Bryan Caplan  

What the Future Holds

Wisdom from the Great Depressi... Bernie Saffran Memorial Confer...

Nick Bostrom and Milan Ćirković asked me to write a chapter for their edited volume on Global Catastrophic Risks. Most of the other contributors are natural scientists who consider the risks of things like asteroids, nanotech, and nuclear war. But the book will have a few essays by social scientists as well. Mine explores the possibility of the future emergence of a stable totalitarian world order. Highlights:

The best thing one can say about totalitarian regimes is that the main ones did not last very long. 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 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.

My punchline:

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.

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The author at Biopolitical in a related article titled Fighting poverty writes:
    I am a big fan of Bryan Caplan. It is a pitty that he holds some weird, I would say stevenpinkerish, ideas about genetics. But I like what he writes about many other topics. I like this, for example: [Tracked on October 22, 2005 3:21 PM]
COMMENTS (11 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

There's a worldwide trend toward dynasticism, especially in the "emerging" democracies of Southern Asia, but also in the U.S., where it's quite possible that just two families, the Bushes and Clintons, will control the White House for 28 years straight, from 1989 to 2017.

The problem with dynasticism has always been regression toward the mean as the offspring of the dynamic founder of the dynasty turn out to be less formidable than the orginal. Advances in human cloning, however, might get around that problem.

You can read all about it in my National Post article on dynasticism at:

Lancelot Finn writes:

A reminder of the sense in which mortality is a mercy: it puts a limit on how much evil a person can do.

Whether or not there is some way for totalitarians to solve the problem of succession, this is a reminder of one of the great virtues of democracy: we're really good at succession.

If you think about the Republican field for '08, for example, some of the top contenders, like Giuliani, McCain, and Condi Rice, are notable precisely because of the ways they go against the grain in some respect. Giuliani's zero-tolerance policy; McCain's breaking with the Republicans on all sorts of issues; Rice defying her demographic to rise through the Republican party. It is by not being just apparatchiks that they are able to gain national stature.

Democracy, with its internal diversity, can not just continue, but renew itself from within, and evolve. This will be hard for totalitarians to replicate.

James writes:

I'm not worried. Even with the succession problem out of the way, totalitarianism would only be sustainable if it were possible for a government to convince a vast majority of the public that the behavior of the state's agents should not be judged by the same moral standards used to judge the behavior of everyone else. Oh wait...

Tim Worstall writes:

Hope you used the example of Water Empires? Great sci-fi book (Niven? Pournelle?) where they explore this idea. With no outside factors to push change certain totalitarian states have existed for very long periods of time (some thousands in the case of Egypt) and a world government would suffer from the same problem. Who would know what to compare it with? Where to find the example of something different or better?

Biopolitical writes:

Bryan, I recommend you this book:
Falconer, D.S. and Mackay, T.F.C. 1996. Introduction to Quantitative Genetics. Longman, New York. 464 pp.
In the case you discuss, genetic engineering looks very improbable, but the success of selective breeding is completely out of the question.

Herb Kahler writes:

If world government is ultimately inevitable, and if it evolves willy-nilly, thru the happenstance of coercive world events and the relative strength of one nation or group of nations, then it is likely to arise as some sort of empire or colonial structure favoring one group, probably a minority, over others. Not generally representative, not democratic; possibly totalitarian. (Most mentions of a world government or single world order seem to assume, in fact, that it will be a totalitarian super-state that controls too much of our lives.) Then, if this totalitarian order learns how to succeed itself intelligently, we earthlings and our progeny are in for a permanent aristocracy, or at least one lasting as long as Egypt or Rome, which ruled the known worlds of their day.

Thus a world order arrived at willy-nilly is not to be desired except by those who think they and their children will be in the privileged minority who emerge as the ruling class. For all the rest of us earthlings, a political arrangement so evolved is a thing to be dreaded.

The only hope, therefore (since some sort of single world order is ultimately inevitable), is a world government arrived at by plan, by a blueprint representing the wishes of a majority of us, arrived at and installed democratically. It would have to be a world government controlled by us all, through time, via constitutional designation and restraint of powers, with built-in protection of the minority from excesses of the majority.

Such a planned world order would not be a thing to dread, but a future to hope for. In addition to being our only defense against the otherwise inevitable evolution of a totalitarian world, it could be a desirable world without war, with the means to settle disputes among nations justly and peacefully, and to distribute the fruits of our bountiful planet more fairly among us earth dwellers.

(As an aside, I must stress that the U.N. is definitely NOT such an organization, nor can it ever be transmogrified into one, because it is not by any stretch of the imagination representative of the majority of earthlings, and because it lacks the power to enforce those few resolutions it does manage to get past the unanimous approval of the privileged five states -- the victors of World War II -- that established it in the first place.)

