Alex Massie

When Big Becomes Obese

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Quote of the day comes from Chris Dillow:

Everyone knows centrally planned economies are a stinkingly bad idea. The lesson of the collapse of many banks is that centrally planned companies are also a bad idea. And they’re a bad idea for the same reason - that, in complex organisms such as economies or big companies, fragmented and tacit knowledge cannot be centralized, and “leadership“ often degenerates into mere rent-seeking.

I suspect there's quite a bit to be said for this view. Then again, I would say that since this perspective also accords with my view of politics. That is to say, I'm unconvinced politics can be be effective in large, fragmented countries.

Ministers have an inherent bias for sweeping, inclusive one-size-fits-all plans that presume that Whitehall Man or some Beltway Mandarin has the knowledge and, dash it, the wisdom to do it all himself. Yet, the larger the country, the more diverse or fragmented its population, the less likely it is that this policy model can actually be effective, let alone responsive to shifting circumstances or changing demands. By the time the centre has realised there's a problem, it's often too late for there to be a solution, least of all the one that emerges from the horse-trading sausage-factory (how about that, eh?) that is Congress.

Hence, I rather suspect, that further EU integration is a problem. Hence too, the United States is too integrated. The accumulation of power in Washington - envied by eurocrats in Brussels - has not necessarily been a success. At least, it's not clear to me that you can, these days and with the United States being the complex place it is, pass national legislation that is likely to be appropriate for Californians and Alabamans, Minnesotans and Virginians. At least that's the theory: subsidiarity, as it used to be known. Better by far, for instance, to let the individual states sort out their healthcare plans. They may make a hash of it, for sure, but they're more likely, at least in theory, to be able to tailor policy to real-time circumstances.

Caveat to this of course: you can run large countries from the centre if you don't care about anything as tediously inconvenient as the democratic process.

So, what's the optimum size for a country? Somewhere less than 200m but more than, say, 330,000?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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