Democracy and Size
April 2016
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Democracy and Size

By Jonathan Wallace

At the end of an essay about the optimal size of animals, J.B.S. Haldane suddenly considers the right size of democracies (“On Being the Right Size”). If insects were much bigger than they are, they would need a circulatory system to distribute oxygen, but by being tiny and not thicker than a half inch, they get the oxygen they need directly from the atmosphere. Sixty foot tall human giants can't exist, because they would break their femurs when they took their first step. And so forth. Then, at the end, without any transition, Haldane is talking about democracy:

And just as there is a best size for every animal, so the same is true for every human institution. In the Greek type of democracy all the citizens could listen to a single set of orators and vote directly on questions of legislation. Hence our philosophers held that a small city was the largest possible democratic state.

Haldane then posits that mass media makes direct Athenian democracy theoretically possible in much larger states: “With the development of broadcasting it has once more become possible for every citizen to listen to the political views of representative orators,” so that, in his estimation, we might be able to operate a direct democracy of hundreds of millions of people. Writing in the 1930's, he was quite naïve: I do not get to hear Noam Chomsky's views on MSNBC, nor read them in the New York Times. Yet is he not a “representative orator”?

Aristotle had the same insight in The Politics (1326b3-7):

A state composed of too many will not be a true state, for the simple reason that it can hardly have a true constitution. Who can be the general of a mass so excessively large? And who can be herald, except Stentor?

Rousseau agreed:

Suppose the state consists of 10,000 citizens.....Each member has one ten thousandth of the sovereign authority, though he himself is entirely submissive to that authority. If the state consists of one hundred thousand people, the state of each subject does not change, in that he is still personally subject to all the laws, while his share of the authority has now decreased to one hundred thousandth, ten times less authority than he had in the previous example....Therefore it follows, the larger the state, the less liberty there is. Du Contrat Social, p. 87

Rousseau supported this rather questionable math with the assertion that the citizens should all know each other, and be mentally adept enough, and have rough equality sufficient, to make all their decisions together, as at Athens; and that, in fact, representative government is deadly. “The law being only the expression of the general will, it is clear that in the exercise of the legislative power, the people cannot have representatives”. p. 123

The English think they are free; they are mistaken, they are only free while electing members of Parliament; once they have done so, they are slaves again, they are nothing. p. 123

The American Framers, aware that they were potentially creating a polity of unprecedented size, worried about the prospects of asserting federal power across so large an extent. “In a huge republic, the legislative body would be an uncontrollable mob, and the effectiveness of the sprawling court system would dissipate on the far-flung frontier”. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1992) p. 349 The Framers suggested that a huge America would still consist of a collection of secure small polities, the states, or, conversely, that the heterogeneity of a huge state would reduce faction, not accelerate it. Madison said: “The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter”. Frederick Jackson Turner said of the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century: “Never before in the history of the world has a democracy existed on so vast an area and handled things in the gross with such success, with such largeness of design, and such grasp upon the means of execution”. Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt and Company 1920) p. 260

On the other hand, some knowledgeable folk argue that liberty is more present, more tolerated, in small groupings subject to looser organization than larger ones. As we organize for large society, for bureaucracy, for higher levels of complexity and regimentation, we also enable censorship and repression. E.F. Schumaker, in Small Is Beautiful, says the optimal size of a city is about half a million people. Scotland voted not long ago against independence from Britain; powerful, persuasive voices, such as Paul Krugman in the New York Times, argued that a free Scotland would be too small to be viable. Schumacher, writing forty years ago, thinks this is a crock, that the economic stability and fulfillment of citizens are best solved in small units. “We always need both freedom and order. We need the freedom of lots and lots of small autonomous units, and at the same time, the orderliness of large-scale, possibly global, unity and coordination”. E.F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful (New York: Harper Perennial 1989) p. 69 This vision informed a business philosophy of the 1980's and 1990's, which I loved, which advocated that even large enterprises be composed of fast, flexible, small and semi-autonomous teams, crackling with freedom.

Conversely, Schumaker says, in an expanding and monolithic capitalist society , growth and stability fail because of “a creeping paralysis of noncooperation, as expressed in various types of escapism on the part, not only of the oppressed and exploited, but even of highly privileged groups”. 32 People will play the betrayal card in a national Prisoner’s Dilemma not just from greed or vanity, but as a “Tit for Tat” response to a bureaucracy which has become too large, too remote, too stultified, to do anything for them.

Thomas Huxley said after a visit to the United States: “I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressed by your bigness, or your material resources, as such. Size is not grandeur, and territory does not make a nation. The great issue, about which hangs a true sublimity, and the terror of overhanging fate, is what are you going to do with all these things?” Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons 1952) p. 29 fn.

