I may have written this before. I don’t remember, and don’t feel like looking it up.
As a (moderate) libertarian, I like exploring the boundaries of libertarianism. How far can it go before it stops being defensible, and how far can other ideas push back before they irreconcilably violate our basic libertarian ideals? In doing so, I don’t necessarily espouse the ideas I am exploring, and not necessarily claiming any certainty about my analysis. I’m just exploring. Exploring heresies, perhaps.*
So my question today is, what’s wrong with one-world government? I don’t think it’s necessary to justify the claim that libertarians tend to be opposed to world government. They’re generally opposed to government itself, after all, and to the extent they see it as necessary, they normally want to limit its scope and extent. One world government seems to go far beyond the scope and extent acceptable to libertarians.
But let’s turn the libertarian argument for free trade around on this argument. Libertarians will argue that national borders are just as artificial as the borders between, say, California and Oregon. If we don’t feel the need to restrict trade between those two states, why should we restrict it between Canada and the U.S.? Well if we accept the legitimacy of a government that contains within it both California and Oregon, why not a government that contains within it both Canada and the U.S.?**
What would be the fundamental conceptual difference between a U.S.A. without Ontario, Saskatchewan, etc., and one with them? If Nova Scotia broke away from Canada to join the U.S., either as a separate state or part of Maine, it would be a noteworthy political event, but wouldn’t change our essential concept of the United States. We wouldn’t panic that our government had become suddenly terribly overpowering. If after Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Isle and New Brunswick joined, would it change us any more fundamentally than statehood for Alaska and Hawaii did?***
Indeed under the Articles of Confederation, Canada had a standing invitation to join our “firm league of friendship.” Had they done so, then been part of the negotiations over, and signatories to, the Constitution, would our political system, our constitutional structure, have been fundamentally different? Would it have resulted in a more powerful, stonger, dominating and unaccountable government? It’s hard, for me at least, to imagine how.
So why would a North American union necessarily signify something more terrible to libertarians than the United States already does? Canada is also a federal country, so there’s little reason to worry that federalism per se would disappear. If it did, I would oppose the union. And if we did a straightforward union of the two countries, instead of the piecemeal approach suggested above, we would have to make a decision about whether to adopt their parliamentary system or our congressional system. But if the basic political structure of federalism, the bill of rights, an independent judiciary, and public sovereignty continued, that issue would be mere detail. Our essential rights and liberties would be no more constrained. Indeed they would be expanded to the extent that we would have greater freedom of movement and choice of where to live and work. Vancouver is one of North America’s most beautiful cities–is it really a libertarian argument that I should be constrained from moving there?
Mexico would, obviously, be more difficult to join with, for cultural, linguistic, and economic reasons. But their political structure is not so vastly different. They’re also a federal country, with a congress and a president, an (at least nominally) independent judiciary, and their constitution has a bill of rights. So let’s assume there’s some quibbling about details, but those basic political features remain in place, from the Yukon to the Yucatan. What would be so terrible about our current system just covering more states in more territories?
If we oppose that concept, shouldn’t we be arguing for breaking up the United States into smaller countries? On what basis could anyone argue that the current size of the United State is just right, and shouldn’t be any larger or smaller? (Well, I suppose we could add Puerto Rico, but the U.S. Virgin Islands? No, that would be too big. Or, Well, if we just eliminated Maine, then we’d be the perfect size.)
The key is not the extent of territory covered by the government, but the type of government that covers that territory. And it’s become increasingly clear that more extensive government need not be more powerful and controlling government. I think libertarians should cheer the European Union. Despite its distressing bureaucracy and tendency to micro-regulation, it has opened up a broader range of movement for its people, greater economic freedom in general through expanded trade and ability to go wherever you want in order to look for work.**** As the case of Turkey demonstrates, the EU puts a strong emphasis on maintaining a secular state that protects rights.***** On top of all that, just by creating further limitations on the likelihood of renewed intra-European war the EU enhances liberty. As James Madison wrote in 1795;
Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes … known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.… No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.
But within the EU another phenomenon has become apparent, which is a creeping federalism. It’s not just that Britain still gets to be Britain, but that Britain can more safely allow Scotland its own parliament, without having to panic that it might break away completely. Catalonia, which has long sought independence from Spain, was granted a greater degree of autonomy in 2006. Catalonians probably now consider themselves more free than before they became part of the E.U.
