It’s the Scale, Stupid


Hidden Springs Lane. The great shutdown charade (less than 50% of workers furloughed) is over for now. However, though our leaders are patting themselves on the back for ending the stalemate and avoiding the uncertainty of default, they have only kicked the problem down the road a few months. How’s that for wise leadership? I fear that we can’t expect much more. It seems we have entered into a strange new phase in our political history where governing by crisis is the new normal and the looming threat of financial ruin is never far away. We shouldn’t be surprised. The sheer size of our problems is quickly moving beyond the capacity of our leaders to fix.

Our current troubles turn on two issues that our founders recognized as very real dangers: the problem of power and the problem of scale.

First, James Madison understood that power naturally tends to expand. Power, he said, is of an acquisitive nature. Power that is not growing is power that is actively checked by another power. The natural course of power is to attempt to eradicate competitors and consolidate all prerogatives to itself. In recognition of this reality, Madison argued that the separation of the three departments of the national government would serve to keep power from consolidating. Each department would have the incentive and the means to resist the inevitable attempts at encroachment by the others.

The federal structure of the government would create the same kind power-limiting adversarial relationship between the national government and the states. As long as the states jealously guarded their prerogatives, the power of the national government would be limited by that vigilance.

Unfortunately, this mechanism has not been impervious to the natural tendency of power. Where Madison imagined the powers delegated by the Constitution as static—that the pie was of a limited and specific size—we have seen that over the years the pie itself has grown dramatically: the Congress, the Executive, and the Supreme Court have all substantially increased their powers. So, too, has the power of the national government grown relative to the states. In many instances this has occurred through the funding mechanism of the national government whereby states have been required to conform to federal mandates in order to keep the money flowing. The temptation has proven too great and the states have relinquished their duty to stand guard against the encroachment of federal power.

In short, power has predictably done what power naturally does, and today we see the effects of more than two centuries of centralization.

Second, our Founders debated at length on the appropriate size of a republic. Anti-federalists, following “the celebrated Montesquieu,” argued that a republic must be small and that the thirteen American colonies with three million citizens was simply too large. You could have a small republic or a large empire, but a large republic was simply impossible. In reply, Madison argued that an extended republic would inhibit the formation of majority factions that could destroy the republic. One wonders if Madison, himself, would have thought that a republic stretching from Atlantic to Pacific and containing over three-hundred million would have exceeded the upper limits.

The question of scale is one that is rarely asked today, but it may be the essential neglected political issue of our time. It is clear that the problem of power and the problem of scale blend into each other in important ways. As the natural tendency of power worked itself toward greater consolidation and as the nation grew in both land and population, a corollary was the growing demand for government to do more. Power naturally fills any social vacuums and even helps to create them. The growth in the size of the republic and the growth in the power of the state led to a national government with constantly proliferating agencies, obligations, and duties. (We even have a number of “czars”, a term that would send a chill through any of the founding generation). These agencies have, through administrative law, become largely independent purveyors of regulations imposed upon the population. Due to the incredible size and complexity of the national government, the jurisdictions of many of these agencies overlap and their goals run at odds with each other (for example).

We hear calls for government reform aimed at making the federal government more efficient or less redundant, but it is so large now and so complex and beholden to so many special interests that there is virtually no possibility that matters can be scaled back intelligently for the simple reason that no one is intelligent enough to master the complexities of this behemoth.

Every rational person knows that our sixteen trillion dollar debt is not going to be repaid. And Congress has agreed to raise the ceiling on this national shame allowing us to continue spending more than we have. But this cannot continue forever. The future liabilities  associated with Social Security and Medicare dwarf our current debt and no one knows what to do except rail about the crisis and then raise the debt limit at the last minute. This crisis is a two-headed hydra, for defaulting on the debt would be serious, but waiting for the whole house of cards to collapse might be even worse. And our public servants appear bereft of ideas and simply resigned to riding the wave of debt as long as possible.

It seems clear that a decentralized, human scaled polity is our future, but we may have to learn some hard lessons before we get there: some people still see centralization and giantism as solutions rather than the problems. The significant matter that remains in our control is whether we start working to bring this future into focus through modest, piecemeal attempts at reform (the states can play an important role here) or whether we are compelled by our own collective hubris to this same future. While both paths will be painful, the latter will surely hurt worse than the former. Citizens should not expect much of Congress or the President. We can, however, begin now to form local communities and ways of living that can weather the transition to the smaller future that is on the way.




