I should have been prepared. My Brazilian student had already expressed his admiration for Fidel Castro and the glories of the Cuban healthcare system. Still, his next comment nearly made me swerve off the road as we drove back from lunch.

“Of course, some day, there will be a world government.”

“That would be a catastrophe,” I sputtered.

“Well, when we have evolved enough socially,” he said.

In other words, never? I wanted to say. Instead, I bit my tongue. I was sure I was right, but I couldn’t articulate the reasons. “A catastrophe,” was all I could choke out. “An absolute catastrophe.”

I’ve learned not to talk politics with him—he has a decent scientific mind, but when it comes to politics, he doesn’t like to examine his beliefs—so I let the topic go. My inability to gather my wits enough to say why I was so sure was due in part to his timing: A few days before our conversation, Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott had made much the same declaration, predicting the arrival of world government in the 21st century. Talbott and his ilk are good at portraying themselves as a valiant vanguard, heroically overturning the stupidity of the past, so the idea is likely to continue to irritate us, like ants we can’t quite clear out of the kitchen. But why, exactly, is world government such a catastrophic idea? What should I have been able to say to my friend?

We could laugh and dismiss the idea as impractical. A power that pushes for world unity would-have to-result to force to reach that goal. It’s absurd to think that such countries as China, Iran, India, or Russia would accept world government in my lifetime or that of my young friend, and should those powers be unduly pressured, they are likely to respond in ways much less pleasant than laughter. The high-minded adventures we have seen in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Somalia would never cease, because human nature will not be overturned by an edict, even if it issues from Brussels. The advocates of world government have already shown little compunction about killing Iraqi children or Serbian civilians.

Should a power manage to achieve hegemony, the ends to which its force would be directed are predictable. There would be proscribed ideas, some of them evil, but many not. As every government has its pets and enemies, there would be favored groups—ethnic, religious, or ideological. And what government rewards its pets and punishes its enemies in ways that the angels could approve?

The dream of world government is based on false assumptions. Talbott described national governments as “artificial.” This is a hugely, perhaps willfully ignorant stance, since Burke’s examination of the organic growth and change of government has been available for 200 years. Many national governments represent the outcome of centuries of development, arrangements arrived at with great pain. What history do we share with the Chinese, the Afghans, or even the Mexicans? Ignorance of the fact that a willingness to be governed grows over time, and only with considerable difficulty, appears to be no disqualification for a high diplomatic position in our country.

Another problem is that, in human affairs, big is invariably stupid. When decisionmakers are distant from the information on which their decisions should be based and shielded from the costs of their mistakes, the quality of their decisions inevitably declines. As our federal government has proved over the last few decades, bureaucracy becomes rigid and more concerned with the political fashion of the day than with the well-being of society. Imagine a structure ruling ten billion people that was based in Brussels and made decisions on speed limits in Swaziland.

Since I work at a large university, I am painfully familiar with the stupidity of intelligent and even creative people when they are gathered into large groups. During one intensely boring and feckless committee meeting, I took to passing notes to another scientist. In one, I drew the curve I thought described the torture being inflicted on us. With stupidity as the dependent variable, and the x axis the number of people involved in the decision, my curve dipped (stupidity diminishing) as the number moved from one to two, then rose again exponentially: Three people may be as intelligent as one, but it’s galloping dementia from that point on. In the note she passed back to me, my friend responded that the dependent variable in her own work was quality of the conversation: Her graph was a steeply declining curve from two, the highest point. If we rude mechanicals can see this, why can’t our betters?

With world government, we would have one of the disadvantages of a monopoly: the complacency that comes from a lack of competition. Even within government, people sometimes learn from the example of their superiors, and they may raise the level of their performance when the competition pulls ahead. One reason the Soviet Union collapsed is that its rulers could see that their system was inferior to that just across their borders.

Perhaps the worst disadvantage of world government is that, should the central authority turn to evil, there would be no escape: no England riding out the reign of Napoleon; no Switzerland to take in refugees. If we consider the history of national governments, we cannot be confident that a world government would not finally fall into the hands of evil leaders. Quite the contrary: A descent into tyranny would be inevitable.

Another argument against world government seems to me both utterly persuasive and a little disreputable, based as it is on guilt by association and ad hominem attacks. The people who lead the charge toward world government discredit it by their very support. If the Talbots, Clintons, Blairs, and Albrights of the world all want something, then surely it’s a bad idea. They disdain history and are confident that the appearance of beings as glorious as themselves signals the dropping of that dead weight. This is what makes them so dangerous, for they are deaf to the statesman’s greatest teacher. They have outbid the legendary American military officer who said, during our war in Vietnam, that we had to destroy the village in order to save it. Our leaders have destroyed entire provinces and nations in the name of the greater good.

Millennial visions are all too frequently accompanied by a willingness to sacrifice those who get in the way. Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, Lenin, Stalin: Those who demand we enter their wonderful new world and redeem all of history are the champion murderers of the human race. We common folk should beware those who claim ownership of a map to Utopia; the cobblestones paving the road to their destination are the skulls of those who got in their way.