On the face of it, the title of this article seems rather silly. For those who are considering internationalising themselves, the relevant issues are likely to be low taxation, greater liberty, affordable real estate, good schools, etc. The size of the country would be of so little importance that it might drop off the wish list entirely.
But for those who have lived internationally, especially if they’ve lived in a variety of countries of varying sizes, the size factor makes all the sense in the world.
At one time, most of the world was tribal. Tribes often fought with each other over choice lands. Then towns sprang up, many of them with walls around them. This congestion of people solved the problem of eliminating lengthy travel for most, whilst providing a measure of safety, as the entire town could turn out to defend the ramparts.
Eventually, sovereign states came into being, with central armies that would defend all the towns and farms within the borders.
Finally, empires were created to allow leaders to extract wealth from greater numbers of towns, farms, and even entire states.
Still, the primary problem remained defense. The larger the state, the more far flung the outer provinces and, hence, the greater the need for large armies to defend the empire. As late as 238 years ago, thirteen former British colonies went independent of their parent empire—the UK—to become independent states. But even they realised that they might be attacked, so it made sense to band together regarding defense.
This concern was so important to the new United States that, as much as they opposed the idea of a central government that might one day become powerful enough to eclipse the states, a federal government was created which would provide the common defense, collect duties and taxes, borrow money on the credit of all the states, regulate foreign commerce, coin money, and (it was hoped) very little else.
However, over time, the central government grew like Topsy to the point that it became a cancer, devouring its host. This has always been the nature of empires and, to a lesser extent, sovereign nations in general. The larger a nation, the more likely it is that the ruling class eventually becomes so powerful and out of touch with the people that it purports to represent, that it becomes “the enemy.” It invariably increases its own size and power, whilst diminishing the wealth and liberty of its people.
So, what does this mean? Does it mean that the smaller the country, the more likely it is that the population can control its political class? Well, actually, yes, that’s exactly what it means.
I’ve lived in large countries, and in each one, I was completely out of touch with the ruling class and had absolutely no impact on their decisions or actions. I’ve also lived in smaller countries and, indeed, some very small countries. In fact, my home country is the smallest of all in which I’ve lived. It’s also the most free andmost prosperous. Any citizen has the opportunity to deal with our political leaders on a direct and very personal basis.
Do such leaders welcome this intrusion into what they would like to think of as “their power”? No. (In fact some have stated their distaste to me personally on occasion.) However, in a small society, they know that we’re all known personally to each other and live in the same neighbourhoods. So they have to listen. (If you can’t get into the politician’s office to tell him what you think of his latest proposal, you can tell him when you collar him in the pub that weekend—or even go over to his house and talk to him.) The citizens of smaller countries can be more demonstrative with their governments, since small governments lack the power to distance themselves from the people.
In such an environment, political power can only go so far. Leaders can get carried away only briefly, then they will be curtailed, as long as the public remain vigilant.
This last phrase is key. In any country, no matter how good the political structure is, vigilance is always necessary and must be continuous. However, the larger the country, the less effective vigilance will be.
Additionally, smaller countries often have greater opportunity to be more prosperous, as (if leaders and citizens are forward thinking) laws can easily be written to allow for increased opportunity and less governmental control. For this reason, smaller countries, with lower taxes, generally have a greater percentage of high-earners.
Is there an exception to the “size” rule? Yes, there is. There are a number of countries in the world that are larger, yet they are either so poor or so disorganized that they’re incapable of exerting the level of control over their people that they’d like to. In poor countries, there’s often a lack of infrastructure, but this is often balanced off by a low cost of living. In contrast, many smaller countries have a higher cost of living but offer First-World amenities. (The choice is yours.)
But what of the original reason for creating ever-larger states: the fear of invasion? In the last century, that’s changed. At one time, the reason for desiring someone else’s land was that it held more game or had better soil for the growth of food. Today, these needs have become less significant as modern transportation has made it possible for California oranges to be eaten in Beijing a few days after they’ve been picked. Even water, in large quantities, is imported by some countries.
And warfare itself is changing. Although the world is rife with sham wars to provide distractions for governments, and there still remain some civilizations that retain a Neanderthal approach to solving disputes, the majority of the world is increasingly involved in what may be regarded as economic warfare.
In the early 20th century, Randolph Bourne wrote that society “is a concept of peace, tolerance, of living and letting live. But State is essentially a concept of power, of competition; it signifies a group in its aggressive aspects.”
Quite so. But there remains an illusion that a greater size of a nation assures greater security. Today, this is not so. Although a larger country might protect itself better if attacked from without, it is far more vulnerable to attack from within.And historically, most national collapses have come about in part, or completely, from within.
Further, the old practice of the barbarians charging across the landscape, conquering every small state they encounter and pillaging along the way, has largely been outmoded. Stealing the crops, animals, and weaponry from a small nation counts for little today. A 1944 map of Europe shows little Switzerland as the only country in Europe not conquered by the Nazis. Hitler recognized that fighting from valley to valley would have been tedious and nothing would be gained, as there were no spoils to be taken. Switzerland’s economy was its strength and that could not be “taken.”
As the world becomes increasingly electronic, the ideal world is the polar opposite of a New World Order, in which people are forced to “one size fits all” uber-nations. Larger nations maximise benefit to the leaders but minimize benefit to the people. For the people, the greatest attribute of a country is adaptability of the country for the opportunity of the individual.
The ideal future would be literally thousands of countries, none larger than Switzerland, each competing with the others to attract citizens. To this would be added the freedom of the individual to choose his own domicile, based on his own goals and preferences.
In seeking a country, size does matter. Ironically, though, smaller is often better.