Absolutism and Localism

Absolutism is the idea that conflict is bad, that conflict is reliably caused by division of power, therefore division of power is bad, therefore decisive power in some domain should be held by a single undivided office. The single office being the King, the Crown, the CEO, the Officer, the Leader, the Captain, the Father, God, the Pope, etc.

This way, there is no one who can challenge the leader, and thus minimal conflict, and thus as little as possible of the damage to society that comes from political conflict. A company with two CEOs who didn't cooperate, or a CEO who couldn't fire people at will, wouldn't work; it would be a mess. Therefore authority should be absolute and undivided.

But we also know that overcentralized micromanagement can be crippling for complex social systems. Local authority, decision making in local contexts, the rule of law, property law, due process, negotiated boundaries between indepentent powers, distributed market mechanisms, and even restraint on the actions of power, are often superior to attempts to centralize absolute power and decision making. "Localism" isn't a great name for this set of notions, but it will do.

Absolutism might seem to contradict localism, but if we're nuanced about it, it doesn't.

Let's look at the hierarchical chain of command as a case study:

The localist principle, informed by absolutism, demands that the head man of the local context in some hierarchical domain should have full authority in that context. For example, the father is effectively king of his family, the businessman is king of his company, the count is king of his county, the security guard acts with the full authority of the owner in defending his property, the judge wields the full authority of the crown in dispensing justice, and so on.

The absolutist principle, building on this basis, demands that while the head man in a local context is given the widest possible leeway for action, boundaries and orders from above are obeyed in the strictest possible manner. This way, the local man manages his local context, but does not challenge higher authority and create political conflict; his superior can issue orders to manage the political and strategic issues of the higher level.

So:

  • Companies should be run in an absolute manner by the owners, but those that get big enough to exert political influence have to coordinate with the state, because companies are subordinate to the state. This happens in all societies, but is done in a corrupt and inefficient way in our society because of the lack of honesty and formalization, and because of the general weakness of the state.

  • Local counties and provinces and states are ruled absolutely by their governors, who have free rein to adjust the operation of the state to the local conditions and ideas, but are responsible to the higher authority of the central state to conform to higher strategic directions.

  • Officers of military units have more or less absolute authority to do whatever is necessary to achieve their tactical objectives, but obviously have to fit into a larger strategy and chain of command.

  • In general, subdomains should be governed by absolute personal rule, but also fully subordinate to higher authorities and boundaries who are managing the health of the whole domain.

We can see both localist and absolutist ideas being applied here without contradiction. Absolutism in final political power does not imply centralized management in practice, and freedom of action for local authority does not imply limitation of the authority of the crown.

The alternative, niether absolutist nor localist, is a sort of homogenizing bureaucracy, in which all decisions are global in scope, and no one actor has the power to make any decision, and no one has a personal relationship to any institution. This is an arbitrary, oppressive, and dysfunctional nightmare that breeds a degenerate culture of avoidance of responsibility, lack of skill, and learned helplessness.

The localist-absolutist chain of command on the other hand, has the advantage of creating a culture in which many men have experience with personal rule in complex domains without being in much conflict with each other, thus building up a developed culture of personal rule, and a large elite within this culture from which leaders can be drawn. This can be useful for the succession problem; the emperor can be replaced by an experienced king, the CEO with an experienced division manager, and so on, if necessary.

Structuring what precisely are the scale and organization of the subdomains, and governing their interactions and efforts well, is of course substantial problem in its own right. But fortunately, there is a man in the system with precisely that problem as his job description. You can't ask for much more.

The point here is that absolutism need not imply centralization, and localism need not imply anarchy. When we go to structure our domains, the hierarchical chain of command is a useful piece of social technology that has the virtues of both localism and absolutism.

Strict hierarchical chains of command are not appropriate for everything, though, and absolutism and localism apply differently in other cases. We'll look at that some other time, because that gets into a whole other set of concepts.