Progressivism and the Nation-State

Tyler Cowen’s characteristically generous description of progressivism describes me pretty well, especially point three (“Determinism holds and tales of capitalist meritocracy are an illusion”). But I would be interested in seeing more discussion among liberals of point eight:

We should support free trade, more immigration, and more foreign aid, but the nation-state will remain the fundamental locus for redistribution. That means helping the poor at home more than abroad; a decision to do otherwise would destroy political equilibrium and make everyone worse off.

See, I agree with this as far as it goes. If instead of proposing spending one trillion dollars over ten years on universal health care for Americans, Congressional Democrats were debating spending that money on foreign aid, they would have no hope as a viable political movement. I’ve accepted that putting together a domestic welfare state is the most utility-enhancing thing we can do within current political constraints, and so onward we charge.

But I’m also convinced that this is a far from ideal situation. What would be ideal is a world sovereign with the power to redistribute globally. Obviously, a federal system wherein nation-states retained some power akin to that of American states would be required as a check against tyranny, but if some institution were able to redistribute massive amounts of American, European, Japanese, etc. money to development projects Africa, Southeast Asia, etc., we’d be doing a whole lot better. Sure, a lot of it would go to corrupt local regimes, but (1) a federal sovereign with its own ability to prosecute criminals would be able to keep that in check better than the current regime and (2) surely if one redistributes a truly huge amount of money, enough of it will get to the impoverished to substantially improve their welfare, get them spending and thus get the economy growing, even if corruption gobbles up a decent chunk of it. Of course, having a global sovereign would have all kinds of other salutary impacts (easier international coordination, fewer wars, global unionization, etc.) but redistribution is enough reason for a world state on its own.

Now, this is somewhat similar to a debate that has occurred within academic global justice circles, with Peter Singer taking something close to my view and Thomas Scanlon, among others, responding, and David Miller and John Rawls have defended varying levels of national bias in redistribution. That debate was slightly different, in that Singer was arguing that in our presently existing world it’s morally incumbent to donate to Oxfam or UNICEF, which I’m considerably more skeptical of than he is, and there are fewer references to a world state than I’d like. But regardless, there’s a pretty good literature that’s very relevant to the question of what the ideal level global economic redistribution would be.

In any case, there really ought to be more debate on this within non-academic circles. While a world state isn’t politically viable now, I could see it happening (and certainly hope it happens) before the century is out, and there are concrete things we should be doing (coalescing current institutions, making them more democratically accountable, giving them real sovereign powers, creating a UN standing army, etc.), which have real support around the world, that would help lead to one. If we’re going to have any energy behind those steps, people need to start at least talking about this as a pathway we can embark upon.

3 thoughts on “Progressivism and the Nation-State

  1. I agree completely, even with Cowen’s points about free trade (anathema to much of the left).
    It is interesting to me how much this all sounds like Bill Clinton’s platform circa 1992 (and not coincidentally rhymes with Obama’s 2008 campaign themes).
    I agree that some day we should work towards a world government, but in order for it to be functionally democratic (or functional at all), we need to drastically raise living standards for everyone. But getting there is really hard. It is difficult to be hopeful about that when we can’t even give all Americans a basic level of security. IMO, Getting to a national healthcare system here at home would be a big first step toward these goals.
    But on a larger scale, we need to make sure that we can continue to disprove Malthus. If we can’t, then there need to be lots of suffering people in the world to maintain our standard of living here at the top. My hope is that freer trade and immigration standards can make that more possible, more quickly.

  2. You should take a look at Amartya Sen’s new book, The Idea of Justice. It is Sen’s first comprehensive account of his critique of Rawls, his mentor. He argues that global justice does not require a global government, for too many reasons to list here. On your side of the argument, some of the most persuasive advocacy for the necessity of a global government to dispense global justice comes from the philosopher Thomas Nagel.

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