In many ways, the E.U. is going through a slow-motion process of becoming a federal state along the lines of the U.S. And the federal aspect of it is in large part because it’s all voluntary. That’s something I noticed once when I did a survey of federal countries–many, perhaps most, of them had come together voluntarily. Any of the U.S. states could have opted out of the Constitution. In fact the Constitution was ratified, effective, the first Presidential election had been held, and the First Congress was in session before either Rhode Island or North Carolina finally consented to join in. Germany was rather more of a militaristic conjoining, but there had been a growing enthusiasm among Germans to join their principalities into a unified nation–that enthusiasm made unnecessary a full-scale military forcing of unification, and enabled them to allow enough autonomy to be federalist. Trying to override all local autonomy probably would have resulted in much greater resistance to unification. The ultimate example is Switzerland, whose cantons joined over a period of about two centuries.
Let’s grant that libertarians should oppose a one world government brought about by force. You know, the type of one world government the U.S. is currently trying to impose, on a de facto, if not de jure, level. But if the U.S., Canada and Mexico voluntarily created a North American Union along the lines I suggested above, and after whatever necessary time elapsed, a Central American Union and a South American Union developed, and then after whatever necessary time elapsed, those three voluntarily created a Western Hemispheric Union, again with a bill of rights, federalism, independent judiciary, etc., and then ultimately the Western Hemispheric Union joined with the European Union, the African Union, the Pan-Asian Union, and the Oceanic Union, again with those basic political requirements I’ve been insisting upon… at that point, on what grounds would libertarians critique the concept of world government? If anything, wouldn’t it increase our liberty?
Let me note that there is nothing new or unique about my argument. It was first made, so far as I know, by James Madison in Federalist 10, in response to anti-federalists who argued that the federal government proposed by the Constitution threatened people’s liberties,****** and that only small political units could protect liberty.
The other point of difference [between a republic and a democracy] is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. …
Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic, — is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it.
It may indeed be that a republic can be too large to be functional. But of course neither Madison nor anyone of his era, even Hamilton the visionary, could have foreseen an American republic of over 300 million people (1/3 of the total world population in their day!), comprising 50 states, and extending not just sea to shining sea, but halfway around the world to Hawaii. If size is a limiting factor at some point, we have no means of knowing a priori where that limit is, and it is variable according to technology, which expands the geographic area over which we can effectively communicate and coordinate. If anything is a true limiting factor today, it is simply the anti-republican and anti-liberty character of so many states today. There could currently be no agreement between them. But the technology to communicate and coordinate is worldwide and instantaneous today; how much more so will it be when (if) enough states are willing to coordinate into a global republic?
Of course that’s not what we libertarians normally assume will happen. We assume a militaristic dictatorial one-world government. But on what grounds? Why? Consider just how hard it would be to militarily control the world. The U.S., while accounting for nearly half the world’s military spending, struggles to subdue just two not-wholly-developed countries. The odds of a military union able to control the whole of the world seems less probable than a voluntary republican union.
Anyway, libertarians are supposed to be optimistic about mankind, or so I thought. From Popper to Hayek to Postrel, we are reminded that we should have faith in humans to work together creatively to solve problems. Why do we not have faith that humans could–some day–voluntarily come together; at least as voluntarily as the United States came together, which is to say, with majority support albeit not unanimously?
I see no grounds on which we could object to a global republic that would not also require us to condemn the American republic. And if Madison is right, are we not compelled to encourage the extension of our republic to its ultimate possible extent?
*I should note that I don’t spend much time reading libertarian political theory. I’ve never read Boaz’s book, or anything of that sort, and while i occasionally get tipped off to an interesting article in Reason, I don’t read Cato stuff regularly. So it’s quite possible that others are tackling the questions I tackle, or have relevant arguments either supporting or rebutting my explorations. I’d be delighted to have readers bring those to my attention, if you think there’s something I’ve missed that I really should consider.
**If you are a hard-core libertarian who rejects the legitimacy of all government, period, and think the U.S. government is illegitimate, the government of California is illegitimate, and the government of Los Angeles is illegitimate, then obviously this logic won’t work for you.
***I think the acquisition of Hawaii fundamentally changed us, as it signified how we’d abandoned our traditions and become imperial. But after having Hawaii as our possession for a century, granting it statehood did not constitute any further fundamental change.
****With some temporary restrictions on residents of some new member states, to prevent them from all flooding west. But the restrictions are explicitly intended to be temporary.
*****Let me note that I think reports of the impending demise of the EU are absolute bunk. It’s exciting for the media and pundits to blow every setback as a potentially mortal blow to the EU, but I’ve yet to see anyone make a persuasive case that states are suddenly going to start pulling out.
******For those who may not be aware, the Articles of Confederation did not create a true U.S. government, but at best a pseudo-government. The Continental Congress had no direct authority over the states; it had no power to tax; it had no authority to coin money; it had no executive to enforce any laws it might try to make; while it had authority to raise an army it had no authority to prevent the several states from having their own armies, as several did; and while it could . It was more of a coordinating body than a government. If the fundamental characteristic of a government is the authority to make and enforce law, it just doesn’t qualify.