Meddling with Forces
The Cost of Piety

Too Much Democracy

Over the last week or so there’s been some discussion about the nation state and democracy. Chris Dillow asked,

If nation states did not exist, would we these days feel a pressing need to invent them?

To which Shuggy replied,

What problems are best solved by national political systems? The problem of who governs and what the people can do if they want a change in government. In other words, the ‘nation-state’ has historically been the theatre of democracy and there is, in my view, absolutely no evidence to suggest that trans-national institutions like the UN or the EU are capable of answering these questions better than nations for the simple reason that neither of them can be considered democratic in any meaningful sense.

Matthew Sinclair added,

[Supranational] organisations lack legitimacy as they lack history and have, instead, been superimposed on better established communities. A nation state’s legitimacy is rooted in its history and, usually, a common stand against some adversity (wars build nations as well as destroying them). Supranational institutions never have that as they are superimposed and never command enough loyalty to take a serious common stand against serious adversity.

Rooting through the archives, I unearthed this gem, in which Deogolwulf tackles George Monbiot’s erotic dreams of global government:

George Monbiot calls for a world-government with direct popular representation. For a moment, even he is aware of the problem that such a system would bring, but then madness takes him once more:

Global democracy has a special problem — the scale on which it must operate. The bigger the electorate, the less democratic a parliamentary body will be. True democracy could exist only in the village, where representatives are subject to constant oversight by their electorate. But an imperfect system is better than no system at all.

He is not quite right even when he senses the problem; for the bigger the electorate, the less the vote of a single person matters, which is more democratic, not less. A tolerable, even decent, democracy can exist in a small society because the individual is not dwarfed by the vastness of demotic power. But let us imagine something at the other end of the scale: a world-democracy. The world-population is about 6.5 billion, and perhaps 4 billion are of voting-age. If there were a representative for, say, every 100,000 of such persons, as is broadly comparable with the representation-ratio of the British House of Commons, then there would have to be 40,000 representatives in the world-parliament. If, on the other hand, we wished the world-parliament to be of manageable size, then we would have to reduce the number of representatives, such that, if we had, say, 1,000 representatives, then each would represent 4 million people.

It is rather odd, therefore, that a man who complains about the smallness of his representation on a national scale - a reasonable complaint in a large democratic state - should then seek representation on a global one; for however such “representation” is instituted, a single man’s vote would count for even less than it already does in a large democratic nation-state of today, and anyone bothering to get out of bed to vote in a global election would be doing so quite irrationally; for the chances of his having any appreciable effect on the outcome would be far less than the chances of his tripping over a discarded first-edition of Probability for Dummies on the way to the polling-station and plunging head-first in front of a bus driven by a hard-up student of political statistics.

The whole thing is well worth reading.



"the bigger the electorate, the less the vote of a single person matters, which is more democratic, not less."

Size does matter!


Indeed. And when Monbiot and co get all tumescent with thoughts of global government or doing away with nation states, they somehow manage not to see what their dreams would most likely entail. How, for instance, would the details and complexities of such-and-such be explained to this new, bloated electorate, much of which is illiterate and might possibly have some trouble comprehending the subtleties of planetary management? Wouldn’t it be simpler - and much less *tiresome*- not to bother asking? And don’t we see this already regarding the EU?


"they somehow manage not to see what their dreams would most likely entail"

To the contrary, unlimited power with no accountability is exactly what their dreams entail.


Hm. Bearing in mind Mr Monbiot’s resentful, authoritarian streak, perhaps I should have written, “they somehow manage not to *admit* what their dreams would most likely entail.” Which is perhaps more accurate, at least in quite a few cases.


George Monbiot follows a tradition which believes in government by experts. Aynrandgirl correctly identifies his dream.

In Britain we are used to a democracy, which although affected by the class system has generally been a competition between different ideologies. Other countries see a different type of politics such as communalism. We have this in Northern Ireland and India. It's hard to imagine that a world government would not be communalistic.

Peter Risdon

I suspect Monbiot manages not to admit quite a lot of his motivations, as well as the details of his dreams. His enthusiasm for measures to combat "Global Warming" is not unconnected to his enthusiasm for anti-capitalist activism.


Well, like many of his colleagues, he does have an inordinate enthusiasm for banning things, and for what might be called moral spanking. Hence my use of the word “erotic”.

