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Let About 2,339 Nations Bloom

June 29, 2010

This guest post by The Seasteading Institute intern Tony Dreher is part of Secession Week 2010: The Size of Nations.

The size of nations in the future will ultimately be determined by how effing crazy technology gets.  It will be somewhere between 1 nation with a population of “the world” in the event of a hive mind(fingers crossed) and 0 nations with a population of “gray goo” or “gamma radiated people ash.”  But neither of those will happen for some time(or will they?).  Until then let’s start with what we know.

A good lower bound for the population of a nation would be 150.  For those familiar with Dunbar’s Number, this is it.  Essentially, the idea is that humans are just too stupid to be friends with more than 150 people.  But, this number assumes everyone is geared for maximum social grooming and devotion to survival. BOOOORRRRIIIINGG.  According to Christopher Allen, if you want time for self-grooming, you can expect a number closer to 50.  When you get populations over this number though, laws and administration (i.e. a nation) are required to make things work.   And the upper bound?  How big can things get before people want to split?

This is difficult to predict.  Traditionally, a nation grows because of some combination of a good economy, high fertility rate, and an effective means of denying exit.  China is great at all of these and its population is well over a billion now.  But how well would it fare if people were allowed to secede? Ernst Fehr and Urs Fischbacher suggest that under the right conditions and in a completely controlled environment, it’s possible to get at least 60% cooperation in prisoner’s dilemma simulations even with increasingly higher population sizes.  Since the real world is perfectly analogous to laboratory experiments, it follows that under an ideal government, 40% of the citizens would still rather not be there.

So how big are good governments?  Definitions of what makes a good government are hard to come by; we’ll look at the population sizes of the top ten countries/u.s. states by GDP per capita instead.

State/Country GDP per capita in USD Population
Qatar 83,841 1.4 million
Luxembourg 78,395 .5 million
Washington, D.C. 66,000 5.3 million
Connecticut 54,397 3.5 million
Norway 52,561 4.5 million
Singapore 50,523 4.9 million
New Jersey 50,313 8.7 million
Massachusetts 49,875 6.5 million
Brunei 49,110 .4 million
Maryland 48,285 6.5 million

Average population: 4.22 million
Average population – Qatar, Luxembourg, and Brunei: 5.7 million

Therefore, assuming free exit, the best countries will probably have 60% of this average or 3.42 million people.  But then I’m leaving tons of things out.

Assuming the 60% cooperation rule remains constant (and I’ve assumed a lot by this point, so I see no harm in continuing), what happens as competition between free-exit nations plays out?  Two of the benefits of allowing governments to compete are the requirement that they change quickly to match innovations and the ability to try out atypical political models.  It’s reasonable that someone might offer the Wal-Mart of government — dirt cheap, palatable to as many people as possible, and everywhere.

And what about technology?  In prisoner’s dilemmas you don’t know the decision your opponent is making until after it’s made, but we’re getting rapidly closer to radical transparency.  I can see tons of people naked right now. Social media is [tired cliche about social media doing something amazing]. Maybe rampant voyeurism will actually make it easier to live with people.  Plus, nudity.

In any event, I think the world’s governments are worse than we give them credit for — they’ve become predictably bad.  It’s no fun when you know what happens next.  Give me liberty or give me something more entertaining.  Like A Thousand Nations for instance.  Or to find out where we’ll learn the answers to these questions first: The Seasteading Institute.

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