  1. Good summary.

    One thing we might do is resist any calls for uniform national regulations that override state regulations. Even conservatives do this far too often, e.g. on issues of education standards, or in their call to force states to allow purchase of medical insurance across state lines. Uniform banking regulation, advocated by some prominent conservatives, arguably played a big role in creating banks that were too big to fail, which played a big role in the 2008 collapse.

    Maybe some of this could be undone. Even this wouldn’t be easy, but maybe some of it is doable. But when I bring it up among conservatives, it seems all I get is blank looks. Some of these people are too busy bashing Obama, which while good and necessary, shouldn’t be allowed to occupy all of our energies.

  2. Professor Mitchell’s articulation of our constitutional and political problems is quite appropriate, and his focus on human scale presents a normative vision that should motivate people to work for reform. For those interested in considering various legal avenues for realizing such decentralization, I recommend serious examination of State interposition, nullification, and even the ultimate check of secession. Others and I have written about such constitutional mechanisms here (, here (, here (, here (, here (, and here ( It is important to remember that the Civil War (which was not even a real civil war by definition because the two sides were not fighting to control the federal government) did not realize a once and for all settlement of federal supremacy and the destruction of federalism via the discretionary will of the federal government. The States as sovereign entities and the compact theory of union are still historically appropriate understandings of the 1789 constitutional union, even after later amendments (e.g., the 14th, 16th, and 17th) dramatically strengthened the practical power of the federal government. The so-called Civil War may have forced a single States’-rights-generation to “cry uncle” and concede to a mythical constitutional construction, but the true nature of our fundamental law is still in place and waiting for our own and future generations to take it seriously.

  3. Also, it is important to be clear that the warfare that occurred during the South’s nineteenth-century attempt to defend the compact theory and States’ rights would be a doubtful outcome in any contemporary effort to seriously interpose, nullify, and/or secede. Peaceful secession, for example, has been widely employed throughout the world, and the United States and much of the world has recognized and upheld it (e.g., Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, Given the value of a federal union within the globalized world, secession should be an utter last-straw tactic. Moreover, it is probably the serious threat of secession rather than its actuality that could be effective in forcing our federal government to allow needed decentralization. However, one should not mistake what occurred during a period of strong nationalism in which political leaders were willing to fight and kill fellow countrymen for the sake national unity for what would occur if State secession occurred again in our own time.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with the title and the claim that scale “may be the essential neglected political issue of our time.” I know you’re trying to be brief, but I have at least a few questions I don’t think can be ignored:
    1. The central modern problem — the global market economy. What is the relationship of a global market economy (dominated by greedy and obese businesses) to the obesity problem of national governments; and how might the problems posed by big businesses be (better) addressed by smaller governing entities (and handled in any transition such that the ball doesn’t get dropped, leaving NO public restraints on behemoth business)?
    2. What about the myriad questions of good government that exist quite apart from the size of government — except insofar as they include the issue of appropriate scale? In other words, small governments can also be corrupt and power-seeking, so don’t we need to be having fewer pointless arguments about whether government’s good or bad, accept that we need to govern ourselves and so talk more about good government—all this separate from issues of immigration, health care, gay marriage, etc.? (A level-headed, relatively de-politicized conversation on good governance would, it seems to me, naturally lead to a level-headed discussion of suitable scale and offer criteria, apart from their agendas, for evaluating and debating our leaders’ skills and suitability.)
    3. To the calculation of natural tendencies with regards to power and scale shouldn’t we add the natural tendency toward decay and collapse of the essential legitimacy of national governments (foreshadowed by the government-by-crisis phase we’ve apparently entered) that threatens not only their own stability but general security and well-being? It seems to me that the disaffection of the Tea Party is ignored. It’s the consent of the governed apart from the REASONS for consent or lack thereof that matters as the legitimate basis of just government. (The Democrats seem to me a little too smug in their ignoring this very troubling reality.)
    4. Why doesn’t the question of scale ever enter the mainstream national political discourse? Is the mainstream media that attached to our present arrangement, or has the challenge to scale not been adequately articulated and the challengers adequately organized and mobilized?

  5. So if you were talking one-on-one with a young man who agrees with you, what specifically would you tell him to do? What tangible means can he accomplish to form a community or adjust his life to human scale? I don’t mean “He must read this book, hold this belief, follow this philosopher,” but how should he order his life?

