Small is Beautiful. Government is not.

At heart, I am an anarchist. The average person will recoil with shock and horror from such an admission because ‘anarchy’ almost always implies social disorder, chaos and disaster.

But that reaction is wrong, and not surprisingly so. After all, that same fellow would get starry-eyed at the mere mention of democracy. India is the largest democracy in the world, don’t you know!

As a system of governance, anarchy resonates most with how I approach the world. I reject hierarchy and authority. I had arrived at this conviction long before I got to know about the French politician and philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809 – 1865), the first self-professed anarchist.

Proudhon in his Confessions of a Revolutionary defined anarchy as “order without power” and “the absence of a master,” and wrote that “whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.”

I concur.

The wiki introduces anarchism as

an anti-authoritarian political philosophy that rejects hierarchies deemed unjust and advocates their replacement with self-managed, self-governed societies based on voluntary, cooperative institutions. … Anarchism’s central disagreement with other ideologies is that it holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful.

It’s important to keep in mind that anarchism does not mean lawlessness but rather statelessness. Not an absence of laws but the absence of a state. The goal is a non-coercive society, and in this rejection of coercion, anarchists necessarily reject the state since the state is the most potent and dangerous institution of coercion.

As I learned economics and better understood the world, the philosophy of anarcho-capitalism appealed to me. Top-down centralized control of a few over the many does not appeal to me (and neither does control of the few by the many.) Anarcho-capitalism rejects the authority of a state, and with it the implicit slavery of the citizen to the functionaries of the state. It advocates what are the defining features of capitalism, namely, self-ownership, private property and free markets. Society under anarcho-capitalism is a voluntary society, where people create the institutions they need to cooperate and achieve their freely chosen ends, and which institutions do not use coercion.

If there were such a voluntary society, I would choose to to live in it. But in reality, such do not exist. So where would I live if I had an unrestricted choice? First, it would not be India. It is not a free society. I was born in India but in that I did not have a choice. There are scores of reasons why, all of which would be vehemently rejected by many of my acquaintances, friends and family. So be it.

Of the hundreds of nations that exist today, I would have chosen to be born in Switzerland. Many geographic and climatic features of Switzerland appeal to me but those are marginal compared to its artificial constructs — its size and the way it organizes its society. Switzerland is a small country, a federation of 26 tiny units called cantons.

Switzerland’s vital statistics are good. The population of around 8.5 million occupies an area a little over 41,000 sq kms (slighter larger than Kerala), with a per capita GDP of around $83k (2nd highest in the world, after Luxembourg’s $114k).

Swiss men have the highest life expectancy at birth — 81.3 years (women 85.3 years). It leads the world in innovations according to the World Intellectual Property Organization (ahead of the US 4th and UK 5th.) Remember that the greatest theory in modern physics was developed by a patent examiner in the Swiss city of Bern. The country has been ranked the world happiest country in 2015 (came in second to Denmark in 2016.)

The Swiss have an enormous degree of control over how they govern themselves. Within 100 days of the passage of a law, provided 50,000 signatures are collected against it, voters can decide to reject the law with a simple majority vote.  The constitution makes the provision for its replacement, not just amendments to it. And most significantly, it commits the state to the principle of subsidiarity which “holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution.”

For more on Switzerland, I recommend the site “All About Switzerland” and specifically the page on its constitution and federalism.

What draws me to the country is, as I mentioned before, its smallness. There’s something in me that abhors gigantism. Small is beautiful, as the title of the 1973 book by E. F. Schumacher declares. The central point that I take away from it is contained in this quote:

“There is wisdom in smallness if only on account of the smallness and patchiness of human knowledge, which relies on experiment far more than on understanding.”

A small country can have a small government. The scale is more human-level. The governed can monitor those who govern. The citizens have a much greater and more direct control of their own lives and over their country.

I live in the US. The US is a large country with nearly a third of a billion people. Perhaps it is too large. One saving grace is that it is a federation of 50 states. The states have their own governments and constitutions. But the federal government is too big and is arguably the source of much evil. That’s what I have against large countries — their government is necessarily going to be evil.

If I had the power to dictate changes in India, the top three would be:

      1. Restrict the power of the central government severely
      2. Partition India into 100 states, each with the freedom to follow whatever system the residents of the state wish
      3. Allow the free flow of goods and people across state borders

That’s all for now.

[This post was partially in response to a question in a recent post.]

NOTES:

[1]. See 35 facts about Switzerland.

Author: Atanu Dey

Economist.

5 thoughts on “Small is Beautiful. Government is not.”

    1. You do realize that watches, chocolates, banks and tourism do not grow on trees or fall for free from the skies, don’t you? Switzerland has those because the Swiss make them. (Note: cocoa does not grow in Switzerland.)

      How prosperous a place is depends primarily on the culture of the place. Before the modern times (say, around 250 years ago), all countries were nearly equally poor. Then the “Great Enrichment” began, and some countries became rich because they had better rule-sets. Certainly, material endowments helped in some cases but in all cases, regardless of natural endowments, the rule set mattered the most.

      OK, so if not Switzerland, which other country? I think New Zealand.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Switzerland ranks 100th in population while New Zealand is 125th. Both are very resource-rich. But as you said, “the rule set mattered the most”.

        I noticed that among nations and even among Indian states, that ones the rely most on mining are always at the bottom.

        Like

          1. To my prejudiced eyes, the Middle-east is poor in education and technology (institution building) and also culturally. Norway, Canada, Russia and Australia are better examples to prove my statement wrong.

            Liked by 1 person

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