level as well. Many central governments in federal systems already do this in order to stifle competition between subnational governments under their jurisdiction.

II. No Exit: The Danger of Losing the Ability to Vote With Your Feet.

Throughout history, the option of emigration has been a tremendous boon to people forced to live under corrupt, backward, or oppressive regimes. The United States has taken in millions of such migrants from all over the world. If a world government becomes oppressive, falls victim to corruption, or adopts poor economic policies that stifle opportunity, there will be nowhere else to go. We will be stuck with that government, or at least have no recourse other than violent rebellion.

Perhaps this danger may be somewhat mitigated if the world government is democratic; if we can't exercise exit rights against it, we can still resort to "voice" and vote the bastards out. Unfortunately, however, there is no guarantee that a world government will be democratic or that it will stay democratic over time even if it is initially set up to be that way. Moreover, even democratic regimes can adopt pathological policies for a variety of reasons, including widespread political ignorance among the voters, who might not be able to tell apart good policies and bad ones. It is dangerous to trust even a democratic government so much that we are willing to forego any possibility of exit if things go badly. And of course a world government could easily take the form of a dictatorship or oligarchy.

III. The Menace of Global Totalitarianism.

I leave the least likely but most deadly scenario for last: A world government might become totalitarian. And that totalitarianism could potentially be far worse and more longlasting than any oppressive regime we have seen before. Obviously, a world government is highly unlikely to start off totalitarian. However, we know from history that totalitarian political movements can seize power in a previously relatively free society during a crisis. That is what happened in Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia (relatively free during the last years of czarism, when political rights were greatly expanded), and elsewhere. The chances of this happening at any one time are very low. But over decades or centuries, the cumulative risk that it will happen sooner or later rises. It is true that no totalitarian movement has ever taken power in an advanced, long-established democracy. However, any world government established in the next century or so is likely to preside over a population most of which has never lived in such a democracy. The average level of political development in the world is a lot closer to 1920s Germany or 1917 Russia than to the modern US or Western Europe. And it is likely to remain that way for a long time to come.

Historically, the greatest threat to the longevity of totalitarian regimes has been the presence of rival, relatively free societies. Such rivals might forcibly overthrow the totalitarian regime (as happened with Germany). Even if they don't do so, their example might lead to restiveness among the totalitarian state's subjects and to the adoption of reforms that bring the system down (as happened in the Soviet bloc).

By now, I think you can see where this is going. Once established, a global totalitarian regime wouldn't face either of these risks. There will be no rival government that could overthrow it or provide an example of a successful, relatively free society. For that reason, a global totalitarian regime could easily last longer and be more oppressive than any we have seen before. For a more detailed discussion of the threat of totalitarian world government, see this excellent article by Bryan Caplan. As Bryan points out, the combination of world government and future technological developments could greatly increase the likelihood of a global totalitarian state.

Is this scenario actually likely to happen? Even given the initial establishment of world government, I would guess that the probability of global totalitarianism within the next century or two is far less than 50%. Nonetheless, the consequences are so catastrophic that even a relatively small risk of global totalitarianism should give us pause.

After all, advocates of world government claim that it is needed to cope with a variety of potential catastrophes, many of which also have a relatively low probability of occurring (e.g. - an environmental disaster so severe that it might destroy modern civilization). The point cuts both ways. If it is valid at all, the precautionary principle should apply to political risks no less than to environmental ones. As George Orwell put it in 1984, global totalitarianism would be "a boot stamping on a human face - forever." We should think long and hard before agreeing to take even a small risk of that happening.

UPDATE: Some commenters doubt that anyone important actually supports world government. However, the idea does have a good many prominent advocates. This article, linked in my last post, cites a number of recent works advocating world government by prominent scholars such as Daniel Deudney, Alexander Wendt, and David Held. In the international law field, many prominent writers, such as Anne-Marie Slaughter and Harold Koh, support proposals for "global governance" which would give international institutions enough power to make them roughly equivalent to a world government. Other prominent world government supporters include Jacques Attali, leading French intellectual and adviser to several French Presidents including Nicolas Sarkozy, who believes that "some form of global government cannot come too soon."

Obviously, few political leaders have endorsed such views. But many - especially in Western Europe - do support major expansions in the power of international institutions that point in that direction. World government is not likely to be established any time soon, if ever. But the concept has enough support to be taken seriously.