After This Year’s Mess, Small Is More Beautiful Than Ever

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There is one and only one conclusion that I should think everyone alive during this last year of sequester and shutdown and gridlock and Obamacare, and unprecedented government intrusion, would come to is this: the government we have in this country is too incompetent, inept, corrupt, wasteful, and inefficient, too centralized,  undemocratic, unjust, and invasive, and too unresponsive to the needs of individual citizens and small communities, and all because it is too big.  Simple as that.

The reason that more of us don’t come to it is that as a nation we have long been fixated on the value of bigness, size, super-this and colossal-that, immensity, bulk, quantity, greatness, Big Macs, Whoppers, Green Giant, big-box stores, king-size mattresses, global trade, mass production, mcmansions, high rises, double-wides—and the smallest olive size is jumbo.  We’re just not trained to see things in terms of scale, proportion, adequacy, appropriateness.  As a nation we killed nearly a million of our own people to reinforce the value of oneness and largeness, and to punish the idea of division and separateness.

But the simple fact is that a nation of more than 300 million people, covering nearly 4 million square miles from ocean to ocean and beyond, cannot be governed, by any system, by any agency, despotic or democratic. And certainly not by a system where 535 people are supposed to legislate for all—one for 58,000 people!—and it takes 4,430,000 to administer to them at the federal level. That is beyond human capability, beyond even angelic ability.

This truth stares us in the face every day, and yet we never admit it, never enunciate it.  Why, that would be a confession that the nation is a failure, the American experiment at large-scale republicanism is at an end, and we’ve got to step back and do something very, very different.  And as a nation, even one in such deep political, economic, financial, and cultural trouble, we don’t seem to be able to face that.

And yet it is only by admitting that nation is too big to work that we stand a chance of ever getting out of the deep mess we’ve created. That is the first step toward thinking about the alternative.  It’s not elections, of course, for that doesn’t change anything, certainly not size.  It’s not amendments to the Constitution (the document that inevitably got us where we are today), for that only tries to reform a system that has grown so far beyond the Founders’ conception (they had a nation of just under 4 million people) that it bears scant relation to the original. And it’s not  any sort of rejiggering or reorganizing or reworking or even revolution.

It’s devolution, dissolution, secession, separatism.  It’s making everything smaller.

Here is an important, overlooked fact: not only is there is a size and scale at which things work, but we can discover it by looking at history and looking at the world around us.  The human animal and the human brain are finite, capable of functioning properly only at a certain limited scale.  I am tempted to suggest that humans evolved for perhaps two million years in societies of very small sizes, perhaps no larger than 500 people, and there are probably very good reasons for that.  But it doesn’t seem entirely realistic to seek to reorganize the country into small communities, however evolutionarily sound that would be, so we have to think of some other ways of approaching optimal sizes.

One would be historical.  The storied Greek city-states were generally under 50,000—Plato suggested the ideal would be 5,040 citizens, or perhaps 35-40,000 people—and Athens for much of its time was at that size, growing to a limit of about 150,000 only at its height of power. The cities that invented and fostered universities in the 12th century were under 50,000—Bologna at perhaps 35,000, Paris at 50,000, Oxford and Cambridge under 20,000. The cities of medieval Italy that created the Renaissance were usually around 50,000 people, Florence maybe 40,000, Venice slightly more, Rome around 55,000.  Constantine Doxiadis, who spent a lifetime studying such things, said that “if we look back into history…we find that, throughout the long evolution of human settlements, people in all parts of the world have tended to create urban settlements which reached an optimum size of 50,000 people.”

But since we can’t imagine nations today that small, we might try to figure what would be the appropriate size of a modern nation state. That’s somewhat harder to derive, but there is one place to start, and that’s with information on states that collapse from oversize.

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Toynbee showed years ago that states that grow into empires inevitably collapse as a result of the growing numbers of problem as a state grows bigger, and that “forcible political unification” in a centralized state—when in fact it might seem to be at its height—is the last stage before collapse.   As governments grow, regardless of their systems of command, their bureaucracies and armies grow, and to justify this expansion they almost always choose warfare—as Lewis Mumford put it, they “squander human vitality and economic wealth on the acts of war”—and that requires enemies, real or, many times, fabricated.  Warfare in turn requires increased taxes or deficit borrowing to pay for it all, resulting almost always in great disparity between rich and poor, and measures necessary to keep that disparity from reversing. That produces a polity that, though increasingly authoritarian, in time becomes fragile and eventually both politically and economically unsustainable: hence Toynbee’s law.

It is not possible to come up with a population figure for the point at which such a collapse happens, because this stage is different with different ages, technologies, geographical reaches, and political conditions. It’s only possible to determine where a contemporary nation is on this trajectory, and it takes no imagination to see where the United States stands.  The wonder is that it has not succumbed sooner.

To get at an idea of  what would be a successful national size, here I think we might look at contemporary nations for a guide.  My study of nation sizes a few years ago (in Rethinking the American Union, edited by Donald Livingston, Pelican, 2012) found that half the nations of the world are smaller than 5.5 million people, eighteen of the top twenty most prosperous  (ranked by GDP) are under 5 million, the majority of the freest states (in the measure put out by Freedom House) are under 5 million and 37 per cent under l million, and a “sustainable society index” (by a 2011 sociological study) ranked only small states in the top ten (Sweden, with 9.3 million, led the list).  Interestingly, a look at the geographic sizes of successful nations confirms the point: as many as 85 of the 223 political entities  counted by the United Nations are under 10,000 square miles—that’s the size of Vermont—and  three-quarters of  the richest nations are smaller than the world median, 17 of them are smaller  than Vermont.

My conclusion from all this—and believe me, it’s not because I’m living in the Palmetto State–was that the optimum size of successful states was in the range of 3 to 5 million people, about the size of South Carolina, and no bigger than 35,000 square miles, about the size of… South Carolina.

So there we have some guidelines for the kinds of nations that seem to work well, in contrast to the besotted behemoth we have around us today.  It’s not all that complicated, really: past a certain population, past a certain size, control and efficient government  become more difficult, true representation (much less any semblance of democracy) becomes impossible, and costs of administration, transportation, distribution, and communication become unsustainable. Leopold Kohr, the great economist, put it this way:

Social problems have the unfortunate tendency to grow at a geometric   ratio…. while the ability of man to cope with them, if it can be extended at all, grows only at an arithmetic ratio.  Which means that if a society grows beyond its optim9um size, its problems must eventually outrun the growth of those human faculties which are necessary for dealing with them.

So I repeat: devolution, dissolution, secession. Let’s not let historical bugaboos confuse us.  Let’s start thinking about it seriously.

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