Saturday, July 28, 2012

Big Men vs. Free Markets

We love Big Men. They are our heroes. They are who we look up to. We admire Big Men of power -- Napoleon, Stalin, Julius Ceasar. We admire Big Men of industry -- Ford, Vanderbilt, Bill Gates. We admire Big Men of science -- Newton, Darwin, Einstein.

But we seem to admire the Big Man of power the most. I would be willing to bet most people can name more world leaders than major business people, scientists, and artists combined -- even though it has been the latter who have made almost all the positive contributions to human society, to our lives, and to our welfare. Why? Because we love the Big Man.

The Big Man is part of our evolutionary heritage. The chimpanzee troupe is ruled by an alpha male -- the Big Ape, if you will. Most social mammals have a hierarchical social network topped by an alpha, usually male. And the Big Man is a dominant feature of the human social landscape, from tribal leaders who determined how resources were distributed to CEOs who determine how corporate resources are distributed.

In a market economy, resources are distributed in a decentralized fashion, by the decisions of billions of people. While it is true that trade is also part of our human evolutionary heritage (with some proto-trade in bonobos, our closest relatives), it is a more recently evolved trait, which makes it feel less deeply ingrained than Big Man leadership and hierarchical social networks.

This feeling that Big Man-topped social hierarchies are more natural is why socialists wish to replace the decentralized market economy with Big Man economic planning and distribution. Such centralized control is thus not progressivism, but atavism -- indeed, primitivism and social Ludditism. The desire for stability is rooted in the idea that the Big Man can come along and create it, if we would only let him. The Big Man can save us all.

In truth, the Big Man is not here to save us. The Big Man in a tribal setting knows everyone, and has a vested interest in things going well for everyone, since he's probably related to everyone to some degree, and if the tribe fails, he goes down with everyone. This is also true at the level of business -- the CEO/President/business owner typically has a vested interest in the business doing well, lest he go down with the ship. But things are different when it comes to governing large numbers of people over a wide geographic area. In such an environment, the Big Man, separated as he is from any local knowledge or personal connections, wants to become the Big Man simply for the power -- which is the only thing left in large, impersonal societies.

It seems unlikely that we will ever get over our love of the Big Man. He is part of our evolved psychology, and is here to stay. Nietzsche loved the Big Man, though he typically named more artists than political leaders. Ayn Rand loved the Big Man, though she prefered the Big Man of industry (and the Big Man of art -- which is how she saw people like Victor Hugo and Dostoevski). And we all have our "heroes," even if we do not want to call them such.

But the Big Man is not here to save us. The Big Man is who gets in the way in our decentralized spontaneous order social systems that emerge from our more recently evolved traits such as trade for profit and creating and giving for reputation. With democracy, we try to decentralize and distribute power in the political economy -- but since we are evolved to associate power with the Big Man, I suspect that democracies will always be delicate, short of creating a powerless figurehead we can all pretend has power.

Or we can learn to transfer our need for the Big Man to masters of industry, to artists and poets and musicians, to scientists and philanthropists and masters of virtue. We can learn to transfer it to people who emerge naturally through their various spontaneous orders and economies, emerging as they create more and more network connections rather than through weilding political power over others.

It is perhaps a dream. The Big Man will never go away, and there will always be power and the power-hungry trying to get that power. There will always be those who want to be the Big Man of politics, even though it has no place in the world of self-organizing, scale-free network processes into which have since emerged.

But what will happen if we know this is what is happening? What will happen if we become aware of our own evolved psychology? What will happen, then, to the Big Man?

Tonight I watched The Dictator. And laughed. The entire audience laughed. We laughed at the Big Man of politics. We laughed because the Big Man of politics is primitive. Therefore the Big Man of politics is ridiculous. We can only hope that we continue to ridicule him out of existence.
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