On the Necessity of Organic, Bottom-up, Smaller Countries : Decentralization and Success

1552 wood engraving of the independent city of Lübeck (Lübeck was a city-state from 1226–1811 and 1815–1937)

The United States, like the ancient Roman Empire, has expanded to encompass large tracts of land and a diverse population. Through the history of the US (and Rome, if one looks at the era of the Republic), the United States utilized and benefited from its mixed constitution. The framers of the Constitution understood the necessity of maintaining a limited central government as well (they would say ‘the united States are’ rather than ‘the United States is’). Since 1898, however, the United States has been an empire — one dominated by military interventions, centralization of power, and top-down planning. The current trajectory of Washington-style politics is at odds fundamentally with the plans laid out by the framers (most notably the views of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson). The country is simply too large, the central government too powerful, for the United States to go on and continue to be successful. Bureaucratic bloat and authoritarian tendencies will inevitably arise. The solution, it seems, rests with the dissolution of the union and creation of at least a few dozen smaller states in place of the United States. A multiplicity of rather small independent countries will allow for the growth of bottom-up government to a greater degree, increased quality (through competition among states with the same language and relatively similar legal structures), and increased opportunities. The history of the West began with the rise of the Greek city-states and their opposition to the Persian Empire. A more recent (and relevant) example of the success of a multiplicity of states sharing certain basic similarities can be found in the tremendous success of nineteenth-century Germany. The various governments of the territory now primarily occupied by Germany from 1815–1914 are among the least objectionable and most successful polities in the history of our species.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) — German author, poet, statesman, philosopher, and artist

Near the end of his life, the German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reflected on the benefits of decentralized in a conversation with Johann Peter Eckermann:

“A clever Frenchmen, I think Dupin, has sketched a chart of the state of culture in France, and has exhibited the greater or less enlightenment of the different departments by a lighter or darker colour. Now, some departments, particularly in the southern provinces remote from the capital, are represented by a perfectly black colour, as a sign of the great darkness prevailing there. But, would that be so if la belle France, instead of one great focus, had ten foci, whence life and light might proceed?
Whence is Germany great, but by the admirable culture of the people, which equally pervades all parts of the kingdom? But does not this proceed form the various seats of government? and do not these foster and support it? Suppose, for centuries past, we had had in Germany only the two capitals, Vienna and Berlin, or only one of these: I should like to see how it would have fared with German culture, or even with generally diffused opulence that goes hand in hand with culture. Germany has about twenty universities distributed about the while empire, and about a hundred public libraries similarly distributed. There are also a great many collections of art and collections of objects belonging to all the kingdoms of nature; for every prince has taken care to bring around him thee useful and beautiful objects. There are gymnasia and schools for arts and industry in abundance — nay, there is scarcely a German village without its school…..Then look at the German theatres, exceeding seventy, and not to be despised as supporters and promoters of a higher cultivation of the people. In no country are the taste for and the practice of music and singing so widely spread as in Germany; and even that is something…..Frankfort, Bremen, Hamburg, and Lübeck, are great and brilliant; their effect on the prosperity of Germany is incalculable. But would they remain what they are, if they lost their own sovereignty and became incorporated with any great German kingdom as provincial towns? I see reason to doubt.”
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in conversation with Johann Peter Eckermann (22 October 1828)

The intellectual power of the German Empire (1871–1918) rested on this decentralization. Between the introduction of the Nobel Prize in 1901 and Germany’s drinking the fascist poison in 1933, the country had 38 Nobel laureates (more than any other country: the UK had 25 by 1933, and the US 14). The US would go on to take a great lead throughout the twentieth century as it had the money, resources, and intellectual community after Europe and Asia were in ruins and with repressive communist regimes popping up around the globe. Decentralization had long proved beneficial for intellectual life in Germany — the Holy Roman Empire, the various German confederations of the 19th century, and the federal German Empire. Federalism served the United States well, though to a lesser degree. There is something to be said for the flourishing of local intellectual communities in areas where the language remains more or less the same over the region while political units remain rather small. Before the catastrophic Second Thirty Years’ War (1914–1945), Germany was an intellectual powerhouse — the ‘Land of Poets and Philosophers — a model for how a successful society can be constituted (though it had its Achilles heel in that the kaiser was not a ceremonial constitutional monarch). Goethe was right in his analysis of the benefits of local institutions and enjoyed the patronage of the local Duke of Saxe-Weimar.

Court patronage of intellectuals was nothing new — it was precisely this which propelled the Renaissance into the most glorious cultural movement in the history of the West. Local rulers competed to have the best courts. Artists, intellectuals, and entertainers were all in demand. Major building projects were all the rage. Competition among the leaders of these small countries raised the bar considerably — leading to the production of artistic masterpieces, introduction of modern diplomacy, development of political realism, and the development of some of the most beautiful cityscapes ever created.

Smaller countries also allow for the development of sturdy cosmopolitanism -an early version of which can be seen in the vast trade routes of early modern Europe — the Mediterranean trade routes dominated by Venice and other Italian city-states in the South and the Hanseatic League in the North. A solid and stable cosmopolitanism is better achieved through being grounded in cooperation among sovereign countries rather than vain and rather crude attempts at top-down impositions, such as those of empire or international organizations of states (such as the United Nations or European Union — these are merely the modern equivalent of the Athenian-dominated Delian League). Empires are crude constructions which cannot hope to achieve the success of liberal capitalism in terms of improving and enriching the lives of the people in a particular polity. A general rule of thumb is to go with the bottom-up and organic rather than the top-down and planned.

Political stability throughout the history of Europe has ultimately rested on a balance of power. When one nation became too strong and imperious (such as the French under Napoleon or the Germans under Hitler), the balance of power was threatened by the specter of totalitarian rule — the very thing which had doomed the great and ingenious country of China throughout much of its history. The historian Joseph Needham famously asked why was it not China which came to dominate the world given the vast number of inventions which the Chinese developed. A major part of the answer to Needham’s question can be answered by juxtaposing the history of China with that of Western Europe. The former saw the rise and fall of enormous empires while the latter was dominated by various balances of power. Chinese dynasties dominated Asia surrounded by vassal states. Technologies developed by the Chinese were used against them by successful invaders (Mongols and Manchus) — thus the large, top-down imperial model proved to be tremendously counterproductive.

International super governments — such as the UN and EU — are not the ultimate form of cosmopolitan, idealistic government. They are insidious monstrosities which utilize ideals as facades while developing increasingly top-down power structures which undermine the territorial sovereignty of member states and create bureaucratic aristocracies. Additionally, their abuses fuel populist movements in reaction. The political center is thus threatened by the Scylla of the radical right and Charybdis of the radical left — the former pushes for a retreat into the nation-state (like a turtle hiding in its shell) and the latter pushes increasingly for the negation of national boundaries altogether (thus creating ‘Tower of Babel’-like superstructures doomed to fail). The city-state is the antifragile polity which offers the most in terms of stability, cultural and intellectual development, and human fulfillment. Communities across the United States would be better served under increased autonomy within the federal model set in place by the founding fathers or, better still, as small, independent countries. If North America consisted of a patchwork of countries like Europe, a balance of power and increased, sustained innovation would allow for the Western Hemisphere to flourish and lead the world by example.




Philosopher | Artist | Minimalist

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Kevin O’Shaughnessy

Kevin O’Shaughnessy

Philosopher | Artist | Minimalist

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