  6. “The question of scale is one that is rarely asked today”

    This hits the nail right on the head. As I put it in an earlier piece: “Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream.”

    I recently read a book that has some very useful ideas about how to make the ‘decentralized, human scaled polity” you talk about. It is called America 3.0 Most of the book is about history, with only the last two chapters dealing with policy prescriptions. But the policy prescriptions are great! The 20 pages they devote to decentralization alone is worth the price of the book.

    FPR readers might find it a valuable resource.

  7. Dr. Howarth: “The so-called Civil War may have forced a single States’-rights-generation to “cry uncle” and concede to a mythical constitutional construction, but the true nature of our fundamental law is still in place and waiting for our own and future generations to take it seriously.”

    Precisely so! The results of the “Civil War” were only to compel the losing side to the victor’s will at the point of a bayonet; the only matter that was settled was that Might often gets its way regardless of Right, at least in the relative short term. The principles and ideas remain, nonetheless, and can indeed yet be invoked for the sake of our future; for, one way or another, we simply can NOT continue on as we are!

    While I don’t envision a full scale war such as we suffered through from 1861 – 65, I would anticipate some level of “low intensity” conflict if/when secession happens. DC is, once again, broken beyond all reasonable hope of repair; and the US is simply too big and diverse NOT to fail!

    “Interesting” times! God help us!

  8. Sad but this is the same old stuff. There is no mention of the power of the international banks or the multi-national corporations. No proposals for curbing their influence.
    There is no mention of the ‘permanent war syndrome’ that is bleeding our nation of its treasure and its integrity. No mention of the ‘powers’ behind the huge defense budgets.
    The United States is on the verge of a steep decline and it is not because of any two-headed hydra called “Social Security and Medicare.”

  9. They once called the independent press the Fourth Estate. It is now part and parcel of the Fifth Estate of Moneyed Interests, Lobbyists etc. who have bought their way into power under the specious pretense that mammon is speech. Congress, the Executive and it would appear the Courts are now little more than influence peddling operations. This Fifth Estate is the only Estate now, all others be damned.

    The notion that we might still possess a Representative Government is a farce.

    Subsidiarity is an opportunity out of the briar patch but only if it too is not bought by the powers that have entrenched themselves. We also need a populace that does not believe it is owed something for nothing and so might recover its sense of humor.

  10. Much political thinking from the mid 1930’s to 1980 was clustered around the notion that the only effective counterweight to “Big Business” was Big Government (of the People). For some reason everybody seems to have forgotten that Big Business (or Big Money) could effectively purchase Big Government. Is there any doubt that it has done so?
    There are those, mostly writing elsewhere than on this site, who champion business and damn government. As if a Big Business bureaucrat was any smarter than a Big Government bureaucrat. (The market bauble of 2008 should have proven the fallacy of _that_ argument.)
    The future seems evermore to be less of *1984* and more a combination of *Brave New World* and *Rollerball*.
    So, TP, agrarian, confederate, or other fantasies aside, can we get There from Here? Is there any way to take workable steps to achieve a society of human and humane scale shy of apocalypse and starting over amid the rubble?
    That is the problem I should like to see addressed. Probably, it won’t be, because the conversation is too busy with matters “political”, failing to understand that humans are social beings and not fungible assets to be manipulated..

    • “For some reason everybody seems to have forgotten that Big Business (or Big Money) could effectively purchase Big Government.”

      and vice versa.

      As to workable steps, perhaps we should consult Václav Havel

  11. “Enormous private multi-national corporations are curiously like socialist states, with industrialization, centralization, specialization, monopolization. Finally with automation and computerization, the elements of depersonalization and the uses of meaning in work become more and more profound everywhere.
    Along with that goes the general manipulation of people’s lives by the system (no matter how inconspicuous such manipulation may be), comparable with that of the totalitarian state.”
    Vaclav Havel,”disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Huisdala (New York; Vintage, 1990. p. 14

    • Just came across this article, which I think addresses David Naas’s question to some degree.

      Out of the Wild. It’s a conversation between Bill Cronon and Michael Pollan in Orion magazine.

      I don’t know Pollan from anywhere, but Bill Cronon is a renowned environmental historian who has written lots of good stuff. Although he’s an excellent historian, his party politics are reprehensible, as is to be expected from anyone who draws a paycheck from the University of Wisconsin. But in this discussion, I found his political comments to be quite congenial to a conservative like myself.