It seems sensible, then, that the specific form of a planned world government is a thing we should be debating rationally, so that we can come up with a world constitution that would be acceptable to us all.

James writes:


What would stop your ideal global democracy by plan from evolving willy-nilly into a totalitarian world government? Many countries have pieces of paper that say "Politician, limit your own power. Majority, don't abuse minorities, etc." We can observe how readily governments disregard these pieces of paper today. I can only imagine how much more readily government officials would disregard limitations on their powers if their subjects had no exit option.

Herb Kahler writes:


Two things would tend to lessen a planned global democracy's evolving willy-nilly into a totalitarian regime whose subjects had no exit option (that is,had no alternative, competing governments with strength enough to intervene or to serve as refugee havens). (1) That piece of paper, if properly done, would have set up institutions with sufficiently balanced internal powers to at least hamper a potential despot's ability to overturn them. (2) That very lack of alternative competing governments would deprive our potential despot the excuse he needs to acquire extraordinary powers: an external enemy. Hitler could blame Germany's sorry condition on excessive reparations imposed from without; Chavez and Castro can point to the US bogeyman; the Axis of Evil have G.W.Bush as their villain; and most terrorist supporters resent the presence of U.S. military forces in their countries, protecting U.S. 'interests' there. In the opposite direction, the Bush/Cheney-Blair-Howard point of view justify acquiring extraordinary powers in order to combat outside terrorist forces poised to harm us. Since a truly global federation would have no established military that the would-be despot could corrupt to his advantage, his ability to force his way to further power would be somewhat less (although there would be police forces at the various levels of government).

It could be done, of course: a totalitarian global government could possibly emerge. But it would be less likely to happen under a planned constitutional order, properly transitioned, than if we had set up nothing in advance and let the present international anarchy prevail and gradually stumble its way into some sort of empire of the stronger. Take your choice.

gary lammert writes:

While this is but a blink of the eye in terms of man's time on earth, the end of a 147 year economic cycle has some relevance with regards to what may immediately lie ahead for the global macroeconomy... the current fractal perspective.....

Google's Telltale EEG (Exclamation Exhaustion Gap) Spike Near
The Very End Of The Composite Market Second Decay Fractal

It is fitting that the current three year 30/75/60 weekly
fractal growth series, echoing in a smaller valuation manner, the
great fractal progression from October 1998 to March 2000's
sixty-eight year Wilshire high should end with an exhaustion gap of
Google, the dominant high tech software company.

The exhaustion upped Google's PE ratio from 74 to 75. Google is a
remarkable reference source. However, its collective innovations and
the real utilities of those innovations for the global economy, like
so much of the earlier tech stocks, are probably overestimated and
overvalued. Its PE ratio of 75 with linear projections for even
greater PE ratios and a technically very telling exhaustion gap to
new highs this last Friday occurred in the setting of a lower high
and saturated current composite market. This is an aged and decrepit
market that is already near the end of its second decay fractal and
one that is being propelled by the afterburners and nearly exhausted
fumes that represent the present historically cash poor mutual funds.
This set of circumstances should be Deja Vu satori for those
individuals and mutual fund managers who suffered 50 percent loses in
the 2000 high PE high tech market. In 2000 alone Yahoo lost over 90
percent of its market value in 12 trading months.

The Wilshire 5000 equity valuation is ultimately and primarily fueled
by the debt creation of the American consumer who in turn is
dependent on American wages. The Wilshire remains the global bell
weather equity composite index. The total cumulative value of the rest
of the world equities roughly equals the value of the Wilshire 5000.
The elusive but solvable solution for the Wilshire's primary fractal
decay pattern will retrospectively be very simple. While the
macroeconomy is complex, the summation equity valuation product and
patterns are not. Equity valuations grow and decay and otherwise
generally 'travel' in non complex maximally efficient fractals.

In the 1929 primary devolution, the DJIA first fractal decay base of
11 days was determined by a preceding rising base sequence of 4 plus
days. The 1929 high was contained in the second decay fractal of 27
days, which was then followed by an additional third decay fractal of
27 days in the three fractal decay pattern of x/2.5x/2.5x: 11/27/27
days. For the primary 2005 devolution the first fractal decay base
appears to follow a 9 day plus rising antecedent base. Inductively
and extrapolating from the 1929 data, albeit with a single pattern for
extrapolation, a 23-24 day fractal sequence including the 3 August
high appears to be the defining first fractal base of what will likely
be an efficient nonlinear equity asset destructive devolution that
will echo the 1858-1932 Second Grand Fractal first sub fractal.

