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The Breakdown of Large Nations

June 6, 2012

I haven’t read Leopold Kohr’s book, the Breakdown of Nations, but it seems promising and helpful, if only because it shows that one can come to conclusions in the spirit of  competitive governance from typically left of center political assumptions. Frank Jacobs has a nice summary of Kohr’s career and influence in the NYTimes:

In 1943 Kohr secured a professorship at Rutgers, where he taught for 12 years, during which time he finished his central work, “The Breakdown of Nations.” Published first in Britain, in 1957, the book develops his theory of the optimal size of polities: “There seems to be only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness.” Size was the root of all evil: “Whenever something is wrong, it is too big.”

Unsurprisingly, Kohr’s guiding principle was anarchism, “the noblest of philosophies.” But its inherent nobility, he recognized, also made it utopian: a truly anarchist society could do away with governments and states only if all individuals were ethical enough to respect one another’s boundaries. Kohr cleverly turned this utopianism upside down, from weakness to strength: any party, any leader, any ideology promising utopia is automatically wrong, or lying [7]. Acceptance of utopia’s unattainability, in other words, is the best insurance against totalitarianism.

But if the ideal state cannot be attained, at least it can be approached, Kohr thought, by reducing the scale of government. Which sounds a lot like the famous quote from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”: “That government is best which governs least.” But in Kohr’s vision, smaller government should mean, first and foremost, a smaller area to govern. In such smallness, greatness resides. Counterintuitive as that may sound, didn’t Greece and Italy have their Golden Ages when they were divided into countless city-states? Not a coincidence, according to Kohr: smaller states produce more culture, wealth and happiness.

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One Comment
  1. June 19, 2012 5:29 pm

    Although it might appear that anarchism is the core political assumption, “reducing the scale of government” is a dramatically different concept which is itself a political assumption — and one which is decidedly not “left” in any sense.

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