What is wrong with the idea of a world state? John Rawls, the world's most celebrated living political philosopher, believes that the answer is relatively straightforward. 'I follow Kant's lead in Perpetual Peace,' he writes, 'in thinking that a world government - by which I mean a unified political regime with the legal powers normally exercised by central government - would either be a global despotism or else would rule over a fragile empire torn by frequent civil strife as various regions and peoples tried to gain their political freedom and autonomy.' Which is to say: size matters. Or, as Kant wrote, 'laws always lose in vigour what governments gain in extent; hence a condition of sullen despotism falls into anarchy after stifling the seeds of good.' This is a refrain which sounds somewhere in the background of most thinking about politics: states should not be allowed to get too big. There will come a point at which the distended state, if it is to hold itself together, must stifle freedom, or, if it is to allow freedom to flourish, must collapse. Supertankers, supermodels and even superpowers can be good. But superstates are invariably bad.
LRB 19 July 2001 | PDF Download