Thursday, 18 August 2016

A humble remedy for a world falling apart

Maybe those whining about the world falling apart in 2016 are on to something. The sentiment suggests plenty of friction in the world system, which is bad, because friction leads to war.

The large cogs of the world system are showing signs of strain. True, the US goal of worldwide democracy is still on course. The few countries not yet following post-Christian liberal democracy are slowly turning to the light. But it’s becoming clear the fundamentals of democracy are incompatible with the demands of global empire. One (or hopefully both) will buckle eventually.

Exacerbating all this is the internet, which is as disruptive as the discovery of the New World was for Europe. The internet changes what it means to be powerful. Some say it is akin to the invention of language itself, given its effect on human cognition. But in either case, the technology is dissolving the very concept of the nation state – the building block of the world system since 1648.

Peering a little lower still, 3D-printing introduces another new disruption. The 20th century’s great invention was containerisation which birthed globalisation. In 2012, there were over 20 million intermodal shipping containers in the world. Now, 3D-printing could be reversing globalisation by making it possible to create products at home, at any time.

Brexit and the fragmented Middle East are two data points shrinking globalisation further. Rather than coalesce, Europe is splintering again. The 19th century historian Jacob Burkhardt once observed that Europe was safe so long as she was not unified, and we can see exactly what he meant. So long as a splintered Europe adopts a better governance model, it will be fine.

What might that model look like? And might it fix this “falling apart” phenomenon? I want to paint the broad brushstrokes of a possible replacement model. While it's not my idea, I've tweaked it a bit here. The idea is a mix of modern inventions with an old government structure which was, for some silly reason, discarded in favour of the broken concept of liberal democracy.

The model centres on the reinvigoration of city-states. A casual reading of history seems to show the world abandoning the idea in favour of the nation-state. Indeed, the world is riddled with nation states. It would be a mistake, however, to assume city-states are an inferior concept, they simply went out of fashion. Not because of poor governance, but due to the invention of artillery and the invention of the scourge of world-eating ideologies – such as liberal democracy.

Containerisation and the internet are signs that a global lattice of tens or hundreds of thousands of sovereign and independent city-states, each governed by its own joint-stock corporation not beholden to its citizens’ opinions or whims, is a far better model for this connected world.

Human civilisation seems to work much better in times where it is most politically divided. Think of Ancient Greece, medieval Italy (where city-states flourished), Europe until 1914, China in the Spring and Autumn Period, Mesoamerica before Europeans and so on. Centrifugal force is a constant in history. Fragmentation is best. Small is best. Local is best. Different is best. These are historical axioms. Lessons barely worth expounding due to their obviousness.

To accommodate these axioms, the lattice can include any number of city-states, the more the merrier. The key is the conservation of sovereignty. The property of each city-state is its concern only, no one else’s. Friction generally occurs when one group of people feel threatened by neighbours. After all, no one goes to war because they want to, they go to war because they have to. So removing threats of invasion evaporates a huge chunk of friction. An unalloyed good.

The kernel of truth in democracy is its deference to personal opinion and balancing millions of these differing opinions. In global lattice, the only voting that people will do is with their feet. They sign bilateral contracts with a sovereign, and if the city-state no longer satisfies, the citizen can simply leave. But change the city-state’s rules? No chance. Democracy is the problem, not solution.

Business readers will already be painting the path ahead. Governance by joint-stock is obvious, the details flow easily from here. Historian Niall Ferguson says the joint-stock corporation is one of the most important human inventions, and in this model it helps avoid the lattice becoming the old feudal system. The feudal model didn’t work well then, and it certainly won’t work now.

Rather, the joint-stock corporation model ensures leaders are chosen based on their ability to maximise profits. The city-state will create rules to take every advantage of its real estate’s resources, and if a citizen doesn’t like those rules they can leave. With those constraints, any good CEO will organise around the imperative of minimising this exile. What other way is there to survive?

The entire model pivots on ensuring security. In a modern democracy security and liberty are sold as of equal worth. It aims to balance between the two, often erring on the side of liberty. But this is a terrible model of governance, a downward-spiralling feedback loop. If a person has ever felt unsafe on their own street, this is why.

In this global lattice, there is no such thing as too secure. Police don’t steal iPhones. Security and liberty should not be in balance, because security should always win. A successful joint-stock corporation needs to be secure. And since city-states will compete for business on the basis of customer service, public safety must be prioritised. Maybe one of the city-states will find a way to incorporate criminals for maximum profit. There’s always more rocks to be smashed.

Actually, this space is not nearly large enough to explain this model. A slight miscalculation. Never mind, these are broad brushstrokes. The goal is to remove friction, accept the trend towards fragmentation, understand the power of technology and discard the dream of democracy. Is this a better model for governance? In comparison to the present system, it certainly is.

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