The Totalitarian Threat

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The Totalitarian Threat

Bryan Caplan

Department of Economics

and Center for Study of Public Choice

George Mason University

Fairfax, VA 22030


January, 2006

For discussion and useful suggestions I would like to thank Tyler Cowen, Robin Hanson, Alex Tabarrok, Dan Houser, Don Boudreaux, Ilia Rainer, Milan Ćirković, and Nick Bostrom. Geoffrey Lea provided excellent research assistance. The standard disclaimer applies.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.
George Orwell, 1984 (1983: 220)
1. Totalitarianism: What Happened and Why It (Mostly) Ended

During the twentieth century, many nations – including Russia, Germany, and China - lived under extraordinarily brutal and oppressive governments. Over one hundred million civilians died at the hands of these governments, but only a small fraction of their brutality and oppression was necessary to retain power. The main function of the brutality and oppression, rather, was to radically change human behavior, to transform normal human beings with their selfish concerns into willing servants of their rulers. The goals and methods of these governments were so extreme that they were often described – by friend and foe alike – as "total" or "totalitarian." (Gregor 2000)

The connection between totalitarian goals and totalitarian methods is straightforward. People do not want to radically change their behavior. To make them change anyway requires credible threats of harsh punishment – and the main way to make such threats credible is to carry them out on a massive scale. Furthermore, even if people believe your threats, some will resist anyway or seem likely to foment resistance later on. Indeed, some are simply unable to change. An aristocrat cannot choose to have proletarian origins, or a Jew to be an Aryan. To handle these recalcitrant problems requires special prisons to isolate dangerous elements, or mass murder to eliminate them.
Totalitarian regimes have many structural characteristics in common. Richard Pipes gives a standard inventory: "[A]n official all-embracing ideology; a single party of the elect headed by a 'leader' and dominating the state; police terror; the ruling party's control of the means of communication and the armed forces; central command of the economy." (1994: 245) All of these logically flow from the goal of remaking human nature. The official ideology is the rationale for radical change. It must be "all-embracing" – i.e., suppress competing ideologies and values - to prevent people from being side-tracked by conflicting goals. The leader is necessary to create and interpret the official ideology, and control of the means of communication to disseminate it. The party is comprised of the "early-adopters" – the people who claim to have "seen the light" and want to make it a reality. Police terror and control of the armed forces are necessary to enforce obedience to the party's orders. Finally, control of the economy is crucial for a whole list of reasons: to give the party the resources it needs to move forward; to suppress rival power centers; to ensure that economic actors do not make plans that conflict with the party's; and to make citizens dependent on the state for their livelihood.
This description admittedly glosses over the hypocrisy of totalitarian regimes. In reality, many people join the party because of the economic benefits of membership, not because they sincerely share the party's goals. While it is usually hard to doubt the ideological sincerity of the founding members of totalitarian movements, over time the leadership shifts its focus from remaking human nature to keeping control. Furthermore, while totalitarian movements often describe their brutality and oppression as transitional measures to be abandoned once they purify the hearts and minds of the people, their methods usually severely alienate the subject population. The "transition" soon becomes a way of life.
The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are the two most-studied totalitarian regimes. By modern calculations, the Soviets killed approximately twenty million civilians, the Nazis twenty five million. (Courtois et al 1999: 4-5, 14-15; Payne 1995) However, these numbers are biased by the relative difficulty of data collection. Scholars could freely investigate most Nazi atrocities beginning in 1945, but had to wait until the 1990’s to document those of the Soviets. In all likelihood, the Soviets’ death toll actually exceeded the Nazis’.
One of the main differences between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany was that the former became totalitarian very rapidly. Lenin embarked upon radical social change as soon as he had power. (Malia 1994) In contrast, totalitarianism developed gradually in Nazi Germany; only in the last years of World War II did the state try to control virtually every area of life. (Arendt 1973) The other main difference is that most of the atrocities of the Soviet Union were directed inwards at its own citizens, whereas most Nazi atrocities were directed outwards at the citizens of occupied countries. (Noakes and Pridham 2001; Friedlander 1995)
But despite historians' focus on Russia and Germany, Maoist China was actually responsible for more civilian killings than the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany put together. Modern estimates put its death toll at 65 million. (Margolin 1999a) The West is primarily familiar with the cruelties inflicted on Chinese intellectuals and Party members during the Cultural Revolution, but its death toll was probably under 1 million. The greatest of Mao's atrocities was the Great Leap Forward, which claimed 30 million lives through man-made starvation. (Becker 1996)
Besides mass murder, totalitarian regimes typically engage in a long list of other offenses. Slave labor was an important part of both the Soviet and Nazi economies. Communist regimes typically placed heavy restrictions on migration – most notably making it difficult for peasants to move to cities, and for anyone to travel abroad. Freedom of expression and religion were heavily restricted. Despite propaganda emphasizing rapid economic growth, living standards of non-party members frequently fell to the starvation level. Totalitarian regimes focus on military production and internal security, not consumer well-being.
Another notable problem with totalitarian regimes was their failure to anticipate and counteract events that even their leaders saw as catastrophic. Stalin infamously ignored overwhelming evidence that Hitler was planning to invade the Soviet Union. Hitler ensured his own defeat by declaring war on the United States. Part of the reason for these lapses of judgment was concentration of power, which allowed leaders' idiosyncrasies to decide the fates of millions. But this was amplified by the fact that people in totalitarian regimes are afraid to share negative information. To call attention to looming disasters verges on dissent, and dissent is dangerously close to disloyalty.
From the viewpoint of the ruling party, this may be a fair trade: More and worse disasters are the price of social control. From the viewpoint of anyone concerned about global catastrophic risks, however, this means that totalitarianism is worse than it first appears. To the direct cost of totalitarianism we must add the indirect cost of amplifying other risks. It is important not to push this argument too far, however. For goals that can be achieved by brute force or mobilizing resources, totalitarian methods have proven highly effective. For example, Stalin was able to develop nuclear weapons with amazing speed simply by making this the overarching priority of the Soviet economy. (Holloway 1994) Indeed, for goals that can only be achieved by radically changing human behavior, nothing but totalitarian methods have proven highly effective. Overall, totalitarian regimes are less likely to foresee disasters, but are in some ways better-equipped to deal with disasters that they take seriously.
2. Stable Totalitarianism

