What if Democracy has just gotten too big?
The problems of hyper-scale, and a look back to the roots of human government for some possible solutions.
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In 1800, the entire population of the US was smaller than the current population of Miami. Today, American democracy serves over 330 million citizens. And yet despite this near hundred-fold growth, the foundations of US government rely on the same basic system that we implemented at the end of the nineteenth century. It's hard to blame the founding fathers for any lack of foresight; the world didn't historically grow at the rate it has over the last 200 years.
In systems thinking, there exists something of an implicit rule: systems are stable until some part of that system grows an order of magnitude or more. Think of roadways experiencing 10x more traffic after initially being built, city plumbing handling a population boom, a software application seeing its users grow tenfold. These types of artificial systems often don't hold up to increased scale, simply because they weren't designed to. This seems almost tautological: the design of a system takes certain variables into consideration, and when they change drastically the system no longer operates as it once did.
There have been obvious changes to the American system of government in the two and a half centuries since its founding, but perhaps the core system can't handle the load.
This isn't a novel idea. Plato suggested the ideal city-state would be small enough that most engaged citizens would likely be acquaintances. In Thomas More's infamous Utopia, the author regales his 16th(!) century audience with stories of a federation of democratic cities, very carefully limited to a particular size. The framers of the American constitution -- before Publius's papers swayed national sentiments -- favored a more limited federalism, believing the states of the union were best sized for individualistic democratic rule. Even before the population boom of modernity, political thinkers grappled with the need for manageable populations in democratic government.
Today's popular thought regarding the size of government has lost some nuance, with the reductio 'smaller is better' practically an axiom of modern conservative thought. And some of that sentiment rings true: smaller government is simpler government, and arguably less prone to the failure-modes that plague scale. However, a reduction of the overall size of government doesn't reduce the size of the public that government is responsible for. Even if we did away with the US federal government completely, the states would still need to rely on the average citizen to engage with politics that catered to tens of millions, a scale far beyond the original frame of American government.
There's the crux of the problem: individual citizens in modern democracy aren't equipped to effectively care about 30 million compatriots, let alone 330 million.
Human social psychology does not hold up to scale. Dunbar's number, which is the estimated number of social connections an individual can maintain at once, is a measly 150. In Sapiens, Harari puts forward the idea of shared fictions, collaborative narratives a community can partake in to shirk the limitations of Dunbar's number without disintegrating. Any ideology can act as a shared fiction, and everything from alcoholism to Zoroastrianism allow individuals to transform into community.
As you change the size of a community, the public discourse within that community becomes qualitatively different. In simpler terms, the way we talk changes if groups get bigger or smaller. Consider something like a thread on the front page of Reddit. Reddit discussion tends to coalesce around a few standard popular opinions on a given topic, with nuance or heterodoxy getting buried. This is what we should expect: it's a popular forum with the potential for massive audiences, there is hardly room for complex discussion. As our groups get bigger, our shared fictions get simpler.
Democracy is itself a shared fiction. However, democracy at modern scale has to put forth a narrative that is not only comprehensible to hundreds of millions, but also facilitates their active engagement. In the world of literary fiction, mass appeal on the order of hundreds of millions comes only from our lowest common denominators, the magical schoolchildren and sexy vampires. Modern social fictions follow the same principles. Easily comprehensible stories, narratives of nationalism, populism, and hyper-tribalism, these are the fictions of modern national politics. Like Harry Potter, simple tales of us-versus-them, of good-versus-evil, are the dominant political narratives.
There is a historical precedent for social and governmental construction that could solve some of these scale problems. There's a pattern pretty much as old as civilization itself, a construct of human organization that incubated our first great works of art, philosophy, and science. Notable examples include Ur, Thebes, and Athens in ancient times, and in modern times the cities of Malta and Singapore. Governments and societies neatly contained within a single set of walls, theoretical or actual.
Consider that most large US cities have a population near the size of the entire country at the inception of its federal government (remember that 5,300,000 number). It's a size where the average citizen can grok the specific ins and outs, the inner workings and political movements of their government. If you live in the US (or a similar democratic nation), consider the politics of your local city. You might not necessarily care about them, but it's hard to argue they're not more understandable than the byzantine maze that is federal politics. Depending on the size of the city, you might even know some of your local politicians personally.
The idea that local politics are more worthy of the average citizen's attention isn't a groundbreaking concept. It's often said that the most important politics happen at the city level, and that's undoubtedly where people can have the greatest individual impact. But the spectacle of national politics takes attention and energy away from local politics, while also dividing citizens across a simple binary.
So what if city politics weren't secondary to national politics, but instead were national politics? What if cities of the future took a sharp turn towards the historical? Might we see future city-states reminiscent of ancient Athens or Renaissance Florence?
