Monday, 24 December 2012

Federation vs City States

One of the most important and far reaching political decision (really lots of decisions under one overarching one) Australia will have to make in response to overshoot is whether to dissolve the federation and effectively become a nation of city states, roughly analogous to the current states, or to keep the federation in some modified form. Both choices have their advantages and disadvantages, which one is the best will shift as both the world internal and external to Australia changes in response to the downside of Overshoot, much as it changed to the upside. Another option is to shift between the two as the situation dictates, however this option is more complex and would require considerable organisational resources, so here I’ll focus only on the initial extremes, as opposed to the absolute extremes (such as dissolving the state governments). Note that while I’m treating this decision as a binary, it’s actually a spectrum, this is just simpler and highlights the important details.

Federation: This choice entail keeping the broad shape of our current governmental structure, Local<State<Federal, and possibly changing some of the details, such as the exact border/territories, rights, responsibilities etc.

  • Continuity with the past
  • Combines all the militaries
  • Allows simpler trade and economic laws
  • More unified resistance to imperial or other incursions
  • Pushes Australia’s competitive energies to the outside world, rather than internally
  • As it stands now, there are no major forces for disunity
  • Allows more collective resources to be used to solve or mitigate problems
  • can create uniformity when needed
  • Allows Free trade inside the nation, while tariffs outside
  • single foreign policy
  • Is an extra layer of complexity
  • requires both physical and organisational resources
  • can create uniformity, when diversity is needed
  • if the system becomes corrupt, it all becomes corrupt
  • Diseconomies of scale are introduced
  • Less internal competition
  • Model is untested for a non-fossil fuel era, unlike America’s is
  • Provides a single target for hostile powers
  • Some interstate rivalry

While some of the advantages and disadvantages are intrinsic to federation, other important traits depend on the context of the times and external world, particularly the ones to do with imperialism. If imperial incursions or the overall level of violence increases, then a combined military will ensure a safer environment and less predatory action by foreign powers. its main disadvantage is that the downside of overshoot normally brings a decomplexification.

City-states: This choice would be to simply dissolve the federation, with new countries based on the current states, the territories would be either absorbed or let go, with the capitals where they currently are. The capitals will stay where they are for a few reasons, they’re all ports, most have rivers and currently contain the greatest concentration of human resources, materials, population and infrastructure. Similar to Renaissance Italy or Ancient Greece, hopefully without the constant warfare, just with far greater distances.

  • Is a new order which could kick-start more innovation and experimentation (political and social)
  • Provides internal competition
  • Encourages diversity when needed
  • Is at a lower lever of government complexity
  • More adaptable
  • if one part becomes corrupt, the rest is protected
  • No single target
  • Less diseconomies of scale
  • Is one of those highly tested models

  • Vulnerable to divide and conquer tactics
  • Has difficulty stopping imperial, or other, incursions
  • can create diversity, when uniformity is needed
  • Hinders international trade and a integrated economics
  • No major forces backing it
  • Potential for internal wars
  • Less collective resources for mitigation and problem solving
  • Could cause further decentralisation

If anything, this option’s traits are even more contextually dependent and since it lacks the advantages of centralisation and standardisation, under stable or growing conditions this is the worst of the two options. However since we’ll be going through a contraction phase, these disadvantages are not necessarily in play. Otherwise it lacks good defences from foreign powers, relative to federation,  this needs to be considered in the final decision. Its main advantage is that the human world is entering the environment that makes this option an adaptable one.

The point of the above comparisons isn’t to sway you one way or another, I have done my best to be impartial, but to simply highlight some of the important differences and show that each option comes with its ups and downs. Also that some of the advantages are also disadvantages, there is no perfect option.

How will this decision affect the common person? An important element of any political decision of this magnitude is, how are the lower and middle classes (the upper classes can look after themselves) affected? How does the decision affect farmers, workers, craftsmen, artisans, artists, small businessmen, merchants, local or regional government officials, fishers, loggers and so on?

