Sunday, August 5, 2012

World Government is Tremendously Unlikely

I have added Robin Hanson's Overcoming Bias blog to my blogroll. Of all the people on the internet, he comes up with more unique ideas than any other three people. I don't always agree with them, and I get the feeling that sometimes he throws them out there more as a thought exercise than as a flat assertion, but his ideas are top notch. Quit reading this blog and go read his instead.

Now that everyone is gone, I can consider this post of his in peace. The title and thesis is that some form of world government is ultimately inevitable. His post (and really Bertram Russell's idea) makes three points, A) that, due to the anarchic nature of international relations and the ease of apocalyptic warfare, either world government will occur or mankind will destroy itself to a greater or lesser degree, B) In the abstract, public opinion polls show majority support for the notion of world government, C) once begun, imperial or "world government" as both a meme and a genuine force acquires tremendous momentum. In the abstract, point A is true enough, as far as it goes, but both B and C are silly.

A) Apocalypse or Empire are the only two options

This is entirely plausible. 

Part 1: Ever since the Crimean war (when Sidney harbor built a fortress to defend against a Russian naval invasion) and possibly some point before, every nation on the face of the earth has been in reach of every other nation for purposes of warfare, and the world has been interconnected enough that far distant places care enough about each other to declare war. That is to say, had Han Dynasty China sent a delegation to insult Emperor Augustus (an historical counter-factual, BTW) no war could possibly have come of it, since it would have been prohibitively difficult to wage such a war, and the distances involved would make it difficult for anyone to really care. By 1900, we can imagine that if the Qing Emperor sent an insulting delegation to Queen Victoria, then history would remember one more Anglo-Chinese war that it already does.

Part 2: Ever since 1945 humanity has possessed weapons of apocalyptic power. Here in 2012, we have so many different sorts that we even categories within the category of WMDs: nuclear, chemical and biological. While all civilized people stand firm in the conviction that these weapons should never be used, I know of no thinking person who truly believes that an unrestrained war would not see their deployment.

Part 3: Unrestrained war has existed since at least the rape of the Sabine women. The last unrestrained war among developed nations ended in 1945. The existence of apocalyptic weapons has perhaps done some to inhibit unrestrained warfare in the modern era, but so too has the existence of America as an overwhelming superpower which possess sufficient military power to wipe out any individual nation through wholly conventional means. The power of that confound leaves me hesitant to ascribe, as many do, the lack of WWIII solely to the fear of apocalyptic weaponry.

Therefore, given a non-zero chance of unrestrained warfare at any given point in the future, a continual logistical "shrinking" of the planet, and the existence of apocalyptic weaponry, it is clear that over an arbitrarily long time period with no radical shifts in human organization, either the ability to wage apocalyptic war must be taken away from humanity or apocalyptic warfare will occur.

Two caveats. I am optimistic about the possibility of an unforeseen discontinuity in human organization. Also, though we call it "apocalyptic", it is possibly for one side to win such a war, laying waste to wide swathes of the planet but leaving other places untouched. Both of these are distractions from the main point.

B) World Government is tremendously popular

I will assume that the opinion polls cited by Mr. Hanson and Mr. Russell are, in fact, legitimate polls of themselves and true reflections of global popular sentiment.

Popular sentiment in the abstract, however, and especially popular sentiment in surveys, is very different from genuine support for an issue. The recent health care debates illustrate this quite well, with Democrats arguing continuously that polling shows that Americans support every positive aspect of the PPACA. However, a poll question asking "would you like a pony for free?" will be substantially more popular than a poll question asking "would you like a pony, and in exchange we are going to chop off your arm?". When Obamacare is considered as a unified whole, it polls very poorly, and indeed indications show that it has wide popular support only among true Democrats.

This is not to beat up on Obamacare, but rather to illustrate that notions of support should not be judged by what people say in polls but rather through revealed preference of what they actually support in political demonstrations, voting, and revolutions.

Mr. Russell, himself, concedes that some amount of force will likely be necessary in creating a world empire. This is because the key flaw in any world government scheme is that there is no natural constituency for world government. The diversity of opinions on this planet is such that it is impossible to get 50% support for any particular proposition. 

This is not to be confused with majority opposition to certain positions. For instance, across the planet there is probably a solid majority opposed to the very idea of free speech, yet were they to be asked what particular regulatory regime should replace it, you would also likely find majority opposition to the sort of regimes that would be endorsed by tyrants opposed to anti-government speech, eurocrats opposed to hate speech, Muslims opposed to Muslim blasphemy, and a grand miscellany of nationalists endorsing their cultural supremacy. While any one of these groups (or the free speech crowd) may like a world government that promotes their regime, they would bitterly oppose any other group holding the reigns of the planet.

