John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org..
The following paper was written in December, 1990.
This paper asks what contribution the Protestant experience in the United States can make to the envisioning and shaping of a world order in the coming century. Part I describes three patterns that have emerged in this experience. Part II argues that the most fundamental Protestant principle requires that the economy be subordinated to broader human values in a way that is not now the case. Part III identifies other principles and considerations that should guide our quest for a new world order. Part IV sketches that system that seems most likely to implement these principles.
Whereas European Protestantism was largely shaped by state support of particular churches and adjustment to the needs of other religious groups, American Protestantism was largely shaped by autonomous churches. These held the state at arms length, demanding freedom to order their own affairs. Needless to say, the history on both sides of the Atlantic was more complicated than that, but for the purposes of this paper, this generalization will serve.
There was a close connection between the autonomy of churches and local autonomy generally. In general, in the early days, each village had considerable economic self-sufficiency and wanted minimal interference from distant governments. There was a stronger sense of being part of a state than of being a citizen of the United States. The United States was understood as a federation of states each of which retained those powers not delegated to the national government.
The churches played an important role in shaping the self-understanding of the people as well as experience in self-government. The personal responsibility taught and practiced in the churches led to the establishment of other voluntary associations to meet community needs. The churches also provided a model of connectedness of the people in one community with those in others.
This model had great strengths and played an important role in shaping our national life. It also had great weaknesses. The greatest of these is that local communities, including congregations, often embody the tyranny of the majority. They discourage free thinking and lifestyles not approved by the majority. Most seriously, in the history of the United States, they tolerate drastic discrimination against those lacking the power to resist. The most extreme and important examples are discrimination against Blacks, first as slaves and subsequently as a segregated, disenfranchised, and shamelessly exploited minority.
Although the record of Protestants in relation to slavery and segregation is far from admirable, nevertheless, the Protestant conscience was a major seedbed of opposition. Because local autonomy and states rights became largely synonymous with the rights of Southern whites to enslave and, subsequently, segregate Blacks, Protestants committed to humane Christian values turned to the power of the national government to override the autonomy of local communities and states. A new Protestant model was born. In this model it became the duty of Protestants to encourage the national government to guarantee individual rights throughout the nation. These rights were not only personal freedom and the ability to participate in the political process but also the right to an adequate, free education, to sufficient food and economic support, and to equal treatment in public facilities. They were designed to provide equal opportunities not only for persons of diverse races but also for those of diverse religions, and to women.
These two Protestant models of political order have been in tension for nearly two centuries. The Civil War was a contest between them, resulting in the weakening of the former. The civil rights struggle renewed this contest with further strengthening of the role of the national government over against local communities and states.
Despite the practical resistance to the civil rights struggle on the part of numerous Protestant congregations, especially in the South, most national and regional church bodies were supportive of the extension of equal rights in this way. Those Protestants who resisted often did so with a bad conscience. Their claimed Scriptural support was not convincing even to themselves. The formal appeal to local autonomy and states rights sounded hollow when used as a rationale for continuing discrimination. Opponents preferred to debate means and timing rather than ultimate principles. They were not able to rally a Christian movement around their resistance. The Protestant initiative was in the hands of those who sought the intervention of the national government to overcome local and regional injustices.
However, as the model that emphasizes the national government and the individual rights of all its citizens triumphed, it pushed the discussion of rights into areas that evoked a different response. The three most important for our purposes are abortion rights, gay rights, and the right to die. Alongside these are the restrictions placed on the freedom to express majority religious views in the public schools. On topics such as these many Protestants feel that they can and should resist conscientiously as believers.
The two models have thus led to a deep split within contemporary American Protestantism. On the whole, those who want the national government to insure individual rights support abortion rights, gay rights, and the right to die and believe that the public schools should be religiously neutral. On the whole, those Protestants who oppose abortion rights, gay rights, and the right to die, and believe that prayer should be allowed in public schools in some form, want the national government to reduce its intrusive role.
I am writing about the Protestant experience, but one part of the Protestant experience has been its experience of Roman Catholics. The experience of Catholics has not placed the same emphasis on local autonomy as characterized Protestantism during the formative period of the nation. This meant that as Protestants turned to the national government to realize its humane ends, cooperation with Catholics was often possible. However, as the humane ends sought by Protestants moved into areas of gender and sexuality and abortion, this alliance was split. Catholics began to cooperate with those Protestants who agreed with them on these issues even when their attitudes toward centralization of power differed.
