Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Why Global Sovereignty Matters

-- by Sara

Dave's discussion of the Utah Republican Party's resolution "warning that Satan's minions want to eliminate national borders and do away with sovereignty" brings up a perennial right-wing boogeyman that hasn't seen a lot of time out of the barn lately. But, since we're likely to hear more wingnut railing against "one world government," let me explain why that idea deserves a strong liberal counter.

One of the principles of systems theory is that we should avoid the tragedy of the commons. Wherever you have a resource that's unregulated by either a market or a government, people will inevitably wander into it and start taking as much of it as they can physically carry away. Eventually, the resource -- a pastureland, a forest, a watershed, whatever -- will be depleted to the point where the use of it is lost to everyone. The only solution to the commons tragedy, in all times and places and at whatever scale, is to set up some kind of regulatory boundary around the resource that limits and allocates shares, controls access, and manages it with an eye toward future sustainability.

All of us -- even conservatives -- are pretty clear on this concept where small, localized resources are concerned. Though we may have philosophical disagreements over whether the county government or a private company will do a better job of maintaining the common roads and water reservoir, most of us recognize that there needs to be an authority in charge -- one with boundaries of influence large enough to fully control and sustain the domain, and sufficient clout to enforce its will in the face of powerful people who may want game the rules and take more than their fair share.

Looking back over the course of US history, one lasting mark left on our body politic by WWII was that the scale of our commons management domains took a quantum leap. Before the war, "state's rights" had been an article of faith, because most of our common wealth was managed at the state level (as it still is in Canada). The Roaring 20s happened in no small part because the newly-emerging corporate order could profit handsomely by taking undue advantage of a virtually unregulated interstate commons. It had gotten to the point where the largest corporations were rich enough to bully state governments into giving them whatever they wanted, or threaten to go elsewhere -- a clear sign that business was now operating at a scale where state government wasn't big enough, strong enough, or organized to put a meaningful boundary around corporate behavior. Structurally, this was an underlying cause of the "tragedy of the commons" we now recall as the Great Depression.

FDR put an end to that, through policies and programs that transferred important state business-regulation functions into federal hands -- first in the name of ending the Depression, and then in the name of ending the war. This new regulatory infrastructure, designed specifically to create a government power boundary big and strong enough to manage and control the newly-expanded business commons, is the main reason that conservatives despise Roosevelt to this day. (Whenever you hear a conservative hollering about "small government," odds are good that they're really advocating the disregulation of a commons so they can exploit it for personal profit.)

Over the past four decades, we've begun to struggle with another quantum shift in scale. We've come to realize that oceans, arable land, aquifers and watersheds, and the entire atmosphere represent a global commons that every one of us depends on. At the same time, business roams the planet taking what it wants -- just as it roamed America in the 20s -- making unimaginable profits and creating irreversible damage (global warming, anyone?) because there's no one entity big and powerful enough to put a boundary around its activities and regulate its behavior.

National governments, like the state governments before them, are now simply too small and too corruptible to effectively manage the problems that we're facing. Which means that, in the decades ahead, our survival will almost certainly depend on creating global authorities to oversee the commons at a global scale -- in other words, the conservatives' dreaded "one world government."

One of the (often legitimate) complaints against FDR's government was that it was often very hierarchical and hence heavy-handed in implementing its edicts. Back in that generation, people still had very Victorian ideas of how power flowed; and military-style hierarchy was all they really knew. And because the anti-one-world-government grognards still understand power and hierarchy this way, it's fair to guess that much of their fear stems from the thought that they'll be subordinated to leaders who don't meet their specific criteria for legitimacy -- always a hot-button issue for authoritarians. For ideological conservatives, the only way to have a world government is to subjugate nations (and nationalism, which is the right-wing religion) to a world dictator -- an anti-Christ who will present a clear and present danger to their sense of freedom. For economic conservatives, a world government will once again restrict their "right" to make profit whenever and wherever they will.

In moving toward global governance, we need to be aware of these fears -- and resist the vision that they represent. All of us should be concerned about the potential loss of local sovereignty -- democracy depends on us being able to choose who leads us, and where -- but we shouldn't buy into the conservative vision that this will be inevitable.

Liberals, after all, know better. Since the Sixties, we've come to a more organic understanding of how things in the world are naturally organized. We understand that power can be decentralized in webs and networks; and that people can be effective in loosely-organized, self-determining cells; and that these cells, in turn, can be integrated into much larger and more effective systems than anything a hierarchy can handle. Organizationally, what works for bacteria colonies also works for Al-Qaeda -- and will almost certainly work as a system for managing our global commons as well.

Some kind of global network government is coming. It is as inevitable as global warming, the loss of the fisheries, and the destruction of the topsoil -- the problems it will first be organized to put boundaries around and manage for the common good of all humanity. It does not have to involve pushing all authority for everything up to the highest levels -- just the tasks that are required to sustain the things we truly hold in common. The right wing will resist it mightly (those who derive emotional or financial sustenance from the status quo will always resist the future); though there's also no shortage of people who also want to explode the national boundaries around these commons so they can profit off of them in private markets (a bad idea, but a post for another day). But we on the progressive side need to understand exactly what's at stake, and why -- and refuse to join them in their fear.

Oh, and by the way: I'm back.

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