Sometime ago, the brilliant Robin Hanson posted a thought-provoking piece about a clearly unintended consequence of a world ruled by a single government: a rising likelihood of human extinction via collective suicide.
This needs some explaining but not much. Hanson’s thesis is easy to follow: suicidal compulsions lurk in all humans, sometimes mixed-up with homicidal compulsions; this is a small-scale problem until power concentrates so that fewer humans (for example, those with access to nuclear weapons codes, such as the notoriously stable genius Donald Trump) have the power to kill billions or potentially wreck the whole planet.
The risk, Hanson explains, is extremely low at all times: the possibility that, at any given time, an extremely powerful human feels the compulsion to act and has the ability to do so is minuscule.
However, the risk multiplies on a longer time scale (low-probability events are likelier the more time passes; or, as Chuck Palahniuk famously put it in “Fight Club”: “on a long enough timescale, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero”) and when power is concentrated: with a world government, potentially one person or a very small group of humans can, and would, have the possibility of wiping out the entire human race on a whim, or due to a misguided plan a la “Twelve Monkeys.” Hanson writes:
This is a big problem for world or universal government. We today coordinate on the scale of firms, cities, nations, and internationals organizations. However, the fact that we also fail to coordinate to deal with many large problems on these scales shows that we face severe limits in our coordination abilities. We also face many problems that could be aided by coordination via world government, and future civilizations will be similarly tempted by the coordination powers of central governments. But, alas, central power risks central suicide, either done directly on purpose or as an indirect consequence of other broken thinking. In contrast, in a sufficiently decentralized world when one power commits suicide, its place and resources tend to be taken by other powers who have not committed suicide. Competition and selection is a robust long-term solution to suicide, in a way that centralized governance is not.
He goes on to explain that this is his tentative best guess for what Hanson calls the “future filter.” This is another complex concept, but in summary it refers to something unforeseen that may destroy a civilization: pandemics, killer nanorobots, massive nihilistic tendencies, or whatever it is that may have stopped alien civilizations from becoming interstellar and showing themselves to us, humans, by their works on the universe.
The “future filter” is Hanson’s term for something lurking in our future, or perhaps something that we overcame in the past, that could have been or will be destructive for human civilization and would have stopped or will stop our apparently unstoppable march to the stars. Hanson adds:
The temptation to form central governments and other governance mechanisms is strong, to solve immediate coordination problems, to help powerful interests gain advantages via the capture of such central powers, and to sake the ambition thirst of those who would lead such powers. Over long periods this will seem to have been a wise choice, until suicide ends it all and no one is left to say “I told you so.”
I was born in 1973, when Spain was ruled by a Fascist Generalissimo, and grew up to see the country join the NATO, the European Union, the eurozone, and give up huge amounts of power to institutions it practically has no control over, including the European Parliament and Comission, the European Court of Justice, but also various U.N. bodies that set up all sorts of rules, from sentencing guidelines to border enforcement to the granting of citizenship.
I’ve seen the U.S. go from hyper-powerful Republic to something akin to an Empire, or something at the brink of being an Empire, with imperial compulsions and imperial dreams of grandeur. With a global elite convinced that New York and Washington D.C. are perfectly nice places from which to rule the globe, Hanson’s warning doesn’t sound that much like a theoretical joke to me.
In fact, having spent much of my life surrounded by people who wish to see, and work for, a peaceful world under a centralized, enlightened government, perhaps based on the United Nations or the European Union model (*), I’ve always been intrigued by the consequences of such an endgame.
In my mind, there’s little doubt that this endgame will be achieved, perhaps not within my lifetime, but surely during my kids’. Perhaps on the basis of a wider confederacy between the U.S. and the European Union, under the U.N. aegis, to which other countries eventually join. (**)
Behind the rough and tumble of Western politics, and in Asia and Latin America to a lesser extent, what you see is an increasing polarization along this axis: in the U.S. as in, say, Denmark, you have your “internationalist” or “globalist” (***) factions and your “nationalist” factions (****). These may not be monolithic, but any globalist has much more in common with any other globalist than with any nationalist of whichever stripe, and the reverse is true as well.
I’m not sure that I need much arguing to settle this point, but I will provide some examples: obviously, Donald Trump is (mostly) a nationalist, and Angela Merkel is (mostly) a globalist, even though they are both nominally Conservative politicians who emerged roughly from the same intellectual tradition; Marco Rubio is a globalist, while Benjamin Netanyahu is a nationalist; pretty much every journalist in Western media, especially “elite” publications, is a globalist, while pretty much every staffer at Breitbart News is a nationalist.
There are some less clear-cut cases, but the divide is still evident and of growing importance: Hillary Clinton is a straightforward, out-of-central-casting frequent-Davos-flier globalist, while Bernie Sanders is not really a nationalist, but somebody who is not fully on board with the whole globalist project, at least yet. The same happens with, say, full-blooded globalist Emmanuel Macron and not-quite-globalist Jean Luc Melenchon in France or, among media barons, with Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch.
