At a conference this morning on George Mason University’s Fairfax campus – a conference jointly sponsored by the Mercatus Center and Liberty Fund – my great colleague Dick Wagner explained how implausible is the assumption that changes in the scale of politics has no effect upon the effectiveness of political institutions. For example, in 1789 (the year the U.S. Constitution was ratified),
– the number of citizens per each of the 13 states in the U.S. was then, on average, about 232,000;
– the average number of citizens represented by each of the 65 members of the U.S. House of Representatives of the first U.S. Congress was 55,000;
– the average number of citizens represented by each of the 26 members of the U.S. Senate of the first U.S. Congress was 137,500.
If we assume that these ratios of citizens to political units and national-government representatives were something close to ‘optimal’ – that is, ratios that allow citizen-voters to express their ‘wishes’ to their political agents or “representatives” in ways that as best as humanly possible convey clearly ‘collective’ demands to these representatives, as well as permit citizen-voters to monitor their representatives and to reward and punish these representatives as effectively as possible – then what are we to make of today’s numbers and ratios? Specifically,
– the number of citizens per each of the 50 states in the U.S. is today, on average, 6,300,000 (or more than 27 time larger than in 1789);
– the average number of citizens represented by each of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives today is about 724,000 – meaning that the typical member of the U.S. House today represents a number of citizens 13 times larger than was represented by his or her counterpart in 1789;
– the average number of citizens represented by each of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate today is 3,150,000 – meaning that the typical member of the U.S. Senate today represents a number of citizens 23 times larger than was represented by his or her counterpart in 1789.
To restore, with today’s much larger U.S. population, the ratios of 1789 would require that
– there be in United States today 1,358 states – that is, 1,308 states more than the current measly 50;
– the U.S. House of Representatives today sit 5,727 members – that is, 5,292 members more than the current measly 435;
– the U.S. Senate today sit 2,291 members – that is, 2,191 members more than the current measly 100.
I do not mean to suggest that such a large number of states or enlargement of the number of politicians sent to Washington is desirable or that such larger numbers would make political matters closer to what they were 225 years ago. I mean only – inspired by Dick Wagner’s thoughts – to point out that it’s naive to suppose that political institutions that work tolerably well with a polity of one size will work tolerably well if that polity grows to a much larger size. That is, if the ‘political ratios’ of the early American republic were close to ‘optimal,’ surely it’s at least plausible to worry that today the size of the U.S. polity is such that entrusting government with power is today more dangerous than it was 225 years ago. The ‘political distance’ between the average citizen-voter and his or her ‘representatives’ in Washington is much greater today than it was back then.