Authority pt. 2: two conceptions of order

This entry continues on the theme of authority from the entry of 5 November.

Authoritative vs. authoritarian

In the period of judges, Israel was a community with no fixed ruler other than God. The nation was an amorphous network in which all people were equal in status but not in influence. Authoritative people received esteem granted voluntarily by others. These people carried A2 authority, but not A1.

In contrast, the institution of the monarchy conferred A1 authority to a human. In essence, the Israelites placed a man on God’s throne and created a rigid hierarchy that denied the inherent equality of individuals. A human ruler has to be authoritarian. The better kings may have exhibited authoritativeness periodically, but the point is that authoritarianism was always present.

Network vs. hierarchy

To generalize, a group devoid of A1 is a network, and a group that incorporates A1 is a hierarchy. A2 can exist in both arrangements, so the distinction between networks and hierarchies rests on whether A1 is present.

From a utilitarian perspective, the shortcomings of a network — anarchy — exceed those of a hierarchy. Or, more precisely, people exhibit greater shortcomings in the absence of hierarchical strictures. Yet a hierarchy also has shortcomings that I believe outweigh those of a network.

Order vs. disorder

People sometimes have difficulty turning a critical eye toward deeply held beliefs, especially those that have not been examined previously. The belief in hierarchy and A1 falls into this category. To circumvent natural mental defenses, I want to step away from human interactions and instead make an analogy out of scientific forestry, which James C. Scott depicted in a great essay at Cato Unbound titled “The Trouble with the View from Above,” which relates to our topic here. I recommend reading the whole thing, but I’ll just refer to the section on the invention of scientific forestry. The context is that princely states of Prussia and Saxony in the 1700s derived revenue from logging. To manage efficiently, the states devised methods for measuring the distribution of trees by size in a given area and thus calculating the greatest sustainable timber yield of that area. As Scott wrote:

“It is, however, the next logical step in German scientific forestry that commands our attention. That step was to attempt to create through careful seeding, planting and cutting, a redesigned forest that was easier to count, manipulate, measure, and assess. Thus was born the modern, ‘production’ forest: a mono-cropped (Norway spruce or Scotch pine), same-age, timber-farm planted in straight rows. The very uniformity of the forest vastly simplified its management and exploitation. Forestry crews could follow a few simple rules for clearing the underbrush, trimming and fertilizing; the mature trees of comparable girth and length could be felled into the alleys and marketed as homogeneous units to logging contractors and timber merchants. For nearly a century, during which German scientific forestry as a codified discipline became the world standard, the ‘production forest’ was a resounding success in terms of steady yields at low cost.

“Redesigning the forest as a ‘one-commodity machine,’ however, had, in the long run, catastrophic consequences for forest health and production. The mono-cropped, same-age forest was far more vulnerable to disease, blight, and storm damage. Its simplicity and formal order, together with the elimination of underbrush, deadfalls and litter dramatically reduced the diversity of the flora, insect, mammal, and bird populations so essential to soil building processes. Once the soil capital deposited by the old-growth forest had been depleted, the new forest entered a period of steep decline in growth and production. The term ‘Waldsterben’ entered the vocabulary of modern forestry science and led, in turn, to huge outlays for fertilizers, rodenticides, fungicides and insecticides as well as efforts to artificially reintroduce birds, insects and mammals that had disappeared.”

For the purposes of our discussion here, the key term in the passage above is “formal order.” The natural forest is characterized by anarchy, among other things. The modern conception of the word anarchy often treats it as a synonym for chaos or disorder. This is an egregious abuse of the word, but it reflects the fact that the natural human impulse is to replace anarchy with formal order.

A1 and its attendant hierarchy produce a measure of formal order, which appeals to and comforts many people. And there are benefits to formal order. But formal order is inferior to the natural, spontaneous order that God creates. God’s order is so different from the human conception of order that we view it usually as disorder. (Obviously, though, this does not mean that everything that looks to us like disorder is actually God’s order.)

In the next entry, I will look at some implications of A1 and A2 for those of us who are trying to tread the way to becoming Christians.