The polarization of Protestantism, once established around these issues, has extended to other topics. The national welfare system was a triumph for those who want the national government to insure that no citizen is left destitute. Those who oppose the centralization of power in the national government have successfully led in first steps to decentralize control.
On the whole, those Protestants who favor the national system want to improve the quality and quantity of help to the poor, insuring that in an affluent nation such as ours noone goes hungry, unclothed, or homeless. On the whole, those who favor decentralization also want to shrink the system as a whole, forcing more of the poor to fend for themselves. They believe that the national system has created a culture of dependency that works against responsible personal behavior on the part of the poor.
After a century in which the nationally visible expressions of Protestantism were seeking the wellbeing and freedom of all citizens through national guarantees, we are now in a situation in which the most visible national expression of Protestantism is calling for community control and freedom from the interference of the national government. To leaders of the oldline denominations, this appears as profoundly retrograde. But to many of the leaders of the new Protestant right, it seems to be a recovery of earlier American Protestant values that have never died out in local communities.
This deep division within American Protestantism has made it difficult for the oldline denominations to give significant leadership in American society. They have united with Roman Catholics to counter tendencies to dehumanize immigrants and the poor and in order to insure that the desire to balance the budget not lead to policies that cause real misery among helpless people. But on the cutting edge issues of abortion rights, gay rights, and the right to die, they speak at best with a divided voice. Even their earlier strong support for women’s rights is now somewhat muted.
As a result, among those impatient to move forward a third model has developed, that of caucusing and networking. Caucuses are ways in which groups who find the official positions of the church wrong or inadequate can organize to give voice and influence to their views. Networking connects them with persons in other churches, or outside the churches, who share their concerns. Individual caucuses can gain support from this wider community and develop programs of action independent of existing church structures. Blacks and women pioneered this pattern. It is now important especially to the gay rights movement, on the one hand, and to conservative evangelicals, on the other.
This pattern supplements another, more deeply established, one. Many individual Protestants join organizations with specialized focus on issues that seem important to them. Generally they feel that the church supports these efforts and recognizes that many of them need to be pursued on an ecumenical or purely secular basis. These nongovernmental organizations thus have strong support in the Protestant culture and specifically from active members of Protestant congregations.
None of these approaches to the public expression of Protestant faith have dealt effectively with what I take to be the most important question facing those concerned with world order. What is the proper role of the economy in such an order? This is the most important question because, since World War II, the economy has become the dominant player in shaping world order, replacing the nation state in that role.
Protestant values and ideas have played a part in this global triumph of the economy. The economic thinking that supports the present globalization of the economy arose in Protestant Scotland. It shared with Calvinist theology the belief that human beings are fundamentally selfish or self-interested. It differed from Calvinist theology in that it judged that instead of resisting this selfishness, in economic transactions, at least, it should be accepted. The world is so structured that when each person or household intelligently seeks economic advantage, the economy as a whole will grow, so that there will be more goods and services for all.
Adam Smith, the founder of classical liberal economic theory, was also deeply concerned with morality. His ethical thinking was based on the presence and importance of sympathy in human relations. The community generated by such sympathy provided the context within which market transactions took place. Community feeling and moral sanctions would insure honesty among those who traded. He assumed that national feeling placed needed boundaries around the market. His argument was only that it was better to allow the market to set prices than to do so politically.
Nevertheless, it was on individual self-interested rationality that his economic theory was based, and the result was increasingly to liberate behavior based on this rationality from community restrictions. Since individuals profited more as the size of the market expanded, and since growth in market size was shown to lead to growth in production, restrictions on such growth were removed. Local communities were often destroyed, resulting in large movements of population to industrial centers. Whereas earlier all Christians assumed that the economy was in the service of local communities, now such communities were changed and ordered in the service of the economy.
Although local communities were subordinated to the economy, the nation remained in control. Adams’ classic book was entitled “The Wealth of Nations,” clearly appealing to national feeling. It was not until after World War II that nations also began subordinating themselves to the growth of the economy, now viewed globally.
