Is it time for a World Government?

Is this a good time to resurrect the idea of a World Government? In these times of increasing nationalism and calls to “take back control” is it worth considering the value of the opposite approach – the value of increasing internationalism and passing control to an entity with global vision?

I have thought for a while now that we should be giving this some serious consideration, but what brought this to the front of my mind was a recent ‘Archive on 4’ programme on Radio 4 (The Dream of a World Government) in which David Miliband described first the birth and eventual failure of the League of Nations, and then the formation of the United Nations. The first of these was founded as result of the 1920 Paris Peace Conference that followed the First World War – an attempt to create an intergovernmental organisation that would prevent the recent recent horrors from occurring again. But occur again they did. So, in 1945 the League was replaced by the UN – an international organisation tasked to promote international cooperation and to create and maintain international order. I’ll leave you to judge the success of the UN, but I would suggest that any success has so far been partial, and is under increasing threat from resurgent nationalisms.

The next existential threat to humanity was not long in following, with the power of the UN again being shown to be marginal. In 1961, when the Cold War was in full swing and amidst the clear and widely held belief that a nuclear war could easily bring humanity to the brink of extinction, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell expressed his lack of faith in the ability of any national government to resolve matters. In his book Has Man a Future he argued that an international government of some kind was required to deal with the failures of national ones.

The threat of nuclear war may have retreated, but other existential threats to humans have emerged, and in many ways these are more intractable than those of nuclear war. These treats are trans-national. Whilst individual national governments can be persuaded, through economic, diplomatic or military means, to pull back from the brink, the threats facing humanity now are beyond the scope of any national government to do anything about. So whilst inter-governmental interventions could be highly effective in resolving nuclear threats, they are absolutely essential to the resolution of our current ones. Global climate change, world economic crises, global migration resulting from poverty or war, international terrorism, cyber security, and pandemics all pose existential threats to large numbers of humans, if not us all, and are all beyond the power of any national government to deal with. These threats have no respect for borders, so “taking back control of our borders” will prove futile. They can only be resolved through global cooperation, though our recognition of our global inter-dependence.

On the day I write this, Donald Trump is due to speak at the UN (the closest we have to an international government, but one made ineffective by the power of certain nations to veto any resolution). He is expected to assert yet again his motif of “America first”. Whilst this may be well received by many of his domestic supporters ahead of November’s mid-term elections, on the world stage it is deeply concerning. Whether we like it or not, all aspects of human life on this planet are highly connected and interdependent. And the complexity that is behind this interdependence is increasing daily. This needs to be acknowledged by our politicians. They are simply failing in their jobs if they fail to do so. Politicians need to be honest with the electorate, they need to tell them that certain things they want are just not possible. It is just not possible to put your own country first and to “take back control” of that country. Any national interest is best served by accepting its inter-dependence and that global cooperation is the only way forward. This needs facilitating, and perhaps even enforcing at times, by some form of world government.

On prisons

There has been a great deal of talk about prisons of late. But rather than get into a debate about who should run our prisons, the state or private enterprise, I think it worth asking why send people to prison in the first place? At the very least, prison involves the intentional infliction of some degree of suffering upon someone together with the removal of their human right to liberty and free movement. How can we morally justify such action? And how effective is it?

In very broad terms there are two main approaches to justifying punishing someone through imprisonment, a backward looking approach, one that focuses on the ‘crime’ committed, and a forward looking one that focuses on the future behaviour of the ‘criminal’.

The oldest, the most traditional approach, is that of retribution, the idea that a person committing a crime should receive their ‘just deserts’, that somehow the punishment should fit the crime, and that the criminal should suffer to the same extent as their victim. There are too many problems with this ‘an eye for an eye’ approach to punishment for me to discuss in a short blog, but, in extreme summary: at a logical level, it is difficult, if not impossible, to balance the crime with the punishment (particularly if the punishment you want to inflict is prison); and, at an ethical level, once the ‘appropriate’ degree of suffering has been inflicted, you surely have to ask ‘what has been achieved’ other than causing more suffering?

A second aspect to the backward looking approach, a more modern take on the above, is that of grievance satisfaction. This is the idea that offenders must pay their debt to society, and that the justification of the punishment lies in the satisfaction it brings to others; it satisfies the grievances of both the victim and their family, and those of the wider society. I am not convinced that this attempt to justify punishment can be sustained. The ‘satisfaction’ of knowing that someone is locked-up is surely mitigated by both the cost of doing so and the longer term harm generated by psychologically damaging the prisoner even further than they possibly already were before releasing them back into society. Having said that, I do think that some forms of ‘restorative justice’, where the offender meets their victim, understands their suffering, and attempts to ‘make amends’, can prove effective – but not through the prison system.

The forward looking approaches aim to prevent crime from happening in the future. And it’s here that a very limited justification for imprisonment can be found – and I do mean very limited. If a person is found to be a serious risk to either themselves or to other people it may be that the only option is prison – that this person is confined to some form of institution until such time when it is assessed that that risk has passed. This is the only time when I think imprisonment can be justified.

The other ‘forward looking’ justifications for imprisonment do more harm than good and, in general, make re-offending more likely. One of these justifications is that prison will act as a deterrence to future offending – that the time spent and suffering received in prison will encourage the offender either to see ‘the error of their ways’ or will be such an unpleasant experience that they will not want to suffer it again. I can’t of course say that this has never happened, but I’m convinced that the tougher the regime in prison, the greater the extent to which the prisoner has to adapt to, and survive in, life in the company of other offenders, and the greater the extent to which he (and it usually is a ‘he’) becomes an offender.

Prison, of course, if often cited as an opportunity for an offender to be rehabilitated, to receive some training or education that will improve their life on the outside and make offending less likely. Yes, training and education, together with various forms of ‘therapy’, may well be of huge benefit, but these should be done on the ‘outside’, not in the concentrated criminal atmosphere of a prison regime. With the possible exception of a few people who pose a serious risk to either themselves or others, I can see no justification at all in locking people up.

Whilst I accept that arguments can be made as to why certain offenders should suffer their loss of freedom, it is very difficult to actually rationalise just to what extent their sentence matches their crime, but worse, I think that in doing so society makes them much more likely to commit further offences in the future. If we are serious about reducing crime in this country, I suggest that we consider redirecting the money that is currently spent producing criminals in our prison system towards improving the lives of the people and their families who are largely responsible for the majority of crimes in the first place.