The Long View: On the Nature of the Coming World Government

As a proponent of a mild version of the cyclical theory of history, John thought that the development of a world-spanning universal state was inevitable in the 21st century. I am inclined to agree, and like John, I think it will probably be for the best. John felt that historical precedents made the terrifying states of the 20th century anomalous, and whatever is to come would be fundamentally unlike them.

This is good, in that ordinary people will probably be less affected by the worst the state has to offer. The downside is that ordinary people will also be less affected by the best the state has to offer. In John's view, the power of governments to motivate and corral their citizens peaked in the 1940s, and represented the culmination of modernity in the West. We should expect that as we slide into Empire, the reach of the state will gradually diminish along with the interest of the citizenry in the apparatus of government.

If you look at the average state of the world today, that is already the condition of much of the globe. A middle of the pack nation like Brazil is representative. They can host the World Cup, but can't maintain public order everywhere. Any world government will not be able to do any better.

On the Nature of the Coming World Government


John J. Reilly


I have every confidence that a political authority which is both sovereign and universal will be established sometime in the 21st century. The human world is now only a day or two wide, even by ordinary commercial transport. It is absurd to think that a society so concentrated could endure indefinitely without a government for the whole. During the time of the great European colonial empires, it required an act of will to keep worldwide social entities together. By the end of the 20th century, an act of will was required to inhibit their formation. In the 21st century, this resolve must inevitably weaken once, twice, maybe three times. Then the world will collapse into what Toynbee called a "universal state." This development is so inevitable that it is not even interesting.

The prospect of a state encompassing the whole planet occasioned much hope and anxiety throughout the 20th century. The hope was based on reaction to the militant nationalisms that framed the century's world wars. Since the right to wage war is one of the incidents of national sovereignty, it was thought that a world with only a single sovereign would necessarily be without war. The fear was based on the assumption that anything that is universal is also necessarily totalitarian. If government is only a necessary evil, the logic ran, then a universal government would be an evil of unprecedented proportions.

Both the hope and the fear are misplaced. They are based on extrapolations of the historically eccentric experiences of the 20th century. They overlook the common features that the universal states of particular civilizations have displayed in the past. They also overlook the nature of the society the coming world government will rule, which is to say, the civilization of Earth.

The key thing to remember about Earth is that it is essentially an advanced Third World country, rather like Brazil. This characterization is not necessarily an insult; there are Third World countries that have a lot to recommend them. The defining feature of Third World status, however, is not the presence or absence of democracy, or even the level of economic development. Taking the definition supplied by the former CIA analyst, Patrick E. Kennon, a Third World country is one in which the government, broadly defined, has little control over civil society. Using the sort of nautical expression so favored by the CIA in its Cold War period, he likens a Third World country to a great barge in a slow-moving river. It is hard to steer, hard to upset, and the very devil to right again if it somehow capsizes.

Countries can be like this for any number of reasons. They may have a tradition of tax avoidance. They may be so constitutionally constructed that governments cannot do very much and still remain legal. They may be chaotic places, with no law outside a few major cities. They may just be dirt poor. Whatever the particular circumstances, what Third World countries have in common is governments that lack the resources to either serve or police their citizens to any but the most rudimentary degree.

This is almost certainly what Earth would be like, should unification come late in the next century. The world in those days should have from 10 to 12 billion people in it. This is quite likely the figure that the human race will top out at for the foreseeable future, since the demographic transition to lower birthrates should have spread universally by then. This, of course, would also imply the general increase in living standards that goes along with the transition. Still, you are talking about an immense amount of territory, inhabited for the most part by relatively poor people. Also, since there are likely to be one or more world wars preceding unification, the infrastructure of civilization may be substantially damaged. The world government may be large, relative to that of national states. However, it will have to be relatively small compared to the society it purports to govern, simply because the per capita resources won't be available for more.

A universal state may have democratic features, but there has never been an instance of one with a genuinely democratic government. Even the Roman universal state, with its tradition of popular and aristocratic assemblies, rarely experienced effective Senatorial control. In the 20th century, of course, we see already that supranational bodies have only the most perfunctory democratic elements. This is not only true of the United Nations, with its General Assembly of rotten boroughs and its Security Council that serves chiefly to maintain the coalition that won World War II. It is also true of the European Union, which has an elected parliament, but one with very limited powers. (The system has been described as "The German Empire without the Kaiser.")

The truly "democratic" feature of universal states is their openness to "talents." They all rely heavily on bureaucracies, which are generally not recruited from the upper classes of the era of national states that precede them. These bureaucrats can enter government in the most haphazard fashion. The Roman Empire was administered in large part by "freedmen," who were former slaves. The Ottoman Empire was, to an appalling degree, run by people who still were slaves. (The empire's elite troops, the Janissaries, were a slave corps, recruited largely from Eastern European children.) China achieved universal states twice in its history, and by the second occasion, in the fourteenth century, it had a well-developed tradition of civil service tests to recruit staff for the new government. What all these examples have in common, however, is that world governments are open to some degree of influence from the lower parts of the social scale.

Something else that all universal states have in common, of course, is that they are all monarchies. For better or worse, the world government is going to be under the direction of an emperor, certainly in fact and perhaps also in name. Of course, the title "emperor" has meant different things in different contexts. It has been borne by men viewed by most of their subjects as a hated foreign tyrant, but then it has also been held by legitimate and well-loved rulers of partially parliamentary states. It will mean more than one thing in the coming universal state, too. Over the 500 years or so that a world government can be expected to exist, much of its political history is describable in terms of the transformation of the emperor from a military dictator to a ritual figurehead. Except at the very beginning, during the reign of the founder, the emperor rarely tries to employ the degree of initiative that the executive of a modern state routinely uses. What then does he do?

