As international bodies gather power unto themselves to solve imaginary problems, the future of national sovereignty is threatened
by Kenneth Minogue
The story is told of how Charles II, back in the 1660s presented to the Royal Academy an interesting problem: why does a dead fish weigh more than a living one? the scientists thought long and hard about this problem, coming up withmany ingenious solutions. The actual solution lay in a different area altogether: the initial premise was wrong. Dead fish dont weigh more than living ones. There was no problem to begin with.
This abstract idea needs a concrete focus, and I shall take mine from a paper put out by the UN Committee on Natural Resources -- CNR to its friends, of whom, given its prose style, it cant have many. CNR belongs to a world of acronyms so powerful that we might well posit as their homeland the greatest power in the world of ideas: ACRONYMIA. The CNR is an expert committee of 24 members. Its mandate was formally approved by ECOSOC (UN Economic and Social Council) in July 1992 -- basing itself on earlier resolutions going back into the mists of bureaucratic time.
CNR believes that the issue of the supply of minerals ought to be considered as a part of an integrated approach to the planning and management of land resources. In pursuance of this approach, it offers to those who mine metals -- let us call them metalkind -- an overall global partnership for sustainable development. Offers of partnership here resemble the Mafias offers of protection: devices for forcing yourself into the act.
Decisions on sustainable development must, we learn, be based on the best possible information, and then follows this eye-catching sentence: The kind of holistic and global view that is necessary is not readily acquired by individual enterprises and countries. This leads immediately to a conclusion: The Committee therefore believes that the UN (alias the Committee itself!) has a critical role to play in coordinating and integrating information on key issues on a global scale. The Committee is going to provide the new global links to improve the basis for global management strategies integrating environmental and development concerns.
The art of diplomacy was once described as saying Nice doggie while searching for a big stick. Nice doggie in this document is soothing talk of planning, integration, coordination, and partnership. Self-defense, on the other hand, is locating the stick -- often a slim twig that will soon grow into a big stick. In this case, the twig is the simple sentence that metalkind (and nationkind) are incapable of acquiring the kind of holistic and global view that is necessary. Only an international committee of experts can do that. I am reminded of a cartoon character who remarks to the drunk: What we all admire is the way you have acquired megalomania without losing common touch.
The UN project, then, is to find a solution to one big problem, and it is this style of thought -- instrumental rationality it is often called -- which we must consider. Solving problems is of course, often a sensible thing to do. But earlier civilizations were parsimonious in construing the world as a nest of problems. Some things, they thought, just had to be endured. And sometimes even moderns like us feel that way. Back in the 1950s, the days of Dr. Dichter the great market psychologist, men and women were surveyed about what they most disliked in life. Men said shaving, women said menstruation. They were then offered an (as it turned out) imaginary pill which could dispense these problematic inconveniences. Most rejected the offer. This response, like the dead fish, is a parable about the human condition.
A great deal of salesmanship, alias propaganda, consists in persuading people that they have a terrible problem which only the propagandist can solve. Hitler on Jews, or Marx on the bourgeoisie, persuaded many to believe in a dead-fish problem. But there are many other forms of the dead-fish problem. Unemployment for example, poses a famous rationality problem because our natural response to it is to say: how absurd that many of able bodied people should be sitting around idle when there are so many important things (renewing the infrastructure, etc.) that need to be done. When the question is posed in this way, the natural solution is to use the powers of government to create a natural labor force. That way leads to central planning of the economy. It is a perfect case where abstract instrumental rationality takes a lot of small problems and creates one great big disaster.
That example gives us a clue to the many dangerous assumptions concealed in our natural instinct for collectively instrumentally rational solutions to grand problems. We should be particularly critical of the assumption that small problems agglomerate together into One Big problem which requires One Big solution and consequently, One Big Solver. And what is clearly assumed in the bid for international regulation of metalkind is that the One Big Solver must have the power to impose a solution. Concealed beneath the euphemistic language is a doctrine quite explicit in many reports with an environmental slant: The very essence of global governance is the capability to ensure compliance.
The inventor of the One Big solution to the One Big Problem was the philosopher Plato, who imagined humanity trapped in a cave of shadowy illusions. Salvation could only come from the philosopher-king who had emerged from the cave and seen what things looked like in the sunlight. The test of understanding was reality; the difficulty was that the only person who could test whether the philosopher was actually in contact with reality was -- well, the philosopher himself. The philosopher-king solution, when transferred to politics, ends up with that most vacuous of political demands: put your trust in me.
With the Committee on Natural Resources we have something only marginally different from Plato: the philosopher committee has replaced the philosopher-king. And instead of Platos subtle theory of ideas, we have the best possible information to provide the information links that will in turn provide the basis for global management strategies integrating environmental and development concerns.
Or will it? It is not easy to sustain a questioning frame of mind when reading words which are bureaucratically exciting but intellectually void. In construing the meaning of this argument, I might take as my text a remark by an American Deputy Secretary of State for Environment. His name is Tim Wirth and, when a Senator, he made a striking comment which comes from the heart of the internationalist movement:
What weve got to do in energy . . . is . . . ride the global warming issue. . . . Even if the theory is wrong . . . (it) means doing the right thing . . . in terms of economic policy and environmental policy.
Here is a dramatic illustration of my argument that any problem-solution nexus of argument must be treated with extreme suspicion. What is here revealed is a powerful moral drive riding on a theory whose very truth and reliability is relegated to a secondary place. So much for that best possible information.
