After a twelve day hiatus it is time to return to my series on the "Cycle of Prosperity." My last three posts dealt with the cultural environment that gave birth to the explosion in modern prosperity that originating in Europe. I suggested that there are at least four cultural features related to the Judeo-Christian heritage that have had an impact on these developments. The first three were respect for the individual, linear time and progress, and order and reason. I turn now to the fourth, which is decentralization.
The notion of decentralization extends back to the formation the Jews, possibly in part as response to the oppressive circumstances they experienced in Egypt. While on the way to the promised land the priest Korach attempts a rebellion against Moses, accusing him of attempting to lord it over the people, Moses defends himself saying, “I have not taken so much as a donkey from them, nor have I wronged any of them.”(Numbers 16:15) In other words, he has respected property rights and exercised limited authority.
Later, Leviticus 25 presents the jubilee provisions where each family was permanently apportioned a portion of the land. Had the jubilee been observed inequalities in wealth would have emerged but no one would have been deprived of providing for their own sustenance. Everyone was to be a participant in the stewardship of the land on God’s behalf. There were to be no elites ruling over the masses. By ancient standards, it is a truly remarkable concept.
Later, in 1 Samuel 12, when Samuel grants the people’s request and anoints a king, he gives a farewell speech. Contrasting his own performance with what is to come he asks:
You have not cheated or oppressed us,” they replied. “You have not taken anything from anyone’s hand.”
Samuel said to them, “The Lord is witness against you, and also his anointed is witness this day, that you have not found anything in my hand.”
“He is witness,” they said. (verses 3-5)
Samuel had earlier warned the people of the calamities that would come upon through the establishment of centralized kingly power. (1 Sam. 8: 10-18)
As we move to the New Testament we see the emergence of the fictive family metaphor. God is the father and all of us are God’s children. All human divisions and statuses, including earthly familial relationships, were made subordinate to this new alignment. Jesus takes aim at seeking positions of power in Matthew 23:8-12. While there clearly are leaders among the New Testament church, there is no dominating hierarchy at work. So all through scripture we frequently see ambivalence, if not outright distrust, of centralized human power.
As David Landes points out in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, this theme of decentralization went somewhat dormant when the church become the religion of the Roman Empire. In the centuries following the collapse of the Empire, scripture became the exclusive purview of a specially trained elite who tended to carefully eschew those passages that challenged their authority when teaching the people.
A trickle of rebels leading up to the Reformation worked to get the scripture into the hands of the people. With the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, and the emergence of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the trickle turned into a flood. People able to read scripture for themselves began to detect decentralizing themes. This went on to work its way through the political thought of Europeans, particularly in northern European nations and their offspring.
Notable examples of this decentralization perspective are clearly found in the Constitution of the U.S.A. with its careful attention to balancing powers between branches of government, and between federal and state governments. About one hundred years ago, Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper was constructing his idea sphere sovereignty, wherein differing elements of society interact with each other but each element has sovereignty within its own realm of functionality. Pope Leo XIII, writing in the nineteenth century, articulated the idea of subsidiarity. This is the idea that issues should be dealt with at the most localized level in society possible, with more centralized institutions operating only where more localized entities are not capable of addressing problems themselves. All of these trace their heritage back to a Judeo-Christian worldview of human life.
All this is not to say that decentralization emerged purely because of these embedded values. There clearly were geographic and historical factors that contributed to Europe emerging as a fragmented decentralized continent compared to the experience of China in Asia. It was a combination of these events wedded with the Judeo-Christian perspective that cemented these developments as cultural traits.