freedom map
Take a look at a world map and you’ll see some interesting patterns. Countries that have moved from totalitarian states to semi-democracies in the past century have almost all split, largely along ethnic or religious lines, into much smaller countries, the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia being notable examples. Iraq looks likely, after an inevitable civil war, to split along ethnic and religious lines into three smaller nations before it achieves any kind of meaningful democracy. Afghanistan’s ‘democracy’ is a sham, with all the real power still in the hands of autonomous tribal warlords. Ethnic or religious minorities in a host of other countries — Russia and several of the former Soviet bloc countries, China, India, Sudan, Turkey, Canada, Spain, among many others, continue to struggle relentlessly for independence. In fact, other than the incessantly fracturing Russia, the only physically large countries that are left in the world are those that have either been democracies for well over a century, or been kept together forcefully and tenuously by ruthless dictators. And even the democracies are decentralizing, transferring more and more of their national powers to increasingly autonomous states, provinces and regions.

You would almost think that continuous fragmentation of the world into smaller and smaller political units, a devolution of power, was the natural order of things. Why should this be? My theory is that culturally homogeneous areas are inherently easier to govern than heterogeneous areas, and that people intuitively appreciate that smaller political governmental units are more closely attuned to their needs and wishes than larger ones.

There are four obvious constraints to this balkanization tendency:

  • Defense: In a heavily populated, resource-constrained world, despots and imperialists will inevitably arise. The easiest way to defend against attacks from these tyrants is through political union. Federation can also work, but it’s harder and more tenuous, since both political will and defense financing must be raised in each member country.
  • Economies of Scale: There’s lots of evidence that there is no such thing, especially in today’s connected world, as ‘economies of scale’. Bigger is as likely to mean less efficient as more efficient. But even if such economies are illusory, there remains a consensus that reaching a certain ‘critical mass’ allows delivery of services more cost-effectively per capita, and as long as enough people believe it, it will constrain balkanization. And it is true that the more governments you have involved in projects like transportation, energy, and even social policy and environmental protection, the harder the coordination gets.
  • The ‘Once You’re So Big Might As Well Get Bigger’ Rule: To be truly responsive to individual people’s needs, a government needs to be really small and local. Is a state or provincial government looking after a million people really any closer to the needs of its constituents than a federal government looking after a hundred million? If not, the argument goes, it would make more sense to get rid of state and provincial governments than to devolve most political power to them. If you’re too big to look after a community, you might as well at least exploit your size and get as big as possible. This is the argument for some kind of loose ‘global’ government, and it’s hard to dispute.
  • Local Tin-pot Dictators: In the days of hunter-gatherer cultures and even more recently in pioneer settlements, communities were self-selected and their members knew each other intimately. More recently, local governments are often selected to represent disenchanted and politically active minorities, and local power often goes almost by default to those with ruthless ambition, wealth, or a propensity for influence-peddling. The consequence is that the reputation of local government is dreadful — they tend to be even less representative of the people than governments of larger political units, poorly trained and skilled for the job, biased, corrupt, remote and inefficient.

While these four constraints have prevented further balkanization in countries where the national government tolerates it, these constraints aren’t inevitable or insoluble. Defense coalitions can certainly work in today’s connected world. The myth of economies of scale is being debunked. Coordination of transportation and similar trans-jurisdictional issues is arguably better than determination of policy by a central government, since it is less likely to be biased against lower-population, resource-poor communities, and more likely to be responsive to local needs. And Intentional Communities may show us a model for local community-based government that really works, more effectively and responsibly than larger governments.

If these constraints could be overcome, would that be a good thing or a bad thing? My intuition says that it would be a good thing, and also that increasing balkanization and devolution of power is inevitable. Ultimately government can only really be responsible if officials are close enough to the people to be directly and personally affected by every law and regulation they enact.

What would a world of a million autonomous governments based on self-selected communities be like? In a world with sustainable levels of population and resource consumption, and reasonable economic and social egalitarianism, I think it would be ideal. In the real world we face today, with none of these essential qualities for peace between communities, I fear it will be a recipe for endless inter-community warfare and strife. I guess we’ll see.

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  1. robn says:

    Interesting that while balkanization creates smaller more homogeneous governed populations, there is increasing consolidation of global corporate “governance”. Something tells me the walmart/McD’s of the world wouldn’t want to see millions of little fifedoms making decisions that could affect their bottom line.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Robn: Agreed. The natural extension of corporatists’ “single supplier” doctrine (buy exclusively from one supplier, so you keep them in your back pocket) would be a “single customer” doctrine. The only consolation for corporatists is that governments of smaller nations are easier to bully, and easier to buy off, than those of larger ones.

  3. Gautam says:

    Hi Dave, India was never a “soviet bloc” country. We’ve had democratic governance from 1947 when we gained independence from the British, and although we were ruled by ‘left-leaning’ Congress party for a majority of our young history, we’ve never had a Communist governmentWarm regardsGautam

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Gautam: Maybe my syntax fractured my meaning, but I never intended to suggest India had been a Soviet-bloc or Communist country. The list of countries, including India, is a partial list of countries that have internal factions either ethnic or religious which are trying to break away from their ‘mother’ country.

  5. Don Dwiggins says:

    On “economies of scale”: reading your second bullet, it occurred to me that there may be a grain of truth in the phrase, but it might be better expressed as “economy of appropriate scale”. As with body size among organisms, the appropriate size for an enterprise will likely be dependent on several factors, which may change over time. It might be worth an article expanding on this, and possibly giving guidelines for deciding the appropriate scale for a Natural Enterprise. Hmmmm…Addressing your questions: I think that there’d need to be some sort of “hierarchy of governance” even in the ideal situation. For one thing, as long as any community’s activities affect its neighbors, there’d need to be a way for them to avoid the Tragedy of the Commons. Also, high-quality communications would be an essential factor in fostering mutual understanding, and thereby peaceful and fruitful relationships among the autonomous governments. (BTW, Gary Alexander’s work is devoted to just this issue.)

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