There are only four ways in which a ruling group can fall from power. Either it is conquered from without, or it governs so inefficiently that the masses are stirred to revolt, or it allows a strong and discontented Middle Group to come into being, or it loses its own self-confidence and willingness to govern... A ruling class which could guard against all of them would remain in power permanently. Ultimately the determining factor is the mental attitude of the ruling class itself.

George Orwell, 1984 (1983: 170)

The best thing one can say about totalitarian regimes is that the main ones did not last very long.1 The Soviet Union greatly reduced its level of internal killing after the death of Stalin, and the Communist Party fell from power in 1991. After Mao Zedong's death, Deng Xiaoping allowed the Chinese to resume relatively normal lives, and began moving in the direction of a market economy. Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich lasted less than thirteen years, before it ended with military defeat in World War II.

The deep question, however, is whether this short duration was inherent or accidental. If the short lifespan of totalitarianism is inherent, it probably does not count as a "global catastrophic risk" at all. On the other hand, if the rapid demise of totalitarianism was a lucky accident, if future totalitarians could learn from history to indefinitely prolong their rule, then totalitarianism is one of the most important global catastrophic risks to stop before it starts.
The main obstacle to answering this question is the small number of observations. Indeed, the collapse of the Soviet bloc was so inter-connected that it basically counts as only one data point. However, most of the historical evidence supports the view that totalitarianism could have been much more durable than it was.
This is clearest in the case of Nazi Germany. Only crushing military defeat forced the Nazis from power. Once Hitler became dictator, there was no serious internal opposition to his rule. If he had simply pursued a less aggressive foreign policy, there is every reason to think he would have remained dictator for life. One might argue that grassroots pressure forced Hitler to bite off more than he could militarily chew, but in fact the pressure went the other way. His generals in particular favored a less aggressive posture. (Bullock 1993: 393-4, 568-574, 582)
The history of the Soviet Union and Maoist China confirms this analysis. They were far less expansionist than Nazi Germany, and their most tyrannical leaders – Stalin and Mao - ruled until their deaths. But at the same time, the demise of Stalin and Mao reveals the stumbling block that the Nazis would have eventually faced too: succession. How can a totalitarian regime ensure that each generation of leaders remains stridently totalitarian? Both Stalin and Mao fumbled here, and perhaps Hitler would have done the same.
A number of leading Communists wrestled for Stalin's position, and the eventual winner was Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev kept the basic structure of Stalinist Russia intact, but killed far fewer people and released most of the slave laborers. He even readmitted many of Stalin's victims back into the Party, and allowed anti-Stalinists like Solzhenitsyn to publish some of their writings. The result was a demoralization of the Party faithful, both inside the Soviet Union and abroad: Stalin was a tyrant not merely according to the West, but to the new Party line as well. (Werth 1999: 250-60)
Khrushchev was eventually peacefully removed from power by other leading Communists who might be described as "anti-anti-Stalinists." While they did not restore mass murder of Soviet citizens or large-scale slave labor, they squelched public discussion of the Party's "mistakes." As the Party leadership aged, however, it became increasingly difficult to find a reliable veteran of the Stalin years to take the helm. The 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev was finally appointed General Secretary in 1985. While it is still unclear what his full intentions were, Gorbachev's moderate liberalization measures snowballed. The Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989, and the Soviet Union itself disintegrated in 1991.
