“To the Size of States There Is a Limit”: Measurements for the Success of a State

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This essay was first published in Don Livingston, ed., Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century.

Yes, Aristotle declared there to be a limit to the size of states: ” a limit, as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements; for none of these retain their natural power when they are too large . . . , but they either wholly lose their nature, or are spoiled,” so he said. But really, what the hell did he know? He lived at a time when the entire population of the world was somewhere around 120 million people. The population of the Greek-speaking city states, which were not united in a nation, in all may have been 8 million, and Athens, where he lived, considered a large city, would have been around 160,000 people. Limits? He couldn’t even imagine a world (ours) of 6.8 billion, a nation (China) of 1.3 billion, or a city (Tokyo) of 36 million. How is he going to help us?

It is because, firstly, he did know that there are limits: “Experience shows that a very populous city can rarely, if ever, lie well governed; since all cities which have a reputation for good government have a limit of population. We may argue on grounds of reason, and the same result will follow: for law is order, and good law is good order; but a very great multitude cannot be orderly.” And it doesn’t matter if that city is 1 million or 36 million—political entities at such sizes could certainly not be democratic in any sense, could not possibly function with anything approaching efficiency, and could exist only with great inequities of wealth and material comfort.

And because, secondly, he did know that human beings are of a certain limited size of brain and comprehension and that putting them in the aggregate does not make them any smarter—or as another philosopher, Lemuel Gulliver, once said, “Reason does not extend itself with the bulk of the body.” There is a human scale to human politics, defined by human nature, that functions well only in such aggregations as do not overstress and overburden the quite capable and ingenious but limited human brain and human capacity.

Aristotle thought mostly in terms of cities, not knowing nations, but even if we may extend those units with tin-experience of 2,000 more years to larger units such as nations, they have to be limited: limited by human nature and human experience. And it is with that maxim of Aristotle’s that we now may start contemplating what in today’s world would constitute the ideal, or let us say the optimum, size of a state, with these two overriding criteria: “sufficient,” in Aristotle’s, words, “or a good life in the political community”—that would be some form of democracy—and “the largest number which suffices for the purposes of a good life”—that would be efficiency. Democracy and efficiency.

And mark well—this is not some sort of idle philosopher’s quest. It is, or could be, the foundation of a serious reordering of our political world, and a reordering such as the process of secession—indeed, only the process of secession, as I see it-could provide. We have abundant evidence that a state as large as 305 million people is ungovernable. Did not Katrina and the BP oil disaster prove that, or runaway health costs, and broken borders, or the failure of education, alternative energy, climate change, housing, job creation, and a thousand other social ills unmet? Bloated and corrupted beyond its ability to address, much less solve, any of the problems as an empire it has created, it is a blatant failure. So let us he bold to ask, what could replace it, and at what size? The answer, as will appear, is the independent States, that is to say nations, of America.

Let us start by looking at real-world figures of modern-day nations to give us some clue as to population sizes that actually work.

Of all the world’s political entities—there are 223 of them, counting the smallest independent islands—45 are below 250,000 people, 67 below 1 million, and 108 below 5 million. In fact, 50 percent of nations are below 5.5 million, and a full 58 percent are smaller than Switzerland’s population of 7.7 million. Obviously, most countries in the world function with relatively small populations. And looking at the nations that are recognized models of statecraft, there are eight of them even below 500,000—Luxembourg, Malta, Iceland, Barbados, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino. The example of Iceland, with the world’s oldest parliament and an unquestioned beacon of democracy (banking troubles aside), suggests that 319,000 people is all you would need. Going up a bit in size, there are another six models of good governance below 5 million: Singapore, Norway, Costa Rica, Ireland, New Zealand, and Estonia.

Next, let us look at the size of the most prosperous nations ranked by per-capita GDP. (Parenthetically let me say that I realize GDP is a crude and entirely uncritical measure of economic worth and reflects all kinds of growth, much undesirable, but until we have nations devoted to steady-state economies instead, this is the best way to gauge economic performance.) Eighteen of the top twenty by GDP rank (a total of twenty-seven countries because of ties) are small, under 5 million, and all but one of the top ten are under 5 million (that’s the U.S., at tenth place, the others being, in order, Liechtenstein, Qatar, Luxembourg, Bermuda, Norway, Kuwait, Jersey, Singapore, and Brunei). The average size of those nine is 1.9 million. The average size of all twenty-seven of the top economic nations, excluding the U.S., is 5.1 million.

You are beginning to get the picture.