It is striking that whereas there is great resistance to surrendering national power to an international body such as the United Nations, there is far less resistance to surrendering national sovereignty to international economic organizations such as the World Trade Organization. In the name of economic growth, most nations are now prepared to enter into agreements with one another, both regionally and globally, that greatly restrict their power to order their own economies. When smaller nations resist, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank impose structural adjustment policies upon them on pain of their total exclusion from the international economic system.
The shift to which I am pointing is not the beginning of the importance and power of the economy. That has been present for a long time. It is, however, a shift from the primacy of political power to the primacy of economic power. I call this the shift from nationalism to economism as the reigning ideology or religion of our time. Today the transnational corporations and the Bretton Woods institutions are the dominant actors on the world stage. We cannot now talk meaningfully about world order without discussing whether this global commitment to economism is to be accepted.
From a Protestant point of view, it cannot be accepted. For decades Protestants criticized nationalism as a major form of idolatry. We called for loyalties to the whole of humanity that extended beyond national borders. Because economism has overthrown nationalism and reduced the importance of national boundaries, because it has unified the planet into the one world for which many of us hoped, many Protestants appreciate and celebrate its accomplishments. But the time has come to face the fact that the shift of decision-making from political to economic centers of power is not acceptable. It means that decisions are made with responsibility primarily to stockholders rather than to the people as a whole. It means that narrowly economic values outweigh all other human ones. The new idolatry must be condemned at least as strongly as the old one.
Even those who recognize this in principle, tend to mute their criticism in light of the promises that have been made by the ideologists of the global economy. We recognize that human sinfulness always expresses itself in idolatries, but we see some of these idolatries as more harmful than others. Nationalism led the world into two wars of unparalleled destructiveness in this century. It had to be denounced in no uncertain terms. The movement from nationalism to economism did not in itself overcome the threat of war between the proponents of two different economic systems, but it certainly did reduce the threat of war arising out of ancient European national rivalries. And with the global victory of capitalism it seems to have almost ended the threat of major international conflict among the great powers as well. For this real achievement, we should be very grateful indeed, even if we should deplore the low intensity conflicts against the poor that are the more characteristic wars of economism. The real achievement of economism has made us understandably reluctant to attack this new idolatry.
This reluctance has been heightened by six other claims made in behalf of a global economy free from the interference of nation states. They are all premised on the principle that this globalization of the market will increase the rate of economic growth overall. As long as growth is measured in conventional ways, this is probably true. The question is whether global economic growth has or will have the positive consequences that are often claimed for it. If so, Protestant believers in human sinfulness, while retaining their ultimate reservation that economic growth is not God, will cooperate practically with those who pursue it for the sake of attaining these consequences. Let us consider six such claims.
(1) One of the crucial problems facing humankind is the rapid growth of population. This places pressure on scarce resources and leads to increasing pollution. It means that in many places only very rapid economic growth will lead to rising average per capita incomes, and this rate of growth is difficult to attain. The social problems generated by rapid growth threaten to overwhelm many societies.
Many economists long supported the doctrine of the demographic transition. The idea was based on North Atlantic history. Population grew rapidly until industrialization brought standards of living up to a certain threshold. At that point people chose to have fewer children, and population leveled off without any political action.
For several decades after World War II the expectation that economic growth could work this miracle in Third World countries justified devoting all efforts to furthering such growth. During those decades global population grew rapidly with many accompanying problems. With few exceptions there were no signs of a demographic transition. It is true that among the elites of Third World countries living at First World levels led to small families. But the numbers of the poor continued to grow with no sign that they would participate sufficiently in the prosperity generated by growth to cease to rely on their children for support, security, and status.
Only those countries that adopted policies directly designed to reduce population growth were successful in doing so. Eventually, talk of the demographic transition faded. The World Bank began to support programs designed to slow population growth independently of economic growth. The United Nations conferences on population have called for social changes, such as more education and opportunities for women, as well as birth control clinics rather than reliance on the demographic transition. The promise that giving priority to economic growth will solve the problem of population growth has been proven false.
(2) A second great set of problems facing the world deal with the deterioration of the environment. Here again some economists taught that economic growth was the solution of these problems. They noted that when average income in a nation rose to a certain point, people turned attention from issues of economic survival to concern for the health of the environment. At that point they were prepared to legislate for the protection of the environment.