The end of totalitarianism in Maoist China happened even more quickly. After Mao's death in 1976, a brief power struggle led to the ascent of the pragmatist Deng Xiaoping. Deng heavily reduced the importance of Maoist ideology in daily life, de facto privatized agriculture in this still largely agricultural economy, and gradually moved toward more free-market policies, under the guise of "socialism with Chinese characteristics." China remained a dictatorship, but had clearly evolved from totalitarian to authoritarian. (Salisbury 1992)
It is tempting for Westerners to argue that the Soviet Union and Maoist China changed course because their systems proved unworkable, but this is fundamentally incorrect. These systems were most stable when their performance was worst. Communist rule was very secure when Stalin and Mao were starving millions to death. Conditions were comparatively good when reforms began. Totalitarianism ended not because totalitarian policies were unaffordable, but because new leaders were unwilling to keep paying the price in lives and wealth.
Perhaps there was no reliable way for totalitarian regimes to solve the problem of succession, but they could have tried a lot harder. If they had read George Orwell, they would have known that the key danger to the system is "the growth of liberalism and skepticism in their own ranks." (1983: 171) Khrushchev's apostasy from Stalinism was perhaps unforeseeable, but the collapse of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev could have been avoided if the Politburo considered only hard-line candidates. The Soviet Union collapsed largely because a reformist took the helm, but a reformist was able to take the helm only because his peers failed to make holding power their top priority. Mao, similarly, could have made continuity more likely by sending suspected "capitalist-roaders" like Deng to their deaths without exception.
Probably the most important reason why a change in leaders often led totalitarian regimes to moderate their policies is that they existed side-by-side with non-totalitarian regimes. It was obvious by comparison that people in the non-totalitarian world were richer and happier. Totalitarian regimes limited contact with foreigners, but news of the disparities inevitably leaked in. Even more corrosively, party elites were especially likely to see the outside world first-hand. As a result, officials at the highest levels lost faith in their own system.
This problem could have been largely solved by cutting off contact with the non-totalitarian world, becoming "hermit kingdoms" like North Korea or Albania. But the hermit strategy has a major drawback. Totalitarian regimes have trouble growing and learning as it is; if they cannot borrow ideas from the rest of the world, progress slows to a crawl. But if other societies are growing and learning and yours is not, you will lose the race for political, economic, and military dominance. You may even fall so far behind that foreign nations gain the ability to remove you from power at little risk to themselves.
Thus, a totalitarian regime that tried to preserve itself by turning inwards could probably increase its life expectancy. For a few generations the pool of potential successors would be less corrupted by alien ideas. But in the long-run the non-totalitarian neighbors of a hermit kingdom would overwhelm it.
The totalitarian dilemma, then, is that succession is the key to longevity. But as long as totalitarian states co-exist with non-totalitarian ones, they have to expose potential successors to demoralizing outside influences to avoid falling dangerously behind their rivals.2
To understand this dilemma, however, is also to understand its solution: Totalitarianism would be much more stable if there were no non-totalitarian world. The worse-case scenario for human freedom would be a global totalitarian state. Without an outside world for comparison, totalitarian elites would have no direct evidence that any better way of life was on the menu. It would no longer be possible to borrow new ideas from the non-totalitarian world, but it would also no longer be necessary. The global government could economically and scientifically stagnate without falling behind. Indeed, stagnation could easily increase stability. The rule of thumb "Avoid all change" is easier to correctly apply than the rule "Avoid all change that makes the regime less likely to stay in power."
It is fashionable to paint concerns about world government as xenophobic or even childish. Robert Wright maintains that the costs would be trivial and the benefits large:

Do you cherish the freedom to live without fear of dying in a biological weapons attack? Or do you prefer the freedom to live without fear of having your freezer searched for anthrax by an international inspectorate in the unlikely event that evidence casts suspicion in your direction?... Which sort of sovereignty would you rather lose? Sovereignty over your freezer, or sovereignty over your life? (2000: 227)

But this is best-case thinking. In reality, a world government might impose major costs for minor gains. If mankind is particularly unlucky, world government will decay into totalitarianism, without a non-totalitarian world to provide a safety valve.
Totalitarianism would also be more stable than it was in the twentieth century if the world were divided between a small number of totalitarian states. This is Orwell's scenario in 1984: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia control the earth's surface and wage perpetual war against one another. In a world like this, elites would not be disillusioned by international comparisons, because every country would feature the poverty and misery typical of totalitarian societies. Deviating from the hermit strategy would no longer taint the pool of successors. Orwell adds the interesting argument that the existence of external enemies helps totalitarian regimes maintain ideological fervor: "So long as they remain in conflict they prop one another up, like three sheaves of corn." (1983: 162)
For this scenario to endure, totalitarian regimes would still have to make sure they did not fall far behind their rivals. But they would only have to keep pace with other relatively stagnant societies. Indeed, if one state fell so far behind its rivals that it could be conquered at little risk, the world would simply be one step closer to a unified totalitarian government. The greater danger would be an increase in the number of states via secession. The more independent countries exist, the greater the risk that one will liberalize and begin making the rest of the world look bad.
3. Risk Factors for Stable Totalitarianism

On balance, totalitarianism could have been a lot more stable than it was, but also bumped into some fundamental difficulties. However, it is quite conceivable that technological and political changes will defuse these difficulties, greatly extending the lifespan of totalitarian regimes. Technologically, the great danger is anything that helps solve the problem of succession. Politically, the great danger is movement in the direction of world government.

