Imagine if someone told you that there was a right way to make music, and advocated for creating the best possible song, abolishing other music and having everyone enjoy the same tune. Or imagine a person proposing that there was a best TV show, and was working to make sure everyone watched the same show, establishing a “one-world TV channel”. You would rightly call them crazy! People’s needs are diverse, and not everyone has to like the same things. Additionally, when it comes to subjective experiences like music or TV, there really is not a “right” answer!
But why do we seem to think this about government? Ideas about world government have a long history and many people seem to hold it as an ideal. World government is also a common trope in science fiction, where it acts as an unquestioned backdrop for fantastical adventures. This uncritical inclusion of world government in futuristic fiction has played a role in making it the default expectation for the future of governance.
But advocates of world government seem to be committing the same mistakes as advocates of “world music” or “world TV” by believing that there is a “right” way to govern and that all people have the same tastes. In truth, world government is a highly paternalistic way to approach public choice which implicitly disregards others preferences. It would profoundly reduce peoples options when deciding how they are governed. I have previously advocated for the opposite of this system, the Archipelago, where each person chooses their citizenship and a diverse set of governments are allowed to flourish. Contrasting the Archipelago with world government highlights the key benefit of competitive governance; it prevents the concentration of power into a handful of states and creates stronger incentives for states to serve their people.
It also seems implausible that scaling up governance will lead to better outcomes. Most problems in public choice become massively more difficult as the size of the population increases. Additionally, some of the most successful governments today are highly localized. This makes sense given that many of the problems government is suited to solve have to do with local public goods problems. By reducing local control, the overall quality of governance may become much worse.
But one of the biggest problems with world government is that it constitutes a new kind of existential risk. If we determine how to effectively govern the entire world, what happens if we fall into a totalitarian state? The tools for global control may work just as well for a dictator as a democracy. I highlighted global totalitarianism as an existential risk previously because a malign world government could prevent expansion into space and create massive amounts of suffering indefinitely. This scenario may seem implausible, but a transition to global dictatorship may be irreversible, meaning that over the long term, this result is inevitable. If this is the case, it becomes critical to find a way to prevent the formation of a world state entirely.
But doesn’t world government have some benefits? For example, it should allow people to coordinate globally in ways they couldn’t otherwise. For example, having a global state might be a solution to the problem of financing global public goods. Coordinating on these problems is critical, but do we really need a single government in order to coordinate? Already, international accords and negotiations between countries are sufficient to create global coordination on many issues. Additionally, it seems like there is plenty of possibility for inter-state finance of global public goods1.
While international agreements seem sufficient, I worry the body of international law and cooperation will continue to grow until there is effectively a single state. Technological improvements in administering a state will help countries govern larger domains, accelerating this trend2. It seems to me that if we do nothing, world government is a foregone conclusion.
So how do we prevent the formation of a single state? As I have already discussed, the Archipelago can prevent many of the ill’s of global government by fostering numerous independent states. Finding ways to finance global public goods between states can provide many of the benefits we might want from a global state. Beyond independent states, there must be systems for dealing with interstate conflict which avoid using violence or coercion. For example, if burning wood is essential to a local culture, the citizens should pay taxes for their increased pollution rather than be entirely prohibited by other states in the Archipelago.
But my solutions are somewhat hypocritical: In place of world government, I am proposing to create mechanisms for public goods finance and an overarching “archipelago government” which ensures fair competition between states. It is hard to see how this is fundamentally different from some sort of world government! Perhaps it is an impossible task, and, like Nozick, we must recognize that some form of government will occur, and focus instead on creating the minimal functional world government; a sort of minarchy for states. The same ideas apply to designing world minarchy, where strong norms for independent governance and freedom are critical while important checks are needed to prevent further growth of the global government.
World government is one of many political ideals which are seductive but deeply flawed. Unfortunately, I believe some form of global state will eventually grow out of efforts to coordinate individual states. The goal should not be to prevent global government, but rather, to shape its development into a stable organization which fosters global collaboration while respecting the independence and diversity of it’s citizens.
- This is a problem that the mechanism design literature has not even begun to examine.
- Technology cuts both ways, making governance more scalable, but also making it easier to engage in more covert, uncontrollable activities.