There is, of course, some truth to this theory. When our families are hungry, all of us will do what we must to feed them today, even if we know that this may have undesired consequences tomorrow. When their basic needs are cared for, we may be prepared to consider the more distant future for ourselves and for others.
Unfortunately, the policies adopted when we orient ourselves only to the attainment of economic growth are immensely destructive environmentally. They also, at least for an interim period, often increase the number of people who are sufficiently desparate to add to this destruction. By the time all have become prosperous (should that ever happen), if no policies of environmental protection are in place in the meantime, there will be very little to preserve.
The World Bank, reluctantly at first, acknowledged the need to take account of the environmental impact of its projects. This is clearly a different consideration from whether they will lead to economic growth, and in the long run it may prove a more important one. Since the Rio Earth Summit, the World Bank has taken responsibility to give global leadership to environmental matters quite independently of economic growth. The idea that the quest for economic growth alone will solve environmental problems is no longer plausible.
Actually, the situation here is far worse for economic growth than this refutation of the claim would suggest. Economic growth inherently means increased stress on the environment. Of course, improved technology and other changes can counter this to some extent, and emphasis on these is very important. But in fact these changes, which themselves are rarely pursued by those seeking growth alone, only slow the increased stress on an already overtaxed environment.
Many from the global South oppose the concern of the North about population on the grounds that it is the over consumption of the North rather than increasing population in the South that is the chief cause of global environmental deterioration. Although this is no reason to minimize the population problem, they are correct. Policies oriented to economic growth in a general way aim to increase this over consumption and are inherently destructive of the environment.
(3) The claims to solve the population and environmental problems by economic growth have always seemed somewhat implausible. But other claims have been more convincing and still function to buttress commitment to economism. One of these is that economic growth is necessary in order to reduce unemployment. Only steady, rapid growth, we are told, will be accompanied by increasing employment.
Of course, stated baldly, this is clearly not true. Some countries have had full employment based on state policies and independent of economic growth. It is possible for the state to be the employer of last resort. In most cases such policies have led to great inefficiencies, increasing national debts, and lack of growth. The real claim of neoliberal economists is that a market economy can reduce unemployment without loss of efficiency when it is growing fast enough. For this reason governmental restrictions should be minimized and the market given maximum freedom.
Like all the economistic claims, this one has some truth. For example, unemployment is low in this country at present. One reason is the reduction of interference in the economy by government and labor unions. Companies increase their profits by downsizing and hiring part-time workers to whom they have fewer responsibilities. Profits rise and the wealthy members of society spend more on travel, entertainment, and other activities that require a great deal of service. While well-paying, career jobs in industry and large corporations decline, the number of low-paying menial jobs and part-time jobs increases, so that almost anyone with the capacity to work can find something.
Transposed to most Third World countries, however, the economistic recipe for full employment appears to be a chimera. Growth policies typically increase unemployment at least as a first step. For example, the shift from subsistence farming to agribusiness throws many peasants off the land. Opening the doors to transnational large-scale stores puts numerous neighborhood retailers out of business. Even with lowered wages and thousands of new plants introduced into Mexico to export goods back to the United States, the unemployment situation is not improving. In many Third World countries unemployment and underemployment seem to have become permanent factors in society, partly as a result of the policies imposed on them in the name of economism.
(4) Closely related to the above is the claim that only economic growth can bring an end to degrading poverty. Only it can provide the goods to meet the basic needs of all. Given the horrendous failure at present to meet such needs and the prospects of hugely increased numbers of poor in the future, this is a powerful argument. We do not want to oppose the policies that produce more goods when so many are needed.
The question, however, is whether in fact policies geared to growth tend to meet the basic needs of the poor. The evidence is, at best, mixed. In general, when economic actors call all the shots, the rich get much richer, but the poor remain poor. Whether they are poorer than before is debatable. In the United States, the liberalization of the economy has led to reduced purchasing power per hour of work, but since many now work more hours and more members of the average household work, they are not poorer. On the other hand, in societies where there are few jobs, reduced pay inevitably means more poverty.
The theory is that when economic growth goes far enough, as in a few countries in East Asia, the demand for workers drives wages up without benefit of unions or governmental involvement. All classes finally participate in the new prosperity. This seems to work only in countries with substantial surpluses in international trade, a model that cannot be generalized and one that appears irrelevant for the foreseeable future in most of the Third World.
