C. Welwood: “Decentralization of Governance as Antidote to Globalism”

I was in my late teens in the late 1990’s when the term “globalization” was being bandied about quite a bit. I fell in with a crowd of leftists as one often does at that age, and at that time the left was panicked about globalization of trade, investment and multi-lateral agreements. In Canada, this was led by the likes of Maude Barlow and her Council of Canadians as well as the big unions.

I went to Seattle in 1999 to protest the World Trade Organization because I thought it an injustice that a super-national body like that could pressure nations into writing laws that benefited multinational corporations instead of their citizens. Much of this debate between left-wing activists and their opponents in the establishment revolved around sovereignty—would it be located at the national level or at the international level in organizations like the WTO and IMF?

The simplicity of the two positions in this debate seem silly to me now but of course I was duped at the time. I believed that the Canadian government was generally in the business of passing laws that benefited regular people like me—as if passing more and more laws was a way to confer benefits to the citizens. I also unthinkingly bought into the assumption that the elected representatives actually represent the interests of regular people—as if the great diversity of opinions and preferences of people across this vast land could be represented by one person or party in some meaningful way. And I unconsciously assumed that the national government was the appropriate locus for sovereignty, rather than some smaller grouping of people or territory, such as the province, city or neighbourhood.
When I got a little older and was exposed to the ideas of anarchism in university, I began to understand the idea of sovereignty in a more holistic way. Sovereignty just means the authority to decide, and when looking for good philosophical reasons why as a mentally-competent adult, others should have the right to rule over me, I couldn’t find any. Sure, there may be pragmatic or utilitarian reasons why sovereignty should rest at some level above the individual, but certainly individuals should have some choice in which government’s laws they’re bound to?
And as a libertarian, this is my main beef with globalism. It’s not that there may be a particular ethnic or religious group of people driving the globalist agenda. It’s not that some of the individuals championing globalism seem particularly evil. It’s that if they get their way, you and I will have nowhere to run. The current situation is less than ideal in that you’re bound by the laws of the country you’re born into (no matter how oppressive) until you can amass enough wealth to immigrate to better one. But at least there’s an out! Under a system of world government, all movement between countries would avail you of is a different climate and linguistic environment.
What we currently have in the realm of governance is progress by central planning. The idea seems to be that the elites get together and decide what’s best for themselves and then come up with ways to force these schemes on the rest of us. Ideas that are fashionable among elites get pushed to the top of the agenda at conferences of world leaders, and those that aren’t don’t get any airtime.
But what if, rather than being a top-down driven process, governance was able to evolve from the bottom up? There was a period in history, between the invention of trans-Atlantic transport and continental railways, when there was competition between jurisdictions of governance. I’m thinking mainly here of North America in the 17th to 19th centuries, but it applies to other parts of the world as well. For European colonists in the new world, the limited state infrastructure from their home countries meant that they had to experiment with new forms of governance in order to settle disputes, limit crime and protect against external threats. One of the first experiments the Virginia colonists undertook was socialism in food distribution. All the colonists were required to put their grain in the colony’s communal store-house, which all would be fed from. It was a complete disaster, and a large share of the colonists succumbed to starvation over a couple winters until the experiment was cancelled in favour of a system of private property and voluntary exchange, which allowed the colony to thrive.
Because of the limited communications technology at the time, this meant in practice that governance was almost entirely a local affair. And the low population densities meant that disputes on how one community should be governed could be settled by one group deciding to pick up stakes and form their own village somewhere else.
There was also a prevalent idea at that time that it was the job of government to perform just a handful of services that could not feasibly be performed in a voluntary way: a military to defend against foreign bad guys, police to catch local bad guys, and courts to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. It was understood that it was legitimate to take taxes from citizens for these services because everyone benefits from these services to defend their life, liberty and property rights even though they might not all be willing to pay for them voluntarily.  Other things a government might do through its power to make laws and compel citizens to pay for their administration, such as subsidies to help a particular industry, were typically seen as illegitimate functions because they amounted to robbing Peter to pay Paul. At this time, when most of the population were subsistence farmers, even a 10% tax could mean the difference between being able feed all the kids and being able to feed only some of them. It was clear to these people that their sustenance (or starvation) was through their own hard work and the grace of god, and that the state would not be there to help them out if their crops failed or disease struck.