      I also liked his comments about storytelling – reminiscent of (I think) of a Rod Dreher article that I came across recently, shortly after I tried to explain to a young parent that kids learn through stories. This parent was compiling a book list for his youngster (now age 3?). I thought the recommendations others had offered were short on history and biography. I pointed out that whether it’s history, science, or religion, kids learn through stories.

      It’s a little harder to make the point for science than for religion and science — but in the case of science I’m thinking largely of natural history and other descriptive science. Most sciences have these days gone well beyond the descriptive phase, but I don’t think we should cheat our children’s education out of that phase.

      I came to these conclusions when I was an classroom teacher in Lutheran elementary schools during 1970-75. I was extremely frustrated with the wretched textbooks and other learning materials that were available. They had stripped out the stories, or at least any of the detail that would make them worthy of the name. I was recovering from a bout of McGovern liberalism at about the same time that I was coming to these conclusions. Not sure the two things are related, but they might be.

      Anyhow, storytelling is part of the way out. And the stories should be true stories, about things real people said and did. Like Susannah Black’s article about Tammany Hall. (Or they can be stories about particular types of freshwater invertebrates, or rhizobial bacteria and their communities.)

  12. “and vice versa.”

    Why would government want to buy business? Businesses can’t make any laws. Business is no more virtuous than government, but unless colluding with government they can’t make you do anything.

    • They co-opt business by bailing it out – especially those businesses that are too big to fail – and taking them under their control. That also forces out smaller competitors who might be a threat to the big guys, and who tend to be mavericks in politics. It’s a win-win situation for the big corporations and the biggest corporation of them all.

      As to any big businesses that don’t want to be co-opted, big govt has ways to make them want it. Note what’s happening to MP Morgan these days.

    • They co-opt business by bailing it out – especially those businesses that are too big to fail – and taking them under their control. That also forces out smaller competitors who might be a threat to the big guys, and who tend to be mavericks in politics. It’s a win-win situation for the big corporations and the biggest corporation of them all.

      As to any big businesses that don’t want to be co-opted, big govt has ways to make them want it. Note what’s happening to JP Morgan these days.

  13. Nature and the necessities she imposes on us are the greatest teachers and are pushing us to govern ourselves at smaller, more regional and local levels. Case in point: this story from today’s San Francisco Chronicle, “3 states, province sign West Coast climate pact.” It opens thus:
    “With climate-change legislation stymied at the federal level, a coalition of West Coast states and one Canadian province on Monday signed a regional pact to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and fight global warming.” California Governor Jerry Brown is one initiator of this, and it’s notable that he’s been preaching what he calls “realignment” expressly inspired by the principle of subsidiarity. Note that it is not those who categorically despise government but those care-full of good government who are leading us to a better order.

  14. Thank you John Goretz for the referenced article.
    I found this part interesting, “Taking responsibility for the choices we make in our daily lives: that’s one of the things environmentalism has been teaching all along.
    I’d contrast it with the illusion of a transcendent leap, that if we can just embrace the cosmic good, we can have a revolutionary moment in which all is transformed. But the older I get, the more I mistrust the notion of a revolutionary leap. It seems to me that daily practice—small choices, lives well lived, mindfully and attentively lived—is the only way a just society can sustain itself. We have to make daily choices. We can’t imagine one big apocalyptic change.”
    That strikes me as a very conservative point of view. Also the emphasis in the article about the use of narrative. That approach seems to have worked theologically, inasmuch as most Holy Writ is stories about love and hope. (All great tales are about redemption.)
    “All these things spoke Jesus to the multitude in parables; and without a parable spoke he not to them…”
    But, can this process, one essentially of education and evangelization, work in the “post-industrial”, urbanized, overcrowded, polarized, media-mesmerized 21st Century? Maybe, if people realize that they can go behind the bought-and-paid-for politicians and work – on particular issues – with folks on the other side of the aisle (after the demonization of them ends). Little platoons working with other little platoons, as it were.
    Why not? The other way — of rant and rage — doesn’t seem to be very effective.