Technology. Orwell's 1984 described how new technologies would advance the cause of totalitarianism. The most vivid was the "telescreen," a two-way television set. Anyone watching the screen was automatically subject to observation by the Thought Police. Protagonist Winston Smith was only able to keep his diary of thought crimes because his telescreen was in an unusual position which allowed him to write without being spied upon.
Improved surveillance technology like the telescreen would clearly make it easier to root out dissent, but is unlikely to make totalitarianism last longer. Even without telescreens, totalitarian regimes were extremely stable as long as their leaders remained committed totalitarians. Indeed, one of the main lessons of the post-Stalin era was that a nation can be kept in fear by jailing a few thousand dissidents per year.
Better surveillance would do little to expose the real threat to totalitarian regimes: closet skeptics within the party. However, other technological advances might solve this problem. In Orwell's 1984, one of the few scientific questions still being researched is "how to discover, against his will, what another human being is thinking." (1983: 159) Advances in brain research and related fields have the potential to do just this. Brain scans, for example, might one day be used to screen closet skeptics out of the party. Alternately, the new and improved psychiatric drugs of the future might increase docility without noticeably reducing productivity.
Behavioral genetics could yield similar fruit. Instead of searching for skeptical thoughts, a totalitarian regime might use genetic testing to defend itself. Political orientation is already known to have a significant genetic component. (Pinker 2002: 283-305) A "moderate" totalitarian regime could exclude citizens with a genetic predisposition for critical thinking and individualism from the party. A more ambitious solution – and totalitarian regimes are nothing if not ambitious – would be genetic engineering. The most primitive version would be sterilization and murder of carriers of "anti-party" genes, but you could get the same effect from selective abortion. A technologically advanced totalitarian regime could take over the whole process of reproduction, breeding loyal citizens of the future in test tubes and raising them in state-run "orphanages." This would not have to go on for long before the odds of closet skeptics rising to the top of their system and taking over would be extremely small.
A very different route to totalitarian stability is extending the lifespan of the leader so that the problem of succession rarely if ever comes up. Both Stalin and Mao ruled for decades until their deaths, facing no serious internal threats to their power. If life extension technology had been advanced enough to keep them in peak condition forever, it is reasonable to believe that they would still be in power today.
Some of Orwell's modern critics argue that he was simply wrong about the effect of technology. (Huber 1994) In practice, technology – from fax machines to photocopiers - undermined totalitarianism by helping people behind the Iron Curtain learn about the outside world and organize resistance. Whatever the effect of past technology was, however, the effect of future technology is hard to predict. Perhaps genetic screening will be used not to prevent the births of a future Alexandr Solzhenitsyn or Andrei Sakharov, but a future Stalin. Nevertheless, future technology is likely to eventually provide the ingredients that totalitarianism needs to be stable.
At the same time, it should be acknowledged that some of these technologies might lead totalitarianism to be less violent than it was historically. Suppose psychiatric drugs or genetic engineering created a docile, homogeneous population. Totalitarian ambitions could then be realized without extreme brutality, because people would want to do what their government asked – a possibility explored at length in the dystopian novel Brave New World. (Huxley 1996)
Politics. To repeat, one of the main checks on totalitarian regimes has been the existence of non-totalitarian regimes. It is hard to maintain commitment to totalitarian ideologies when relatively free societies patently deliver higher levels of wealth and happiness with lower levels of brutality and oppression. The best way for totalitarian societies to maintain morale is the hermit strategy: Cut off contact with the non-totalitarian world. But this leads to stagnation, which is only viable in the long-run if the rest of the world is stagnant as well.
From this perspective, the most dangerous political development to avoid is world government.3 A world totalitarian government could permanently ignore the trade-off between stability and openness.
How likely is the emergence of world government? Recent trends toward secession make it improbable in the immediate future. (Alesina and Spolaore 2003) At the same time, however, nominally independent countries have begun to surrender surprising amounts of sovereignty. (Barrett 2003; Wright 2000) The most striking example is the European Union. Without military conquest, the long-quarreling peoples of Western and Central Europe have moved perhaps half-way to regional government. Membership is attractive enough that many neighboring countries want to join as well. It is quite conceivable that within a century the continent of Europe will be as unified as the United States is today.
European unification also increases the probability of copycat unions in other parts of the world. For example, if the EU adopts free trade internally and protectionism externally, other nations will be tempted to create trading blocs of their own. Once economic unions take root, moreover, they are likely to gradually expand into political unions – just as the European Economic Community became the European Community. If it seems fanciful to imagine North and South America becoming a single country in one century, consider how improbable the rise of the European Community would have seemed in 1945. Once the idea of gradual peaceful unification takes root, moreover, it is easy to see how rival super-nations might eventually merge all the way to world government.
The growing belief that the world faces problems that are too big for any one country to handle also makes the emergence of world government more likely. Robert Wright (2000: 217) observes that an extraterrestrial invasion would make world government a respectable idea overnight, and argues that other, less fanciful, dangers will gradually do the same:

[T]he end of the second millennium has brought the rough equivalent of hostile extraterrestrials – not a single impending assault, but lots of new threats that, together, add up to a big planetary security problem. They range from terrorists (with their menu of increasingly spooky weapons) to a new breed of transnational criminals (many of whom will commit their crimes in that inherently transnational realm, cyberspace) to environmental problems (global warming, ozone depletion, and lots of merely regional but supranational issues) to health problems (epidemics that exploit modern thoroughfares).