Alexander Meiklejohn, in Free Speech And Its Relation to Self Government (1948) urged an operative metaphor very different than Holmes’ “marketplace of ideas”. His model for democracy and freedom is essentially a town board, considering whether to place “No Parking” signs on a local road or to dedicate a piece of woodland as a nature preserve. In order to do its job, the board must allow its own members to speak freely, and will also hear from the public. The goal is to listen to the greatest possible diversity of ideas and information so as to be best equipped to make a decision. This also implies a certain amount of regulation: speakers may be limited in time, and the number of speakers expressing a particular viewpoint may also be limited, because the board, to do its job, doesn’t need to hear it more than once. This duels with John Stuart Mill’s rationale for liberty, which is self-fulfillment. Would be speaker number 12 before the board, who wished to say exactly what Speaker 11 already said, may be peremptorily cut off, his overweening desire for self-expression frustrated.

For several years, I have been very involved in an issue important to me and my neighbors pending before the East Hampton town board, and I became a local politics junkie, attending most meetings of the board even when the agenda doesn’t interest me, for the pure social and intellectual pleasure of watching democracy in action. I identified another kind of junkie, the person who, apparently for Millian pleasure, speaks on every possible issue, and have so far avoided becoming one of these; I have addressed the board three times in the past half year, on a new criminal law, affordable housing, and a proposed overnight campsite on a hiking trail. I find local democracy to be the best there is. Every board meeting has a “public portion”, where people can sign up to speak about anything that concerns them; Congress has nothing similar, nor could it. The board consists of five elected people, one of them designated the supervisor, and I have often been one of just six or ten people attending. On hot, upsetting issues, such as the invasion and degradation of Montauk by inebriated tourist hordes, there have sometimes been three hundred people in the audience, and forty or fifty speakers. The key to the success of local democracy is the extent to which I feel intently that my voice is *heard*. In my writing, I have borrowed a phrase from Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, to describe the way I felt most of my life as an American citizen: Unbearably Light, my voice not heard, my opinions unsolicited, my only meaningful role to cast a vote every few years, almost always for someone who shows no sign of listening to me, or millions like me, after I have voted. I figured out before I cast my first vote (for George McGovern, at age 18) that cesspool-floods of corrupting money flowed in, even in 1972, to dictate that other people, with far more wealth and conflicting interests, decided what my candidates actually did once in office. As a citizen of a nation of more than three hundred million people, I am Unbearably Light, but in East Hampton, I am listened to respectfully, greeted by name, engaged in conversation by our legislators.

The other important local differences I have detected are not necessarily present in most other town boards and small governments everywhere. These last few years in East Hampton, we happen to be lucky to have elected representatives who are intelligent, modest, and know how to listen. That hasn’t always been true; in recent times we have had boards which contained powerful corrupt members, and we have had angry, dismissive, ideological groups as well. The honesty and independence of the current group has served as a buffer against the general corruption of American politics. We are in Suffolk County, where a series of converging scandals and prosecutions threaten to pull down people at the highest levels, and are already throwing into question the independence and integrity of the judiciary and the D.A.’s office. I have the impression that the flowing sewage stops at a mystical wall around our town.

In a recent election, the minority party accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from outside special interests, who were attempting to unseat the incumbents to reverse some regulations they had placed on usage and noise at the local airport. Lurid, sophistical literature was distributed, and professional telemarketing teams were hired to call voters, but the money was all wasted; the voters saw through it, and the incumbents were re-elected in a landslide. In other places, most other American places I would say, the money and the sophistry it promotes have a tendency to triumph.

My favorite horrifying example was the defeat of Senator Max Cleland of Georgia in the 2002 elections. A Vietnam veteran who had lost both legs and one arm in the service of his country, Cleland was accused by Republican Saxby Chambliss of insufficient patriotism, in lurid television ads that juxtaposed him with images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Chambliss himself had avoided Vietnam service with a series of student deferments and then by claiming a football injury. We are all made Unbearably Light when the “dark money” dominates most of the time. I recommend Jane Mayer’s recent book of that name, which traces the Koch brothers’ arc in American politics.

East Hampton, as world-famous at it is, has a year round population of 21,457, according to the 2010 census, making it much smaller than the progenitor of town board democracy, Athens, which had a total population of more than 160,000 people including women, children, foreigners and slaves; about 40,000 native male citizens who had the right to vote; and average attendance at meetings on the Pnyx hill of about five thousand of these.