Let us take another measure—freedom, as reckoned by three different rating sources, Freedom House, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist, using measures of civil liberties, open elections, free media, and the like. Of the fourteen states reckoned freest in the world, nine of them (64 percent) have populations below Switzerland at 7.7 million and eleven below Sweden at 9.3 million, and the only sizeable states are Canada the United Kingdom, and Germany, the largest, at 81 million.

There is one other measure of freedom put out by Freedom House, ranking all the nations of the world according to political rights and civil liberties, and there are only forty-six nations with perfect scores.  The majority of those are under 5 million in population, and indeed seventeen of them are even under 1 million. That is rather astonishing in itself. And only fourteen of the forty-six free nations are over 7.5 million. Excluding the United States, whose reputation for freedom is fully belied by its incarceration of 2.3 million people, 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, and excluding the United Kingdom, Spain, and Poland, the average population of the free states of the world is approximately 5 million.

Let me finally take several other national rankings. Literacy of the forty-four countries that claim a literacy rate of 99 or better (1 say claim, since it is hard to verify), only fifteen are large, while twenty-nine (66 percent) are below 7.5 million. Health: measured by the World Health Organization, twelve of the top twenty are under 7 million, none over 65 million. In a recent ranking of happiness and standard of living by sociologist Steven D. Hales, the top nations were Norway, Iceland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Austria, and Finland, all small but Canada and Australia. And a “sustainable society index” created by two scholars, adding in environmental and ecological factors, ranks only smaller countries in the top ten—in order, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Austria, Iceland, Vietnam, Georgia, New Zealand, and Latvia.

Enough of that—the point, I trust, is well and simply made. A nation can be not only viable and sustainable at quite small population sizes, a model of more-or-less democratic and efficient government, but in fact can provide all the necessary qualities for superior living. Indeed, the figures seem to suggest that, though it is certainly possible to thrive at sizes under a million people, there is a more-or-less optimum size for a successful state, somewhere in the range of 3 to 5 million people.

Next, let us take a quick look at geographic sizes of successful nations. A great many nations are surprisingly small— underlining the point, often missed by critics of secession, that a nation does not have to be self-sufficient to operate well in the modern world. In fact, 85 of the 223 political entities counted by the United Nations are under 10,000 square miles— that is to say, the size of Vermont or smaller—and they include Israel, El Salvador, the Bahamas, Qatar, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Singapore, and Andorra.

And if we go back to that measure of economic strength, the GDP per capita, small nations prove to be decidedly advantageous. Of the top twenty ranked nations (twenty-seven in all including ties), all but eight are small in area, under 35,000 square miles, the global median (the size of South Carolina), and two of those eight are Norway and Sweden, technically large but effectively small when excluding their empty northern areas. In other words, 77 percent of the prosperous nations are small. And most of them are quite small indeed, under 10,000 square miles (Liechtenstein, Qatar, Luxembourg, Bermuda, Kuwait, Jersey, Singapore, Brunei, Guernsey, the Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, Andorra, San Marino, the British Virgin Islands, and Gibraltar).

All this is proof positive that economically successful nations need not be large in geographic size In fact, it is strongly suggestive that large size may be a hindrance. The reason for this is that administrative, distribution, transportation, and similar transaction costs obviously have to rise, perhaps exponentially, as geographic size increases. Control and communication also become more difficult to manage over long distances, often to the point where central authority and governance become nearly impossible, and as all the lines and signals become more complex, the ability to manage efficiently is severely diminished.

Small, let’s face it, is not only beautiful but bountiful.

Once that important idea is understood, a further logical argument can be derived from it: that in many cases a smallish nation might find it desirable to divide up even further so as to take advantage of smaller areas for more efficient economic functions. This might be outright secession in some places, where it would simply be good economic sense—and good political and cultural sense as well. But it might also take the form of economic and political devolution, giving smaller areas autonomy and power without outright secession, much as Switzerland is the model of.

In fact, I wish to propose, out of these figures and even more so out of the history of the world, that there is a Law of Government Size, and it goes like this: Economic and social misery increases in direct proportion to the size and power of the central government of a nation.

In testing this law in history—Sale’s Law, as I like to think of it—let me begin with Arnold Toynbee’s great and justifiably classic study of human civilization, whose primary conclusion is that the next-to-last stage of any society, leading directly to its final stage of collapse, is “its forcible political unification in a centralized state,” and he gives as evidence the Roman Empire; the Ottoman, Bengal, and Mongol empires; the Tokugawa Shogunate; and ultimately the Spanish, British, French, and Portuguese empires. The consolidation of nations into powerful empires leads not to shining periods of peace and prosperity and the advance of human betterment but to increasing restriction, warfare, autocracy, crowding, inequality, poverty, and starvation.

