Monkey Tower

The centralization cannot hold

Monkey TowerPascal-Emmanuel Gobry is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. If you haven’t yet read this piece of his, go over and do that now. It is only tangentially about the healthcare.gov rollout; the central thesis is an exploration of why things like free markets, science, democracy, and even the internet work (“work” being defined as “being the worst, except for everything else we’ve tried”). You really should read it, because that why has implications for just about everything.

Did you read it yet? Go, read it.

Ok, fine, here’s the tldr: capitalism (decentralized decision making) doesn’t consistently beat communism (centralized planning) because the private sector is wiser, smarter, or more noble than the public sector. It’s just that the private sector can throw a whole lot of different attempts at a problem, and toss out the ones that fail relatively quickly, minimizing the damage of those failures. Centralized planning fails consistently because planning on a large scale is simply too hard for monkeys like us; the best we can do is fling a lot of poo at the wall and see what sticks.

All of which leads into the recent discussion of whether God hates centralized power. R.J. Moeller says yes, basing his argument on the story of the Tower of Babel. I would point instead to the state of Israel, as originally set up by God in the early books of the OT. I’m actually surprised libertarians don’t point to it more often, because there we have God explicitly creating a state without a king, or really any governing authority beyond some scattered part-time judges. One of the Jews’ greatest sins was to ask for a king, an error that plagued them for centuries to come.

“But what about the centrality of Jerusalem and the temple?” you ask, because you are well-schooled in the ways of exegesis. Indeed, the temple was very clearly a case of centralization. Not all of the high places were dedicated to idol worship, but God still called for their destruction (one can easily imagine people at the time declaring that they knew lots of folks who were good followers of Yahweh and still worshiped at the high places, so surely God didn’t really say that). What accounts for the difference?

Think back. Why does centralization fail? Because we are monkeys. We lack the intelligence and the raw data to make plans that will manage large, complex systems.1

God is not a monkey. He really is all-wise and all-knowing (and all-benevolent). Centering everything on the all-seeing, all-embracing creator and sustainer of the universe does not run into the problems of human authority. It’s just how things are supposed to be.

In fact, attempts to center on something else all involve turning away from God. God actually makes this quite explicit. Even as he grants the Israelites’ request, He directly compares it to idolatry2.

When we find ourselves looking to some human leader to save us from the problems of a fallen world, we are making the same idolatrous mistake. And, dear exegete, when you compared the centralization of worship to the centralization of government, you were making the same dangerous error of confusing man with God.

To recap: you need God-like powers to make centralization work. Man is not God3, consequently a system that tries to center itself around men will fail. It is also idolatrous. And that is why God hates centralized power, and why science beat Aristotle.



1 Please note that I have not even delved into the issue of corruption. That certainly causes problems as well, but the thing you have to keep in mind is that centralized planning fails even with a morally perfect human leader. It simply isn’t possible for them to have all the information that would be necessary. This was the key insight of Hayek, and it’s why he was able to see the impossibility of Communism long before it collapsed, all without even getting into the little issue of all those mass murders it kept performing.

2 God also warns about the terrible things a king will do, like institute a 10% income tax.

3 Or, as the founding fathers put it: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

One thought on “The centralization cannot hold”

  1. Thank you very much for this very kind post. (I don’t know if you’re the same person who tweeted it at me so I wanted to leave a comment.)

    I (unsurprisingly) agree with your take, and I think your OT exegesis is spot-on. I didn’t address the religious aspects because I was writing more for the political-economic sphere/audience, but here’s a post where I tackle some of the same ideas under a theological lens: http://pegobry.tumblr.com/post/63452922712/modernity-as-collective-recognition-of-original-sin

    Great blog, by the way.

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