I had the epiphany many years ago that we will never solve human problems without some type of effective world government; I first wrote about this in a 2000 article called Dictators and Turtles in which I said: “The correct largest unit of government should be at the level of the largest problems we need to solve.” This seems to be a proposition of such simple and inescapable logic that you can test it with existing cases which are everywhere in the landscape. Fights over river water rights between fisherfolk and farmers, upstream and downstream populations, polluting factory owners and the drinkers of water, are never settled by comprehensive and lasting truces, in the absence of an over-arching (national) legal regime that governs all of the parties involved. Global climate change can never be resolved by treaties which never seem to be ratified by the biggest old polluter, the U.S., or the worst emerging one, China. New York and New Jersey will never fight a war as long as a federal government arches over both, but war among nations not sheltered under any such dome is constant and highly destructive, its ripple effects extending to famine, movement of huge refugee populations, terrorism, deficit defense spending in Western nations and a turning away from Enlightenment values. The need for a world government as the only possible way to deal with world problems is both easy to see (if you brush the scales from your eyes) and immediately labels you as a crackpot if you talk about it in polite company.

There is a classic old story, somewhere between a joke and an urban legend. “How do I get to the main post office in Brooklyn?” “You can’t get there from here.” Given human nature, the self destructive, self delusive, greedy, vain and violent mixture I call Bloodymindedness, there is little hope we can establish any kind of world government before we come apart politically, socially and economically and enter a new dark age. I believe that any reasonably intelligent, independent-thinking human now realizes that one is inevitably coming, as population, carbon emission, and wars keep increasing, economies are stretched, and fossil fuels run out. There is a scientific consensus that my home in East Hampton, which is about six feet at most above sea level, will be underwater by 2100, and possibly much sooner. Nobody has any reasonable theory as to how we could lose both seaboards, including Boston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and maintain any kind of civilized cohesiveness: where are those displaced millions of people going to move? While nattering about world government causes people to look at you with pity, saying at the dinner-table or, as I personally once discovered, from the lecture platform, that our world is ending inspires distress, anger, coughing, changing of subject.

Bringing my topic back home: Assuming we could form a world government, how could you possibly have a democracy of seven billion people? It is almost unimaginable. I quoted E.F. Schumaker’s proposed solution above: “We need the freedom of lots and lots of small autonomous units, and at the same time, the orderliness of large-scale, possibly global, unity and coordination.” It is a beautiful vision but assumes that democracy scales: in Schumaker’s world, corrupt Suffolk County, scandal-ridden New York state (where governor Cuomo suddenly fired an ethics commission a few years ago) and Koch-dominated America are all lovely, rational, super-sized East Hamptons.

Small is Beautiful, as much as I appreciated the vision, is not on my top ten list of books I have read which communicate simple, provable ideas I have incorporated into my own philosophy and world view. I called a 2010 essay listing these Books That Wrote Me, One that didn’t make the list, because I read it later, is Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies. Tainter reviews every theory of why civilizations fall, and rejects nearly all of them. My favorite crackpot explanation is that women’s rights lead directly to the crash in a very unexpected way: Tainter cites a writer who said that society needs great men like Alexander and Napoleon to advance; these men are born to intelligent, cold mothers; in a society in which such women have the right to decide not to have children, there will be no more great men. Samuel Beckett, in an essay about an Irish law banning birth control, commented that if the Irish have no more Cuchalains, it will not be because they were “contraceived”.

Tainter concludes that the fall of civilizations is often not as sudden, unplanned and chaotic as it seems. I think of the line in Toy Story that Buzz Lightyear is not flying but “falling with style”: Tainter’s revelation is that Rome failed with style. “Players” everywhere, basically upper middle class Romans and Romanized locals in agriculture and business in the colonies, decided that the taxes they paid Rome were not buying sufficient protection or other value, and simplified their lives by switching allegiance to local barbarian kings, who were in many cases not as violent and chaotic as the word “barbarian” implies (just as the Romans were not really as civilized as the Official Narrative claims). Thus, in Tainter’s estimation, the “fall” of a civilization is really a reconfiguration, a simplifying. Tainter’s book was published a year before the Soviet Union dissolved, but the details of that event seems to confirm Tainter’s thesis.

After an adult lifetime of advocating a world government that I know Bloodymindedness won’t permit, I had the epiphany just a few weeks ago that the second best, and much more likely, option, is a Tainteresque controlled failure. I am imagining a decline just halfway to a more local and distributed world, in which we lose just enough knowledge, money and will to deploy world-harming technologies such as nuclear weapons, and stop emitting nearly so much carbon. Not a Mad Max or Boy and His Dog dystopia. I have a vision of a nation consisting of the former New York, Massachusetts and Vermont (maybe New Jersey and Connecticut too), with single payer health insurance and someone like Bernie Sanders as President.