The Technium

The Need for World Government

A fair question that will reveal a lot about that person is to ask them what they believe that the people they most respect do not believe. This question is similar but not the same as one that the investor Peter Thiel claims to use in interviews: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” In my version (which I have been using long before I heard of Thiel’s version), it’s not important that it be a major truth, or that it be not adopted by anyone else. Rather than minority ideological truths, I’m more interested in fringe ideas that are contrarian.

If someone were to ask me this question, my answer is: I believe we need global government.

I believe global government would make the world a better place. In fact I believe that without global government we can’t make a future on this planet we desire. I see global governance — the kind that rules over national governments — as essential for humanity. None of my close friends on the left believe this; none of my friends on the right believe this. None of my American colleagues believe this. None of my peers in China, Japan, Europe, or in any country on the world believe this.  In fact I very few people besides me who believes this.

It seems obvious to me that planetary problems demand planetary government. Climate change, refuge migration, cyber-security, economic development, money laundering, pandemics are issues that transcend sovereign nations. For instance there is no such thing as national cyber-security without global cyber-security. You can’t stop hackers entering your servers unless everyone’s servers are also secure. There is no such thing as an effect national pandemic strategy without an effective global strategy. You need global cooperation because a virus does not follow borders. You can’t stop criminals hiding money only at the national level; it has to be addressed internationally. And most obviously, reducing greenhouse gases at the national level is ultimately meaningless unless other nations do so as well.

The commons are the public spaces we share. In old days towns had commons that were fields, or pastures, or a plaza. The tragedy of the commons was the unfortunate state where the commons were used but not maintained; everyone took from them, but nobody replenished them.  We humans are in a similar state today where we want world-wide rights but we don’t want world-wide responsibilities. This is one sign of a planetary tragedy of the commons.

Of course, we (humans) already have many international laws, and global treaties, and a number of international agencies. The idea of a world empire is as old as empire itself. “The Republic of the Whole World” might start with The League of Nations. We already have systems for moving money around, and agreements on human rights, how laws are applied regionally, and even rules of war. The United Nations, among other existing institutions today, can advise nations, but it has no authority over nations. In other words it has no global power.  More serious, it is not a democratic institution in that I have never voted for anything within the UN. Where is the power of a citizen today to influence anything at the UN?

We have nothing close to a true global government and nothing close to a democratic planetary governance. But my contrarian belief is that we need this transnational global power to regulate the planet’s civilization. I’m sure that eventually we’ll have one. Because, Star Trek. And BYW, when the day comes that we meet another alien species in space, I’d be willing to bet their planet has a planetary government.

I recognize there are many, many problems and issues and challenges that a global government — even a benevolent one — would generate. For one thing, how would it work? What are the operational logistics that would enable a functioning democracy for 7 billion people, speaking many cultures? Voting is one tiny facet of democracy, but how would you enable something as simple as voting for 7 billion? What would you vote on? How do you resolve conflicting fundamental values? How do you make it a system that everyone would trust? (Blockchain is not enough.) We live in an age where relatively benign corporations such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, WeChat are seen as being intolerably too big, so the idea of a truly planetary institution with the last say seems to be way too big, and is greeted only with suspicion. Global power is distrusted globally. Where would you go if you wanted to “opt out”? If the world government went bad, what is the recourse? There are no easy answers. At least I don’t have any.

Beyond all these issues, the chief practical hurdle is the need to surrender old notions of national sovereignty.

This will be hard for any nation, but it is particularly hard for the most powerful nations. As a superpower today, the US will probably be the last nation to surrender its old notions of sovereignty to another “higher” level of government and enforcement. That surrender seems so unlikely at the moment as to be impossible. China would have a similar challenge, and even small countries with strong national identities will find this very hard.

Despite these and other real worries, I believe the benefits of world government that federated nations would be an improvement for all. We could replace the war model with the policing model, we could institute the basic human right of mobility on the planet, we could address the global climate change, we could advance and become better humans. I understand very few others believe that now, but that’s okay. It will take generations.


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