by Kirkpatrick Sale
Aristotle declared that there should be a limit to the size of states. But really, what did he know? He lived at a time when the entire population of the world was somewhere around 50 million—about the size of England today. Athens, where he lived, would have been under 100,000 people. He couldn’t even imagine a world (ours) of 6.8 billion, or a city (Tokyo) of 36 million. How is he going to help us?
He, at least, knew this much:
“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.”
So political units, Aristotle said, have to be limited. And it is with that understanding that we now may start contemplating what in today’s world would constitute the ideal, or optimum, size of a political state.
This is not some sort of idle philosopher’s quest but the foundation of a serious reordering of our political landscape, and a reordering such as the process of secession—indeed, only the process of secession—could provide. The U.S. provides abundant evidence that a state as large as 310 million people is ungovernable. One scholar recently said that we are in the fourth decade of the U.S. Congress’ inability to pass a single measure of social consequence. Bloated and corrupted beyond its ability to address any of the problems it has created as an empire, it is a blatant failure. So what could replace it, and at what size? The answer is the independent states of America.
Let us start by looking at modern nations to give us some clue as to population sizes that actually work.
Among the nations that are recognized models of statecraft, eight are below 500,000: Luxembourg, Malta, Iceland, Barbados, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino.
Of the 14 states generally reckoned freest in the world, 9 have populations below Switzerland’s, at 7.7 million, and 11 below Sweden’s, at 9.3 million; the only sizable states are Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany (the largest, at 81 million).There are other national rankings. Literacy: Of the 46 countries that claim a literacy rate of 99 or better, 25 are below 7.5 million. Health: Measured by the World Health Organization, 9 of the top 20 are under 7 million. In 2009 rankings of happiness and standard of living, the top countries were Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Austria, and Finland; all but Canada and Australia have small populations.
Enough of that. The point, I trust, is well and simply made. The figures seem to suggest that there is an optimum size of a successful state, somewhere in the range of 3 million to 5 million people.
Surprisingly, a great many countries are also modest in geographic terms—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 countries out of the 195 counted by the United Nations that are under 10,000 square miles—that is to say, the size of Vermont or smaller.
And if we measure economic strength by per capita GDP, small countries prove to be decidedly advantageous. Seventy-seven percent of the most prosperous countries are small. And most of them are quite small indeed: under 10,000 square miles.
Administrative, distribution, transportation, and similar transaction costs obviously 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.
I propose that, out of these figures and even more so out of the history of the world, results a Law of Government Size, and it goes like this: Economic and social misery increase in direct proportion to the size and power of the central government of a nation.
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.
Small, then, is not only beautiful but also bountiful.
How does all of this apply to the United States today?
Of the 50 states, 29 have populations below 5 million people. Eight states and a colony in the 3 million to 5 million population class would be ideal secession candidates: Iowa, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Alabama. Twelve—Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Idaho, Nebraska, West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Kansas, and Arkansas—have between 1 million and 3 million people, and seven, including Vermont, have fewer than 1 million people but more than Iceland.
The argument for secession need not focus exclusively on population or geographic size—one might factor in cultural cohesion, developed infrastructure, historical identity—but that seems to be the sensible place to start in considering viable states. And since the experience of the world has shown that populations ranging from 3 million to 5 million are optimal for governance and efficiency, that is as good a measure as any to use to begin assessing secessionist potential and chances of success as independent states.
The only hope for re-energizing American politics is to create truly sovereign states through peaceful, popular, powerful secession.
Kirkpatrick Sale is director of the Middlebury Institute and the author of Human Scale.
Excerpted from Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (Oct. 2010).