TO THE SIZE OF STATES THERE IS A LIMIT: Measurements for the Success of Secession

February 9, 2010

by Kirkpatrick Sale

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 50 million people—about the size of England today—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 under 100,000 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, be 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.

So political units, Aristotle said—he thought mostly in terms of cities, not knowing nations—but even if we may extend those units with the experience of 2000 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, “ for 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 hark– 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—some scholar said in the paper just this past Sunday that we are in the fourth decade of the inability of Congress to pass a single measure of social consequence. 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 be 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 first 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, 108 below 5 million; in fact 50 per cent of nations are below 5.5 million, and a full 58 per cent are smaller than Switzerland’s population of 7.7 million (Wikipedia: World populations by rank). That says right there that it is obvious that most countries in the world function with quite relatively small populations. And looking at the nations that are recognized models of statecraft, there are eight of them even below 500,000—Luxemburg, Malta, Iceland, Barbados, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino—and the example of Iceland, with the world’s oldest parliament and an unquestioned beacon of democracy (troubles of its banking aside), suggests that 319,000 people is all you would need. Going up a bit in size, there are another nine models of good governance below 5 million, including Singapore, Norway, Costa Rico, Ireland, New Zealand, Estonia, Luxembourg, and Malta.

Next, let’s look at the size of the most prosperous nations ranked by per capita Gross Domestic Product (Wikipedia: List of countries by GDP, CIA Factbook). (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 20 by GDP rank (a total of 27 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 ten, the others being Liechtenstein, Qatar, Luxembourg, Bermuda, Norway, Kuwait, Jersey, Singapore, and Brunei in order); the average size of those nine is 1.9 million. The average size of all 27 of the top economic nations, excluding the U.S., is 5.1 million.

You are beginning to get the picture.

Let’s take another measure—freedom, as reckoned by three different rating sites, Freedom House, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist, using measures of civil liberties, open elections, free media, and the like. Of the 14 states reckoned freest in the world, nine of them (64 per cent) have populations below Switzerland at 7.7 million, 11 below Sweden at 9.3 million, and the only sizeable states are Canada, United Kingdom, and Germany, the largest, at 81 million.

There’s one other measure of freedom that is put out by Freedom House, ranking all the nations of the world according to political rights and civil liberties, and there are only 46 nations with perfect scores. Of those 46, the majority of them are under 5 million in population, and indeed 17 of them are even under l million. That’s rather astonishing in itself. And only 14 of the 46 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 per cent 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 44 countries that claim a literacy rate of 99 or better (I say claim, since it is hard to verify), only 15 are large, 29 (66 per cent) of the 44 below 7.5 million. Health: measured by the World Health Organization, 12 of the top 20 are under 7 million, none over 65 million. In a ranking of happiness and standard of living last year by sociologist Steven Hales, the top nations are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Austria, and Finland, all but Canada and Australia small. And a “sustainable society index” created by two scholars earlier last year, adding in environmental and ecological factors, ranks only smaller countries in the top 10—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 there are 85 political entities out of the 223 counted by the U.N. that are under 10,000 square miles—that is to say, the size of Vermont or smaller—and they include Israel, El Salvador, Bahamas, Qatar, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Singapore, and Andorra.

And if we go back to that measure of economic strength, the Gross Domestic Product per capita, small nations prove to be decidedly advantageous: of the top 20 ranked nations (27 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 include Norway and Sweden, technically large but excluding their empty northern areas effectively small; in other words 77 per cent 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, Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, Andorra, San Marino, British Virgin Islands, and Gibraltar).

All this is proof positive that economically successful nations needn’t be large in geographic size, and to the contrary, this is the important point: it is strongly suggestive that large size may in fact 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 farther 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 more, places where it would make political and cultural good 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 to you, out of these figures and even moreso out of the history of the world, that there is a Law of Government Size, and it goes like this: Economic and social misery increasers 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 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, and the Ottoman, Benghal, and Mongol empires, and 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, immiseration, 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 and military conscription at home (“War is the health of states,” as Randolph Bourne put it) and increased 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” (available on request from New Catalyst Books), 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, with the establishment of royal dynasties replacing 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, saw an inflation rate of more than 700 per cent in just 125 years and an unprecedented expansion of wars, a war intensity seven times greater than Europe had seen before, 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, centralized state power a la the Code Napoleon, there was an inflation rate of more than 250 per cent in just 40 years, in 1815 the highest at any time until 1920s, and war casualties up to 15 million (maybe 5 million in the Napoleonic Wars) in that short period.

4. Finally, from 1910 to 1970, familiar to us, all European nations consolidated and expanded power, known in many places as totalitarianism (though known in the U.S., though we had all the components of totalitarianism–consolidated central power, national bank, income tax, national police, conscription, imperial presidency– known as freedom and democracy), resulting in the worst depression in history and inflation of 1400 per cent, and of course the two most ruinous wars in all human history contributing to casualties, mostly deaths, of 100 million or more.

Conclusion inevitable: the larger the state, the more economic disaster and military casualties. The Law of Government Size.

Now that we have established the virtue of smallness worldwide, let’s apply these figures to the United States and see what it tells us.

Of the 50 states, just over half (29) are below 5 million people. Half the population lives in 40 states that average out to 3.7 million people; the other half is in the 10 largest states. There are 10 states and one colony in the 3-to-5 million population class that I’m suggesting would be ideal secession candidates—Iowa, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, Colorado, and Mississippi—another 13 between 1 to 3 million—Montana, Rhode Island, Hawai’i, New Hampshire, Maine, Idaho, Nebraska, West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Kansas, and Arkansas—and another eight below a million but larger than Iceland, and that includes beloved Vermont. In other words, 30 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’ve already seen that 84 political areas in the world are smaller than Vermont, the second smallest U.S. state. Now let’s see how the states measure up to the world figures. The median size of U.S. state area is roughly 58,000 square miles—25 states are smaller than that, 25 bigger. If all of those under 58,000 were independent, they would match 79 other nations in the world, among them Greece, Nicaragua, Iceland, Hungary, Portugal, Austria, 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’ve suggested, small size seems indeed to be a virtue.

It needn’t 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 19th century—that entities in the 3 to 5 million range may be optimum for governance and efficiency, and some within a 1-to-7 million range, that is how to begin assessing bodies for their secessionist potential and their chances of national success.

I hope all this is 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 something in the way of propellant impetus for Americans who understand that their national government (no oxymoron intended) is broke and can’t be fixed (there were 70 per cent of them in a national poll not long ago), and who realize that the only hope to re-energize American politics and recreate the vibrant collection of democracies that the founding generation of the 18th century envisioned, is to create truly sovereign states through peaceful, popular, powerful secession.

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


Kirkpatrick Sale is the Director and Founder of The Middlebury Institute for the Study of Separatism, Secession and Self-Determination. You may reach him at: