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The Oldest Formula in History

A Sad Equation

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There are many equations in human history. Probably the most famous is E=MC(2). As famous and important as that equation is, it is not the oldest. The oldest equation that matters in human history is Humanity + Power = Violence. It is a simple equation that has been with humanity since the dawn of time. It is as true today as it was for the cavemen.

This is a formula whose constituent parts are true across time and across culture. That statement rankles many, yet if we break it down, we will see it is undeniably true and consistent with everything God has taught us.

Humanity (or perhaps Inhumanity)

The first element in the equation is humanity. Claiming that this is the same across time and culture is the part that upsets people the most. Surely not, most will object. Those other guys are not the same as us. They are the violent, oppressive ones, not us. They are the ones with the stultified culture and the autocratic, authoritarian ways. We aspire to higher values. This may seem especially true of what Americans think of themselves, but it is true across the globe.

The idea that there are cultural or national differences is ahistorical nonsense. There is nothing in history that should make anyone think that any group of people is possessed of a unique cultural DNA. Since it is the United States that claims for itself the most “exceptionalism”, we should just think about our own history for a moment. There is the case of African slaves, and then there is the extermination of most of the native tribes on the North American continent. That should end the notion of “exceptionalism” before we even get to U.S. overseas history.

The notion that there is a group that is wired up differently is also theological nonsense. This negates the notion that God made us in His image. All of us in His image. It also disregards the copious passages in Scripture that led us to assume a welcoming posture to the stranger among us, the other. To suggest that we are all that and those guys are something less turns on its head the way God would have us view and treat all His children. It is in fact this view that leads groups to treat others in a way exactly opposite from the way God would have us treat one another. This is a mindset completely at odds with the commandment to love one another the way God loves us (John 13:34) and the essence of the golden rule, treating others the way we would want to be treated.

No, humanity is the same throughout time and across culture. Humanity is capable of some of the most incredible feats and achievements and has produced works of sublime beauty. Humanity has also committed some of the most horrendous acts of barbarity toward one another. Things that would make predatory jungle animals blanche. We are a mixed bag, and we always have been, and we always will be. This fact is not altered by which side of an international border you were born on, nor does it depend upon which historical epoch you happen to consider. Understand that and you go a long way to understanding how much God loves us anyway.

Power (and the love of it)

This is the part of the equation that is variable. There have been times in human history when power has been more circumscribed and controlled than others. There is always a tension as the author Murray Rothbard put it between power and market. Power is when the state, the most efficient means of organized violence, has the upper hand. Market is when voluntary cooperation holds sway. The historical pattern is that when the market gets the upper hand the society grows wealthier. This tends to produce the best that humanity has to offer. Unfortunately this additional wealth creates a power base that the ever-present venal humanity uses to expand state power. This state power then expands to other geographic areas all while visiting copious amounts of violence upon its victims.

The growing empire of violence gets too large, too unwieldy and too damaging to the wellsprings of wealth and power. The now lethargic entity then either dissolves and/or is taken over by a more dynamic entity that is in the growth phase of this cycle.

We see this repeated throughout history. The various empires of Mesopotamia, the multitude of dynasties in China, and the Roman empire. Closer to modern times, the Ottoman Turks and the British empire. All these states possessed enough economic dynamism to grow, then they used the power that dynamism gave them to visit violence upon their neighbors and at times their own subjects. This is certainly true of the United States empire. The variable that always matters is that of power. Increase power then you will increase violence.

As Europe, and Japan grew wealthy, they used that wealth to expand their political power and, in violation of the norms that made them wealthy, they went and colonized most of the world. As they buckled under the weight of this imperial spending and the concomitant rise in domestic entitlements, they bankrupted themselves, but not before an orgy of imperial violence we call the First and Second World Wars.

The U.S. was the clear winner here and supplanted Europe as the key imperial ruler. In retrospect the U.S. rather easily outlasted the economically backward Soviet system and by 1990 emerged (for now at least) as the world’s first and to date only global empire. Yet the cracks are beginning to show, as I will outline in coming weeks. The point is that the level of violence the U.S. has visited upon the world in their pursuit of empire has matched those that have preceded them in history. Not even the ole US of A is beyond this odious equation.

Changing the Equation

The only way to change the equation is to reduce the only variable in the equation, power. This may be a vain attempt, given the nature of humanity but it is one we as children of God are called to make. The surest way to decrease the amount of power to be used for violence is to reduce the size of states. That is, we need many more, much smaller political entities.

History has shown us a path. The notable difference between the fall of Han China and the fall of Rome is that there were Chinese dynasties that rose to replace the Han. There was no replacement for Rome (although not for lack of effort). That Europe was fractured into many small tribal confederations and the Mediterranean was split off by the rise of Islam created a situation whereby there was a decided lack of centralized power. This competition between smaller states, while often violent, preclude the mass violence that goes along with great empire. This was one of the key reasons the west grew wealthy and crossed the threshold of complexity that is industrial capitalism first. There was not a stultifying series of empires that ground down the ability of voluntary cooperation to produce wealth. Alas, as we have seen, the reprieve was only temporary.

If we are to change the variable, then we need to think about breaking up large imperial entities like the United States. The smaller the better. To paraphrase an author we would be safer with 100,000 nations the size of Lichtenstein. We should work toward the devolution of all political power wherever it has accumulated. We should look to our Catholic brethren and the insightful ideas behind what they call subsidiarity, which is basically governance at the smallest level possible. A world of small states, competing in a fractured marketplace provides far more safety than large behemoths marshalling all manner of destructive force.

The way we get there is long and difficult and stretches into many posts. For the moment we should in fine 12-step fashion, take the first step. The first step is admitting that we have a problem. This recognition comes from keeping in mind this oldest of awful equations and see the world for what it really is, and to work toward lowering the power variable so that we may have a better chance to build the kind of world God wishes for His children.

Praise Be to God

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