Can Decentralization Save Humanity?



 Why Smaller is Better in Politics


by Academy of Ideas



The following is a transcript of this video.


“…the world would be most happily governed if it consisted not of a few aggregations…with their accompaniments of despotism and tyrannic rule, but of a society of small States.”

Saint Augustine, The Political Aspects of Saint Augustine’s City of God


Should the states and provinces of nations separate and become politically autonomous? Should counties, cities, and communities do the same? What is the optimal size of a political unit? In this video, we are going to explore why the nation-states that populate the world are too big, and why decentralization – not voting different politicians into power – is the cure to many of the social and political problems that ail us.


In his book The Breakdown of Nations, the 20th century economist and political scientist Leopold Kohr wrote:


“…the solution of the problems confronting the world as a whole does not seem to lie in the creation of still bigger social units and still vaster governments whose formation is now attempted with such unimaginative fanaticism by our statesmen. It seems to lie in the elimination of those overgrown organisms that go by the name of great powers, and in the restoration of a healthy system of small and easily manageable states such as characterized earlier ages.”

Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations


The modern nation-state, encompassing vast land areas and millions upon millions of people, was born in Europe in the mid-17th century, and this form of political organization is a historical aberration. The anthropologist Robert Carneiro estimates that for 99.8 percent of human history small and decentralized political units have been the norm. Even in the last 6000 years, large centralized systems – be they kingdoms or empires – have been an anomaly. From the Ancient Greek city-states to the thousand-year European Middle Ages, to the colonies of Pennsylvania and New England in early America, to Switzerland from the 12th to 18th century, the historical examples of politically decentralized regions are plentiful.


“It is striking to re-read history with eyes opened to the persistence of this [decentralized] tradition, because at once you begin to see the existence of the anti-authoritarian, independent, self-regulating, local community is every bit as basic to the human record as the existence of the centralized, imperial, hierarchical state, and far more ancient, more durable, and more widespread.”

Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale Revisited


Why have decentralized political units been so common throughout history? Could it be that this form of political organization is congruent with human nature and conducive to individual and societal flourishing? To explore this idea, let’s envisage some of the problems that a decentralized world might solve.


One of the problems afflicting nations today is the growing polarization between those on the political left and right, between capitalist and socialist, and between those who favor freedom and those who prefer authoritarian rule. No matter the political party in power, and no matter the policies, rules and laws that are imposed, there is a significant minority, or in some cases majority, forced to submit to a politics to which they do not consent. This situation is feeding the flames of culture wars, pitting neighbors against one another, and increasing the possibility of a civil war.


But what if, instead of a couple hundred nations, the world consisted of thousands, or even tens of thousands, of autonomous political units – each free to experiment with their own form of governance? A coastal region could experiment with free market anarchy, a city-state could implement socialism, a rural community could choose rule by a king, a mountain-valley region could be a democracy, while a small island state could experiment with a meritocracy. With a greater number and variety of governance structures there would be more political freedom of choice, and greater opportunities for individuals to live with those who share their societal vision.


“It is quite obvious that the multitude of different individual and regional wills and preferences can be much better served in a small-state world than in a large-power system or, worse still, in one super-colossal single world state…If freedom of choice is considered an advantage economically, why not also politically?”

Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations


What is more, in a decentralized world, no matter the form of government that existed in each small political unit, it is likely that the majority would be far more efficient and responsive than the massive governments of our world. For when it comes to the functioning of government size is a critical factor, and the bigger the government, the more it is plagued by the corruption and vices endemic to all large bureaucracies. Or as Kirkpatrick Sale continues:


“Size, indeed, might well be regarded as the crucial variable in [government]. More important than, say, ideology—for a large disciplined party like the Communist Party in China is much like a large undisciplined one like the Democratic Party in the United States, unwieldy, unrepresentative, undemocratic, inefficient, and often unable to carry out policies enacted, not because of the politics but because of the party size.”

Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale Revisited


A decentralized world would also encourage civic participation and counter the apathy that most display towards politics in modern democracies. For the political involvement of most people consists of complaining about problems and voting once every 4 or 5 years only to watch on as, no matter who is elected, the government – and the crony-corporate and oligarchical class – grow in wealth and power. The inability of the average person to affect the politics of a nation, coupled with the vast chasm that exists between the rulers and the ruled, is precipitating political malaise and conditioning people for the emergence of a totalitarian form of rule.


“Lack of control by the individual over institutions…that not only affect his life but determine his livelihood…is, in fact, an excellent training in the acceptance of totalitarianism.”

