June 2013

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World Government and Liberty

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

I was on a panel recently on which (asked to come up with the best idea I had) I said that we need a world government, not because it will bring universal peace, or make us better people, but for a common sense reason, that problems can only be solved at the level at which they occur.

Global problems of the greatest importance include climate change, air pollution, population, nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. A 2009 report from the New York Academy of Sciences claims that as many as 170,000 Americans have died, mainly of cancer, from the radiation spread over the U.S. by the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown. It usually seems as if we are very poorly positioned to manage any of these things, and as if it is a foregone conclusion that we will have a crash instead, like the Roman Empire or Easter Island. But why are we not at least having an intelligent world-wide conversation about the best way of solving problems at the planetary level?

When I was finished there was a little silence in the room, as there usually is, as if people were unable to take in what I said, or were thinking, "Did he really say that?" And then they all started talking about something else.

Part of my mission in writing the Spectacle since 1995 has included "Stating the obvious if no-one else has, or if the obvious is not getting enough attention." I think the idea of world government is one of those things. Its not so much a moral imperative as simply a way to survive, and really, now that our technology is so powerful, the only way.

If you work through it logically, you may agree with me; or at least then we will be on terms of specificity sufficient for you to tell me, not why a world government could never work, but how we can survive without one. I think that's a threshold issue. If we can get by without a world government, we never need to discuss having one. But if we can't survive without one, we may still find out its hard or impossible to make one, so that becomes a worthwhile discussion.

For example, an article in yesterday's New York Times described a controversy. A Florida oyster fishery is dying out, in large part because the Apachicola River, which runs through Georgia, isn't delivering enough water any more. With a diminished flow, the river's fresh water is being depleted by Georgia farmers. The article contains a memorable quote from Senator Bill Nelson of Florida: "Georgia won’t agree....They want what they want. We say that’s not what Mother Nature intended.”

Given the prevalence of drought and of fights over water rights through-out this country, ask yourself the question how you can ever resolve these disputes if they can only be resolved through negotiation between separate sovereignties? I don't think, given human nature, that you will ever reach a stable agreement that will last through-out history, no matter what the conditions. Instead, you will wind up with the people upstream using all the water, or with war. Any human problem which crosses several sovereignties will run into the same brick wall: pollution released in one area and affecting others; guns sold freely in one jurisdiction that are smuggled into another. In any negotiation scenario, the affected group, the group that is hurt, is relying on the human kindness, the volunteerism, of the other group, to forego profit, or water, for the other's benefit.

I think the best way to solve the problem between Georgia farmers and Florida oyster fishermen is to have one government which arches over both of them (though, in all honesty, that government has failed to intervene to solve the problem in the Florida case, as of yet). Although I don't believe a national government necessarily makes us all better and wiser than we were before, I think it does tend to be a good mechanism for solving problems that are hard to solve otherwise. I said above it doesn't bring peace, but what I should have said is, it doesn't necessarily make us want peace or have peaceful natures. Because it also seems relevant here that there is little to no chance of Florida and Georgia militias fighting a water war, no matter what the outcome. I used to think that people's reaction to this was "Yeah, right", as if, that could never happen anyway. But in the American history I've been reading recently, I became aware of two situations in which American states were close to war before they became part of one polity. Massachusetts and Rhode Island which differed over religious tolerance, fought a proxy war through local Indian tribes in the late seventeenth century. And Ohio and Michigan nearly came to blows in the 1830's when the American slave states, eager to admit one slave state for every free state as the Union grew, carved off a large piece of the free Michigan territory to create the slave state of Ohio.

On a similar note, Croatia and Bosnia never fought each other when they were part of Yugoslavia together. There is a significant subtext about freedom in that statement, and I will return to it.

Very few of us who think world government is a crazy, un-needed idea would be willing to break up the Union. This is a phenomenon in conservative thinking which a Columbia professor of mine once demonstrated dramatically. He asked if, instead of electing one congressperson for every half million people, we wanted to change that number to every one hundred thousand people, or every two million. Everyone felt the House of Representatives would then be too large or too small. In other words, the arbitrary existing arrangement was for the best, and there was no reason to change it.

