Aristotle declared that there is a limit to the size of states: “a limit, as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements; for none of these retain their natural power when they are too large or too small, but they either wholly lose their nature, or are spoiled.”  But really, what did he know?  He lived at a time when the entire population of the world was somewhere around 50 million—about the size of England today.  The total population of the separate Greek-speaking city states may have been eight million, and Athens, where he lived, considered a large city, would have been under 100,000 people.  Limits?  He couldn’t even imagine a world (ours) of 6.8 billion, a nation (China) of 1.3 billion, or a city (Tokyo) of 36 million.  How is he going to help us?

He, at least, knew that there are limits:

Experience shows that a very populous city can rarely, if ever, be well governed; since all cities which have a reputation for good government have a limit of population.  We may argue on grounds of reason, and the same result will follow: for law is order, and good law is good order; but a very great multitude cannot be orderly.

It doesn’t matter if that city is 1 million or 36 million—political entities at such sizes could certainly not be democratic in any sense, could not possibly function with anything approaching efficiency, and could exist only with great inequities of wealth and material comfort.

Aristotle also knew that human beings are of a certain limited size of brain and comprehension, and that putting them in the aggregate does not make them any smarter—or as another philosopher, Lemuel Gulliver, once said, “Reason does not extend itself with the bulk of the body.”  There is a human scale to human politics, defined by human nature, that functions well only in such assemblages as do not overstress and overburden the quite capable and ingenious but limited human brain and human capacity.

So political units, Aristotle said—he thought mostly in terms of cities—have to be limited: limited by human nature and human experience.  And it is with that understanding that we now may start contemplating what in today’s world would constitute the ideal, or optimum, size of a state, with these two overriding criteria: “sufficient,” in Aristotle’s words, “for a good life in the political community” (i.e., some form of democracy) and “the largest number which suffices for the purposes of a good life”—in a word, efficiency.

This is not some sort of idle philosopher’s quest but the foundation of a serious reordering of our political world, and a reordering such as the process of secession—indeed, only the process of secession—could provide.  We have abundant evidence that a state as large as 305 million people is ungovernable.  One scholar recently said that we are in the fourth decade of Congress’s inability to pass a single measure of social consequence.  Bloated and corrupted beyond its ability to address any of the problems it has created as an empire, it is a blatant failure.  So what could replace it, and at what size?  The answer is the independent states of America.

Let us start by looking at real-world figures of modern nations to give us some clue as to population sizes that actually work.

Of all the world’s political entities—there are 223 of them, counting the smallest independent islands—45 are below 250,000 people, 67 below 1 million, 108 below 5 million.  In fact, 50 percent of nations are below 5.5 million, and a full 58 percent are smaller than Switzerland’s population of 7.7 million.  Put plainly, most countries function with relatively small populations.  And looking at the nations that are recognized models of statecraft, eight are even below 500,000—Luxemburg, Malta, Iceland, Barbados, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino.  The example of Iceland, a beacon of democracy (banking troubles aside) with the world’s oldest parliament, suggests that 319,000 people is all you would need.

Admittedly, gross domestic product is a crude and entirely uncritical measure of economic worth, and reflects all kinds of growth, much of it undesirable, but it is, for now, the best way to gauge economic performance.  Eighteen of the top 20 nations ranked by per capita GDP (a total of 27 countries because of ties) are small, under five million, and all but one of the top ten are under five million.  The exception is the United States (number ten), with the others being Liechtenstein, Qatar, Luxembourg, Bermuda, Norway, Kuwait, Jersey, Singapore, and Brunei, in that order.  The average size of those nine is 1.9 million.  The average size of all 27 of the top economic nations, excluding the United States, is 5.1 million.

You are beginning to get the picture.