So far, environmental concerns have probably gotten the most international attention. Environmentalists have argued strongly on behalf of global environmental agreements like the Kyoto Treaty, which has been ratified by much of the world. (Barrett 2003: 373-4) But environmentalists often add that even if it were ratified, it would only address one of the environment's numerous problems. A natural inference is that it is hopeless to attack environmental problems one at a time with unanimous treaties. It seems more workable to have an omnibus treaty that binds signatories to a common environmental policy. The next step would be to use economic and other pressures to force hold-outs to join. (Barrett 2003) Once a supranational "Global Environmental Protection Agency" were in place, it could eventually turn into a full-fledged political union. Indeed, since environmental policy has major implications for the economy, a world environmental agency with the power to accomplish its goals would wind up running a great deal of the traditionally domestic policy of member nations. World government would not inevitably follow, but it would become substantially more likely.
Another political risk factor for totalitarianism is the rise of radical ideologies. At least until they gain power, a tenet common to all totalitarians is that the status quo is terribly wrong and must be changed by any means necessary. For the Communists, the evil to abolish was private ownership of the means of production; for the Nazis, it was the decay and eventual extinction of the Aryan race; for totalitarian religious movements, the great evils are secularization and pluralism. Whenever large movements accept the idea that the world faces a grave danger that can only be solved with great sacrifices, the risk of totalitarianism goes up.

One disturbing implication is that there may be a trade-off between preventing totalitarianism and preventing the other "global catastrophic risks" discussed in this volume. Yes, in practice, totalitarian regimes failed to spot some major disasters until it was too late. But this fact is unlikely to deter those who purport to know that radical steps are necessary to save humanity from a particular danger. Extreme pessimism about the environment, for example, could become the rationale for a Green totalitarianism.

Of course, if humanity really is doomed without decisive action, a small probability of totalitarianism is the lesser evil. But one of the main lessons of the history of totalitarianism is that moderation and inaction are underrated. Few problems turned out to be as "intolerable" as they seemed to people at the time, and many “problems” were better than the alternative. Countries that "did nothing" about poverty during the twentieth century frequently became rich through gradual economic growth. Countries that waged "total war" on poverty frequently not only choked off economic growth, but starved.
Along these lines, one particularly scary scenario for the future is that overblown doomsday worries become the rationale for world government, paving the way for an unanticipated global catastrophe: totalitarianism. Those who call for the countries of the world to unite against threats to humanity should consider the possibility that unification itself is the greater threat.
4. Totalitarian Risk Management

Technology. Dwelling on technology-driven dystopias can make almost anyone feel like a Luddite. But in the decentralized modern world, it is extremely difficult to prevent the development of any new technology for which there is market demand. Research on the brain, genetics, and life extension all fit that description. Furthermore, all of these new technologies have enormous direct benefits. If people lived forever, stable totalitarianism would be a little more likely to emerge, but it would be madness to force everyone to die of old age in order to avert a small risk of being murdered by the secret police in a thousand years.
In my judgment, the safest approach to the new technologies I have discussed is freedom for individuals combined with heavy scrutiny for government. In the hands of individuals, new technology helps people pursue their diverse ends more effectively. In the hands of government, however, new technology risks putting us on the slippery slope to totalitarianism.
Take genetic engineering. Allowing parents to genetically engineer their children would lead to healthier, smarter, and better-looking kids. But the demand for other traits would be about as diverse as those of the parents themselves. On the other hand, genetic engineering in the hands of government is much more likely to be used to root out individuality and dissent. "Reproductive freedom" is a valuable slogan, capturing both parents' right to use new technology if they want to, and government's duty not to interfere with parents' decisions.
Critics of genetic engineering often argue that both private and government use lie on a slippery slope. In one sense, they are correct. Once we allow parents to screen for genetic defects, some will want to go further and screen for high IQ, and before you know it, parents are ordering "designer babies." Similarly, once we allow government to genetically screen out violent temperaments, it will be tempting to go further and screen for conformity. The difference between these slippery slopes, however, is where the slope ends. If parents had complete control over their babies' genetic makeup, the end result would be a healthier, smarter, better-looking version of the diverse world of today. If governments had complete control over babies' genetic makeup, the end result could easily be a population docile and conformist enough to make totalitarianism stable.
Politics. World government hardly seems like a realistic threat today. Over the course of a few centuries, however, it seems likely to gradually emerge. Nationalism prevents it from happening today, but the emerging global culture has already begun to dilute national identities. (Wright 2000) Cultural protectionism is unlikely to slow this process very much, and in any case the direct benefits of cultural competition are large. (Caplan and Cowen 2004)
In the long-run, it is better is to try to influence global culture instead of trying to fragment it. Xenophobia may be the main barrier to world government for the time being, but it is a weak argument. In fact, there would be good reasons to avoid political centralization even if the world were culturally homogeneous.
Two of the most visible reasons to preserve competition between governments are to: (1) Pressure governments to treat their citizens well in order to retain population and capital; and (2) Make it easier to figure out which policies work best by allowing different approaches to exist side-by-side. (Inman and Rubinfeld 1997) Yes, there are large benefits of international economic integration, but economic integration does not require political integration. Economists have been pointing out for decades that unilateral free trade is a viable alternative to cumbersome free trade agreements. (Irwin 1996)
Reducing the risk of totalitarianism is admittedly one of the less visible benefits of preserving inter-governmental competition. But it is an important benefit, and there are ways to make it more salient. One is to publicize the facts about totalitarian regimes. The extent of Hitler's crimes is well-known to the general public, but Lenin's, Stalin's, and Mao's are not. Another is to explain how these terrible events came to pass. Even though the risk of genocide is very small in most of the world, historians of the Holocaust have helped the world to see the connection between racial hatred and genocide. Historians could perform a similar service by highlighting the connection between political centralization and totalitarianism. Perhaps such lectures on the lessons of history would fall on deaf ears, but it is worth a try.
5. "What's Your p?"

