(The first part is here)
Ancient China offers an excellent example of an ossified system that lost all capacity to innovate and adapt: after the Qin and then the Han dynasties unified the countries just before the start of the common era, China embarked — with hiccups — on an extraordinary process of technological and social advancement that gave us not only the usual suspects, like the gunpowder, firearms, explosive bombs, moveable type and the magnetic compass, but also the invention of new ideas and concepts.
For example, Communism was actually invented by the Chinese of this era, twice. First, it was Wang Mang, who briefly seized power from the Han with a revolutionary program that included land confiscation, the suppression of most private property, as well as establishing state monopolies on most commodities, and banning private ownership of gold. Wang Anshí came second, around a thousand years later under the Northern Song dynasty: he served as counsellor for the frustrated war-loving emperor Shenzong, whom he provided with funds by nationalizing pretty much everything and setting price-fixing mechanisms.
All this vibrant dynamic intellectual and technological activity, the logical consequence of a high-IQ, highly-educated populace with time and resources to innovate, ground to a halt over the next millennia: even as the Chinese grew in number and remained just as a smart and just as fond of education, China became an intellectual backwater, especially in terms of technology. Look around yourself: pretty much everything you see was invented by Europeans, in Europe or its overseas possessions and colonies, from computers to combustion engines, from bathrooms to T-shirts and bicycles.
The question of why Europe dominated the world to such an extent even as Europeans were, perhaps, a mere 20% of the global population and fought each other all the freaking time too, has left us with hundreds if not thousands of books, notably Niall Ferguson’s. The response is probably a complex combination of factors, but this debate is much easier if we focus strictly on the comparison with China.
Like Europe, China is a temperate territory with ancient civilizations, multiple religions and a long history of civilized life. The biggest, perhaps the only, significant difference between, say, 17th century China and 17th century Europe is a political one: China was a centralized state with a single center of power. Whenever the Chinese center deemed a new technology or idea too dangerous, it would suppress it (*).
Cautionary examples of this kind of trend abound in Chinese history: from the very First Emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, ordering a massive burning of ancient books as soon as he took the throne, to admiral Zheng He being ordered to destroy the fleet he had used to successfully explore the Indian Ocean in the early 15th century, to the last great Chinese emperor, Qianlong, and his efforts to destroy all deviating thought in his realm.
Qianlong, the most recent of these examples, is perhaps the most striking. A brilliant strategist and successful ruler who spent six decades on the throne and died in 1799, he incorporated the Eastern Turkestan to China and crushed the Mongol threat for ever by creating the still-existing province of Inner Mongolia, well beyond the Great Wall.
In the manner of most Chinese emperors, Qianlong fancied himself a patron of the arts and aesthete. His summer residence in Chengde, which I’ve visited, is larger and grander than most palaces ever built. Even though it was of secondary importance to his main residences in and outside Beijing, it’s so vast that it has small lodges so that the Emperor and his entourage could spend the night outside in the enclosed forests while hunting.
However, Qianlong’s reign was also marked by an ambitious attempt to censor the entire Chinese culture with the Siku Quanshu collection, including every book that was acceptable to Qianlong’s inclinations – and calling for the destruction of everything left outside. I don’t need to explain how bad this was for Chinese culture.
At the same time, Qianlong’s extremely centralized policy-making system was a disservice to China in 1793. That year, the self-styled United Kingdom sent its first embassy ever to China, under the arrogant George Macartney. After the British ambassador got involved in a highly-charged row over the proper ways to kowtow to a Chinese emperor, Qing policy would turn extremely hostile and disdainful to the world’s emerging superpower — with disastrous results including humiliating defeats, partial invasion, the loss of sovereignty and territories such as Hong Kong.
The objection here would be: well, yes, if centralized China was so bad, then how come they invented gunpowder, firearms, explosive bombs, moveable type, the magnetic compass and Communism, to start with?
The answer is simple: almost all of these advancements came in times of political division, when China didn’t have a single center of power, but competing ones, with various dynasties vying for power (like the time of the Northern Song) or multiple warlords controlling separate provinces. For example, almost all of what we know as Chinese philosophy was created during the Warring States period that came to a close with Qing Shi Huangdi’s book burning.
Political division was the secret ingredient to China’s inventions. It’s no wonder then that Europe, always more divided than China ever was (**), with dozens of competing and hostile states and ethnicities, eventually surpassed China in terms of technology and the development of new ideas.
In China under the last dynasty, the Qing, iconoclastic thinkers who wouldn’t listen were jailed or murdered. In medieval, Renaissance and modern Europe, such types, from Dante to Gutenberg to Descartes, Voltaire and Goya, went from court to court, looking for the protection of rulers who were often in conflict with their previous master. You lose political division, and you lose the chance of exile for dissidents.
And we still haven’t looked at two other downsides of globalized, centralized government: the genetical conundrum presented by the ancient Greece’s islands and polis, and the benefits of small-scale warfare.
Free internal migration is one of the key characteristics of a state. It’s not a given: communist countries and other states throught history have set limits to internal migration, woth systems of internal passports and the like (albeit these limits have always been looser than those on immigration from outside the state), but it’s fairly obvious that a world government would lead to higher levels of migration across different regions of the planet, all things equal.