    • I look forward to reading the Orion piece. (To Mr Gorentz’s, “I don’t know Pollan from anywhere”: Pollan’s published numerous books on the politics and economics of food production, marketing and food security and is arguably the best know public intellectual on those issues. His most famous line is “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) But want to reply to Mr Naas, since the article is about “how the language we use shapes the planet we live on”, something about “the aisle” and localism, which is simply to point out the common observation that the abstractions created by over-sized and centralized states that form the ideology and abstract political language of those states tends to fall away the closer we get to the more concrete conditions confronted in governing the local community. As Chesterton said, “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” Since no responsible adult is against conserving and no responsible adult is against progress, but all are concerned with preserving the good and improving thereupon, the chambers of government of true civitas should have no aisle to make artificial distinctions among us nor to divide neighbors and citizens.

  15. As a person who thinks of himself as somewhat of a communitarian, it was a bit disconcerting this morning to come across the following snippet in a book review in the latest issue of American Historical Review:

    “Wildt reveals how violence against German Jews permeated the German countryside and worked to create a sense of community. He quotes the liberal jurist Ernst Fraenkel, who affirmed that ‘the doctrine of community’ was ‘the pivot of the whole National-Socialist system'”

    You can read the first page of the review in a poor quality image here (There isn’t much more to it than that.)

    Reading a little further, one gets the idea that this Nazi idea of community was on a larger scale than what most of us who follow FPR favor, but I’m not completely sure that scaling it down saves us from all the evils that community can produce. Gotta think about this some more.

    BTW, I don’t know anything about Ernst Fraenkel other than what I learned just now from his Wikipedia page, but he does seem like someone worth learning about. Is anyone at FPR equipped to write an article on What You Need to Know about Ernst Fraenkel?

  16. Tim,
    My heart is with your words, “the chambers of government of true civitas should have no aisle to make artificial distinctions among us nor to divide neighbors and citizens.”
    There is good and bad alike in small/localist communities (see the basketful of articles and comments over on TAC regarding Rod Dreher’s recent output surrounding his book about his sister).
    Having worked with some people for several years before I retired, who were, frankly, stuffed full of opinions from FOX news and Glen Beck, I wish that goodwill could overcome pornographic political opinions, but I never saw it happen.
    (“They ought to set up machine guns at the Border and shoot whoever tries to cross.” — that is a real quote. When asked, “What about an 8-year old kid, do you want to shoot them too?”, the assertive one replied, “Well, you don’t want Those people on Welfare, do you?” — and this from a guy who was proud of going to a ‘real’ Christian Church every Sunday.)
    And, in reading Richard J. Evans monumental trilogy on the Third Reich, it is evident that _especially_ in small towns, where the ‘Aryans” had lived for generations next to Jews, that the persecution was at its most despicable. (No surprise to anyone who has ever lived in a Southrun culture where blacks and whites grew up together just fine until they got to be adults, then *lines were drawn*.)
    Perhaps there is no easy solution, save to keep pecking at the problems of society. From a conservative POV, Liberty trumps Equality, but by only a small fraction, since religion (IMHO an essential component of “conservatism”.)
    But, are we arguing up the wrong tree? Liberty and Equality are concepts essentially from the Enlightenment’s worship of the Individual. Is _that_ where we want to focus energy — on “individualism”? If so, what have we done to Family (especially the ‘extended family’, which is the only kind the ancestors knew of), to Church, to Community, to the PTA and the Elks and the Izak Walton Lodge and the Quilting Circle?
    My gut feeling is that while we must maintain respect for the individual, especially for the individual who is not a member of Our Gang, we need to be more concerned with our communal responsibilities, in a sort of “federal”, or “distributist”, or (ala RCC Social Teaching) subsidiary/solidarity/stewardship/sustainability matrix.
    What this all means is for some learned theoretician to work out. Anyone? Anyone?

    • Mr Naas
      Sounds like you’re taking “local” to mean provincial, hidebound and xenophobic. Clearly we aren’t aiming for no-nothingism or building walls to retreat behind. The metaphor we need to revive is that of the body — the human race as one body, every member necessary and vital, unique but bound to the whole, serving it and served by it. I believe the federal idea, rightly understood, balances autonomy and interdependence. All for one and one for all — that’s the motto of true civilization.

  17. John Gorentz,
    From what I’ve read about the Third Reich the idea of “community” that took root and spread in Nazi Germany was manufactured, not organic. It was a top-down imposition of a nationalist idea of “community” onto people who’d already lost much of the notion of true community due to WWI and subsequent industrialization. This is documented first hand in a book I happen to be currently reading, Friedrich Reck’s Diary of a Man in Despair.

Comments are closed.

Exit mobile version