After the shutdown fiasco, think small

  • Posted: Monday, October 21, 2013 12:01 a.m.



The point about the 500-pound gorilla in the room is that there is a 500-pound gorilla — and it’s the government we have in this country, a government too incompetent, inept, corrupt and unfixable, and all because it is too big. Simple as that.

Upon reflection, everyone (certainly everyone alive during this last year of sequester and shutdown and gridlock and unprecedented government intrusion) I think would come to this conclusion. It’s obvious. 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 that, immensity, bulk, quantity, greatness, Big Macs, Whoppers, Green Giant — 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 the 500-pound gorilla is there 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 the gorilla. It’s not amendments to the Constitution (the document that inevitably got us where we are today), for that only tries to reform the gorilla. 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 a 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 year 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 35,000-40,000 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 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.”

Another approach would be contemporary, and here I think we might look at nations for a guide. My study of nation sizes a few years ago (in “Rethinking the American Union,” Pelican, 2012) found that half the nations of the world are smaller than 5.5 million people, eighteen of the top 20 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 percent under 1 million, and a “sustainable society index” (by a 2011 sociological study) ranked only small states in the top 10 (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. Seven of them are smaller than Vermont.

My conclusion from all this was that the optimum size of successful states was in the range of 3 million 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.

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

Kirkpatrick Sale, a resident of Mount Pleasant, is the author of more than a dozen books about history and environmental politics.

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