Post No.: 0806
From time to time, we may wish there were some sort of ‘global or world government’, or cosmocracy, that had jurisdiction over the entire world, so that we can more easily tackle collective global issues like climate change, international tax avoidance and evasion, global terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the economic exploitation of ‘Global South’ countries, and health issues like viral pandemics and antibiotic resistance.
The United Nations is an intergovernmental organisation rather than a true global or world government. It is an organisation of independent States, who’ve each voluntarily applied to become members of the organisation. It works like a horizontal cooperation between different sovereign States, rather than like a federal or vertically supreme government of the world.
The United States of America is an example of a federation, with 50 local state governments and a centralised federal government situated in Washington DC. Here, if they conflict, the federal constitution and federal law generally takes precedence over state laws and even state constitutions. The federal constitution holds the ‘supreme law of the land’.
Although some scholars argue that the European Union appears to be heading towards becoming more like a federation, it is currently more like a confederation. Membership in the EU is voluntary, and an Article is expressly included in the constitution that allows any member to leave if it unilaterally wishes to (as demonstrated by the United Kingdom). Although the headquarters are situated in Brussels, it doesn’t have a centralised federal government – all decisions must be made via votes involving representatives of its member States.
But the risks of having such a global government could be that too much power would be concentrated into one place, it could be unresponsive to local needs, and it would reduce the amount of political institutional experimentation from which we can all learn from (e.g. even though the totalitarian experiments of the past have been disastrous – the fact that these experiments did happen has taught us all a useful lesson). A ‘global federation’ with multiple local States that possess local powers could resolve the problems of serving local needs and allowing local experimentation, but would this sufficiently alleviate the problem of the concentration of power?
In this ‘horizontal’ global legislation and enforcement system we currently have in this world, we do nevertheless find some kind of de facto hierarchy of global power – the decisions and actions of a few countries that include the USA, China, India, Brazil and Russia, for being the largest countries in important global dimensions (e.g. economically and militarily), effectively impact upon every other country in the world, even though other countries have no say in how these particular countries are run.
Powerful sovereign States have disproportionate power in decisions made in existing institutions like the UN too (e.g. China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA – being permanent members of the UN Security Council – uniquely have veto rights on this council), hence these intergovernmental organisations don’t quite work to reduce the ‘might makes right’ effect. So maybe – like ‘no taxation without representation’ – less powerful nations could morally claim ‘no impact on us from you without some say from us on what your country does’, and this could be implemented via a well-designed and implemented global federation or government of some sort?
Global industry typically finds its level and settles where law and regulation are lightest, hence more and more issues are international in nature and not merely national i.e. they cannot be solved by one nation alone. So we need to think in terms of global justice and talk on the world stage when it concerns issues like environmental matters or food poverty.
But where do we draw the line on each country protecting its own interests where there is also a global responsibility and impact? When should economic competition turn to cooperation? Even when the long-term and shared costs are high, these costs aren’t always distributed evenly, like when it comes to which parts of the world is and will be suffering the most in a warming world.
The same question can be asked about where do we draw the line on the individual liberty of citizens where there is also a community responsibility and impact, like regarding public goods, common goods and the tragedy of the commons within countries? (A ‘non-excludable’ good is one where it is impossible or impractical to prevent those who’ve not paid for it to access it, like the view of the sky for those who’ve not paid for a fireworks display. An ‘excludable’ good would be like a taxi ride. A ‘non-rival’ good is one whereby the consumption by one consumer will not prevent another consumer from simultaneously consuming it, like a broadcast radio programme. A ‘rival’ good would be like food. ‘Public goods’ are non-excludable and non-rival, like the air we breathe. ‘Common goods’ are non-excludable and rival, like fish stocks in international waters. ‘Club goods’ are excludable but non-rival, like a subscription streaming service. ‘Private goods’, lastly, are excludable and rival, like clothes.)
Democratic governments must appeal to the popular opinion of their electorates to get into or stay in power (like maximising domestic jobs and economic productivity, which may in turn mean appeasing large corporations for being single large employers and taxpayers); when sometimes what’s best for everyone’s overall interests is less popular (like compelling everyone to ease off on consuming limited environmental resources).
Large corporations in particular care more about maximising profits and shareholder value than anything else. Board members often pass the blame onto shareholders when they claim that they must ruthlessly exploit profit-maximising and tax-minimising schemes regardless of the costs to wider society and despite how taxes help to pay for and safeguard public and common goods. They feel they must keep their investors onside otherwise they’ll invest in their competitors instead. And we know that in any context where the responsibility constantly gets passed elsewhere, not enough ever gets done to change the status quo. Woof!
And most individual citizens, according to their actual fuzzy behaviours rather than words, care more about their own immediate or short-term interests. Acquiring or maintaining luxurious lifestyles and wealth status symbols matter more than solving shared problems like biodiversity loss. Individuals must somehow solve a collective action problem.
So at the national government, corporation and individual citizen levels – competition between countries, between businesses, and between neighbours, can get directly in the way of cooperation. And the existing rich nations, companies and individuals can often essentially do what they want with impunity because they’re powerful enough to get away with it, at a cost to the world as a collective. It seems like – regarding many crucial predicaments that we face today at least – only when we’re acting in our common interests as a global collective can we work effectively at tackling global collective action problems.
A global, centralised government of some sort could be useful for dealing with the global collective action problems and global tragedy of the commons we have today, such as global warming, plastic pollution in international waters, the growth in space junk, and the other aforementioned problems, and more. We’ve seen how difficult these worldwide problems have been to solve through existing means of horizontal or peer-level cooperation. We may eventually get there with ad hoc international treaties, or we might continue to stumble our way towards a string of broken targets and promises. It’s argued that open borders (the subject of Post No.: 0786) and the free movement of peoples would require some sort of global government to truly work as intended too.
It’s like as if we’ll only truly work together as one, rather than as a bunch of individually self-interested nations, if there were some imminently impending, undeniably obvious and universally agreed global disaster that urges us to come together, or if the solutions come with extremely low friction. Not even the overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming appears to satisfy these criteria in the minds of all. Perhaps only an ultra-advanced, sentient, extraterrestrial alien species invasion (and they would almost certainly be way more advanced and vastly more powerful than us because we’ve nowhere near created intergalactic passenger-carrying starships ourselves yet!) will force us to work together to protect this planet as one(!)
Power is always relative. To curb something that’s powerful, we need something that’s even more powerful – but then that latter entity might eventually abuse its power too. And that’s the conundrum we face.
Woof. My thoughts on whether some sort of global or world government or federation would be beneficial or dangerous, never mind realisable or not, are only embryonic. So, if you have any, please share your thoughts on the topic by replying to the tweet linked to the Twitter comment button below.