Many people believe that ever more comprehensive global governance is needed for the well-being and even survival of humanity. During the Soviet/American Cold War such concerns mostly had to do with the threat of nuclear warfare. Now they’re more likely to relate to ecological catastrophes resulting from economic and population growth. Either way, the system would apparently need all the attributes of centralized government to deal adequately with the threat, whether by limiting human activities that cause pollution, or by resolving conflicts that might otherwise lead to all-out war.
The situation raises several issues. How would the world government work, and who would run it? Also, does the demand for the remedy reflect the urgency of the problem, or does insistence on the problem reflect a desire for the remedy? After all, power wants power, world government would give powerful people and institutions a lot more of it, and those with power know how to organize support for their goals.
The obvious reason for emphasizing the threat of global catastrophe is, of course, concern for the future and the common good. The same could be said, though, with regard to the threat of foreign aggression and domestic subversion, or for that matter the threats of theocracy, dysgenics, or unbridled population growth.
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Predictions of disaster ought to be considered soberly on their merits. Bad things happen, and it’s good when they can be foreseen and averted or at least mitigated. Even so, prophecies of doom can be used to sell remedies that are unneeded, cause other problems, or turn out worse than the disease. We should view such matters critically, and take into account circumstances that influence how evidence and arguments are presented, as well as the likely nature of the proposed remedy once in effect.
People who engage in high-end public discussion today have interests that strongly favor global governance. Experts favor regulatory schemes that give their views comprehensive effect. Elite journalists like political tendencies that concentrate discussion and decision in settings inhabited by people they understand who give their word special weight. And governing elites generally would rather answer to their colleagues than their constituents, who often want them to act in ways at odds with their professional outlook and interests. So they are inclined toward global governance, which broadens ruling class solidarity and reduces the ability of the people to hold their rulers to account.
The alternative to management by global authorities is leaving decisions up to money and markets, or the balance of economic, political, and military forces. That approach might be more in touch with important realities, but it seems mindless, and accepts the power of people who may not be well-informed, properly trained, or rightly-inclined. Our rulers don’t like that, because they don’t like rule by nobodies and uncontrolled processes. That is why European governing elites are so absolutely committed to an ever broader and deeper European Union no matter what their people think or what practical problems result.
It’s worth noting that traditional and informal institutions like family, religion, local community, and inherited culture don’t come into the discussion at all, except as alien, irrational, disruptive, and potentially quite dangerous forces that should be weakened as much as possible for the coherence and efficiency of the system. Hence, for example, the strongly anti-family bias of large corporations, international organizations, and “human rights” law. Only popular influence, which global governance weakens, can counter such biases.
Such factors make it imprudent to trust uncritically the conclusions of the great and good. With respect to man-made global warming, for example, respected figures such as science journalist Matt Ridley and physicist Freeman Dyson have recently pointed toward distortions introduced into the discussion by politics, fashion, funding agencies, and the human preference for stories with heroes, villains, and a clear plot-line. Such distortions have long been routine with regard to ecological and nutritional issues, and no doubt others, and can be utterly irrational without losing their hold. Thirty years ago, for example, it was politically hazardous to criticize the “global winter” theory of dinosaur extinction because the theory had become one of the talking points of the nuclear freeze movement. If you thought there were problems with the theory it meant you were a militarist.
On the other hand, real problems arise and must be dealt with, government however imperfect is a human necessity, more effective global controls would evidently be helpful on some points, purity of argument and certainty of conclusion are rarely available, and we must proceed as best we can in spite of uncertainties. International law, a form of global governance, has been with us for quite some time, and seems to have been mostly beneficial. Better international regulation of fisheries could increase the overall catch and so benefit everyone. And recent popes have voiced concerns about the natural environment and world financial system that they believe call for a stronger system of international regulation.
Catholics should give such concerns serious consideration, but we need to keep our eyes open. Is the issue really an issue? How serious is it? What measures does it actually point to? What will be the actual result of proposed solutions? And who will control global governance and ensure that it deals rationally and effectively with the problems assigned to it?
The last question is a hard one. Global democracy is obviously out of the question, since the world’s people are incapable of collective deliberation, decision, or supervision of their supposed representatives. Nor does rule by a majority of governments have much to be said for it. It may sometimes matter practically what a majority of the world’s tyrants, oligarchs, demagogues, and political maneuverers favor, but there’s no reason to want that majority to run things even if the arrangement were acceptable to those it would govern. So international agencies inevitably represent either themselves or the powerful. That is how globally unpopular causes like the “gender agenda” become so entrenched within them.
Any system of global governance would thus represent a negotiated deal among the various centers of power in the world designed to serve their interests as they see them. That deal would have to be somewhat one-sided for the system to be effective. Officials are no holier than anyone else, and there’s no principle like Confucianism or stoicism today to promote public spirit among them. So we can expect an even lower general standard of industry and integrity than in the great imperial bureaucracies of the past. For that reason a new global empire would need the equivalent of an emperor to call officials to account and make things happen. A particular power, which would have interests of its own, would have to run the show.
In recent decades that power has generally been the United States, a situation sometimes referred to as “American leadership” and sometimes as “American imperialism.” It’s not clear what practical alternative there is, so for now those who want a more extensive and effective system of global governance should ask themselves how much influence they’re willing to give the Americans. They should also reflect that even that solution seems likely to become less workable as China rises, Russia regroups, and America itself becomes ever more a multicultural empire ruled by self-seeking elites with no coherent people to whom they need answer.
The upshot should not be cynicism or despair, but realism in place of idealism. No one wants global catastrophe, and the powerful would be happier if ordinary people had fewer problems. Even so, something as unruly as global society can’t be organized in a way that’s both effective and fair, and decisions of major global players need not match the public good better than those of lower-level institutions more susceptible to popular influence. So supporters of global governance should reflect that it is a remedy that should be used cautiously even when it appears likely to be useful.
Editor’s note: The above column first appeared August 4, 2015 in Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.