But with the advent of railways and the telegraph and other technologies, people began to move away from the subsistence economy (which was a good thing) and into cities. The state was able to use these communication technologies to extend its power across much greater distances, but it was also a very fluid time of internal migration as well as immigration from overseas, and this resulted in competition between cities and neighbourhoods. Unlike today’s cities which are locked down in decades’ worth of land-use regulations, the urbanization taking place 150 years ago was very fluid, and people went where economic opportunities were. But if a family found the police too rough, the taxes too high, or the drinking water too dirty, they could move to another city. Today’s cities are organized down to the finest detail by people who went to the same urban planning programs at the same universities, so moving from one North American city to another of the same size may mean a change in accents and local cuisine but not much in terms of governance. You’ll still have to pay tax based on the assessed value of your real estate, you’ll still have to get a certified architect to design your house because of the complexity of the local building code, and chances are your kids will end up going to a public school that teaches the same stuff in the same way as wherever you moved from.
So whether we’re talking about the corporate globalists who want to turn every small town Main Street into suburban strip malls, or environmentalist globalists who think they’ve figured out the right solution to climate change and want make everyone adopt it, or neo-conservative globalists that want to preserve their military hegemony, all globalism is folly because it seeks to crush bottom-up evolution in favour of top down planning. Our world is too complex for that, and just like great empires, top-down schemes always fail in time because they become too big and inflexible to adapt.
What’s the antidote to globalism?
Well it’s not nationalism, if by that you mean closing the borders, restricting trade, and backing out of all international agreements. That’s a recipe for  dictators and poverty. Globalization of trade, communications, and technologies has improved the lot of humanity hugely, especially the poor in the developing world. It’s the great news story of the past 25 years that you never hear on the news–that the poorest people in the world are being lifted out of poverty at an incredible rate thanks to global capitalism.
Is the solution to globalism then local democracy? Certainly, moving government power from the national to the local level is a step in the right direction, but I don’t think it’s a cure-all. The town-hall meetings of early New England may have worked ok among the relatively homogeneous participants of that day, but I don’t see it working too well in cosmopolitan places like Vancouver.
OK then we need a white enthno-state, say the hard alt-righters. No we don’t. Just because you share a skin colour with someone doesn’t mean you automatically share their political values. Besides, what are you going to do, kick out the First Nations people? The idea is laughable.
The problem with democracy is that it’s rule of the majority over the minority. And the smaller the minority, the more oppressed they can be. When you break it down, who’s the smallest minority of all? The individual of course! So we need a system that protects the rights of individuals. This is done by limiting the power of government, and democratically electing the leaders is simply the least worst way we’ve come up with doing that, so far.
But the promise of globalization is that it becomes easier for people to be mobile. If you’re hooked into a global communications network that allows you to keep in touch with friends any family wherever they are; if you have access to transportation that can get you from one part of the globe to another in hours or minutes; if you’re able to privately store and access your wealth in distributed ledgers on computer nodes around the world; and if you have instant access via a mobile device to a colossal repository of knowledge, added to every minute by contributors everywhere; then you’re in a pretty good negotiating position vis a vis a group of people that says “you must stay within these imaginary lines on a map unless we give you permission” and “you must hold your wealth in this currency we’ve created and control” and “we have a claim on your income, and if you don’t hand over the proportion of it we say we need, then we’ll lock you in cage.”
We’re getting a raw deal actually. In fact, we’re not even getting a deal (which implies consent), because we never consented to any of these rules. And because of that, as soon as people have a better option than the nation-state of their birth, they’ll start to leave. The prospect of living in a community that won’t strip their rights if the majority of their neighbours vote to do so will become very attractive. As will the possibility of having choice in the public services they use. As will the peace of mind of knowing they’re not being spied on by those charged with protecting them.
When large numbers of people can choose the jurisdictions under which they are governed, this will lead to healthy competition between jurisdictions. Instead of treating citizens as cattle to be corralled and milked, they’ll treat them more like hummingbirds trying to attract them with the nectar. This will keep tyranny in check, allow individuals greater freedom, encourage prosperity, and lead to new and better ways of governing.  Separtist movements, start-up societies, free-man-on-the-land movements, seasteading projects, and crypto currencies are some of the manifestations of the dissatisfaction with the current nation-state system and the search for more voluntary ways of organizing our affairs in concert with others. I’m excited to see what the rest of the 21st century brings. There’s a good chance the trend towards consolidating power at the international level will reverse in favour a decentralized future.