The reality is that policies adopted for the sake of growth have separated hundreds of millions of people from the means of production (chiefly a plot of land or a commons) and have failed to provide most of them with employment that pays a living wage. Although sufficient industrialization would ultimately reemploy them, the prospect of such industrialization ever being achieved in many countries is remote. Meanwhile it is possible to adopt policies based on the primary importance of meeting the basic needs of all that are far more successful in doing this than is generalized economic growth.
(5) A fifth claim is widely accepted because it sounds almost tautologous. It is that economic growth promotes increased prosperity in general. I have pointed out that not all segments of society share in this growth, but it would seem evident that if there are more goods and services consumed, there is more prosperity in general.
Even this, however, is questionable. Economic growth is normally measured by per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This product includes many defensive costs. For example, our legal system becomes ever more expensive. This is largely a result of the urbanization associated with economic growth. We are not really more prosperous because we are served by more police, more courts, and more prisons unless the consequence is that we are in fact more secure than we were when these expenditures were smaller. But in fact, most of us were more secure when our domestic product was much smaller.
A second example is the shift from one wage-earner to two per family. When one wage earner sufficed to maintain the family, the partner did a great deal of work in the home that was not counted toward the GDP. When both spouses work, of necessity they put the children in child care facilities, eat out more often, pay more for clothes and transportation, and buy more labor saving devices. These all add to the GDP. But the GDP figures grossly exaggerate the increase in prosperity of the family. Real disposable income may rise but little.
A third example is the loss of natural services. When a shopping mall is built where once there were wetlands, this contributes substantially to the GDP. However, the wetlands were performing services free for which society must now pay. Perhaps a sewage treatment plant must be built along with a fish hatchery. Those will also add to the GDP. Nothing is subtracted for the loss of free natural services.
Earthquakes, forest fires, floods, and automobile accidents all add to the GDP, but they do not contribute to our economic prosperity. Also, if we think of our economic wellbeing as having to do with the future as well as the present, then we must consider how present activities contribute to a global warming that will be extremely costly to us and to our descendants.
An additional factor is leisure. Economists recognize that leisure time has positive economic value, but it is not included in the GDP. If it were, changes in leisure time would be a substantial depressant on the resultant figures in this country. As more people have to work longer hours in order to sustain their levels of consumption, leisure is declining.
There can be endless debate as to just how all this should be calculated. My point here is simply to say the per capita GDP does not measure real economic prosperity. There are good reasons to think that our actual economic wellbeing in this country is declining even as per capita GDP figures continue to rise. This possibility is sufficient to suggest that we should not gear our policies primarily to the increase of GDP.
(6) When it is pointed out that economic values are only one set of values among others and not necessarily the most important, economists are wont to say that while this is true, economic growth allows us to pursue these other values more successfully. Again there is some truth to this, although it would be actual economic prosperity, and not what is now called economic growth, that would have this benign effect.
On the other hand, even this claim is highly misleading. The pursuit of economic gain is inherently inimical to many other values, including those most prized by Protestants. To be concerned as much for the individual neighbor as we are for ourselves is an ideal that Protestants derive from the Bible and, indeed, from Jesus’ own teaching. We know well how imperfectly we embody this ideal at best. But it retains its tension with our more self-centered motivations and actions, and it moderates our selfishness. Unfortunately, in a society dominated by the market, a different system of values operates.
One major institution through which society expresses and instills its values is education. The social dominance of the market has changed the nature and purpose of our educational system. It was once oriented primarily to providing good citizens and leaders for society and to enabling individuals to live fuller lives. Today it is oriented to preparing people for competitive success in the market place. The ideal of service and the quest for truth have been replaced by the goals of business and professional success.
A society that desires to promote a plurality of values will not give to the market the priority that is now accorded it. The economy will, instead, be one important sector of society among others. The educational system will reflect the social desire that many values be realized in some mutual autonomy.
I have explained why, despite its positive accomplishments, the current dominance of economism is radically unacceptable. The first principle of any acceptable world order must be to reestablish social dominance over the economy. If we take the global market as a given around which we are to adjust our thinking about the desirable world order, then I would have to argue for a strong, centralized world government. One strand of American Protestant thinking, as described in Part I, can be very supportive of centralizing power in a world government that would then secure he rights of all people.