Peter Risdon

"Moral spanking"... very good. There's an associated syndrome, familiar to clients of Miss Whiplash and similarly popular with a section of the Guardianist classes: "Tell me I'm a naughty colonialist... Ah...yesss. Now tell me again, in an Irish accent...OOOhh!".

When "Liberals" are accused of self hate, the pleasure they derive from this is often overlooked.


“Now tell me again, in an Irish accent...OOOhh!”

Heh. I fear where this is going...


David, have you seen this?



Thanks, I saw. Among some on the far left there’s an urge to in effect dissolve the nation state, or at the very least disdain it, as if it were little more than an outmoded symbol of xenophobia, imperialism or whatever. Sovereignty and territory are, of course, profoundly important ideas - in practical, political and psychological terms - and on them a great deal is built. But I’ve heard arguments for open borders and the unrestricted global movement of people that omit any mention of how such a scenario would affect democracy and the very basis of what a society is. In the name of “one world” egalitarianism, Dan La Botz et al would apparently dispense with the practical basis of fraternity and common cause.

And, as before, it isn’t entirely clear whether the ideological urge inhibits any interest in practical details, or whether the details are tacitly understood and simply not aired in unsympathetic company.


One of the silliest arguments about the EU goes something like this:

1. The sovereign state is obsolete in the modern world.
2. That's why the EU needs to acquire the characteristics of a sovereign state (eg currency, army, police, legal system etc).
3. So that - err - the EU, too, can become obsolete.

So the argument is really just a crude "big is beautiful" claim. If sovereign powers are truly irrelevant in the modern world, the EU's determination to acquire them must be just as absurd as the constituent states determination to retain them.

BTW does anyone on this thread know about butterflies and elephants? Some famous Italian - I'm guessing it was either Leonardo or Galileo - asked why a creature as beautiful as the butterfly couldn't be as big as an elephant. He did some calculations and realized that the forces of nature would probably crush it. I can't find any reference to it on the interweb. But if true, it's a cool anecdote about the effects of scale...



I’m not familiar with the butterfly/elephant anecdote, but if that kind of thing interests you, there’s a book called “Diatoms to Dinosaurs” by Chris McGowan that deals with issues of scale and biology. It’s very readable.


There is another, and more practical, reason for the left's never-ending enthusiasm for world government.

If the cadre spend decades infiltrating a National government, before finally managing to seize control of it, what have they achieved? They now have control of one single isolated government, and have to begin the process all over again with the next. Even if they have many successes that still leaves several countries who may not bend to their will. Ever. This creates a problem. It means that their 'anti-hegemony' can potentially, at some future date, be broken.

But, if you can convince all the countries to get together into a world government, suddenly you only have to seize control of one organisation. No opposition. Ever.

You can already see this process happening. Not only does the left love the European Union (one handy organisation to seize control of), but most of the international non-governmental organisations have been either created, infiltrated or taken over by the left. These are already being used to 'trump' national governments. (The global warming industry being a classic example).


This may amuse.

“This book offers hope that civilization will rise to the challenge of abolishing war, just as it abolished slavery in the 19th century. He proposes extending the rule of law and government to the global level and building a democratic world government. The world government would replace the weak and ineffective structure of the UN with a democratic and transparent government of the people. The goal is to replace a system of 194 sovereign states, each with its own army, with a system of law that includes a world parliament, directly elected by the people, and world courts with the power to settle disputes. Democratic world government would have the power to address international problems such as global warming and overpopulation…”


The butterfly/elephant problem involves comparing the strength of the structural members to the load that they have to carry. The strength of a beam is generally proportional to its cross-sectional area, which increases as the second power of the size if you linearly scale the geometry. The mass of the member, however, increases as the cube of the scale factor. So, if you want to increase the size of an object by a factor of say, 2, and preserve the geometry, the mass of the structure goes up by a factor of 8, while the strength of the structural members only goes up by a factor of 4. The structural members cannot suppport the mass.

Similar arguments apply to the metabolism of organisms. Small organisms lose a mush larger fraction of the heat that they generate, because their area/mass ration is much higher than larger animals, so they have to eat a LOT more, more often.

