Catholic World Report
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October 24, 2011
Abstract principles and ideal scenarios don’t grapple with the real world.


World government. Thirty years ago I read Mortimer Adler’s How to Think About War and Peace and was convinced. If world peace is ever going to be achieved, Adler argued, there would have to be something like a world federation of democratic states. I found concurrence in statements by Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II, as well as the Second Vatican Council. To this day, I acknowledge world government as the ideal. If, in order for autonomous individuals consistently to achieve their common good, some form of government is necessary, then in order for autonomous governments consistently to achieve their common good some form of world government is necessary.

I say world government is the ideal. Whether the ideal is practicable is another matter. Suppose it isn’t. Suppose in the real world human beings are such that, while in principle they could work together internationally to achieve peace, in practice they simply won’t acquire sufficient moral virtue to will as they ought for their own real good and the common good of the human family? Suppose they simply won’t ever attain the practical wisdom and moral virtue to organize six billion plus people into one political/economic community of mutually respecting nations, all collaborating for the global common good? Surely that possibility shouldn’t take a Catholic by surprise. A whole strand of Augustinian political thinking is skeptical about the long-term viability of democratic government on a national scale, much less on a global one. Indeed, one may well argue that given man’s sinful proclivities, a peaceful one-world democratic community won’t be seen this side of the Eschaton.

Even Adler, ever the optimist about the possibilities of democratic government, insisted that it would take 500 years to achieve the goal of a moderately peaceful, democratic world federation, assuming human beings didn’t manage to destroy themselves in the meantime. Toward the end of his life, he reduced that to 300 years, arguing it had to happen more quickly if it was to happen at all.

In any case, as Adler and many other political philosophers make clear, establishing a truly democratic world government is no mean feat, requiring transcultural agreement about fundamental ethical questions and human rights, not to mention a minimum of universal education, moral virtue, and economic stability. We are, the optimistic Adler insisted, distant from anything like a global culture, with commonly shared ethical principles. To which I say, if commonly shared ethical and democratic values are necessary for democracy to thrive in a nation- state, what does that mean for the prospects of a world democratic state, in the world as it is today and is likely to be for the foreseeable future?

As things stand today, achieving a world democratic federation in half a millennium looks like a best-case scenario.

Now the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has released Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority. Even though Catholics are not obliged to accept the policy proposals of this “note,” many Catholics will nevertheless want to hear what the council says, and others are likely to be influenced by it, even though it does not represent “the Vatican’s position” (contrary to what some media accounts and some leftwing Catholics would lead you to believe).

The recent global financial crises, the document tells us, are due mainly to an “economic liberalism that spurns rules and controls.” “Economic liberalism” isn’t defined, but we are, I think, supposed to read this as referring to “free market capitalism.” No evidence for the claim is given, nor are the roles of statist policies and increased government spending in creating problems considered. But, in any case, the claim itself serves mainly as a set-up for the case for an “authority over globalization”—a world political authority and its complementary economic entity, a central world bank, that can regulate political and economic affairs in the interest of the universal common good of nations. Here is where abstract principles and ideal scenarios fail adequately to grapple with the real world.

To be sure, the document doesn’t envision a world authority springing into existence overnight—it refers to a “long road” toward world government. It refers to global authority being established “gradually” and it discusses some obstacles to be overcome. It talks about subsidiarity, cooperation, consent, and consensus in the global community. All wonderful things, of course.

But consider how many functioning democracies there are in the world. Ask yourself how well they’re doing. Then think about all the governments that claim to be democracies but aren’t—half the world’s population resides in such fully authoritarian and predominantly authoritarian regimes. China alone represents a fifth of the world’s population. Why should we suppose these regimes will become democracies anytime soon?

Even if someone waved a magic wand and overnight the authoritarian regimes dominating half of the world disappeared, would the three or four billion people of these nations be ready to govern themselves? Would they be in any position to establish representative governments founded on the recognition of human rights? Would they be prepared to set aside centuries-old or millennia-old grievances and collaborate with their mortal enemies to establish internal peace within their own nations, not to mention international peace with their neighbors? Would they have the cultural, moral, educational, and economic wherewithal to govern themselves? The naivety it takes to say “yes” to the above makes George W. Bush’s comments about the universal longing for democracy look like stark realism. And that assumes we could make the world’s authoritarian regimes just disappear, and does not address the enormous problems of global economic management.

The fact is, the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace might just as well call for the establishment of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets. It would have just as much likelihood of providing solutions to our problems in your lifetime, your children’s lifetimes, or their children’s lifetimes.

Between the council’s ideal and the real world there is a chasm so large it boggles the mind that anyone could read the newspapers and discuss a world political/economic authority without intending thereby either to consider an abstract thesis in a political philosophy seminar or to sketch the plot of a science fiction film. 

Really. Set aside Iran or China. Ignore the immense problems with the EU or the US economy. Say nothing about Mexico or the rest of Latin America. Pretend like North Korea or Syria doesn’t exist. Imagine there is no militant Islamic surge throughout the Middle East. Can anyone look at the situation of, say, the various internally and externally divided nations of Africa, with their conflicting visions of the good society, and seriously talk about world government as a goal to be achieved any sooner than the distant future, if ever? That is, unless by a World Authority one means a Global Hegemon?

If the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is trying to make the Catholic Church sound as if she’s living in a fantasy world or trying to portray Catholic social teaching as completely irrelevant to real world problems, I’d say, “Mission accomplished.” If, on the other hand, the council wants people seriously to think about the problems of globalization, it’s going to have to demonstrate a much better grasp of political and economic practicalities, as well as the limits and dangers of international solutions. At the risk of sounding like an End of the World visionary, I suggest we should temper our enthusiasm for world-authority solutions by re-reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 675-677, and by consulting the Book of Revelation, chapter 13.

By all means, let’s discuss global problems and possible solutions. Let’s recognize the dangers of nationalism and the imbalances that exist between rich and poor nations. Let’s not overlook the weakness of international capitalism or pretend the free market has all the solutions. Let’s have a good philosophical discussion about world government, and its long-term prospects, if the world endures for a few more centuries. But let’s remember that, historically speaking, those who have tried to act on their talk about a world political order have wound up being tyrants.

About the Author
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Mark Brumley

Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.

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