I am an economist, and economists like to make people assign quantitative probabilities to risks. "What's your p of X?" we often ask, meaning "What probability do you assign to X happening?" The point is not that anyone has the definitive numbers. The point, rather, is that explicit probabilities clarify debate, and impose discipline on how beliefs should change as new evidence emerges. (Tetlock 2005) If a person says that two risks are both "serious," it is unclear which one he sees as the greater threat; but we can stop guessing once he assigns a probability of 2% to one and .1% to another. Similarly, if a person says that the probability of an event is 2%, and relevant new information arrives, consistency requires him to revise his probability.

How seriously do I take the possibility that a world totalitarian government will emerge during the next one thousand years and last for a thousand years or more? Despite the complexity and guesswork inherent in answering this question, I will hazard a response. My unconditional probability – i.e., the probability I assign given all the information I now have - is 5%. I am also willing to offer conditional probabilities. For example, if genetic screening for personality traits becomes cheap and accurate, but the principle of reproductive freedom prevails, my probability falls to 3%. Given the same technology with extensive government regulation, my probability rises to 10%. Similarly, if the number of independent countries on earth does not decrease during the next thousand years, my probability falls to .1%, but if the number of countries falls to 1, my probability rises to 25%.
It is obviously harder to refine my numbers than it is to refine estimates of the probability of an extinction-level asteroid impact. The regularities of social science are neither as exact nor as enduring as the regularities of physical science. But this is a poor argument for taking social disasters like totalitarianism less seriously than physical disasters like asteroids. We compare accurately-measured to inaccurately-measured things all the time. Which is worse for a scientist to lose: 1 point of IQ, or his "creative spark"? Even though IQ is measured with high accuracy, and creativity is not, loss of creativity is probably more important.
Finally, it is tempting to minimize the harm of a social disaster like totalitarianism, because it would probably not lead to human extinction. Even in Cambodia, the totalitarian regime with the highest death rate per-capita, 75% of the population remained alive after three years of rule by the Khmer Rouge. (Margolin 1999b) But perhaps an eternity of totalitarianism would be worse than extinction. It is hard to read Orwell and not to wonder:

Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy – everything... There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except for the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. (1983: 220)