You can get around this problem by clever engineering to eliminate unnecessary mass (holes in beams in place you don't need the strength), or by moving to a different material for the structural members, but if you want to maintain the geometry and materials, you are stuck with this problem.

"Scaling" in engineering is a complex subject, and you have to be very careful when you change the size of a working object. At different scales, physical relationships that you thought were resolved, may not be, and issues that were trivial may become significant.


Democracies of vastly differing sizes can work; we have hundreds of years evidence - thousands of years, if we count the examples of Ancient Athens, early Icelandic societies, etc - that testify to the ability democracy has to suit different peoples at different times. The USA is vastly different in size and population to the UK, but as a democracy it works. So I don't necessarily have a problem with the proposition of world government simply because it's much bigger than the typical democracy (although this argument depends to a certain extent on how you rate the USA as a federal democracy, and whether you think it's a one-off historical anomaly or not.)

No, my main problem is simply that large parts of the world are undemocratic anyway - and will be for the foreseeable future. Communist China, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Burma, and a number of other countries, are not simply going to give their citizens a vote because a world government is declared. Therefore, any world government at the current time will give undue influence and powers to dictators who had previously been (at least in part) confined to the nation state. Yes, that will end well...

Conversely, if we do achieve, at some point in the future, a state of affairs where the vast majority of nation states are governed by workable democracies, there is very little need for world government!


Oh yeah, and it's obviously pretty dumb to do away with our perfectly good democracies, as they are, in favour of some notional world government utopia that could, very well, turn out to be a disaster.

The (mostly) leftist drive to do away with the sovereign powers of nation states happens in different ways in different parts of the world. In Europe and the UK, you have the ceding of more and more national powers to the jurisdiction of an extra-national, non-democratic government, the EU. Nations across the world have a love-hate relationship with the UN, with its ever-changing, nebulous systems of governance and its attraction for dictators.

In Australia and Canada, and probably a number of other places that started as colonies, there have been various attemps at land reclamation on behalf of indigenous inhabitants. Here in Australia, for instance, large parts of the country are closed to visitors and media. They are referred to as Aboriginal land; though in fact they often consist, in large part, of community housing estates, and come under the jurisdiction of our state and territory governments. In other words, successive governments have partially achieved, through the blurring of legal boundaries and appealing to sympathies for the indigenous people, the ceding of national sovereignty to special interest groups.

Add to this the recent suggestion by our PM, Kevin Rudd, that Australia become part of a union of Asian states, working effectively like the EU.

To repeat myself: yes, that will end well...


Given the shortage of practical detail typical of such fantasies (even on basic issues of scale), and given that so much of this utopianism is either whimsical or sinister – often both – I’m inclined to wonder about the motives involved. Is it a matter of naïveté and idiocy, or malevolence? Or malevolent idiocy?


A variety of reasons, I guess. Most people I know seem to meet proposals of world government and/or a lessening of the power of sovereign states with equinamity, or sometimes even glee. There's very little emotional attachement to the traditional nation state (patriotism is frowned on, as is any collective sense of cultural identity), and often very little sense that anything worthwhile is being lost. So maybe it's more naivette than anything else.


Actually, to quickly clarify, it's not a subject I've discussed a great deal. In Australia discussions about sovereignty usually focus around the question of indigenous land ownership, rights, and to what extent they should be involved in Australian democracy, if at all. The world government/multinational administration issue does crop up, but it's usually in policy magazines or the occasional internet forum. Still, I think the reactions do usually tend towards equinamity or glee, as I said above.


Democracy is not about electing the government you want so much as getting rid of the government you don't want.

We have a world today with multiple forms of government. Even democracies vary such as in the level of government spending as a percentage of GDP. Such variances have inevitable effect on their host society. Assuming that world government is a good thing, how do we decide which model to use? Advocates claim it will be democratic, but how interventionist will it be? All the ones I see assume a high spending government with vast powers to centralise, control industry and redistribute. That inevitable means a vast bureaucracy. That group already exists in the form of trans national bodies such as the UN and NGOs. It is inevitable that such bodies both rent seek and demand greater power for themselves.

I suspect the idea of world government results from frustration with the failure of social democracy to achieve its objectives on a nation state level. This suggestion is merely demanding the experiment must be resumed at a supra national level.

Utopia will work this time. Honest!

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