Brown’s Global Parliament: Scary Proposition

Bob Brown’s call for a global parliament isn’t crazy. That’s the problem.
Speaking at the National Press Club in late June, the Greens leader asked “Why shouldn’t we now join vigorous moves in Europe and at the United Nations for a global people’s assembly based on one person, one vote, one value?”
Brown gave this future parliament a wide range of responsibilities – from financial policy to defence to wealth redistribution and third world development.
He’s hardly alone. Woodrow Wilson, Jeremy Bentham, H.G. Wells, and Albert Einstein all proclaimed their desire for a parliament of the world. Nominal conservatives too: in 1947, Winston Churchill claimed “unless some effective world super-government can be set up and brought into action, the prospects for peace and human progress are dark and doubtful.”
Sure, there are lots of reasons why a future world parliament is unlikely; reasons which were quickly cited after Brown’s speech. (And one wonders why he chose to explore this fantasy in a major forum just days before the Greens took the Senate.)
But to understand why a world parliament is undesirable, we have to ask why the Greens leader would want a world parliament in the first place.
Such a parliament would not be a forum for diplomacy. We already have one of those. Instead, its purpose would be to impose binding legislation on every corner of the globe.
A carbon price enacted by a global parliament would remove the potential for firms to simply shift across national borders to avoid the cost increases. And the parliament would be able to impose a “Robin Hood” tax without fear that finance simply goes elsewhere. There would be nowhere else to go.
But Brown might discover such a parliament might pass laws he doesn’t like. One cannot assume a global legislative structure will always share the policy preferences of a minor antipodean political party.
And whatever legislation it did pass would be binding for the entire world, no matter how misguided or illiberal.
It should be needless to say, but there are advantages having lots of jurisdictions – countries, states, provinces – with lots of different legislative bodies.
We frequently look to other countries for policy ideas to adopt. Or avoid.
A few weeks ago I argued the only reason gay and lesbian people in New York are now able to marry is because legal power over marriage is held by New York State, not Washington DC. A small jurisdiction is able to be more progressive than a large one.
A global parliament – with an inevitably expanding mandate – would slowly erode the possibility of policy experimentation.
(This is an expanded version of the Australian argument between those who would like Canberra to assume more power and those who think decentralised government is better government.)
The idea that democratic power should be as close to the people it governs is an old one.
A global parliament is one of the most liberty-threatening proposals ever suggested by a mainstream Australian politician.
The most important and most undervalued insight of liberal philosophy is the concept of “exit”.
David Hume said “every man ought to be supposed a knave”. We ought to suppose governments, parliaments, corporations, societies, and communities are knaves as well. Through brute force or just subtle social coercion, each can oppress us, limit our individual freedom, or just make life tougher than it should be. Not that they always will. But that they could.
So our most important freedom is freedom of exit. People should be able to escape the clutches of one group, if they have to, and move to a more desirable one.
In a competitive marketplace, this means shifting from one firm to another if we’re unhappy with their service – or starting a competing firm. And in the social sphere, it means having the freedom to build our own relationships and communities.
If a government is oppressive – if it taxes too much, if it limits our civil liberties, if it provides insufficient protection or quality services – we’re stuck. Democracy is little comfort to those suffering under the tyranny of the majority.
Yet we still have a limited, emergency power of exit – we can emigrate. If we don’t like a new law, we can move to another jurisdiction.
So exit still restrains government. If government gets too coercive or unreasonable, people and businesses will leave.
When the British government imposed its income “supertax” – levied at a whopping 95 per cent – high earners like the Rolling Stones jumped ship.
Even if freedom of exit is rarely exercised, its possibility is a vital check on government power.
The purpose of a world parliament is to eliminate the possibility of exit. You couldn’t migrate away from the parliament’s jurisdiction. No matter how onerous its laws.
That’s what makes it so appealing to those who want to expand the power of the state.
And that’s what makes a global parliament such a scary proposition to those who do not believe legislative power is always benevolent.