Existing supranational institutions from which any world government would have to grow, including the European Union, are certainly in favor of mass migration. The United Nations has just pushed a controversial compact for migration across existing national borders, despite very significant opposition from very significant countries that pay a very large percentage of the U.N.’s annual budget.
This has advantages, of course. But it also has disadvantages, To me, the most unexpected of this comes from the likely loss of isolated genetic clusters, which would severely limit one of the most beneficial oddities of human history: genetic drift.
Genetic drift causes species to evolve even in the absence of selection, as Freeman Dyson masterfully explained in this long article in the New York Review of Books. Genetic drift and the better-known natural selection (“survival of the fittest”) work together to drive evolution, with selection being dominant when populations are large, and genetic drift being dominant when populations are small. As Dyson puts it:
If a small population is inbreeding, the rate of drift of the average measure of any human capability scales with the inverse square root of the population. Big fluctuations of the average happen in isolated villages far more often than in cities. On the average, people in villages are not more capable than people in cities. But if ten million people are divided into a thousand genetically isolated villages, there is a good chance that one lucky village will have a population with outstandingly high average capability, and there is a good chance that an inbreeding population with high average capability produces an occasional bunch of geniuses in a short time. The effect of genetic isolation is even stronger if the population of the village is divided by barriers of rank or caste or religion. Social snobbery can be as effective as geography in keeping people from spreading their genes widely.
A substantial fraction of the population of Europe and the Middle East in the time between 1000 BC and 1800 AD lived in genetically isolated villages, so that genetic drift may have been the most important factor making intellectual revolutions possible. Places where intellectual revolutions happened include, among many others, Jerusalem around 800 BC (the invention of monotheistic religion), Athens around 500 BC (the invention of drama and philosophy and the beginnings of science), Venice around 1300 AD (the invention of modern commerce), Florence around 1600 (the invention of modern science), and Manchester around 1750 (the invention of modern industry). These places were all villages, with populations of a few tens of thousands, divided into tribes and social classes with even smaller populations.
In each case, a small starburst of geniuses emerged from a small inbred population within a few centuries, and changed our ways of thinking irreversibly. These eruptions have many historical causes. Cultural and political accidents may provide unusual opportunities for young geniuses to exploit. But the appearance of a starburst must be to some extent a consequence of genetic drift.
If you lose genetic drift, by limiting the chances of creating at least relative genetic isolation at least in some places, you lose a big part of what created massive explosions of human creativity and ingenuity in recent millennia, from which everyone else has been living ever since.
And we arrive at what I see as the final significant downside of world government: the decline in warfare.
One may think that the end of war is a good thing. And, yes, generally speaking it is a good thing, but there are serious caveats. This downside is connected to the others, it really builds up on all the others. One could summarize: a world government will lead to a decline in human competition, and that is a bad thing in general. The decline of warfare is just a part of it, just not an insignificant one.
It’s easy to make the case that war is one very direct way to simplify arguments: whoever wins, turns out to have been right all along. When being not genocidal, all-out (that is, as it’s been during 99% of human history: limited), warfare leads to resolving problems. It’s no wonder that Edward Luttwak famously called on nations to “give war a chance”:
An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace. This can happen when all belligerents become exhausted or when one wins decisively. Either way the key is that the fighting must continue until a resolution is reached. War brings peace only after passing a culminating phase of violence. Hopes of military success must fade for accommodation to become more attractive than further combat… A cease-fire tends to arrest war-induced exhaustion and lets belligerents reconstitute and rearm their forces. It intensifies and prolongs the struggle once the cease-fire ends — and it does usually end.
It’s very unlikely that a world government would bring organized, violent conflict (warfare) to an end, since adjudicating claims in a way that makes both sides happy or at least content is practically impossible: it’s much likelier that a world government would be an endless purveyor of cease-fires and half-baked accomodations that both warring sides can take to rest, rearm and restart conflicts. The United Nations has used this template throughout its ineffective history, which is why we now have so many frozen conflicts across the continents, from Cyprus to Kashmir to Congo, but not real peace in so many places.
Besides being a clarifying system for disputes, war is also a huge driver for technological innovation: advanced flight, spaceflight (through rocketry) and nuclear energy are all products of the latest World War. Previous wars, even limited ones, have done much to advance human knowledge, with technologies that may be re-engineered from a destructive to a constructive purpose.
A world government may thus create a world that competes less, innovates less, has fewer sparks of genius, and contains conflicts without ever fully solving them. A world government may create a vulnerable, stagnant, weak world that is ripe for takeover for ideologies that won’t necessarily look for human improvement or for orderly development. To quote Mark Steyn:
“One of the oldest lessons of human history is that will trumps wealth: advanced prosperous societies are not beaten by even more advanced, more prosperous societies; the Roman Empire did not fall to the Even More Roman Empire, but to cruder forces on the fringes of the map driven by the old primal impulses when you no longer have even a vestigial survival instinct and, indeed, when such a lack is pointed out, you trumpet it as a virtue, evidence of your more highly evolved state.”
*A version of this argument is presented by Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs and Steel” (1997)
**It’s worth noting that, under the Roman empire, much of Europe was unified and, in fact, very much ossified in terms of technological advancement, as all of that came to a halt after the Hellenic era and only resumed in the late Middle Ages (when soap was invented, for example — I very much appreciate soap). Here’s a short interview with a Stanford scholar who is making the case that the fall of Rome was actually very positive for Europe, as it led to heightened inter-state competition.