Is a World Government Really the Answer?

06 Sep 2012

Political cosmopolitanism is an appealing, if largely nebulous idea. At it’s core is the simple premise that we are all citizens of the world, that we all belong to a single moral community - humankind. Its appeal is clear. The concept of a global moral community is a seductive thought for anyone wanting to transcend the parochial concerns of the day to day. It hints to those higher, nobler notions of humanity best invoked in the republican motto of ‘liberte, egalite, fraternite’.

Yet cosmopolitanism is as slippery as it is appealing. It seems that every writer on the subject has something different in mind when they invoke the term. Some having in mind a thick version of cosmopolitanism whereby duties to humanity override all other concerns. Others have in mind a thinner version, where duties to humanity are just one of many considerations. Some call for a global state to solve our currently international dilemmas while others merely propose more international cooperation. Common to all however, is an argument against the current prioritisation of the nation-state in political considerations, and it’s this I want to dwell on for a while.

The typical cosmopolitan argument runs something like this:

  1. The major emergent challenges of the last century: globalisation, environmental degradation, growing inequalities, increasing power of trans-national corporations etc; are not being adequately addressed by the existing system of nation-states.

  2. Global problems require global solutions.

  3. Therefore, we need some form of global state or international federation.

While I have my doubts about the first premise, it’s the second premise that I find myself really objecting to. For many, it seems like a tautology: “Global problems require global solutions, duh!”; what could be more self evidently true?

But to think so is a causal fallacy. Just because the current system of nation-states hasn’t adequately dealt with these problems doesn’t mean that it can’t, or that it is the reason for failing to deal with them. If we examine these problems more closely, we see that they all have something in common: they are erosions of local autonomy resulting from the decoupling of risk and responsibility.

Globalisation, the increasing interdependence of systems around the world, isn’t a problem per se. It is negative shocks that it amplifies, like a banking collapse in Europe affecting farm employment in Africa, that are problematic. Globalisation equally amplifies the good as well as the bad. Thanks to globalisation, truth & transparency can flow around the world in milliseconds.

Environmental degradation is problematic primarily because those doing the degrading rarely feel the consequences. If our consumption was only causing local degradation, we’d have no one to blame but ourselves, and in all likelihood, would quickly change our ways. The problem is when our consumption degrades the environment in other countries, and those who bear most of the costs have little recourse. So too with inequalities and TNCs.

The problems we are facing are not the result of bad national governance, they are the result of bad governance simplicitor. A global democracy with the same structure as our current national democracies, would not solve these problems either. It would in fact be orders of magnitude worse. Today, powerful global interest groups need to lobby hundreds of national governments to get their way. Under a global state, the lobbying power of special interests would be concentrated into a single point.

Of course the cosmopolitan may retort that we need a global state and better governance. But if that’s the case, wouldn’t it be simpler to just argue for better governance in our current system of nation-states?