There is, in fact, nothing like the cynicism of the well-intentioned. Thus Stephen Schneider of the National Center of Atmospheric Research in Colorado comments on global warming:
. . . we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements and make little mention of doubts we might have . . . . Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.
It was George Orwell who warned us that vague and pompous language could conceal specific and unpompous political ambitions. But leaving language aside, and leaving aside also the fact that for many internationalists the actual truth of the theory is a secondary issue, we as rational critics must consider the logical question of what such a committee might actually be in a position to know. One striking example can be found even in the memorandum of the CNR. In looking to what it calls the horizon of sustainability the Committee measures Demonstrated Economic Resources (p. 3). To know the unknowable is a cute trick, but by no means the cutest in this field.
It might seem that I am being merely pedantic, a bit carping, in treating the Committee proposal in this way. For surely, it will be said, we are dealing with a real problem here. Is it not unjust that rich Western countries gobble up more that their share of scarce minerals -- ought not metalkind think more of mankind? And do we really want to leave our children a planet looking like an old abandoned mine shaft?
While the point of this rhetoric is to create a stirring sense of urgency in the listener, it cannot obscure the serious question, namely: do we have the knowledge available to solve this problem? Does it not raise very large questions of politics which will lead to major conflicts? And if we push our question even further we might ask: Are we not dealing with another of those dead-fish questions?
Such questions are neither frivolous nor pedantic. As Dipak Lal has pointed out, acid rain, the nuclear winter and oil fires of Kuwait have all had their moment of glory as global problems and disappeared from sight. We in the West love to have our bowels chilled by tales of imminent catastrophe. Men telling about the end of the world used to operate from pulpits, or go about in sandwich boards. Today they work from the Lab, and instead of recommending prayer, they demand an international committee and urgent action. And as for future generations -- well, one cannot but wonder at the selfishness of the British Admiralty at the turn of the nineteenth century in cutting down all those oak trees to build ships to protect them against Napoleon, when they should have been conserving oak forests for ship building in the twenty-first century. There is at least one highly significant affinity between environmental activists and Communists of yesteryear: both are dependent for their assumptions upon existing -- usually an already outmoded-technology.
Some of you may remember the cartoon figure of Mr. Magoo, whose myopia never interfered with his confident sense of his own infallibility. He was forever walking along the edges of precipices under the illusion that it was the center of the road; he was the classic searcher for a gas leak with a lighted taper. Observing the marvelous combination of confidence and ignorance in the proposals of inter-national regulatory committees, the figure of Magoo is never far frommy mind. As Alice remarked in another cartoon: Dont just do something. Stand there.
Immobilism is not, of course, a particularly heroic policy, nor is it quite what I am advocating. No doubt it is prudent to respond even to such imperfect understanding as we have of the impact of industry on the environment. But it would seem plausible to believe that the world is better served by many intelligent people in different sovereign states responding to a variety of situationally different problems than by a single committee of experts imposing one big solution on everybody.
International problems often provoke us to this insidious kind of false rationality. We respond eagerly to famine pictures, only to discover that the food is being diverted to war lords, or that we are destroying the market on which the long-term future of these people will depend.
It is in fact the very logic of rationality which deceives us. The moment we have constructed a situation in problem terms, we have moved into a world of abstractions which conceals from us important aspects of a situation. Those in America early in the century who thought that drunkenness was a problem, to be solved by constitutional prohibition, did not recognize in the power of a forbidden desire the potentiality to create whole gangster empires which plague America to this day. The philosopher Kant, like many of his generation, thought war was a problem, and the removal of kings and aristocrats -- the only people who he believed who had an interest in war -- was the solution. It was this idea which paved the way for the infinitely more deadly mass mobilization of wars of recent times.
The problem of unintended consequences is well-illustrated in the Aesop fable of Horse which was being tormented by a boar, and called on Man to help. Certainly, said Man, I shall help you, but first you must let me saddle you up. The horse solved the problem of the boar, but was lumbered ever after with the saddle. My basic question is whether metalkind will allow itself to be similarly saddled.
The international world is the natural habitat of instrumental rationality in its extreme form, because theres nothing else out there except talking shops, so they talk things up using standard moves. One, for example, is to attribute all conflict between states to nationalism which is actually something highly specific. This move undermines states by suggesting that they are always blind and selfish, and that enlightenment can only be found at the international level.
Another device is to tell us, as Marx did and many others before him, that we have now entered a new world of interdependence in which frontiers are permeable and the old values dont apply. It was no doubt an opinion that occurred to the Emperor Hadrian as he contemplated the barbarians on the borders of Rome. Today the doctrine is called globalization. National Sovereignty, it is said, cannot deal with modern problems, because problems -- ah, those pesky problems again -- dont stop at the borders of states. What we must do is pool sovereignty. National sovereignty is an anachronism -- like monarchy, the family, honor, fountain pens, and pleasing architecture.
What we have is a new ideology for an emerging class of internationalists, and global problems are ways of talking up its power and increasing its leverage over the national state. Power is to selfless international committees of the enlightened.
Dont think that I am sentimentalizing the national state. It is in many ways a vile old brute, and the misuses of instrumental rationality have been lavishly used by states to aggrandize their own power. The state is a monster, but it is our monster, in the sense that it must endure some sort of accountability, in democracies, to us. In a perfect world one would want to focus on diminishing its power, which is certainly one of the virtuous causes of our time. But then, it isnt a perfect world, and as the famous Irishman said -- he is one of the tragic but realistic conservatives of our time -- If I wanted to get there, I wouldnt have started from here.
1996 by national review, Inc., 215 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10016.
Reprinted by permission.