[This is a response to Stephen Steneov’s article, “What Cost Competition,” in the February SUN. — SS]
Many writers, dazzled by the growth in size and power of national governments and corporate enterprises, make the mistake of calling for a single, global organ to coordinate human affairs. Their idea is to free industry from national shackles and supercharge the market by way of central organization. This would hopefully result in a decent level of material wealth for all the world’s people. It would also replace the unreliable “balance of power” nation-state system of maintaining peace with enforceable world unity. This method could also bring about a new generation of oppression.
There are two ways a world government representing the interests of four billion people might handle economic matters. One is to work with the managers of a few multinational corporations, each company being the sum of the energies and interests of several million people. The power that these managers already hold is enormous. The desirability of entrenching their positions further depends on how much we want their leadership. Recent bribery scandals show how far removed their activities generally are from stockholders, workers, and consumers. In practical terms, they are responsible to no one but themselves. I am aware of reforms for selecting and overseeing corporate management proposed by men such as Ralph Nader, but even if this were done everyone’s welfare would be in the hands of a few men living in the skyscrapers of distant cities, visible to most of us only through their election campaigns.
If a world government were to bypass these hired (or elected) oligarchs and try to deal with small businesses and individuals it would have to recruit a huge bureaucracy just to make contact. We all know how government officials operate. Bureaucrats are bureaucrats, whether they work for a democratic government or an autocratic one, national administration or supranational. Their task would be to work systematically, relentlessly, disinterestedly toward painting this green planet gray.
Among the things we can look for in a world government, then, are a small group of leaders who nobly accept responsibility for the rest of us and an army of lesser functionaries to see to it that cooperation trickles down to everyone. A less charitable description would be: oligarchy and bureaucracy. Whatever the description, this is hardly progress.
Of course these same charges can be leveled against the national governments we have now. Even so, it is a mistake to suppose that we could promote freedom and individuality by suppressing our national regimes under a still mightier government. What we need to do instead of further centralizing power is to decentralize it. Herbert Read, a social philosopher worth listening to, points out that the only genuine politics is local politics. In large districts and vast territories the charade of democracy might be carried out by professional representatives who live and work in the capital city (whether they win their elections or lose them), but this is just a shadow cast large of real, knowledgeable decision-making by people directly related to an immediate project or issue. In politics small is beautiful.
The larger question of how we go about raising the basic material standards of vast numbers of people in “underdeveloped” lands is more vexing. We might leave that job to the mighty forces of economics; let the profit motive loose to conjure up goods where presently there is only want. It would be a deception to think of this as anything more than a temporary expedient, though. Economics is the science of scarcity. Its laws do not apply to situations of abundance because in such situations “demand” does not exist; you gotta have “demand” somewhere to have “supply-and-demand.” Economics cannot produce a condition of continuing abundance because it must keep such goods and services sufficiently out of reach to maintain demand (that is, to maintain prices which stimulate supply).
It might be better for needy countries to avoid the treadmill of economics. There is no reason they cannot learn from our mistakes. We need to turn away from economics as the basis of our culture and apply our sciences directly to supporting our people, freeing them from that elite whose genius is manipulating both human and material resources. Scientists say they can create a self-sufficient environment in outer space. Is it unreasonable to think the same could be done for each family living on the most verdant planet in the solar system? To be sure, no one knows any profound technologies for making such material independence luxurious, but then the production of luxuries properly belongs to economics. If we want to addict everyone everywhere to the baubles that so fascinate us we should export economics. If we want to uplift others we should spread knowledge.
There is certainly no lack of work to go around. Much of it needs to be done here at home. The people in the third world with energy and ambition view the U.S. and Western Europe as the most “advanced” of countries. So long as we Americans cruise around in bloated, private cars they will consider public transit to be a poor man’s transportation, good only for those lands that cannot yet afford better. So long as we strut around in expensive, synthetic fabrics they will think of the fibers they grow out of their own soil as cheap substitutes. The old adage “charity begins at home” is profoundly true. We cannot hope to help foreign peoples by extending the methods that have made shallow pleasure seekers out of our own countrymen.
Those who propose that we work through huge organizations can justify their ideas by referring to the efficiency and wealth such social engines can produce, maybe even speculate about the “destiny” of the race. Somebody who is for decentralization can make no such claims. Intermediate technology (that is, devices that individuals and small groups can master) does not take the fullest possible advantage of economies of scale. Sources of power that can be produced locally are not as versatile as finely distilled fossil fuels. Separation of necessities (food, clothing, and shelter in their most basic forms) from market forces will deter people from the relentlessly punctual and strictly delineated jobs that have been required for executing vast projects ever since the Tower of Babel. The only goals that can be offered for decentralization are self-reliance and the freedom which is based on it.