Cities tend to have strong individual identities. Think about how city origin is many times a stronger point of pride than state origin, at least in the US. Community comes from constraints. Groups of people create their communal borders by the specific experiences and limitations they share. County lines, Sunday morning church, alumni from the year 2000, every community is defined by the smaller sectioned off from the larger. City-politics can be community politics, because cities are small. But national politics in the US cannot be community politics: the nation is simply too big.
Consider the recent trend of city governments in direct conflict with state governments, and state with federal, which highlights the frequent disconnect between the general will of the community, versus the decision-making of the nation. Another recent example: when the Trump administration decided to pull out of the Paris agreement, over 400 cities re-pledged support individually.
There is some precedent for the idea. Recent history has several examples of modern metropolises vying for separation from their parent nations, with New York City and London both flirting with independence in the modern day. The most obvious example of a full-fledged city-state in the modern day would be that of technocratic Singapore. With an independent government, economy, and military, the island nation has the closest resemblance to the city-states of old.
Singapore is a bit of a fraught example, but one still worth noting. By most definitions, Singapore is not really a democracy: The People's Action Party has always held power, and the country's prime minister (de facto absolute leader) Lee Hsien Loong is the son of the longest serving PM, Lee Kuan Yew. A strict definition of democracy would be one where a government has twice lost an election and freely given up power, a test of democracy that many 'democratic' nations including Singapore would fail. But, while Singapore may not serve as a paragon of democracy, it does serve as a good example of a successful modern city-state, an example that other democratic projects could in theory follow.
Leaving aside other projects with atypical physicality like virtual nations, seasteads, and charter cities, the physical size and geographic constraints of a city can be beneficial. Hyper-localization created by dense urbanization complements other potentially beneficial interests, such as increased environmentalism: the circular economy, local agriculture, a general DIY ethos, etc., are all easier to implement when a population is geographically close and shares a strong communal identity.
City-states, whether we consider modern examples or their ancient counterparts, are far from panacea, regardless of the simplified political narratives, the strong individual identities, and the benefits of geographic proximity. There are two obvious problems city-states face: military and trade. A city state needs to be protected from hostile interests, and it needs to be able to acquire the resources it can't produce on it's own.
The military issue could be tackled by a federation strategy similar to what exists currently the US. To address the military issue, a federal service requirement could be employed, requiring individual city-state members to contribute to the federal military. This was a common setup in the cities of ancient Greece. To ensure the federal military stays sizable enough to deter aggression, a service requirement is a viable option, in line with a system like South Korea's or Israel's. Singapore serves as an example of success in this field, with its sizable military and rigorous service requirements.
In the current climate of globalist politics, trade is no longer a significant challenge. Singapore is one of many countries that already participate in organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO). The greater challenge lies within each small nation's ability to produce something valuable. Securing domestic products is essential in order to remain competitive, and with the prevalence of high-skill remote work, city-states have a shot at doing so.
The wonder and horror of human government is that it's functionally immortal. As long as there are at least two humans left in the universe, there will also exist some way of organizing them. And the immortality of government is not Endymion's happy slumber; we've made excruciating progress up the ladder of egalitarianism, and often slid back into the systems of authoritarianism that seem to come so naturally to our species. An aspect of immortality is cyclicality, and it may just be that we're in for a renaissance of less, a return to ancient roots, nations contained within our city limits.
Thanks to Evyn Tindle for reviewing early drafts of this post.
The lacuna in this analysis is the rural hinterland. Do they simply get annexed to the city states? Or do they exist as independent polities in their own right? I doubt the rural counties would be enthusiastic about being reduced to exurbs, given the difference in culture and values as compared to the urban cores.
Another question is that of the desirability of democracy in the first place. We tend to take that as axiomatic, but it is not obvious why. If democracy can't really work at scale (with which I tend to agree), breaking a polity into city states comes with its own problems. The historical example of ancient Greece is illustrative. The independent poleis survived for a while, even fighting off the Persians. Then they were rolled up by Philip of Macedon and folded into Alexander's abortive empire. Later Rome conquered them. The general rule is that a collection of fractious mini-states are relatively easy prey for large, aggressive, well-coordinated neighbors that are less attached to democracy.
Remote work poses an additional question, insofar as megacities are even necessary anymore. A town of 100k people provides most of the cultural benefits of a metropole, without the associated costs in crime, pollution, alienation, etc. Should each small town aspire to state status? Can those then be federated together for maintenance of defense, infrastructure, etc? Does that federation in any case not come to resemble what we already have?
I so agree with this, and it is actually a subject I am attempting to tackle in one of my next essays. Thankfully, now I'll just pick up where you left off since this is so perfectly said! 🤩
On the New York and London flirting with freedom thing—that is so fascinating. Could you share the link to those discussions? I'd love to learn more!