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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/8395/leopold-kohr-against-bigness/

Leopold Kohr: Against Bigness

August 12, 2008 by

I just ordered a used copy of Leopold Kohr’s The Breakdown of Nations (Amazon listing; Google version). The book was highly recommended to me by David Townes, co-founder of the investment banking firm Needham & Company, gentleman scholar, and friend of the Mises Institute. Kohr (1909-1994), who was born in Austria and “was an economist, jurist, political scientist and a practicing philosopher” (though not an “Austrian” in our sense), opposed “bigness” and was known for arguing “small is beautiful.” According to the N.Y. Times, “In the mid-1960′s, a group of Dr. Kohr’s supporters raised money to try to test his theories on Anguilla, a Caribbean island that had declared its independence from Britain. But the project was not supported by the residents.”

Looking forward to receiving my copy.An excerpt from the book:

As the physicists of our time have tried to elaborate an integrated single theory, capable of explaining not only some but all phenomena of the physical universe, so I have tried on a different plane to develop a single theory through which not only some but all phenomena of the social universe can be reduced to a common denominator. The result is a new and unified political philosophy centering on the theory of size. It suggests that there seems only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness…

There seems to be only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness. Oversimplified as this may seem, we shall find the idea more easily acceptable if we consider that bigness, or oversize, is really much more than just a social problem. It appears to be the one and only problem permeating all creation.Whenever something is wrong, something is too big. And if the body of a people becomes diseased with the fever of aggression, brutality, collectivism, or massive idiocy, it is not because it has fallen victim to bad leadership or mental derangement. It is because human beings, so charming as individuals or in small aggregations have been welded onto overconcentrated social units. That is when they begin to slide into uncontrollable catastrophe. For social problems, to paraphrase the population doctrine of Thomas Malthus, have the unfortunate tendency to grow at a geometric ratio with the growth of the organism of which they are part, while the ability of man to cope with them, if it can be extended at all, grows only at an arithmetic ratio. Which means that, if a society grows beyond its optimum size, its problems must eventually outrun the growth of those human faculties which are necessary for dealing with them.

Hence it is always bigness, and only bigness, which is the problem of existence. The problem is not to grow but to stop growing; the answer: not union but division.


A small-state world would not only solve the problems of social brutality and war; it would solve the problems of oppression and tyranny. It would solve all problems arising from power.

{ 12 comments }

Brad August 12, 2008 at 2:36 pm

I tend to agree. From what little I know of Austrian Economics and its underlying concept of Praxeology is that Human Action is the building block of the economy. It is a micro-economic theory tracing back into the minds of every last person – the modes of thinking the lead to behavior, particularly over resources. It stands as reasonable that the “bigger” the collective, the less able the individual is to comprehend the total actions of the collective. Of course this is just so many people want, not to comprehend, just get lost in the void, in Randian parlance, they want things obscured so that A =/= A.

That’s not to say that bigness can never exist beyond just a few people, just as long as it understands that itself is a fluid dynamic of smaller parts. It is when one Superreality is imposed on people from the top down to the individual that things become complicated.

Brad August 12, 2008 at 2:37 pm

I tend to agree. From what little I know of Austrian Economics and its underlying concept of Praxeology is that Human Action is the building block of the economy. It is a micro-economic theory tracing back into the minds of every last person – the modes of thinking the lead to behavior, particularly over resources. It stands as reasonable that the “bigger” the collective, the less able the individual is to comprehend the total actions of the collective. Of course this is just so many people want, not to comprehend, just get lost in the void, in Randian parlance, they want things obscured so that A =/= A.

That’s not to say that bigness can never exist beyond just a few people, just as long as it understands that itself is a fluid dynamic of smaller parts. It is when one Superreality is imposed on people from the top down to the individual that things become complicated.

Axel Riemer August 12, 2008 at 2:52 pm

Quaint, but perhaps true.

I thought of the contrast between large groups and individuals. As individuals, we are forced to use our own reason, to excercise that neglected muscle (the brain). When in a group, the necessity of personal thought is not as necessary – in this vein the Internet can be seen as less of a blessing than usually assumed.

Has Kohr hit on a critical mass theory for the excercise of human reason? For what is man without reason?

fephisto August 12, 2008 at 4:20 pm

But what if there is a bigness of smallness?

jaqphule August 12, 2008 at 5:16 pm

Horse apples.

Big relative to what? To the available space?

If this is true, then what we need is MORE ELBOW ROOM!

To circumvent Godwin, let’s just pretend I didn’t allude in that direction.

Or is it the human tendency to desire bigness that is the problem? Well, human nature itself must be to blame. Let’s reengineer the perfect human, molded to best fit a society where smallness is not possible.

Or, we could enforce smallness. Any volunteers for the gas chamber? (“Soylent green is made from PETA!”)

Brad, one of the beautiful things about Austrian economics, and praxeology as a whole, is that it is based upon “methodological individualism”. This means that we study the individual. Studying groups and trying to anthropomorphize a crowds’ behavior as if it were some living entity is fallacious — at best. No one *needs* to understand the entire economy in order to satisfy their ordinal list of desires? Those that try to understand are typically policy crackheads that use their stupendous knowledge to try to run our lives.

