Is America Too Big?

As you know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I like to point out how elements of the classical and Christian traditions influence us today and offer possible guidance in addressing contemporary problems.

A great example of this sort of thing popped up on Youtube last week. The Abbeville Institute, a scholarly organization dedicated to the study of Southern history and culture, has posted a video titled “Is America Too Big?” The premise of the video is Aristotelian: to function effectively, polities should exist on a “human scale.” Scholars Donald Livingston and Kirkpatrick Sale make the argument that the United States can be said to have grown beyond this scale (assuming our goal is to continue to have representative government) and that it therefore has become dysfunctional.

The video is about four minutes long and is well worth your time; it’s very thought-provoking. Watch it and let me know what you think in the comments section.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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5 Responses to Is America Too Big?

  1. anarchobuddy says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the ideas presented in the video, Dr. J. It is quite curious to me how the myth of self-governance continues to survive in this nation-state. Perhaps as curious is the notion that those who would prefer to leave the Union in pursuit of self-government are branded as “un-American” or “unpatriotic” or some such nonsense. What could be more American?

    • Dr. J says:

      Secession isn’t explicitly raised in this video, but that’s one obvious way to address the problem of the state being out of proportion to the human scale. I believe this video is the first of a projected series, so maybe that issue will be discussed in a future installment.

      • anarchobuddy says:

        I find it interesting that they don’t address the issue of the federal government staying within the bounds of its enumerated powers. This seems to imply that even if that were the case, this wouldn’t change the fact that Americans would have a lack of representation regarding those powers. Perhaps I am being a bit daft here, but other than secession or a very large number of people leaving the monopoly jurisdiction of the US government, I don’t see what ways exist to shrink the government to something closer to human scale.

  2. John Ward says:

    Dr. J:

    Great stuff. Scale is a problem in my opinion, but perhaps for a different reason. My interpretation of the founding fathers (Jefferson in particluar) was they understood that Democracy had never worked in the long run. As soon as the people understood they could vote themselves into to the collective pie and get handouts with their vote, the society collapsed. With 50% of the people living off the other 50% today in America, according to the published numbers, I would say we are close to that situation. Maybe, the bigger the society, the less people feel they are taking from their neighboors and more from a common crazing area. Not realizing that someone has to produce first before consumption can take place.

    So I guess that I would say Aristotles human scale depends to some extent on your view of the role of government. To feel that you really make a difference probably limits the scale dramatically. If everyone agrees on the role of government the size can be large, but differences in view on the role of government may mean smaller states are more functional. I certainly recommend that we all read Aristotle’s Politic’s along with the Federalist and Anti-Federalist’s papers of our own country. They were all very smart well educated people.

    As a business person I have experienced both small and large scale companies with the benefits and challenges associated with each. Decison making, and a feeling of participation, can be easier in small companies, but a company like ExxonMobil makes decisions fairly quickly for their size because they have a formal process for decision making that everyone follows. You could say they have a common culture that everyone accepts.

    Has America grown beyond the scale where representative government works? My view is that the answer is yes, but it is because different regions hold different views of the function/nature of government and the role of the individual versus the collective. I live in Texas. I admire the rugged individualism and self responsibility that is the caricature of Texas. My son lives in Santa Monica and my daughter in New York City. They have a different opinion on the role of government in our lives.

    In my limited knowledge of the “Church” (i.e. Catholism) has also struggled with size over the last 2,000 years. A significant number of influential people did not agree with Church doctrine and a few fights resulted! That is a very interesting story in itself.

  3. I think the video is right on the money in noting the problem with such a large nation–nations of such size cannot support republican government, so they turn to something like a republic in theory only, keeping the forms of republican government while losing the reality. Such a system prevailed in the Roman Empire from Augustus through Marcus Aurelius, then declined into the absolute dictatorship set up by Diocletian in the early fourth century to restore order to the Empire. Earlier, Aristotle, who supported governments of scale, faced the irony of his pupil Alexander forming an empire. In the United States, some form of succession would be necessary to create a government of scale, but the problem is that many people still prefer the material benefits they believe arises from a strong federal government. Even in the South, the chances of the majority of people in any given state voting for succession are slim. Regional succession is another possibility, but that would also be difficult to work out. The only way I think succession would happen in practice is if a crisis arose such that people and the central government would perceive they have no choice but to form a series of smaller nations, perhaps something along the lines of the old “Commonwealth of Independent States” that briefly existed after the fall of the Soviet Empire. I am sympathetic with succession in theory–the trick is to get people to see the need for it in practice–and enough people would have to love freedom and true representative government enough for that to take place.

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