As you can see in this list, the line separating a globalist from a nationalist is not always that thick. There are multiple policy issues on which globalists on one side and nationalists on the other can disagree; but there’s one very important point to keep in mind too: since globalists share the ideal of a world government under which they would be equal citizens, globalists tend to have fewer and less prominent disagreements than nationalists.
After all, a Russian nationalist and a Ukrainian nationalist have very opposing and indeed incompatible goals for which they will kill each other gladly. Same with a French and a German nationalist, an Israeli and a Palestinian, a Tibetan and a Chinese nationalist. That’s not really the case with globalists: they tend to cooperate better, and to often find each other in coordination, even if unwillingly.
This is, I think, the source of much talk about Davos- and Bildeberg-based conspiracy theories involving the Rothschilds and Rockefellers and the like working in tandem to undermine national governments, actions that are better explained by a simple concidence of objectives: one doesn’t go to Davos to conspire with fellow plotters, but to make connections and get the buzz on how things are going, to know which way the wind blows and what is the politically-correct way of expressing what.
One can easily see the appeal of the globalist project: it would do a lot to finally implement the political program of every Miss Universe contestant who ever expressed a desire for world peace; it would help tremendously to coordinate policies on issues of worldwide interest from climate change to prevention of pandemics; it would create a stable framework for redistribution of resources from wealthier parts of the Earth to poorer parts, as they all would be under the same umbrella government.
In a way, it’s no wonder that globalism is cherished by many in the Left. One can construe a final triumph of globalism, with the final supression of all borders and the disappearance of all discrimination by nationality, that looks quite a bit like the final stage of Communism as predicted by Karl Marx: a form of mild, slightly inconsistent anarchism presided over by a cabal of wise, highly-educated technocrats (it’s no wonder is that the word “technocrat” is so beloved by globalists).
Now, for the problems. Most obvious is the lack of rapport between the ruled and the rulers: think of a planet with 10-15 billion people, ruled from the UN headquarters in New York: decrees flowing all the way to a village in Bangladesh would likely be subjected to multiple layers of interpretation, twisting and not-disinterested tweaking, as in popular jokes about military orders from generals down to soldiers.
The nationalist model is, by design, closer to the ruled. If you don’t like your globalist policies, there’s nothing you can do: even if the leading internationalist cabal was elective (which is highly unlikely, given the complications of setting up such an electoral system), any single constituency would be irrelevant from somebody who requires the consent of billions to govern. You would need to create a movement with hundreds of millions to even get a hearing from the top leadership.
If you think the multi-billionaire lobbying industry of Washington DC is a disgrace and an affront to democracy, with globalism you’d be out of luck: any globalist center would be the target of incredibly massive attempts at lobbying, since the gains to be secured from favorable legislation would be equally enormous. Prepare to see millions of people employed in lobbying one single authority, in such a future.
These are relatively small objections, though. One can easily imagine the argument: for the worry about small constituencies losing all influence, we can have a blockchain-based system of appeals and notifications! (or something similarly trendy, circa 2019) One can picture a group of enlightened rulers creating a complex, comprehensive system through which they can realize that this or that email in the inbox is really important, because it refers to a genuine problem in, say, Tarancón, Cuenca province, Spain.
One can alternatively see the good people of Tarancón relying on the old, tried-and-tested method of sending a delegation to New York, a group of dignataries who will camp on the main gate of the rulers’ complex, perhaps for months, until somebody will meet with them. Different versions of this actually have happened in many large countries, from India to Russia, for centuries.
For the second objection, one can imagine a extraordinary, AI-supported system of centralized, optimized governance with multiple decision trees, that will make the lobbyists’ efforts moot, to the point that lobbyism ceases to be a lucrative industry and weeds come to grow on the lobbyists’ former haunts, such as plush office space and expensive restaurants in Manhattan. Unlikely, yes, but possible.
To me, the biggest problem with gigantic, centralized government is the third: how to stop the system from ossifying completely.
(*This, in my experience, is the typical ideological mindset of journalists, particularly foreign correspondents — I have met fewer sports reporters, say, than foreign correspondents, because of my long experience in prestige media.)
(**Reading this kind of thing, one gets the impression that many are already hard at work in creating such as confederacy, based in the U.S.)
(***A typically derisive word, but one that is very useful and should be adopted by globalists much like Democrats, Queers and Communists adopted insults as their own preferred descriptions.)
(**** “Nativists” is increasingly been used by opponents of nationalism to describe what I refer here as “nationalists.” I don’t know whether this term will stick. “Nationalist” is already used as a pejorative with some frequency, for example in this story in which a British gay man of Greek descent who lives in the US is described as a “nationalist” by a reporter whose distaste for the person and the ideology permeates the piece.)