In effect, you are living under a "world" government which governs from New York to Brownsville, from Seattle to Key West, and you are very probably satisfied with that. If you're reasonably satisfied with it, why wouldn't you want it to be larger? If the U.S. government covered the entire globe, wouldn't that satisfy you as much as the fact that when you travel four thousand miles to California, you are still in your home country?

Not seeing at least a possible idea of world government represents a failure of the imagination. What rule is built in to the human world that says, we will live in nations not larger than China or India, but in no event can they coincide with the entire planet?

Let's clarify what we are talking about here. I am not advocating world conquest, but an approach similar to the one under which the several States aggregated to form the U.S. If the countries of the world were desirous of forming a world state together, what would be the rationale for saying, "No! That's no good!" Again, that is a different statement from "Its not going to work." American democracy may not last either, but most of us would agree it was a worthy experiment. Again, if you are saying world government, peacefully constituted, based on consent, is undesirable, then you have a responsibility to explain why its a Bad Thing, and how we can Do Better without it.

To make sure we are absolutely clear about this: the United Nations is not that government. Its a talking shop, for trying to achieve treaties, which mainly come to nothing because one or more powers, very often the U.S., hold out. A world government, like a federal government, has police power to make sure its laws are followed. The U.N. does not.

I'm going to step off a little to one side here, and note that even Friedrich Hayek, the libertarian god, thought there were certain problems you needed a government to resolve, that couldn't be done by individuals negotiating with one another:

[T]he price system becomes similarly ineffective when the damage caused to others by certain uses of property cannot effectively be charged to the owner of that property. In all these instances there is a divergence between the items which enter into private calculation and those which affect social welfare; and whenever this divergence becomes important, some method other than competition may have to be found to supply the services in question.

These thoughts apply pretty clearly to the Georgia-Florida water example, or to one in which the upstream denizens are killing the fish by heating water for a nuclear plant, or dumping chemicals into the water via a manufacturing process. Hayek (the quote is from The Road to Serfdom, a book most of the people name-checking it haven't actually read) is not advocating a world government in particular; he is suggesting one, however, that arches over both the parties concerned, the one using property and the other one damaged by the use. So if we are being damaged in America by bad management of nuclear plants in Chernobyl or on Japanese fault lines, or by Chinese air pollution, we are in the exact same position as the "others" Hayek refers to in the sentence quoted.

A working world government would mean that there would be an actual framework for avoiding or managing most of the international problems you've been reading about in the newspaper, including drone warfare and fatal collapses in third world factories manufacturing clothing for Western labels.

If your response is, "Pakistan would never want to be part of one government with us," that's an excellent practical objection as to why it may not work. But that's still not the same as saying we can do better without it. Pakistan itself is facing a similar type of apparently insurmountable problem right now keeping the electricity turned on everywhere, but only the Taliban would say the country is better off without reliable delivery of electrical power.

A related problem of the greatest importance, and one most people would hesitate to express, is "I don't want to be part of one country with the Pakistanis". There are days when I don't particularly want to be part of one country with the people of Texas either, but I still know I am better off this way than the alternative.

At the end of the panel at which I proposed a world government, a really dogmatic libertarian in the audience accused me of promoting slavery, the serfdom Hayek warned us of.

This was a fascinating conversation, because I could have predicted every sentence with which he answered my questions in almost the exact words. I quoted the lines from Hayek above, and he said, "That's the part of Hayek which I hate." I asked him to explain how you solve problems like the examples given above in a purely libertarian system, and he resorted to what I regard as being the ultimate libertarian cop-out: the problems don't really exist; they do, but aren't as bad as made out to be; no matter how bad they are, there is nothing we can do about them anyway.

Libertarians rely a lot on human rationality as infused into the "invisible hand" of the market place. I tried my coral reef mindgame on him: if Pennekamp State Park is privatized, and the owner one day gets an irresistible offer to dynamite the reefs for paper-weights and tchotchkes to be sold in kitsch emporiums, what happens? Young and naive, or dishonest libertarians will say that could never happen, the owner could never decide to dynamite the reef. Cynical, pragmatic libertarians like this guy say the reef goes up in a puff of smoke, and that's the way it should be.