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Huber, Peter. 1994. Orwell's Revenge: The 1984 Palimpsest. NY: The Free Press.
Huxley, Aldous. 1996. Brave New World. NY: Chelsea House Publishers.
Inman, Robert, and Daniel Rubinfeld. 1997. "Rethinking Federalism." Journal of Economic Perspectives 11(4): 43-64.
Irwin, Douglas. 1996. Against the Tide: An Intellectual History of Free Trade. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Malia, Martin. 1994. The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991. NY: The Free Press.
Margolin, Jean-Louis. 1999a. "China: A Long March into Night." In Courtois, Stéphane, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné. Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartošek, and Jean-Louis Margolin. 1999. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 463-546.
Margolin, Jean-Louis. 1999b. "Cambodia: The Country of Disconcerting Crimes." In Courtois, Stéphane, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné. Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartošek, and Jean-Louis Margolin. 1999. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 577-635.
Noakes, J., and Pridham, G. 2001. Nazism 1919-1945, vol. 3: Foreign Policy, War and Racial Extermination. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press.
Orwell, George. 1983. 1984. NY: Signet Classic.
Payne, Stanley. 1995. A History of Fascism 1914-1945. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. NY: Viking.
Pipes, Richard. 1994. Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. NY: Vintage Books.
Salisbury, Harrison. 1992. The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng. NY: Avon Books.
Tetlock, Philip. 2005. Expert Political Judgment: How Good is It? How Can We Know? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Werth, Nicolas. 1999. "A State Against Its People: Violence, Repression, and Terror in the Soviet Union." In Courtois, Stéphane, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné. Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartošek, and Jean-Louis Margolin. 1999. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 33-268.
Wright, Robert. 2000. Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. NY: Pantheon Books.

Recommended Readings

Becker, Jasper. 1996. Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine. NY: The Free Press. An eye-opening history of Chinese Communism's responsibility for the greatest famine in human history.

Courtois, Stéphane, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné. Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartošek, and Jean-Louis Margolin. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. The most comprehensive and up-to-date survey of the history of Communist regimes around the world.
Gregor, A. James. The Faces of Janus: Marxism and Fascism in the Twentieth Century. An excellent survey of the parallels between "left-wing" and "right-wing" totalitarianism, with an emphasis on intellectual history.
Noakes, J., and Pridham, G. 2001. Nazism 1919-1945, volumes 1-4. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press. A comprehensive study of Nazism, with insightful commentary interspersed between critical historical documents.
Orwell, George. 1984. The greatest and most insightful of the dystopian novels.
Payne, Stanley. A History of Fascism 1914-1945. A wide-ranging comparative study of Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and their numerous imitators in Europe and around the globe.


Bryan Caplan received his Ph.D. in economics in 1997 from Princeton University, and is now an Associate Professor of Economics at George Mason University. Most of his work questions the prevailing academic assumption of voter rationality. Caplan maintains, contrary to many economists and political scientists, that mistaken voter beliefs do not harmlessly balance each other out. Voters tend to err in the same direction, so democracies adopt many socially harmful policies by popular demand. Caplan's research has appeared in the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, Social Science Quarterly, and numerous other outlets. He has recently completed The Logic of Collective Belief, a book on voter irrationality. Caplan's website is at; one of its main features is the online Museum of Communism, which provides information about mass murder, slave labor, and other human rights violations committed by Communist regimes. Caplan is also a regular blogger at Econlog,

 In contrast, authoritarianism has historically been quite durable, and even today arguably remains the most common form of government.

2 Given their durability, it is not surprising that authoritarian regimes face only a highly attenuated version of this dilemma. Many authoritarian regimes provide reasonable levels of prosperity and happiness for their citizens, so exposure to the outside world is no more than mildly demoralizing. Authoritarian regimes can therefore safely allow their people enough contact with other countries to economically and scientifically keep up.

3 In correspondence, Nick Bostrom raises the possibility that the creation of a democratic world government might provide better protection against the emergence of a totalitarian world government than the status quo does. In my view, however, major moves in the direction of world government will happen either democratically or not at all. Any world government is going to begin democratically. The problem is that once a world democratic government exists, there is at least a modest probability that it becomes totalitarian, and if it does, the existence of a non-totalitarian world will no longer exist to provide a safety valve.
Bostrom (forthcoming) suggests that a technological breakthrough in something like nanotechnology or artificial intelligence might be a non-democratic route to world government. The discovering nation or bloc of nations could leverage the breakthrough to subjugate the rest of the world. In my view, though, modern communications make it highly implausible that the first mover could retain a monopoly on such a breakthrough for long enough to realign world politics.

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