But I am not prepared to make that move. I find it necessary to take seriously the negative consequences in alienation from the political process and the weakening of local community that have resulted from the centralization of power in the United states. I also think it almost inevitable that the great economic actors would be able to control a government so remote from ordinary people even more effectively than they now control that of the United States. I believe that, instead, we should envision a world order more human and more under human control than a globally-centralized government is likely to be.
This pessimism about centralization of power in a world government reflects some elements of my Protestant perspective. In this section I will identify a few such elements which I can bring to awareness.
(1) From the time of the Reformation, while encouraging individual virtue, Protestants have been skeptical of its secure attainment. This means that they do not want to concentrate too much power in one hand or place. Dispersal of power and checks and balances help to reduce the corrupting role of power. No system will prevent its corrupt use, but some systems limit the results of such corruption better than others. We must not look for a world order that guarantees good results, but we should look for one that minimizes the effects of individual sinfulness and maximizes the possibility for more positive aspirations to be fulfilled.
(2) American Protestants are deeply committed to wide participation in the making of the decisions that affect the public. The New England town meeting reflected that commitment, which was also quite directly embodied in the decision making of many congregations. But from the beginning we have been open to representative government in distinction from direct participation as well. Unfortunately, it is clear that today a high percentage of Americans no longer participate in the process of selecting such representatives. This alienation should teach us something about the world order we seek.
(3) Because we know that we cannot envision, much less generate, a perfect system, we must build into it principles of self-correction as its failures become apparent. Such corrections, of course, will not solve all the problems and will sometimes make matters worse. But a world order must be flexible and dynamic rather than static.
(4) Despite our sinfulness, we remain members one of another. That means that in general the real gains of one improve the situation of all. We must avoid supposing that in general one group can prosper only at the expense of another. We want a world order that reflects the concern for win/win solutions rather than the combative quest for victory over those with whom one disagrees. Willingness to sacrifice some of our narrow self-interest for the common good is essential for the realization of self-interest as well.
(5) One of the problems with the dominance of economic institutions is their tendency to short-term thinking. The tendency of the theory on which they operate is to suppose, erroneously, that such short-term pursuits will in fact lead to long-term success. Political institutions can also be infected by that myopia. A healthy world order must be so structured that the long-term consequences of actions are fully considered.
(6) A major problem with which we American Protestants have struggled has been the tyranny of the majority especially in local communities and states. We have often ourselves constituted this tyrannous majority. The concern to reduce this tendency should be built into the new world order through protection of the rights of minorities and dissident individuals.
(7) The Biblical concern for “the least of these” requires efforts to meet the basic needs of all human beings, especially those of children. This is not easy. Even meeting the basic physical needs of all thus far eludes us. Meeting the basic psychological, social, and spiritual needs will be still harder, perhaps impossible in a sinful world. But the goal can never be surrendered.
(8) One human need is a respected place in society. This is difficult in a society of extreme variations in wealth and power. Without idealizing sheer equality, it should be our goal to aim at wide distribution of both wealth and power and to minimize the spread within communities and between communities.
(9) These goals at least implicitly require that we consider the long-term environmental sustainability of our societies. But this point should not remain implicit. The fate of human beings is bound up with the fate of the Earth. Unless we devise a world order that gives continuing attention to the health of the Earth, all other achievements will amount to little.
(10) But we should go beyond that, too. We should be concerned about the Earth not only because our fate is inextricable from it, but also because it is valuable in itself and for God. We should recognize that other creatures have the right to share this planet with us and that their well-being makes claims upon us. Unless we have a world order that is constructed with a view to the well-being of all of Earth’s inhabitants, it will fail us as well as them.
The move from general principles to a specific proposal is not a simple one. No world order will ensure the realization of the goals, or the embodiment of the principles, listed above. In making my proposals I will be guided by the Protestant experience in this country with its dual experiment in localism and nationalism. We have learned that the great weakness of localism is that it fails to address the injustices that are part of local custom, and that face-to-face communities are often intolerant of difference. We have learned that the great weakness of centralized decision-making is that it leaves many citizens alienated and weakens face-to-face communities and mediating institutions. This opens the door to control of the political system by special interests that can devote time and money to buying influence, and the realization that this is occurring intensifies the alienation of the grassroots.
