Size Matters

I’m fond of pointing out that history favors ever larger human organizational units. In fact, nature seems to favor it. Early humans lived in groups no larger than 200, with most groups being under 100. We know this by using some basic math about how hunter-gatherer people live. Once you get beyond the 200 number, managing resources gets difficult because you suddenly need people who only manager other people.

We also have observations of hunter-gatherers in modern times. Even in areas with plenty of resources, the size of tribes ranges from between 100 and 200. The speculation is that in times of plenty when populations could outgrow the natural constraints, groups would split off forming new tribes in new lands. This is the most logical explanation for the migration of humans out of Africa and across the globe.

Human settlement changed the mathematics of human organization. Suddenly, bigger was better. Anyone who has done manual labor knows that the right tools and techniques can allow two men to perform the work of three. Agriculture suddenly made surplus possible. It also allowed for the planned storage of labor in the form of shelters, provisions, trade items, etc. Large groups of people coordinating their efforts was made practical and profitable by agriculture.

Or maybe the desire for larger organizational units drove the transition to settlement. It’s not always easy to know these things. It’s entirely possible that people figured out that different resource allocation methods would allow for big groups. Instead of Cousin Trog and his clan splitting off from the group, Grog and Trog could work together to grow vegetables and raise animals.

Bronze Age people had empires but running large scale societies was tough due to communications and distance. There was also the fact that Bronze Age societies were largely palace economies. That does not scale up very well. The solution was to have a collection of palace economies under the rule of a dominant clan or city-state. Ultimately, that system proved too fragile. The late Bronze Age collapse was most likely the result of massive inefficiency.

The Romans managed to run a massive empire for a long time, despite the problems of communications and distance. They solved some of this with road building. All of a sudden, they could get word to distant outposts relatively quickly. They also had money, which makes the storage and transfer of wealth possible at a scale impossible in barter economies. Even so, the Romans outgrew the capacity of their organizing model and bankrupted themselves trying to make it work.

After the collapse of Rome, Europe went through a reorganization. Eventually, the new model allowed them to go from scattered tribes to small kingdoms, to unified nations. The Brits are great example to consider. Under Roman rule they were just tribes without much of an organizational structure. They slowly evolved into small kingdoms after the Romans. Then it was the Heptarchy for a long stretch and finally a unified England.

Europe, of course, is trying to break free of the country model. Many on the Right argue that this can never work due to the vast differences in culture across Europe. The Greeks are not Germans so they cannot make a German economic and political system work. Critics consider the EU an empire disguised as a bureaucracy. Sort of like the Department of Motor Vehicles conquering Europe.

There’s a problem with that critique. The new model has new digital money and new digital communications. Fifty years ago, the single currency could never work. It’s why the gold standards failed. Digital credit money lets central banks adjust the money supply much faster and more precisely. It’s not perfect and may be a fantasy but is a big difference in human organization.

Rapid communication and mass media also change things. Fifty years ago, many people in the West lacked a telephone or television. Today, everyone has a mobile phone and internet access. This allows local governments to coordinate their message across languages and cultures. The fact that the German government runs the German media should come as no surprise. A popular media these days works hand and glove with government.

It’s why there is some reason to think the open border types are close to right. They imagine a world without borders, but maybe they are just a click too fast. A European border with the rest of the world is necessary, but internal borders are not. Similarly, a border between the US and Canada is pointless, but a border with Mexico is a necessity, for now.

Samuel Huntington imagined a world that would be organized in zones. The West would be one zone. East Asia another. The Middle East another. Future conflicts would be along the borders where zones meet, like Ukraine and Syria. Whether or not it is by design or accident, it does appear to be the shape of things to come. Just look at the political debates. Underneath it all are the basic questions. Who is us and who is them?

Of course, this tendency toward larger organizational units could be a dead end. The dinosaurs would have something to say about it, I bet, if they were still around. It could very well turn out that the EU is no match for young men walking into Europe looking for a good time. It’s also possible that the EU was an answer to a problem that no longer exists. History, however, suggest that bigger is the way to bet.

25 thoughts on “Size Matters

  1. In the Amazon jungle they asked the tribes why they gathered into larger units. It all came down to safety. They hated the assholes that ran the bigger tribes who were usually violent, autocratic and demanding but if they split into smaller tribes the larger ones would attack and enslave them.

  2. You’re looking at it wrong. Your entire life you’ve been told that Bigger is Better, that a centralized government should grow and grow and be your Daddy from birth to death. That this is inevitable, don’t fight it. But the worm turns, and this type of growth of government has not only reached its apex, it’s on a downward trajectory. Call it devolution. The future will see people seeking a different arrangement of affairs, much smaller, much closer to home. Big government has had its day, and people are weary. The rubber band snaps back.

  3. I’m of the “small-midsize is better” persuasion. Large organizations are inherently dysfunctional to one degree or another.