The market equity valuations will grow only as long as growing money
or credit is available for its support. At equity top saturation
asymptotes smart money exits the equities and flows into debt
instruments driving down interest rates. The debt market likewise
travels in rather precise growth and decay fractals as investors,
during a growth cycle compete and bid the instruments up, driving
interest rates lower, and, thereafter, either exit the debt market or
invest less when the interest rates are too low relative to other
investment opportunities. This drives interest rates higher. In this
way the debt market competes with the equity market for available

Friday 21 October 2005 was a generally unrecognized turning point for
the composite Wilshire. Aside from Google's telltale exhaustion gap,
two other important fractal developments occurred. The first was a
completion of a 9/22-23/22-23 hourly maximal growth fractal:
x/2.5x/2.5x for the Wilshire. Qualitative technicians and chartists would
recognize this as a wedge formation. Even in a primary decay pattern
there is integration of available money into elegant maximal growth
growth fractals with small time units.

The other telltale occurrence was the completion of a three phase
growth fractal for the ten year note TNX and 30 year bond TYX. The
daily debt market growth fractal count is 18-19/47-48/36-37. On Friday
21 October investors actively competed for bonds and notes and money
flowed into TNX and TYX, lowering interest rates. This money at
least in part flowed from the cash strapped equity money pool.
Compare the debt market's TNX and TYX valuation pattern from December
1996- October1998 with a superimposed and nearly identical sequence
from June 2003 until present. Similar nodal patterns of money flows
between debt and equities are repeating. Examine the fractal nodal
low points dating from December 1996 going into October 1998. The last
few months before October 1998 money rapidly exited equities and
entered the debt market - dramatically lowering interest rates. That
same dramatic pre October 1998 money exit from equities and flow into
debt instruments will either be starting in a few days ... or already
began on 21 October.

The primary low is anticipated in about 40-55 trading days consistent
with previous estimations. The current best estimation for the primary
decay fractal pattern starts on July 7, 2005 for a 23-24/54 of
57-59/57-59 day sequence. The current pattern rhymes with the 1929
scenario. Using the simplest scenario, the primary low would occur in
4-5 plus 58 days or about 61-62 days. However, the terminal portion of the third
and last 58-59 decay day fractal sequence is expected to form a base for
the next sequence in a probable multimonthly growth sequence that will
result in a cascading series of growth fractals with lower highs and ending
in lower lows. With regards to the primary devolution a Fibonacci relationship
with the 23-24 day first fractal base beginning 7 July 2000 would result in a
primary low in 37-40 days of this final 58 day decay sequence.
The minimal time interval to a primary low using the Fibonacci relationship
would be 4-5 more days (54 of 58-59) plus 37 days equalling 40 days subtracting
one day for double counting. A lower low is possible within the final 22 days of the 37
of 58 day final decay fractal sequence.

The current best estimation of the inverse grow of decay fractal is 15
of 15/ 38/ 15-24.

Expect nonlinearity. Gary Lammert

James writes:


You write "It could be done, of course: a totalitarian global government could possibly emerge. But it would be less likely to happen under a planned constitutional order, properly transitioned, than if we had set up nothing in advance and let the present international anarchy prevail and gradually stumble its way into some sort of empire of the stronger. Take your choice."

I choose to disregard your assertion about the conditional probability of global dictatorship on planning until you show me the data you used to calculate.

If the options are limited to the two that you mention, planned world government or unplanned world government, I don't care to make any a priori assumptions as to which will go sour first, so I see both as equally bad. That leaves me with a small preference for an unplanned world government since it would take longer before it came to be and I'd probably not live to see it. But your dilemma seems like a false one.

Call me a dreamer but I favor a third outcome, a gradual change in moral attitudes so that people will get it out of their heads that governments are entitled to some kind of moral holiday. Just imagine, a brave new world where people react to initiating a war, to the establishment of a cartel by violently barring entry to an industry, to funding one's activities through theft, to printing money in order to obscure one's operating costs, etc, in the same way every time whether the agency doing the destructive behavior is a government, a corporation or a bowling league. Any plan to establish a global government would have to be based on a tacit acceptance of the idea that these destructive activities are destructive only when the doer is not a government. I see no reason to make the exception.

Roger McKinney writes:

A longer view of history shows that democracies are fragile. Look at ancient Greek and Roman ones. In early modern Europe, before absolutism, parliaments had sprung up in France and Spain, but anarchy caused people to surrender their newly won power to a monarch who could guarantee security. Nazism came to power partly because of the chaos of the twenties and thirties in Germany.

So here's another way that totalitarianism can take over: Increasing levels of anarchy cause the people to willingly surrender freedom in exchange for relief from the chaos and crime, most of which the future dictators had instigated. Once in power, dictators ignore the law, or install judges who interpret the law in their favor, murder and jail opponents. They're difficult to dislodge.

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