Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Virtues and Limits of Smallness

We have been hearing a great deal about smallness lately. The need for smallness in government, the call to reduce the size of banks and other businesses, the advantages of smaller, more intimate schools, the advisability of keeping our meal portions modest, the value of maintaining smaller, more adaptive organizational teams, and perennially, the need for smallness when it comes to practicing democracy as a way of life. I am a big fan of smallness, particularly when it comes to schools and democracy (more about that later), and I am hardly alone in becoming increasingly impatient with this notion, still widely promoted, that we need banks and investment firms that are too big to fail. Smallness as one of the bases for changing how our society works seems to be everywhere, but it is hardly a new idea. As I have said, I am attracted to smallness, but at the same time, I am aware, even painfully so, of its limitations. As with other recent posts, then, I want to use this space to explore why smallness is such a galvanizing idea, especially now, and why it should also be approached and advocated for with caution.

If you consult a dictionary on smallness, you might be surprised by the variety of both denotations and connotations associated with it. It denotes, of course, less than average size, but also lack of importance or significance, limited influence or scope, and even narrowness in outlook or purpose. It also implies modesty or humility and simplicity and even agility or flexibility, as in a craft that can be easily driven or directed. A small boat, for instance, can easily be turned around, whereas a large one may require a very elaborate and complicated maneuver. Smallness also suggests a decentralized situation in which a relatively few number of people are able to interact with one another, often in a face-to-face manner. Bigness, by contrast, is impersonal and often alienating for people. One of the big problems with large organizations is that when something goes wrong, it is difficult to determine who is responsible. It often can't be discerned who gave the order that led to disaster. In small organizations, on the other hand, there appears to be greater accountability, more oversight, and greater satisfaction in being able to put a name and a position to an action taken. People seem to know where they stand with small enterprises. Very large ones are disorienting and not particularly efficient.

One of the historical figures who has been mentioned a lot lately who was a great foe of bigness in both business and government was the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. As Jeffrey Rosen notes in a recent book review, Brandeis, unlike other liberals, opposed bigness, not just in business, but in government as well. He saw bigness as a "curse," and he recognized discerningly that bigness in both business and government often leads to a kind of interlocking directorate between the two, something like what Eisenhower later called "the military-industrial complex," that is not only a waste of resources, but more harmfully, a promoter of "greed, recklessness, and oligarchy." Such bigness, Brandeis contended, leads to imprudence, fraud and self-centered practices that are simply not in the public interest.

Rosen also mentions that Brandeis was committed to judicial restraint and states' rights, but never says anything about how this philosophy might have played out during the Civil Rights Movement where judicial activism and big government were absolutely essential. Here we see one particularly outstanding example of the need for bigness to resist the forces of racism or of regional prejudices. Bigness is often a problem, but it is not always so, and it does seem, for instance, that once again a very large bureaucracy and an activist government are critical if we are to have the kind of environmental reforms needed to address global warming.

Another interesting case of the virtues and limitations of smallness relates to educational reform. A lot of good has been done, for instance, in New York City breaking up very large schools into much smaller ones, or creating small, self-governing units within existing educational behemoths that sometimes enroll as many as 5000 students. These smaller schools report, on the whole, better attendance, higher achievement, and a much stronger connection to parents and to the surrounding community. Of course, smallness does not accomplish these things by itself, but it is a facilitating influence, and many of these changes would be nearly impossible without these reductions in size. At the same time, the Obama administration has been almost universally praised for its efforts to provide federal incentives for educational reform within the states. Many people believe that without these measures and without the accompanying efforts to create national educational standards, change would not happen. This seems to be another case where bigness is necessary to deal with a system that for too long has been mismanaged.

I also want to put in a good word for smallness when it comes to any kind of direct democracy, where each person in a group has an equal claim to voicing her or his view and to having an opportunity to influence the final decision or outcome. By direct democracy here I don't mean a system of government so much as a way of life found in families, schools, interest groups, religious congregations, or community organizations. In such settings, democracy is practiced by people who believe in mutual persuasion as a way to reach decisions. They also believe that dialogue and well thought out arguments, combined with close, respectful listening, and a commitment to understanding other points of view are all essential. People who believe in small-scale democracy strive to hear as much as speak, to understand as much as be understood, to learn from a variety of perspectives at least as much as propose a solution. This process of reciprocal enlightenment is often as important as the product of wise, judicious decisions.

Yet, even as I revere such small-scale democracies, I also know that at the national level there are many times when discussion must come to an end and that it even becomes counter-productive to prolong it, when decisions must be made, often without taking into account every point of view. Such processes must be handled with care, but as I mentioned in an earlier post crisis demands action, and our decision makers at the national level have too often taken too long to achieve resolution about jobs, the environment, and energy that have become self-evident to many of our most rational and well informed citizens. Bigness and activism once again have a highly valued role. Perhaps, by the way, health care reform is our most recent example of the need for a very ambitious, thoroughgoing, and activist set of changes at the federal level. There simply is no way to pull it off without affirming that bigness has its virtues, too.

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