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.