By Gary L. Gregg, Ph. D.
Today's question of the day being pondered by me in Brighton, Michigan this winter morning, is the question of the proper scale of a good nation. Are there consequences to size? Can a nation be too small? Can a nation be too big?
Tocqueville's answer to this question is that there very much are great consequences to the scale of a nation. The founders fought over this, too, but we seem to have lost the question along the way as we "manifest destinied" our way west.
Well, Tocqueville seems to say that small republics (though he does not define a particular size) are the natural home of liberty and happiness. Indeed, he ominously warns, "The history of the world provides no example of a large nation that remained a republic for long" (256). He says, "All the passions fatal to republics grow with the extent of the territory, while the virtues that serve to support them do not increase in the same measure" (257).
What does he see in a large nation? Why, "Great riches and profound poverty, large cities, depravity of mores, individual egoism, complexity of interests," all which undermine liberty and happiness. I think about all of us from left and right can find something in this analysis to appreciate, but who among us are laying the blame on America being too big?
On the other hand, Tocqueville argues there are benefits in large nations because size bring strength and glory. They can fight wars and they can be self-sufficient. In the America he observed coming into view in the 1830's, we had created a decent balance--our federal system allowed most decisions to be made at the local level so we built mores and habits in small republics. But we were able to combine strength for foreign policy and related matters across a much larger extent of territory and population.
And so the Big T must ask us to think about the state of federalism over the last 180 years. Is the America he describes still in existence? Have we over centralized? Have we kept the balance between small republics and a broader confederacy? And, he even, I think, asks us to ponder the question that it seems un-American to ask: Have we grown too large? If we care for liberty and happiness, should America be broken up into smaller republics where we share more in common and can build the kind of mores of self-government upon which Tocqueville believed liberty was built?
And, we can play historical counterfactual and wonder what would have happened if the secession of the southern states in 1861 would have been taken as an appropriately republican remedy for the problem of scale and every thirty or 70 years or so America would have split again into smaller republics. How would American history (and world history) have unfolded differently?]
Big questions from the Big T.