    Consider what happens if you are unfortunate enough to have to call a corporation because of some problem you can’t solve online. A very few companies (e.g., Fidelity brokerage) have customer service reps who are knowledgeable and, to a reasonable extent, empowered. The vast majority are like Verizon and, though.

    The first CSR listens to your explanation and says she can’t do anything about it and will transfer you to another department. If you’re lucky you aren’t disconnected. You listen to the wait time sales pitch yet again. A new voice picks up and asks you to repeat all the information you gave the original CSR. This one has the solution (or what the corporation considers a solution) but has to transfer you. The next voice gives you completely different information from the previous one … etc., etc.

    These “organizations” aren’t organized. They consist of departments with different rules, different training, and inability to apply a solution that “sticks” regardless of whom you talk to. Bad management, yes, but the managers themselves only have authority over pieces of the grand organization chart, because the company itself is too large to be coordinated. The same principle applies to nations and transnational ruling elites like the EU.

    • In “Corporation Man”, the author noted interdependent all rivalry as one department tried to hire away the employees of other departments in the same corporation.

      This led to his agreeable theory that human groups instinctively for groups of roughly the same size.

      Males for hunting bands of about 10- gangs of 5-15- that perform short term tasks, such as roofing a house or hunting a water buffalo. They have a clear pecking order- the head hunter, the spearmaker, etc.

      Females form camps of 20-40, including the old and the children. They perform the eternal day-to-day maintenance, gathering, feeding, washing, etc. They depend on a level structure of team players, none much above the rest. “Thinking she’s better than everyone else” is bad news for a girl, but marks a man as an alpha.

      Tribal sizes- the 60-200 size groups- for in benobo chimps, whose females also control and calm the group with seal signaling, due to extended estrus. With other primates, the males are too violent, and they can only maintain a size of about 15, because the females and young stay away.

      The natural maximum tribal size is about 500; we start forgetting names and faces above that.
      Roman legions were 600 strong, when they would have ‘logically’ numbered 1000.
      A culture denotes a confederation of similar linked groups.

      A female linguist bore out this idea in the book “You Just Don’t Understand.”
      She noted men and women use language differently according to their biological imperatives.
      Males display and services territory, so they speak directly, often in challenge.
      Females need everyone on board, so they hint at understood nuance, reinforcing intimacy.
      He comes home, tired of talking, and she just wants to nag him about all the details of the day.

  4. In business I call it “dis-economy of scale”. As a business grows from a few people to hundreds, then thousands of employees, all kinds of behavior changes take place. Founders are replaced with Managers who become risk-adverse and have to answer to a Board. Human Resources, Compliance, and Legal Departments are created to stifle innovation and enforce rules.

    Eventually the next nimble new company runs circles around them until they grow big and clumsy too.

    • The way they used to explain in B-school was as an army. The shock troops and special forces are the guys who take the beach and secure a beachhead for the rest of the army. These are the guys who start businesses and industries. The next wave is the regular army. They occupy ground, expanding out from the beachhead. This is when those special forces guys are either replaced or they head off to new beaches. The army is the management layer. Once the army has conquered enough land, they bring in the MP to keep order in their own ranks. These are the HR people, diversity trainers, consultants and so forth we see in corporations.

      It’s not a perfect analogy, but a useful one. The fact is, most people are average and they want a world where average people can do well. Size makes that possible.

      • “The fact is, most people are average and they want a world where average people can do well. Size makes that possible.”

        I’d turn that around 180 degress, Zman; Organizational size enstupidizes people, and makes it possible for them to be mediocre. Unfortunately, in modern society, the “average” person is exactly that– mediocre.

  5. Reversion to the mean, baby. Small will have its day again, and the process starts all over. David and Goliath.

  6. I was about to say that it would take you five minutes to compose a better argument oppo the one you posted, then it occurred to me that you were laying down a banana peel to see who slipped on it.

  7. I’d argue that going bigger has proven to be a colossal failure. Look at the EU, China, and the US– all large political entities that are collapsing under the weight of over-centralization. The Soviet Union already collapsed– they were the harbingers of doom. Putin learned from the Soviet experience; that’s why Russia is currently the best-run large political entity on the planet. That’s not to say that Russia is well-run; it’s just the best run compared to the competition.

    I remember learning in Organizational Behavior class in business school that human organizations larger than roughly ~250 people tend to break down; they become internally inefficient, causing them to turn inwards to manage that inefficiency, resulting in losing touch with the marketplace. That doesn’t mean you can’t run a corporation of, say, 10,000 people; you just have to be careful to structure such an organization into an appropriate number of autonomous units. Obviously, coordination and control of so many autonomous units presents its own challenge, but that is a separate problem. Michael Dell runs his company according to this rule of thumb. In general, highly decentralized organizations are much more successful than centralized organizations. Curiously, organizations under stress reflexively become more centralized and rigid; while this helps the organization react more effectively in the short run, in the long run this reflex winds up crippling and killing the organization. It’s why many large organizations subjected to stress generally fail catastrophically.