The function of emperors is to read their mail. That, at least, is the conclusion reached by Fergus Millar is his exhaustive study, "The Emperor in the Roman World." Most of the time, emperors waited for problems to come to them. They answered queries from their governors and they sat as the court of last resort in certain legal disputes. They answered a remarkable number of written petitions from private persons, even from slaves. However, except in extraordinary situations, and those mostly concerned military emergencies, they did not plan vast reforming "programs" for their reigns. They scarcely had "policies." Their policy was to keep the great barge of empire floating along with as little disruption as possible. They could act decisively to aid or punish individuals, even whole cities, but their capacity to affect life in the empire as a whole was limited.

Something like this also seems to have been true in China, to judge from Ray Huang's snapshot history of the Ming Dynasty, "1587: A Year of No Significance." In that case, the right of petition was rather more limited. It extended to local magistrates, who did not hesitate to pepper the imperial secretariat with memorials containing their bright ideas. The emperor exercised "government" by writing "approved" on the memorials he like or "acknowledged" on the ones he didn't. Except for a few large, continuing government functions, such as guarding the northern frontier and maintaining the dikes on the Yangtsee, that was the extent of administrative control that the central government would exert itself to exercise.

The social structures of universal states are not conspicuously unjust, compared to most times and places, but they are not very egalitarian. Social distinctions are most fluid at a universal state's beginning, which occurs after the most highly commercial phase of its civilization's history. By that point, traditional aristocracies have been exchanged entirely for far more flexible plutocracies. During the era of independent sovereign states, finance and commercial enterprises tend to slip beyond the effective control of any government. Universal states come into existence in part precisely to curb the power of money. However, class flexibility is one of the things that disappear along with the vulnerability of government to market fluctuations. By the second generation, there will be some attempt to return to a measure of ascriptive status. By the end of the empire, there will be an elaborate system of ranks and the beginnings of serfdom.

As for "peace," universal states are better at keeping it than are international systems, but this ability is not absolute. The argument that a world government will ensure the end of war is in part a semantic confusion. Certainly a world government can do away with the juridical state known as war. However, this is quite a different thing from suppressing all armed conflict. Insurgencies small and great clutter the history of every universal state. Sometimes the insurgents seek to be free of the world government, sometimes they accept it in principle, but want a change in administration. Not infrequently, and as we see in some areas of the world today, wars are merely random brigandage by groups with no particular goal or ideology. This sort of conflict requires any universal state to keep armed forces in being.

Historically, local universal states have also maintained militaries in order to control external barbarians. These efforts inevitably failed, but for most of a universal state's history, its standing army is remarkably modest in size. While Earth has no external barbarians at the moment, it could develop some in the form of breakaway space colonies. This could occur if the world government pursued a policy of colonization early in its history and later lost control of the settlements. There is also the possibility that extraterrestrial intelligence will be discovered. Even if the civilization is far away and lived long ago and could have no way of knowing that mankind existed, still the very possibility of a threat from space could promote the creation of warning systems and a force in space intended to counter it.

Whatever the rationale, we may be certain that the world government will have considerable military forces, though as is the case with everything else about a universal state, quite small forces in relation to the area and population they will be called on to police. On at least some occasions, particularly in the last half of the universal state's life, these forces will be used in civil wars between contenders for the imperial power. The wars in question will be smaller than those of the 20th century, but destructive enough in their own right. Additionally, they will be occurring in a civilization that is much less economically dynamic and demographically resilient than it was during the era of sovereign states. Damage that is done will often stay done. These remarks about the decline and fall, however, are premature, to say the least.

Let us rather imagine the universal state in its youth, in the 22nd century. There will be cities as huge and sparkling as anything imagined by modern science fiction. There will be other cities, perhaps more of them, not much improved from 20th century slums. There will even be notable ruins in the growing wilderness, as the world's population slowly retreats from its late modern climax. Politics at every level will be increasingly personal, a matter of family ambition and often of petty graft. Government on the ground will be tolerant, partly from conviction, partly from negligence.

It will be a more relaxed world, in many ways a more comfortable world than that of the modern era. The climate may even be warmer: it may help you visualize this future by thinking of white Panama suits and slowly turning overhead fans. The economy will chug along under fairly heavy state regulation. This will advance the interests of large enterprises, but also of job security for the growing portion of the world's population that works for them. People will have forgotten that, on the whole, living standards used to increase from year to year; they will complain only when they decline. New technologies will become a rarity, but the existing stock of industrial technique will still in many ways exceed those of the 20th century. For ordinary people living ordinary lives, things will not be so bad.

As for the world government itself, it will normally impinge on people's lives rather lightly. Taxes will be raised for it one way or another, though not necessarily through taxes on individuals. If there is an elective feature to the central government, participation in the elections is likely to be a ritualized matter. The people will love or mock the emperor and his government, but the universal state itself will be beyond question. It will seem to be the end of history, and few people will want to return to a world of sovereign states. Universal government will be considered not just inevitable but right, the only way that civilization could conceivably be organized.

This is scarcely an ideal future. Still, it is very far from the worst that might happen.