The model I propose is one of communities of communities and of communities of communities of communities. The basic community should be the neighborhood or village, a group small enough so that people know one another, at least by name and reputation, and can meet together to discuss their shared concerns. Such local communities should have primary responsibility for local problems.
It is obvious, however, that many of the problems of such communities cannot be dealt with at the local level. The local community must work together with other communities to deal with them. As a first step representatives of perhaps fifty to a hundred such communities would meet together to discuss the problems that can be dealt with at that level. These representatives would be chosen by their neighbors on the basis of acquaintance. They would in their turn select representatives to the governing body of the next larger body from among those with whom they worked closely in their level of decision-making. The community of communities might correspond to a county, and the community of communities of communities to the state, but this would have to be worked out in each case.
There is nothing sacrosanct about current borders. Although for practical purposes existing boundaries may need to be respected, we can also consider changes. Northern and Southern California might separate. Many county boundaries may need to be redrawn. States with large populations will require a level of governance not needed in smaller ones.
The next level of community might be the bioregion. Organizing in this way would heighten consciousess of the environment. And responsibility for leadership on environmental matters might be concentrated at that level. This would bring pressure for changing the boundaries of some states.
Representatives of the bioregions would then constitute the governing body of the United States. This would, in turn, send representatives to the Organization of American States, which would in its turn send representatives to the United Nations to meet with representatives of the European Community, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, and Pacifica. The name of the United Nations, might be changed to United Regions!
The difference from the current system would be that at the local level voting would be based on some personal acquaintance. The selection of representatives would be only one part of the agenda, with direct voting on other matters of obvious interest to local residents. Alienation from the political process should be reduced. So would the influence of television, of political parties, and, perhaps, of money. At each level, representatives would be chosen from among persons with whom the electors have worked closely. Success at projecting a good image on TV would cease to play the role it now has. The selection of the president would be by representatives chosen at the bioregional level to perform this service. This would be much closer to what was envisioned by the founding fathers than is present practice.
The nation, in this system of order, would not be “sovereign.” It would be one level of political organization between the bioregion and the larger regional organization. The relation of the United States to the Organization of American States would be analogous to the relation of individual bioregions to it. Although the United Nations would be the highest body in this structure, it would not be sovereign either. Its power would come from the consent of the regional organizations who are united in it, which would in turn derive from their member nations.
This would not, of course, restore sovereignty to the states. They would simply be one level of political actors
between the counties and the bioregions. They would be related to the nation in much the way the counties were related to it.
If we are to speak of sovereignty at all, this would reside in the people meeting together in local communities. The supposition here is that power originates with them and is delegated to their representatives who in turn delegate to their representatives. The movement is from bottom to top.
How, in such a system, can the tyranny of the majority be checked? Of course, if the people as a whole do not want any such check, none can be implemented. But if, as is now the case, most of the people of the world in general want this tyranny checked, then each level of community of communities can be given the assignment to make sure that the member communities allow participation of all their citizens and respect their right to differ and be different. Those who feel that their rights are not respected can appeal up the sequence of communities in hopes that at some level they will find agreement and redress of grievances. There can be no guarantee.
This structure depends on wide acceptance of a double feature of Christian teaching that is present in many other traditions as well. Much of Christian teaching deals with face to face relationships and is supportive of close community at this level. But Christian teaching equally stresses love for the stranger, even the “enemy”. The proposed structure will work only if there can be strong community feeling combined with a concern for the wider world. At both levels many people must recognize that the good of each is bound up with the good of all. Otherwise, there can be neither community nor community of communities. Protestant teaching can contribute to this essential ethos.
This bottom-up structure of political power will not work unless there are deep changes in the economy. If economic decision-making is by transnational corporations impervious to local interests, then the power that can be exercised locally is too limited to hold the interest of people. Present mobility with its community-destroying consequences will continue and grow worse. If the global economy is controlled from the top down, then we will have to develop global political structures capable of controlling it. I am imagining the alternative proposed here as a preferable scenario.
The bottom-up character of this order should be expressed in the system of taxation. Local governments should have the primary taxing power, not one regulated by the state or nation. Other levels should have secondary taxing powers but should also be dependent on funding from the smaller units that make them up. Instead of the present system in the United States in which the federal government collects most of the taxes and then returns money to the states, the states would have more power to tax and would give some of their money to the national government. The United Nations should be given some direct taxing rights, but it should also depend on member contributions.