One thing I find fascinating is that libertarians shift their arguments a lot, they really won't take a stand. Young libertarians will insist global warming is a lie, but older ones end up falling back to a kind of frightening fatalism, that there is no way to prevent it anyway. This is significant, because you can make libertarian arguments that are uncompromisingly honest, though they usually sound rather brutal. You can say, for example, that the Chinese one child policy is a terrible interference with personal liberty, in a way that mass starvation is not. Because morally, in the first case, you have a great big State saying "You shall not",and in the latter, you just didn't succeed in using your personal strengths and resources to feed yourself and your family. So, in the first case, population control is a result of State violence, but in the second case, its your own personal fault, or nobody's.

Another honest libertarian argument would be: "I would rather live in a world in which there is no state interference in Person A's ability to make a living, regardless of the consequences to B, because 'caveat emptor'". In that world, at its extreme, it would be all right to sell fatal methyl alcohol to drinkers, as happened last week in Iran, because they should have checked it out before imbibing, given a little to a dog maybe.

What libertarians do instead is fight a rear-guard battle downhill. Nobody would ever sell methyl alcohol to anybody. Its not nearly as harmful as its cracked up to be. And there's nothing you can do to stop it anyway. When you close the loop with a libertarian--and it never seems to take more than a half hour--what you end up with is some sort of terrible mystical fatalism, the philosophy of a Kurt Cobain, and not really a creed to live by.

Another thing my libertarian friend could have said: "There is no way a world government won't impinge on everybody's liberty. I would rather die free in a fucked up, dwindling world, than live a slave in the shiny world you envision."

Some, perhaps many of the people who say this don't really believe that they will be the ones to die. What they are really saying is, "I would rather live free at the top of the heap in a world in which you are fucked up and dwindling, then share everything I have with you." I suspect that the biggest mental obstacle to considering world government is our unspoken desire to preserve inequality. Americans largely find the idea shocking because of the included principle that we would then share what we have with others who are currently living on a dollar or two a day.

Still the question of liberty under a world government is a good one, and one I don't know completely how to answer. The population of the Earth has doubled in my lifetime, from three to six billion. How many times can that happen? Nobody knows. In my proposed world-government world, we could conceivably end up with something like the Chinese one child policy, which infringes personal freedom. But in libertarian-world, we end up with a massive die-off and a new dark age. I would rather engage a conversation about how to preserve freedom under world government. We rather succcessfully designed a system, the United States of America, which governs three hundred million people, yet contains at least certain personal freedom protections. Couldn't we do something similar for the planet?

My friend's dogmatic words light up one chillingly real issue. Most of the time, when we talk about freedom, we are not really talking about everyone's. In fact, much of the time our freedoms are based on other people's suffering or oppression, as our freedom to wear a wide variety of bright clothing is based on the existence of Third World factories which may burn down tomorrow. While libertarians like to say that your freedom to swing your fist ends at your neighbor's nose, they end up finding really creative ways to deny her nose is there, or that it was their fist which hit it.

I happen to think that The Road to Serfdom is very trenchantly titled, because it is libertarian-world, not mine, which takes us back to a medieval polity of billionaire-barons and dependent serfs. I think it is my world government solution that comes closest to guaranteeing, or at least seriously attempting, freedom for everybody.

If you're offended by the proposition that, through-out history, most claims and discussions of freedom imply the subjection of someone else, here's an example from the October 11, 1860 edition of the Charleston Mercury:

The ruin of the South, by the emancipation of her slaves, is not like the ruin of any other people. It is not a mere loss of liberty, like the Italians under the BOURBONS. It is not heavy taxation, which must still leave the means of living, or otherwise taxation defeats itself. But it is the loss of liberty, property, home, country-- everything that makes life worth living. And this loss, will probably take place under circumstances of suffering and horror, unsurpassed in the history of nations. We must preserve our liberties and institutions, under penalties greater than those which impend over any people in the world. http://civilwarcauses.org/mercury.htm

The only world which would have a chance of this no longer being true is the one in which we are all citizens of one polity together.