      • China killed a shitload of people to get to its current state of “doing pretty well”. Also, their centrally planned economy is in the process of self-destructing as we type. Big centrally planned shit looks great from afar . . . right up until it implodes. People close up on the inside of such debacles suffer no such misconceptions about the fucked upped nature of their situation.

        • No… not really. China killed a lot of people when it wasn’t on its path to doing well. Back in Mao’s time.
          China’s economy has surged thanks to embracing capitalism and that didn’t require any killings.

          • China hasn’t embraced capitalism; the idea is laughable. Rather, advanced western economies embraced China as a massive source of cheap labor and natural resources. The Chinese communist leaders were smart enough to adapt their economic ideas just barely enough to accommodate the concerns and goals of the massive capital inflows. THose inflows became the singular, defining characteristic of Chinese economic growth for almost 40 years… and now that those inflows have come to a screeching halt, China’s economy will face an existential crisis, and Chinese leadership will revert to form. There is a huge internal leadership struggle happening at the highest levels of the Chinese Communist party right now; it’s been going on for a few years, and is being completely ignored by the MSM but if you do a few internet searches, you’ll uncover some details.

            The Chinese Communists are both pragmatic and expedient; human life is cheap to them; the leadership is entirely dead spiritually. Persecution of Christians is once again at the top of the party agenda (again– completely uncovered by western MSM) which is another sign of major stress within the Communist party. Things are about to get very ugly over there. Don’t expect to see any news coming out of China about it; and don’t expect the western MSM to show the slightest bit of interest in covering what is really going on there until it becomes impossible to ignore.

          • >China hasn’t embraced capitalism; the idea is laughable

            It’s the idea that china is still communist which is laughable. No one claimed it’s free from lots of government interference.
            And the rest of the world could only use chinese labor thanks to china opening itself up to capitalism and foreign companies.

          • “It’s the idea that china is still communist which is laughable.”

            Really? So, they temporarily modified a small portion of their ideology and behavior to adapt to, and benefit from, massive capital inflows from the outside world. And that automatically changes them from communists to capitalists?? Well then, please explain why they still talk like communists? Still behave like communists? And still call themselves communists?


          • …It’s the idea that china is still communist which is laughable

            They are not ‘Communist’ i.e. Marx and Lenin; they are more like the Illuminati, a closed ‘secret society’ of self styled elites. But more successful and (so far) lasting much longer with true power.

  8. Bigger, as in Caliphate.
    And countries in Europe coming together would be easy when the population is anyway Arab and Muslim.
    Let’s hope it doesn’t come to pass.
    You will notice however that even while countries in Europe tried to form super bonds, there was a parallel affair of deserting such bonds. Jugoslavia broke up. Scotland will tear away from Britain (but wants into the EU). Catalonia wants independence. It seems there always were these two forces, one for joining up, one for splitting apart. Marriage and divorce.

    • Small divided countries are easy picking for the Globalists, it was no accident that Yugoslavia was broke apart, we can go back and to WWI and see the German and Austro-Hungary Empires being dismembered and replaced with banana republics by the winners.

      • Nonsense. If anything, small, patriotic countries are less likely to join a union which deprives them of power. See Poland, Czech Republic, etc. Doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s like marriage and divorce. Croatia liked being in Jugoslavia when Tito (a Croat) was President. Tito had the power to unite Jugoslavia. What happens when Tito goes and the President is Serbian? Croatia eventually feels left out and dislikes Serbia for being bigger and more successful and for controlling Jugoslavia. Scotland feels idiotic being in Britain because it’s smaller and less successful than England. It feels powerless. Resentment grows. Like a wife who marries a successful man and eventually feels she’s fed up with being a minor part of the relationship and wants to see what she can do on her own.
        For that matter, Britain feels sidelined in Europe and the people of Britain ask themselves why they should take instructions from Brussels. After all, Britain is a country that can go it alone.
        Germany and France effectively control the EU so they’d rather like to keep it going.
        If America lets individual states down too much, eventually they’ll want independence too.

    • There is an issue with the muslim invasion of Europe which I think we skate over: muslims are greatly divided among themselves. Shia detests Sunni, Sunni loathe Shia so when it comes to converting (willingly or forced), which part of the murderous cult is best? Violence in ‘refugee’ centres is staggering, but never much reported, because some newcomers have only deadly thoughts towards other newcomers before they start on the Europeans. In this respect Europe is in fact importing a civil war, though they don’t know it yet.

      As for Scotland, money matters. I was talking to a Scot about their split referendum and his point was all Scots care about is money: if they are going to be worse off without England, they won’t do it (Equally, if the Scots were serious about devolution, they should have asked the English to vote. The sassenachs would have voted them out within minutes). However the Scots are, as Billy Connolly pointed out, obsessed with a romantic idea of Robert The Bruce and the Scots Nationalists pander to any such inaccurate and unachievable ideal. But no surprise as it’s how government works.

      Of course Scotland wants the EU. Everyone who wants free money wants the EU, especially as nations like England are paying. The EU is a taxation scheme with some distribution of cash afterwards.

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