Thus far I have spoken of geographically defined communities. Our experience has been that these flourish when there are many nongovernmental organizations as well, beginning with the churches. These bring together people of common interests across geographical boundaries. They help to insure that devotion to a local community not involve defensiveness and enmity toward others. At every level of community of communities relevant non-governmental organizations should be given a hearing and should become partners with government when appropriate. We may hope that some of these nongovernmental organizations will have a strong commitment to the environment and the other creatures with which we share it. Otherwise these creatures will have no voice in the political processes. Since the environment of each locality is important to its health and future, the hope will be that each community will take those actions it can for the health of the environment and instruct its representatives to seek other actions that must be taken at a larger level. But we cannot assume that this will always happen. Since the environment in each locality is connected with all the others, and the interests of all are involved, environmental nongovernmental organizations must have the power to appeal to higher levels of government, especially to the bioregional government, to bring pressure to bear on reluctant local groups to act for the good of all.
Nongovernmental organizations can provide a way for those who are not satisfied with their elected representatives to continue their efforts to influence the political process. They can reduce the sense of powerlessness which leads to turning power over to special interests. For this to happen, governments at all levels should structure the testimony of such organizations into their decision-making processes.
One way of clarifying the difference between this model and a world government is to consider the distribution of military and police power. In a world government, presumably, the only real army would be that of this government. In the model here proposed, each level of government would have some ability to enforce its decisions and maintain internal order. None would have overwhelming dominance. The United Nations would have its own army, but this would not be large. It would not be strong enough to impose its rule unilaterally on member nations. To engage in any major police action, it would have to seek the help of regional armies and perhaps of member nations as well. On the other hand, the military forces of these member nations would be reduced, proportionally to their political role. The power of state militias might be somewhat enlarged as well as that of local police.
I have written from the American perspective. I believe that other parts of the world could evolve in a similar direction. Indeed, the European Community is further along in this evolution than are we. In Europe the European parliament and other continental organizations already have considerable power, so that national sovereignty is significantly checked. The model I propose, however, would involve the withdrawal of U.S. military participation from Europe and the replacement of NATO by a purely European military organization. In the future, European organizations would be responsible for maintaining the peace of Europe. The United Nations might be called on to assist.
Although Europe has gone much further toward becoming a community of communities than has the Western Hemisphere, it may have farther to go in turning its nation states into communities of communities. In some countries centralization of power at the national level is entrenched. Empowering local communities to deal with more of their own problems may be more difficult there than here.
If a utopian proposal is one whose realization is highly unlikely, then I have offered such. If it is one that, if realized, would solve all problems, then I have not. The tension between locating power close to participating people and providing adequate checks on their denial of rights to unpopular members is ineradicable. Furthermore, representatives at any level, including the bioregional one, may adopt a highly exploitative attitude toward the natural environment that is difficult to check at higher levels.
Decentralization also means accepting enormous differences in the prosperity of different places. Even within the United States, my proposal would cut against the efforts to equalize educational opportunities for all people in a state. Much more of the decision-making about education and of the responsibility to finance it would devolve on local communities. Probably schools would become smaller. The assumption is that strong involvement in the educational system on the part of parents gains more than is lost in this process. But clearly much is risked. The difference in educational opportunities between children in the United States and those in many Third World countries would continue to be extreme. In principle a world government could equalize all of this, but my judgment is that the cost in local involvement and participation would be much too high.
The most utopian feature of my proposal is the decentralization of the economy. This calls for a reversal of trends that have reshaped the world for two hundred years. Most people currently take these trends as being beyond all human control. They are not, but as long as we are taught to think this way there will be little effort to reverse them. The first need is to unmask the claims made for the autonomy of the economy from social and political influence, as I have tried to do in Part II. The second is to begin the process of legislation that will bring economic activity back under the control of governments.
If this does not occur, and currently there are no signs that it will, then local economies will arise independent of the global one. So many are left out of the latter that their efforts to survive lead to the former. At present the local economies play a very minor role, but because in many places they are the only solution to the misery of extreme poverty, they will not go away. If they, rather than the global economy, are recognized as the promise of the future, public policy can give them more support. Perhaps political decentralization will encourage this.