While in an important way this decision doesn’t affect the lower classes that much, one boss is much the same as another and chances are most of Australia will be democratic anyway, in an important way it does. How easy is it to trade goods or move across borders markedly affects merchants and thus the goods available to people, while also affecting local industry. The economic policies of the government, from taxes, incentives, infrastructure and others, affects everyone and dictates the opportunities and day-to-day economics of individuals and families. The governmental structure will affect how many wars are fought, where they are fought and of what type they are, this further compounds in the civilian support structure e.g. will a farmer will be taxed 10%, 30% or 50% of his crops/biofuels to support the military/civil infrastructure. Education and healthcare are similarly affected, along with the legal and justice systems. The majority of the effects will be felt not in the immediate years after the decision, since the structures will take time to change, but in the decades after as the differences pronounce themselves, this is why is requires careful consideration. The point of the above is to simply correct what can sometimes be a problem in political discourse, especially ideological discourse, in that the effects on the common person are either ignored or glossed over. The effects on day-to-day or year-to-year living are the most important part of this sort of political decision, both the long and short term.

My take on it: Now that we’ve finished with the analysis of the issue and you the reader have started to form an opinion on what is in essence a political question with important military, economic and cultural implications, I’ll give my own opinions. Feel free to give yours in the comments, reasoned discourse is the lifeblood of both democracies and republics.

For the short (10-20 years) and medium (20-50 years) I favour the federation option, for the long term (50+ years) I think that the decision should be left up to the generation after the next, since that why more experience will be accumulated and a wiser decision made. My reasons are thus; It’s always easier to destroy than create, so if keeping Federation turns out to be best, but we’ve dissolved it, is a harder mistake to correct than keeping federation when dissolving it is necessary and for some structures, such as standardisation and the military, the federation is appropriately big. This isn’t to say that the federation shouldn’t be weakened in some areas, just that for certain things it is far better than city-states. The other reason is that the world is likely to become a more violent place and the next imperial powers could easily look at previous allies of America to fortify their claims, a larger military would certainly help in dealing with these twin problems, both here in Australia and our overseas interests. The overseas interest are everything from outposts in Antarctica, access to trade routes and joint treaties with other countries


  1. Hi Leo — I'm sorry but I think you're making an incorrect assumption in your first paragraph. Australians will not "choose" to do this or that: they will be forced by circumstances into making choices which will then lead to (mainly unforeseen) outcomes. Perhaps you are thinking like an engineer: I thought like that too until I found the world didn't work that way! Engineering thinking is unfortunately only applicable to a small subset of real world problems. The best guide to politics is the oldest "modern" textbook on the subject: Niccolo Machiavelli's "The Prince". Still reviled by idealists: still in print.

    The upshot of real world politics is almost nothing is possible without catering to the interests of competing and conflicting power groups. A further complication that arises with the passage of time is that these groups become more complex, rigid and fearful of loss of power and influence. The outcome is almost always gridlock, as can be seen in the current US political system or as an historical example, the inability of the governments opposed to the Nazis before WW2 to take any concrete action until forced into it.

    Looking at the Federal/State question not as a question of logic, but from a systems point of view or if you like, a Machiavellian point of view, the issue becomes "Who has the power?" "In whose interest is change?" "Who would oppose change?" If the advantage does not accrue to those already in power, forget it!

    I think a much more useful approach is to treat large scale social issues like the weather: you may get better at predicting it but forget about controlling it.

    Looking at the Federal/State issue this way, one needs to ask the question: what forces will impinge upon us? How will "we" (the great mass of population, the power elites) react?

    I have my theories which I can share with you if you like. But I don't want to get drawn into what I regard as useless discussions of what "should" happen, only discussions of what is likely to happen.

  2. Machiavelli is always good, but in our case the Discourses of Livy are more applicable, since we're closer to a republic than a princedom. Its a lot thicker, republican (of the classic type)and a lot of what reccomends has been copied, such as having a dictorial position e.g. Prime Minister. At the time the Prince was more reviled because it was entirely secular (actuall a first).

    As for choice, depends on both events and infrastructure. If no rail-lines survive, then it'll be an automatic downgrade, same if travel stops. If the federal goverment breaksdown, or even the states, same again. At the moment i'm assuming trains are viable, and since that puts the travel times (3 days from Melbourne to Perth) well below the historical norm. Plenty of countries throughtout history have maintained themselves when travel times (and thus communication) between one end and the other have been a month, or at least once it was 3 months to the centre from the edge (lasted until Alexander the Great arrived).

    I actually have a sketch of what i think the standard run could be, which also means its unlikely to be the one that happens. Afterall, the Hubbert Peak model the worlds following isn't the standard one, but the one that has the Arabs shutting off oil supplies, pushed the peak 15 years into the future, lucky us.