The reason for all this is not mysterious. As a government grows, it expands both its bureaucratic might over domestic affairs and its military might over external ones. Money must be found for this expansion, and it comes either from taxation, which leads to higher prices and ultimately inflation—result, as Mr. Micawber might say, social misery—or from printing new money, which also leads to higher prices and inflation— result, again, social misery. Wealth is also thought to come from conquest and colonization, enlarging spoils through warfare, but it comes at the price of imposing increased government control, military conscription at home (“war is the health of states,” as Randolph Bourne put it), violence, bloodshed, and misery for one’s own army and civilians and opposing forces abroad. Result, economic and social misery.

I have detailed much of this in my book Human Scale, but let me just give a capsulated version here, concentrating on Europe. There have been four major periods of great state consolidation and enlargement in the last thousand years:

1. From 1150 to 1300 AD, royal dynasties replaced medieval baronies and city states in England, Aquitaine, Sicily, Aragon, and Castile, resulting in rampant inflation of nearly 400 percent and almost incessant wars, with increasing battle casualties from a few hundred to more than 1 million.

2. From 1525 to 1650, with the consolidation of national power through standing armies, royal taxation, central banks, civilian bureaucracies, and state religions Europe saw an inflation rate of more than 700 percent in just 125 years and an unprecedented expansion of wars, a war intensity seven times greater than Europe had seen before, with warfare casualties increasing to maybe 8 million, maybe 5 million in the Thirty Years War alone.

3. From 1775 to 1815, the period of modern state government over most of Europe, including national police forces, conscripted armies, and centralized state power a la the Code Napoleon, there was an inflation rate of more than 250 percent in just forty years, in 1815 the highest at any time until 1920s, with war casualties up to 15 million (maybe 5 million in the Napoleonic Wars) in that short period.

Finally, in period 4, from 1910 to 1970, familiar to us, all European nations consolidated and expanded power, known in many places as totalitarianism (known in the U.S., though we had all the components of totalitarianism—consolidated central power, a national bank, income tax, national police, conscription, imperial presidency—as freedom and democracy), resulting in the worst depression in history and inflation of 1,400 percent and, of course, the two most ruinous wars in all human history contributing to casualties, mostly deaths, of 100 million or more.

The inevitable conclusion is that the larger the state, tin-more economic disasters and military casualties: the Law of Government Size.

Now that we have established the virtue of smallness worldwide, let us apply these figures to the United States and see what they tell us.

Of the fifty States, just over half (twenty-nine) are below 5 million people. Half the population lives in forty States that average out to 3.7 million people; the other half is in the ten largest States. In the 3-to-5-million population class, there are ten States and one colony that I am suggesting would be ideal secession candidates—Iowa, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina. Alabama, Colorado, and Mississippi. Another thirteen between 1 to 3 million would be ideal—Montana, Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Idaho, Nebraska, West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Kansas, and Arkansas. Another eight below a million but larger than Iceland would also be ideal, and that includes beloved Vermont. In other words, thirty-one of the States (plus Puerto Rico) fall in a range where similar sizes in the rest of the world have produced successful independent nations. Those are the candidates for successful secession.

Add to that the lessons from geographic size. We have already seen that eighty-four political areas in the world are smaller than Vermont, the second smallest U.S. State. Now let us see how the States measure up to the world figures.  The median U.S. State area is roughly 58,000 square miles—twenty-five States are smaller than that, twenty-five bigger. If all of those under 58,000 were independent, they would match seventy-nine other nations in the world, among them Greece, Nicaragua, Iceland, Hungary, Portugal, Austria, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Sri Lanka, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Taiwan. In other words, size is no hindrance whatsoever to successfully operating as a nation in the world— and, as I have suggested, small size seems indeed to be a virtue.

It need not be all about population or geographic sizes—one might factor in cultural cohesion, developed infrastructure, historical identity, and suchlike—but that certainly seems to me to be the sensible place to start when considering viable States. And since the experience of the world has shown— indeed, over and over again in the formation of nations since the nineteenth century—that entities in the 3-to-5-million range may be optimum for governance and efficiency, and some within a l-to-3-million range, that is how to begin assessing bodies for their secessionist potential and their chances of national success.

I hope all this Aristotelian examination is not regarded as a mere academic exercise, though a great deal of exercise, I assure you, has gone into it. I believe that it establishes an impetus for Americans who understand that their national government (no oxymoron intended) is broken and cannot be fixed (there were 86 percent of them in a national poll not long ago) and who realize that the only hope to reenergize American politics and recreate the vibrant collection of democracies that the founding generation of the eighteenth century envisioned is to create truly sovereign States through peaceful, popular, powerful secession.

Let me underscore that conclusion: the only hope is secession.

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