The Pope, the G8, and the “Man in Charge” Fallacy

pope-red-hat.png During the G8 meetings, Pope Benedict released a new encyclical saying “there is urgent need of a true world political authority.” This authority is needed:

To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration.

The Pope has fallen for the venerable “Man in Charge” fallacy. There is a “Man in Charge” of the global economy (or, according to the Pope, there should be). So all that we need is to get the right comprehensive set of recommendations to the Man in Charge to fix the global economy.

This a fallacy simply because: there is no Man in Charge of the global economy, There never has been, and there never will be. There is no Man in Charge of any national economy either. This is not about the debate about the role of government vs. markets, this is simply a statement of fact. There are government leaders, to be sure, but they are only one among many different power centers in the political system, society, and in the economy, all with sharply conflicting interests and tools to effect change, and so any individual leader has very limited power to change things. This is true of both authoritarian and democratic systems. You may want one of those leaders to act on a particular problem, which is fine, but you should not think that leader is the Man in Charge.

The Man in Charge fallacy contaminates much of the discussion in development economics. There is an endless search for the right comprehensive strategy to end global poverty, or to achieve national economic development. Such a search only makes sense if there is a Man in Charge, which there isn’t, who would have the power to implement The Strategy. Once you realize that all power is partial, you seek ways to achieve incremental beneficial changes and you end the unproductive search for the Complete Grand Plan to solve the problem all at once.

We pay excessive attention to G8 summits because we think the G8 is the eightfold Man in Charge. That this is a leap of faith is particularly obvious this year. The G8’s solution to the problems of the poor is apparently to bore them out of poverty through sheer wordiness. They reaffirm previous reaffirmations, amplify previous amplifications, and clarify previous clarifications.

Why do we all fall for the Man in Charge fallacy? We like to anthropomorphize a complex system of multiple power centers, bottom-up social norms, and spontaneous markets, innovators, and entrepreneurs, because it is scary to think of such a complex system with no Man in Charge. Pope Benedict XVI understandably thinks it’s possible to have a Man in Charge of the global economy since official church dogma says he himself is the Man in Charge of the church (although perhaps this is just as much a leap of faith). For the rest of us, maybe it goes back to our evolutionary caveman brain wiring, when there really was more of a Man in Charge of a simple hunting band during caveman times.

Once we free ourselves from the Man in Charge fallacy, all of us are set free to use whatever talents or levers of power are at our disposal to contribute our own tiny part of a solution to one problem – and there are so many of us, that many problems will be solved. We know this because, with the greatest improvement in standards of living and social indicators in the past half century in human history, we have already achieved an amazing amount with no Man in Charge.