Another measure is freedom, as reckoned by three different organizations—Freedom House, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist—using measures of civil liberties, open elections, free media, and the like.  Of the 14 states reckoned freest in the world, 9 of them have populations below Switzerland at 7.7 million, 11 below Sweden at 9.3 million, and the only sizable states are Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany (the largest, at 81 million).

There is one other measure of freedom that is put out by Freedom House, ranking all the nations of the world according to political rights and civil liberties, and there are only 46 countries with perfect scores.  Of those 46, the majority of them are under five million in population, and indeed 17 of them are even under one million.  That is rather astonishing in itself.  And only 14 of the 46 free nations are over 7.5 million.  Excluding the United States, whose reputation for freedom is belied by her incarceration of 2.3 million people (25 percent of the world’s prisoners), and excluding the United Kingdom, Spain, and Poland, the average population of the free states of the world is approximately 5 million.

There are several other national rankings.  Literacy: Of the 44 countries that claim a literacy rate of 99 or better (I say claim, since it is hard to verify), only 15 are large, while 29 are below 7.5 million.  Health: Measured by the World Health Organization, 12 of the top 20 are under 7 million, and none are over 65 million.  In a ranking of happiness and standard of living last year by sociologist Steven Hales, the top countries were Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Austria, and Finland; all but Canada and Australia are small.  And a “sustainable society index” created by two scholars earlier last year, adding in environmental and ecological factors, ranks only smaller countries in the top ten—Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Austria, Iceland, Vietnam, Georgia, New Zealand, and Latvia.

Enough of that. The point, I trust, is well and simply made.  A nation not only can be viable and sustainable at quite small population sizes, a model of relatively democratic and efficient government, but in fact can provide all the necessary qualities for superior living.  Indeed, the figures seem to suggest that, though it is certainly possible to thrive at populations under a million people, there is an optimum size for a successful state, somewhere in the range of three to five million people.

A great many countries are surprisingly small—underlining the point, often missed by critics of secession, that a nation does not have to be self-sufficient to operate well in the modern world.  In fact there are 85 countries out of the 223 counted by the United Nations that are under 10,000 square miles—that is to say, the size of Vermont or smaller—and they include Israel, El Salvador, the Bahamas, Qatar, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Singapore, and Andorra.

And if we go back to that measure of economic strength, per capita GDP, small countries prove to be decidedly advantageous.  Of the top-20 ranked nations (27 in all, including ties), all but 8 are small in area, under 35,000 square miles, the global median (the size of South Carolina), and 2 of those 8 include Norway and Sweden, technically large but effectively small (excluding their empty northern areas).  In other words, 77 percent of the most prosperous countries are small.  And most of them are quite small indeed, under 10,000 square miles: Liechtenstein, Qatar, Luxembourg, Bermuda, Kuwait, Jersey, Singapore, Brunei, Guernsey, Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, Andorra, San Marino, British Virgin Islands, and Gibraltar.

All this is proof positive that economically successful nations needn’t be large in geographic size.  In fact, it is strongly suggestive that large size may be a hindrance.  The reason for this is that administrative, distribution, transportation, and similar transaction costs obviously have to rise, perhaps exponentially, as geographic size increases.  Control and communication also become more difficult to manage over long distances, often to the point where central authority and governance become nearly impossible.  As all the lines and signals become more complex, the ability to manage efficiently is severely diminished.

Small is not only beautiful but bountiful.

Once that important idea is understood, a further observation ensues: In many cases a smallish country might find it desirable to divide up even further so as to take advantage of smaller areas for more efficient economic functions.  This might be outright secession in some places, where it would simply be good economic sense, if not political and cultural good sense.  But it might also take the form of economic and political devolution, giving smaller areas autonomy and power without outright secession, after the Swiss model.

I propose that, out of these figures and even more so out of the history of the world, there is a Law of Government Size, and it goes like this: Economic and social misery increases in direct proportion to the size and power of the central government of a nation.

