Small is Beautiful. Politicians Take Note.

Posted on June 7, 2012

Big isn’t always better. In fact it’s probably worse.

If there was ever a man who believed that ‘small is beautiful’ it would be Leopold Kohr (1909-1994). An economist who described himself as a ‘philosophical anarchist’, Kohr believed that ‘small states, small nations and small economies are more peaceful, more prosperous and more creative than great powers or superstates.’

He was particularly scathing of the modern definition of ‘wealth’, arguing that most of it is useless and counter-productive. What’s significant is that Kohr wrote this in 1957 – at the dawn of the age of globalisation and contrary to the prevailing wisdom – in his seminal book The Breakdown of Nations. One of his key observations was that cultural excellence has nearly always been associated with smaller states whilst larger ones are characterised by greed and domination. He argued that this was partly due to the inclusive nature of small states compared to the exclusivity of large ones, whose sheer size prevented the majority of the population from active engagement, effectively leaving them disconnected and concentrating power in the hands of a small elite.

Kohr’s faith in smallness has much in common with eudaimonia, a 2500 year old Aristotlean concept that provides a potential framework for a more benevolent relationship between business, brands, society and sustainability. History has a habit of providing lessons for the modern world, and Ancient Greece is a perfect example. We tend to think of past civilisations as inferior to ours, citing mostly ethical and technological advancements, but in doing so we miss critically important aspects of older societies that we would do well to learn from.

One of these, as Kohr pointed out, is scale, or rather the lack of it. Much of Ancient Greece’s success was built on the small size of its several hundred constituent city states. Each was pretty much independent but there was never any doubt amongst the inhabitants that they were proudly part of a larger entity – Greece – that shared a common culture, language and moral code. It allowed democracy, that great gift of the Greeks, to flourish in near perfect conditions characterised by small populations of genuinely engaged and active citizens.

The population of Athens, the largest city state, never exceeded 315,000 (in 431BC) and yet, that same concept of democracy is now expected to satisfy the needs of countries with populations in the millions and is seen around the world as the default model of socio-political organisation. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for democracy – but the form we have today wasn’t designed to cope with the demands of huge societies where participation is reduced to a once in a while opportunity to vote by a largely ambivalent and disengaged population.

There are many reasons for voter disengagement, but one is the lack of meaningfulness in modern society and, more specifically, the inability to do anything about it. Scaling back central government is central to overcoming this inertia, by involving smaller populations in local issues within a wider national framework. Politicians would be well advised to remember this as they continue to push for one size fits all policies designed to apply to each and every one of us.


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