Think of it this way: is it easier to get a damn good burger and a beer in a population of five, or of five million? In the smaller economy, you *have* to think about resources and understand the economy as a whole to make this happen.

In a city of five million, all you need to know is where google is at. Bigness works, folks. Smallness sucks, unless you have a preponderance towards monkdom. (Tempting though that is, sometimes…)

Alex:
“Has Kohr hit on a critical mass theory for the excercise of human reason?”

No, people can be stupid in small groups and even by their own damn selves. Being in a group does not negate one’s own IQ.

“For what is man without reason?”

The laughing animal. It’s a good question in the wrong context. See below.

fephisto:

“But what if there is a bigness of smallness?”

Stop stealing off my smartass crib sheet!

——————–

That was supposed to be it, but I feel a strong need to rant against this.

In general, what we have here is a failure to understand Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc. The world is falling to shitake, and the world’s population tends to rise until shitake hits the dinner plate, at which point population shrinks and Malthus gets his last ugly laugh. Sometimes it’s a provable link, such as in the European decimation due to black plague in one of those bad old centuries.

But Europe is larger now. After each catastrophe, human population grows larger, and is able to grow ever larger without bursting like a postule each time.

Here’s another bad theory. Technology is bad. Very, very bad. There’s something simple in an agrarian society, and as we all know, simple is good. Double-plus good, in fact. Technology emboldens dumbass human leadership to wage ever-nastier wars, and to extract tribute and obedience with ever-increasing and measurable efficiency. To solve the ills of society, let us return to the Land of Ludd.

Rediculous? Of *course* it is! Advances in medical tecnology alone have increased the quality and standards of life by leaps and bounds, and continue to do so continually.

The problem, as always, is the ability to use brains in the first place. Educational standards have changed drastically since the advent of public corporate education. Tomorrow’s leaders get the same crappy level of education as tomorrow’s cannon fodder, with a designer label slapped with a dab of Elmer’s. Dubya’s an excellent example of this. Sure he’s got a degree from some ivy-league bastion of whatever, but does that mean he can think in terms of abstract principles? No. In a world where damn few can, he’s noted for this incredible inability of his.

What is man without reason? Screwed! What is lots of men without reason? Screwed! What is a small number of men without reason? Screwed! The only question is one of scale, not of degree.

When you look backwards to the writings of semi- and informally-educated backwater hicks such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, and compare them against the crap that comes out of Cato these days… Well, what have you?

I’m inclined to agree with John Taylor Gatto. We acts stupid cuz we fergots ta teach our kidz ta thinks.

And like the cliche goes, it’s not how big it is, it’s how you use it…

Brandon August 12, 2008 at 5:44 pm

I think that the frequency of wars in Renaissance Italy, where there was nothing but small states, proves Dr. Kohr’s theory wrong.

Not only that, but when you consider the level of tyranny that was present in many of these small states, smallness doesn’t guarantee freedom either.

RStadler August 12, 2008 at 11:58 pm
Haas August 13, 2008 at 3:20 am

YES! a world of small states yet all with open borders and a free market with no government interference! Free movement of everything!

Haas August 14, 2008 at 2:14 am

Such a world, Haas, would have no need for even small states.

Skye Stewart August 24, 2008 at 6:23 pm

I recently put in my own order for this book. I look forward to hearing your comments.

Schumacher was a student of Kohr’s and Kohr was the first to develop the “small is beautiful” adage.

Interestingly, schumacher was also a student of schumpeter and had encounters with Hayek.

Peasant January 3, 2010 at 1:24 pm

I much prefer small states, or, better, no state at all. But Athens at the end was said to be smaller than Dayton, Ohio, and the warriors 5′ zip, 130#

Is there really any cure for human nature?

dingodog December 14, 2011 at 1:59 pm

@Brandon – if you read Kohr, he points out that the abundance of wars during medieval time is not correlated with the number of victims in these wars – they never were “Total Wars” like WW1 or 2. Even the 30 years war was a war (or wars) by large blocks, not by small nations.

@ the posters who would accept small states as long big businesses may rule over them – that is also completely in contrast to Kohr’s thinking. Businesses should be more or less limited to their countries, otherwise they would start ruling those countries.

Although I can not follow Kohr on all points, I believe he is being proven right by current events, on two points. Point 1: Big businesses and especially big banks (the “too big to fail” ones) are ruining our economies by creating instability. Point 2: Kohr claims that a federation of states of unequal size is intrinsically instable and either collapses or becomes a centralized state (maybe tyranny). At his time in the 40s / 50s, he thought of Austria-Hungary, or Indonesia (once a federal state, now a centralized one). Today one would look at Europe, where it has not been decided yet if it breaks up or if it becomes centralized under German leadership. The solution would have been to split the large European states into smaller ones. Won’t happen, though, at least in Germany and France.

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