The Long View 2008-12-09: Legitimacy & World Government; Economics & Kant's Republican Devils; Demographic Plan B; When Revivals Succeed

Kant’s devils

Cyclical theories of history for the most part have a universal state forming in the last quarter of the 21st century. That’s another two generations from now. If things happen like they happened before, a lot of craziness is still ahead of us.

Legitimacy & World Government; Economics & Kant’s Republican Devils; Demographic Plan B; When Revivals Succeed

It’s way too early (as in two generations too early) for a world government, but Gideon Rachman at has some measured thoughts on the matter:

[F]or the first time in my life, I think the formation of some sort of world government is plausible... could the European model go global? There are three reasons for thinking that it might... First, it is increasingly clear that the most difficult issues facing national governments are international in nature... Second, it could be done. The transport and communications revolutions have shrunk the world... But ­ the third point ­ a change in the political atmosphere suggests that global governance, could come much sooner... The financial crisis and climate change are pushing national governments towards global solutions... A taste of the ideas doing the rounds in Obama circles is offered by a recent report from the Managing Global Insecurity project, whose small US advisory group includes John Podesta, the man heading Mr Obama’s transition team and Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution, from which Ms Rice has just emerged.

The MGI report argues for the creation of a UN high commissioner for counter-terrorist activity, a legally binding climate-change agreement negotiated under the auspices of the UN and the creation of a 50,000-strong UN peacekeeping force. Once countries had pledged troops to this reserve army, the UN would have first call upon them.... But let us not get carried away... Even in the EU ­ the heartland of law-based international government ­ the idea remains unpopular... International governance tends to be effective, only when it is anti-democratic.

On a purely mechanical level, a world government would have been possible by the middle of the 19th century: the British ran a lackadaisical planetary empire with steamships and telegraphs. But the empire characterization is why the structure could not have become universal, even within Britain’s own civilization. As several commentators have noted, the 19th century empires were exported nationalism. Even when they were relatively benevolent, they were illegitimate for most of their subjects. Today’s transnational structures have a similar legitimacy deficit, of which the democracy deficit of the EU is a reflection. Paradoxically, the effect of the attempt by transnational institutions to expand the scope of international law has been to diminish the legitimacy of that law, and even of the traditional law of nations.

Legitimate world governments (in the sense of a government whose writ runs over an entire civilization and its area of influence) that have occurred in the past are by convention called universal states. They differed from world empires (which have also occurred, ephemerally) in that they were regarded as natural. They were popular, in the broad sense: open to talents, and incorporating democratic features, where those are part of a civilization’s political tradition. They were preceded by provisional structures of international consultation and diplomacy that provided a measure of governance. What pushed them from inchoate necessity to actuality was the addition of a popular, personalizing element, in the form of a demagogue or dynasty or both.

No doubt there is more than one way to do this, but it’s a good bet that the globalized EU that Gideon Rachman is contemplating would generate a higher level of opposition with each increment of greater international order.

* * *

But what sort of economics, you may well ask, should transnational (and national) regulators promote? If you believe That Spengler at Asia Times, Benedict XVI has been magnificently right about this question:

Pope Benedict XVI['s...] views on ethics and economics occasioned a flurry of comment last month. Italy's Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti observed, "The prediction that an undisciplined economy would collapse by its own rules can be found" in a 1985 paper (see Market Economy and Ethics, Acton Institute) by then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which Tremonti called "prophetic". I don't know whether it was prophetic, but the future pope was right, and magnificently so.... Here is what then Cardinal Ratzinger said about it more than 20 years ago:

It is becoming an increasingly obvious fact of economic history that the development of economic systems which concentrate on the common good depends on a determinate ethical system, which in turn can be born and sustained only by strong religious convictions. Conversely, it has also become obvious that the decline of such discipline can actually cause the laws of the market to collapse. An economic policy that is ordered not only to the good of the group - indeed, not only to the common good of a determinate state - but to the common good of the family of man demands a maximum of ethical discipline and thus a maximum of religious strength.

The future pope made two parallel points: first, that morality cannot be effective without competent economics, and secondly, that economics cannot dispense with morality by trusting to the supposedly automatic workings of the marketplace

I would not quarrel with these remarks, except to caution that we should not sell Adam Smith short. Smith, we should remember was a moral philosopher. His theory of economics was, at least in part, a theory of public morality. He was trying to do pretty much what his contemporary, Kant, was doing: to state a logic of ethics without reference to essences. The result was natural-law-through-clockwork, and it’s actually pretty useful. In particular, Smith’s Invisible Hand is a cybernetic feedback mechanism that let’s us make useful statements about prices.

The Invisible Hand does not, as Benedict and Spengler note, distinguish right from wrong. Kant’s stated the principle that even a nation of devils could maintain a liberal republic provided they obeyed the Categorical Imperative; which is no doubt true, but the short answer to Kant’s ethics is that only a self-disciplined and honest devil could practice Kant’s cold principles; the same objection might be make to Smith. Still, Smith’s clockwork system does have the virtue of all mechanics: it is lethally implacable. As I may have remarked before, Rudyard Kipling put it best in "The Secret of the Machines." Here is an excerpt:

It is easy! Give us dynamite and drills!
Watch the iron-shouldered rocks lie down and quake,
As the thirsty desert-level floods and fills,
And the valley we have dammed becomes a lake.

But remember, please, the Law by which we live,
We are not built to comprehend a lie,
We can neither love nor pity nor forgive.
If you make a slip in handling us you die!
We are greater than the Peoples or the Kings-
Be humble, as you crawl beneath our rods!-- Our touch can alter all created things,
We are everything on earth--except The Gods!

What was the lie that the engines of commerce refused to understand? I think it was this: All the children can be taller than average. Never believe the claim that everyone can do better than the financial markets, or that the markets can, permanently, do better than the real economy.

* * *

Distraught at the prospect that somebody, somewhere, might be having a good time, Mark Steyn has favored us with an analysis of statistics about the rapid aging of the British population:

[W]hich would tend to support the view that a dependence on mass immigration is evidence of a structural defect in society that immigration alone can never resolve. The conventional solution of homo economicus to the lack of homegrown young people is to import them. The remorseless aging of Britain suggests that no society in serious demographic decline can have an immigration rate high enough to compensate for it.

If that can be demonstrated, it would change the terms of the immigration debate.

* * *

Finally, some anecdotal evidence for Latin Mass fans. This will be the first Christmas since my church revived the old rite that I will not be designing a poster as part of a promotional campaign for the Latin Christmas service.

It’s no longer necessary. The project has succeeded.

Copyright © 2008 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site