This is just one issue that a world government would be expected to deal with. Mr. Russell proposes a pan-Anglo-sphere alliance as a starting point, but even a brief glance at the comparative political situations in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand should demonstrate the unworkability of that proposal (and if you add the more culturally distinct commonwealth nations like India and South Africa, the problems multiply).

As Tears for Fears sang, everybody wants to rule the world, but nobody wants anyone else ruling it. As Ayn Rand wrote, the smallest minority on earth is the individual, and therefore everyone is outnumbered by all the people who are not them. The two of these conspire to create the anarchic international playground that has existed since the dawn of human cooperation and will persist so long as human nature remains unchanged.

C) World Government has tremendous self-sustaining momentum

This is the most absurd part of Mr. Hanson's post. He cites "general agreement" of Chinese philosophers that the unified imperial state ruling the entire world was best. It is possible that a bunch of philosophers believed that (though I suspect that this was mostly the belief of the philosophers who had the sympathy of those in power), but there is no time in history when a large and diverse chunk of the world was ruled stably, and those few interludes were typically maintained only through horrific violence. To demonstrate, I will go from east to west with people who ruled "the entire known world" or large chunks of it.

Japan: Japan is a tiny collection of islands, so small there really isn't a whole lot of room for warring states. And yet, since the Nara period of the eighth century (the point at which Wikipedia says it shifted from a collection of federated states into a genuine imperial state) there have been outbreaks of civil war almost constantly and huge power shifts from the first shogunate in 1185 to the imperial restoration in 1333 to the famous sengoku jidai (warring states era) at the tail end of the 16th century, to the Meiji restoration of 1868 (and then into the wars of the modern era and then the complete disarmament of Japan). All this among a remarkably homogeneous population packed mostly into the coastal areas of an archipelago smaller than California.

China: Mr. Russell marks the beginning of the Chinese Unified Imperial State at 220 BCE with the establishment of the Qin dynasty. Mr. Hanson then takes this and seems to imply that the intellectual and military momentum of the imperial dream keep the empire together, requiring the dual efforts of the Japanese army and Mao's revolution to overthrow. And yet, the period of sixteen kingdoms runs from 304 to 439 AD. The northern and southern dynasties run from 420-589. The "five dynasties and ten kingdoms" period runs from 907-960. Mongols then spend the next five hundred years periodically invading. These, of course, are just the major historical periods and do not count the innumerable rebellions and tiny states that cropped up throughout history.

The USSR: Established through the brutality of the Czars and expanded through the brutality of the Soviet State. As soon as Gorbachev said "hey, maybe we shouldn't be quite so brutal all the time" fourteen successor states left.

India: There was no point in Indian history where they were as unified as they were the moment they gained independence from the British. Then a few years later the most culturally distant parts of their polity split off into East and West Pakistan.

The Mongol Empire: When Genghis Khan perished, the empire split up and spent the rest of history subdividing further even as their conquests expanded.

Alexander's Empire: Alexander the Great conquered to the ends of the earth and died, leaving a number of successor states which all fell to history, the Persians, and the Romans.

The Great Caliphates: All conquered huge areas by military might and split into successor states.

The German Empire: Another terribly homogeneous population that never once unified until the overwhelming military might of Prussia, combined with the looming threat of repeated invasion. Even then it was a challenge, and the smart money had them dissolving again until the two world wars put them on a different trajectory.

The Colonial empires: The most benevolent, the British, held major colonial possessions for four hundred years. The most exploitative (well, the second after Belgium), the Spanish, lost most of their empire on a similar time scale. They all faced continuous revolt by the natives, colonists, and slaves and if not for disease, logistical and technological superiority they would have lost the empires long before.

What am I getting at?

The point is that there is no natural constituency for nearly any imperial project. While those doing the conquering can overcome the natural unpopularity of being conquered through force of arms, the locals will always have their own issues that will not go away short of total genocide. And since the ideas of nationalism came to the fore after the enlightenment, not only are there legitimate differences of opinion preventing global empire, but now there are also tremendously silly emotional attachments to such concepts as "national self-determination" to contend with.

What this means is that even though world government occurs frequently in fiction, it is unlikely to occur at all in the real world and even more improbable over any extended period of time.

Which is good, because a world government would likely be terrible and full of people who don't agree with me.

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