In testing Sale’s Law, as I like to think of it, let’s begin with Arnold Toynbee’s classic study of human civilization, whose primary conclusion is that the next-to-last stage of any society, before collapse, is “its forcible political unification in a centralized state,” as witness the Roman Empire, and the Ottoman, Bengal, and Mongol empires, as well as the Tokugawa Shogunate, and ultimately the Spanish, British, French, and Portuguese empires.  The consolidation of nations into powerful empires leads not to shining periods of peace and prosperity and the advance of human betterment, but to increasing restriction, warfare, autocracy, crowding, immiseration, inequality, poverty, and starvation.

The reason for all this is not mysterious.  As a government grows, it expands both its bureaucratic might over domestic affairs and its military might over external ones.  Money must be found for this expansion, and it comes either from taxation, which leads to higher prices and ultimately inflation, or from printing new money, which also leads to higher prices and inflation.  Increased wealth is also thought to result from conquest and colonization, enlarging spoils through warfare, but it comes at the price of imposing increased government control and military conscription at home, and increased violence, bloodshed, and misery for one’s own army and civilians and opposing forces abroad.  Ultimately, the result is economic and social misery.

There have been four major periods of great state consolidation and enlargement in the last thousand years.  The first (1150 to 1300) came with the establishment of royal dynasties, which replaced medieval baronies and city-states in England, Aquitaine, Sicily, Aragon, and Castile.  This resulted in rampant inflation of nearly 400 percent and almost incessant wars, with increasing battle casualties from a few hundred to more than a million.

The second (1525 to 1650) involved the consolidation of national power through standing armies, royal taxation, central banks, civilian bureaucracies, and established state religions.  Inflation rose to more than 700 percent in just 125 years.  There was also an unprecedented expansion of wars, a war intensity seven times greater than anything Europe had seen before, with casualties increasing to as many as eight million, perhaps five million in the Thirty Years War alone.

Third, from 1775 to 1815, the period of modern state government in most of Europe, including national police forces, conscripted armies, and centralized state power à la the Napoleonic Code, inflation rose over 250 percent in just 40 years, and war casualties amounted to 15 million (perhaps 5 million during the Napoleonic Wars).

Finally, from 1910 to 1970, all European states consolidated and expanded power, resulting in the worst depression in history and inflation of 1,400 percent, not to mention the two most ruinous wars in all human history, which contributed to casualties, mostly deaths, of 100 million or more.

The larger the state, the more economic disaster and military casualties.  Hence, the Law of Government Size.

How does all of this apply to the United States today?

Of the 50 states, 29 have populations below five million people.  Half of the population lives in 40 states that average out to 3.7 million people; the other half is in the 10 largest states.  There are ten states and one colony in the three to five million population class that would be ideal secession candidates: Iowa, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, Colorado, and Mississippi.  And there are another 13 with populations between one and three million—Montana, Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Idaho, Nebraska, West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Kansas, and Arkansas—and another eight below one million but larger than Iceland, including Vermont.  In other words, 30 of the states (plus Puerto Rico) fall in a range where similar sizes in the rest of the world have produced successful independent nations.

Again, 84 political areas in the world are smaller than Vermont, the second smallest U.S. state.  The median area of U.S. states is roughly 58,000 square miles—25 states are smaller than that, and 25 bigger.  If all of those under 58,000 were independent, they would match 79 other countries in the world—among them Greece, Nicaragua, Iceland, Hungary, Portugal, Austria, Czech Republic, Ireland, Sri Lanka, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Taiwan.

The argument for secession need not focus exclusively on population or geographic size—one might factor in cultural cohesion, developed infrastructure, historical identity—but that seems to me to be the sensible place to start when considering viable states.  And since the experience of the world has shown that populations ranging from three to five million are optimal for governance and efficiency, that is as good a measure as any to begin assessing bodies for their secessionist potential and their chances of success as independent states.

The only hope for reenergizing American politics is to create truly sovereign states through peaceful, popular, powerful secession.