Herman Daly, Steady State Economics


In a decentralized world, individuals would have more influence over the institutions that affect them. For the situation in each small political unit would resemble the local politics of our day, which is much more community-oriented and much more malleable, than the cold and unreachable politics that exist at the federal level. In the decentralized city-states of Ancient Greece, for example, citizens were politically active because their opinions mattered – they had the power to shape the city’s fate. Or as Kirkpatrick Sale explains:


“Even Athens, probably more encumbered than most Greek cities because of its size and prominence…was governed not by imperial wizards and pharaohs but by a public assembly, the ecclesia, a regular gathering of…citizens who wished to participate, which made all important decisions and set all guiding policies and then elected a rotating body of fellow-citizens, the Council of 500, and an assortment of citizen committees to carry them out.”

Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale Revisited


While a decentralized world would not be a utopia, the problems any single political unit would face would be smaller in magnitude than the problems that exist in our large-state world, for as Carl Jung notes: “Big nations mean big catastrophes.” (Carl Jung, C.G. Jung Speaking) Take the perennial problem of war. In the highly decentralized Middle Ages, for example, wars were common but because they were fought between small polities with limited populations and resources, they were localized and brief. In contrast, two of the most destructive wars in history have been carried out in the age of nation-states.


“…the long human record suggests that the problem of defense and warfare is exacerbated, not solved, by the large state, and that smaller societies…tend to engage in fighting less and with less violent consequences…In a world of small societies, in fact, size itself would likely act as some kind of deterrent to aggression. Who could picture an American continent composed of even fifty different nations deciding to pool its resources to fight a little nation around the world in the jungles of Southeast Asia?”

Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale Revisited


One concern is that in a decentralized world a single, large and aggressive state, may emerge and engulf many of the smaller political units. But there are reasons to believe this might not be the case. Firstly, it is tactically more difficult for a large power to conquer a multitude of small and independent political units, than it is for it to conquer one or two large states. Secondly, many political units would permit far greater levels of freedom than currently exist, and this economic freedom may permit the emergence of unforeseen innovations in matters of community defense. And thirdly, when faced with the threat of a large aggressive outsider, small, decentralized political units have historically formed successful defense alliances. As one example, the Hanseatic League – a defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northwestern and Central Europe during the late Middle Ages – was able to resist outside military threats for centuries.


“The record of medieval Europe in fact, during a period when small territories were confronted by rising states, is absolutely teeming with leagues and federations and compacts and associations among towns and cities that joined together to establish peace and to resist the martial incursions from the outside.”

Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale Revisited


The problem of tyranny would also be much more manageable in a decentralized world. Tyrants would doubtless still exist, but as a tyrant’s power is derived from the citizenry, smaller populations would place limits on political power. Furthermore, in a world consisting of thousands or even tens of thousands of political units, people could easily vote with their feet and flee areas that lack freedom, thus depleting the resources of the political units infected with tyranny. Contrast this with the tyranny of today, in which authoritarian governments rule over millions of people and fleeing from one nation-state amounts to little more than moving from one form of tyranny to another.


The tyranny that is infecting the globe is getting worse by the year, and if nation-states continue to unify under the umbrella of globalist organizations, we may see the rise of a global totalitarianism that places us on the precipice of societal collapse.  For as Arnold Toynbee concluded in his 12-volume Study of History, the final stage of a civilization, leading directly to its collapse, is “its forcible political unification in a universal state”. Decentralization is a way off this dangerous path. Or if this path is inescapable, decentralization is a means to repair the world following the destruction caused by political unification. For those convinced of the desirability of decentralization, now is the time to promote its virtues and to take action to create greater political autonomy at a local level. Skeptics and pessimists will counter that in our age of globalization and centralization, a decentralized world is nothing but a pipe-dream. But as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski pointed out:


“It may well be that the impossible at a given moment can become possible only by being stated at a time when it is impossible.”

Leszek Kolakowski


Or as Kirkpatrick Sale concludes in Human Scale Revisited:


“We can go on as we are, heading toward greater political and economic chaos…Or, we can work to achieve systems and organizations of a size where we may regulate them, to reshape our landscapes to permit ecologically sound and locally rooted settlements, to create for ourselves a world in which our societies, our economies, our politics are in fact in the hands of those free individuals, those diverse communities and cities, that will be affected by them—a world, of course, at the human scale.”

Kirkpatrick Sale, Human Scale Revisited



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