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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: “Scale of state”

In my column for the April 22nd, 2013, edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I warned – with the help of an insight from Walter Lippmann – against a common error committed by people who are willing to turn ever-more power over to the state. You can read my column, with a link added, in full beneath the fold.

Scale of state

Some things in life scale linearly — which is a fancy way of saying that these things don’t change their shape or nature if they grow or shrink in size.

For example, if you double your speed on the highway — say, from 35 mph to 70 mph — you’ll double the mileage you cover in an hour. Or, if you have 10-year-old twins, you’ll spend roughly half the amount of money on feeding your children as your neighbors spend to feed their 10-year-old quadruplets.

But many things in life do not scale linearly. If a recipe calls for biscuits to bake for 20 minutes at 300 degrees, your biscuits won’t be so tasty if you bake them for 10 minutes at 600 degrees.

Many errors are made by assuming that things scale linearly when they don’t. For example, if you triple your speed on the highway (from 35 mph to 105 mph), you probably won’t triple the mileage you cover in an hour. You’ll likely spend plenty of time parked on the shoulder, explaining to a police officer why you were driving so fast.

One of the most frequent and unfortunate failures to understand that things don’t always scale linearly involves democracy. Too many people assume that what holds true for their book club or homeowners association holds true for democratic polities of millions of people.

In a townhouse development of, say, 40 units, it’s easy for each owner to monitor the goings-on of the homeowners association’s officers. It’s also easy to have a meaningful voice in association meetings. Further, the fact that each owner is acquainted with many of the other owners — including the association’s officers — means that decisions on the governance of the homeowners association are not made for strangers.

Because of the “localness” and face-to-face nature of townhouse governance, the danger of an association’s officers voting, say, to raise association fees to unjustifiably high levels is slim.

The workability of such local, face-to-face democratic decision-making, however, quickly dissolves as the size of the polity increases.

The U.S. Capitol building in Washington might be called “the People’s House,” but in reality, I am no more welcome into the inner chambers of that building than I am welcome into the boardroom of IBM or into the office of the CEO of Disney. And what’s true for me is true for 99.99999 percent of other Americans.

And while I can vote in political elections, my vote is literally one of at least tens of thousands — and in presidential elections, one of tens of millions — of votes cast to elect “my” political representatives. To assume that each citizen’s voice — through voting and through talking to representatives — in political elections is meaningful in the same way that it is meaningful in book-club or homeowners association elections is an absurd myth. Having a say in collective decision-making procedures doesn’t scale linearly — as Walter Lippmann recognized years ago:

“Though it is disguised by the illusion that a bureaucracy accountable to a majority of voters, and susceptible to the pressure of organized minorities, is not exercising compulsion, it is evident that the more varied and comprehensive the regulation becomes, the more the state becomes a despotic power as against the individual. For the fragment of control over the government which he exercises through his vote is in no effective sense proportionate to the authority exercised over him by the government.”