Scale of state
Some things in life scale linearly — which is a fancy way of saying that these things don't change their shape or nature if they grow or shrink in size.
For example, if you double your speed on the highway — say, from 35 mph to 70 mph — you'll double the mileage you cover in an hour. Or, if you have 10-year-old twins, you'll spend roughly half the amount of money on feeding your children as your neighbors spend to feed their 10-year-old quadruplets.
But many things in life do not scale linearly. If a recipe calls for biscuits to bake for 20 minutes at 300 degrees, your biscuits won't be so tasty if you bake them for 10 minutes at 600 degrees.
Many errors are made by assuming that things scale linearly when they don't. For example, if you triple your speed on the highway (from 35 mph to 105 mph), you probably won't triple the mileage you cover in an hour. You'll likely spend plenty of time parked on the shoulder, explaining to a police officer why you were driving so fast.
One of the most frequent and unfortunate failures to understand that things don't always scale linearly involves democracy. Too many people assume that what holds true for their book club or homeowners association holds true for democratic polities of millions of people.
In a townhouse development of, say, 40 units, it's easy for each owner to monitor the goings-on of the homeowners association's officers. It's also easy to have a meaningful voice in association meetings. Further, the fact that each owner is acquainted with many of the other owners — including the association's officers — means that decisions on the governance of the homeowners association are not made for strangers.
Because of the “localness” and face-to-face nature of townhouse governance, the danger of an association's officers voting, say, to raise association fees to unjustifiably high levels is slim.
The workability of such local, face-to-face democratic decision-making, however, quickly dissolves as the size of the polity increases.
The U.S. Capitol building in Washington might be called “the People's House,” but in reality, I am no more welcome into the inner chambers of that building than I am welcome into the boardroom of IBM or into the office of the CEO of Disney. And what's true for me is true for 99.99999 percent of other Americans.
And while I can vote in political elections, my vote is literally one of at least tens of thousands — and in presidential elections, one of tens of millions — of votes cast to elect “my” political representatives. To assume that each citizen's voice — through voting and through talking to representatives — in political elections is meaningful in the same way that it is meaningful in book-club or homeowners association elections is an absurd myth. Having a say in collective decision-making procedures doesn't scale linearly — as Walter Lippmann recognized years ago:
“Though it is disguised by the illusion that a bureaucracy accountable to a majority of voters, and susceptible to the pressure of organized minorities, is not exercising compulsion, it is evident that the more varied and comprehensive the regulation becomes, the more the state becomes a despotic power as against the individual. For the fragment of control over the government which he exercises through his vote is in no effective sense proportionate to the authority exercised over him by the government.”
Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- LaBar: WWE not backing down from controversy
- Parents alerted to luring attempt of fourth-grade girl in Springdale
- LCB, Duquesne University police recover rare bourbon in illegal sale
- Driver leaps from sliding truck just before it topples down hillside in Fawn
- EPA urges further review of nuclear waste dump in Parks Township
- Overhaul of military benefit programs sought
- Endowment of $3.49B makes University of Pittsburgh 25th richest in U.S.
- Gunman sought in gas station robberies in Jefferson, Buffalo townships
- 3 arrested in recent McKeesport business burglaries
- BNY Mellon expands role for treasury exec
- Rostraver Democrat aims for 1 of 3 open spots on Westmoreland County bench