Sunday, October 19, 2008

Stentor's voice

In the Politics of Aristotle, at the end of Book VII ch 4, Aristotle sets down limits to how big and small a well-functioning state should be (1326b7-25). He thinks the ideal population is at least enough people to provide for the necessities of life, and the ideal land area is no larger than can be taken in a single view. Aristotle sees practical limitations to an oversize state, first of all, that foreigners and resident aliens could take advantage of the rights of citizens. Second of all, there is a limit to how many people can be communicated to at once. In Aristotle's day, communication to large audience was mostly through public speaking, since print was too expensive for bulk communication. And since there was no means of amplifying speech, one had to rely on the power of one's voice. If there are too many people, then those in the back won't be able to hear you, unless you have Stentor's voice (Stentor was a herald for the Greeks in the Iliad [cf V, 780], famous for his strong voice). The minimum population is simply enough for self-sufficiency, presumably so you don't have to depend on neighbors for basic necessities, like food.

The first part about foreigners, seems to continue to have relevance today. For example, in the US, foreigners can come here, have children, and then send them to free public schools, and they can show up at the Emergency Room and get free medical treatment (if they just never bother to pay the bill), as well as being able to take advantage of everyday things like free roads, military protection and fire protection service. Even such an innovation as ID cards and large databases to keep track of citizens don't settle this problem. The vast size makes anonymity, a boon for illegal immigrants in particular, possible. The second concern Aristotle has seems at first blush outdated, since we have technology of mass communication. But is it? Can a presidential candidate really address the needs to tens of millions of people? Maybe candidates resort more to vagueness and double talk and are less clear about their platform because they really can't and they want to leave it up to the voter to fill in the vagueness. Certainly presidents nor even Federal representatives, maybe not even local representatives can represent that many people. Trying to address so many different needs is impossible and thus blanket solutions that help some people pretty well, and many people poorly, and many people harms have to be resorted to. Maybe the number of people someone can speak to at once and the amount of land one can take in in one viewing is a good upper limit.

Over large states can be unwieldy. Rome had to be broken up into four units under Diocletian to keep from collapsing, and eventually settled into two distinct states. Many a large empire has simply fell into decline, heading quickly towards collapse (Akkadian, Hittite, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Holy Roman Empire, Ottoman, USSR). Even today, most of the places with the highest standard of living and the highest level of prosperity per capita are small states (places like Hong Kong, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Andorra, UAE, Singapore and so on).

The lower limit that Aristotle sets, being able to be self-sufficient, seems unhelpful. An individual person can be self-sufficient, making all their food and clothes and such. In addition, an individual would be much poorer for being self-sufficient. I can afford my own apartment with lots of food and clothes and books and computer, etc, because I don't have to make them all, but can trade my services for them. The same applies to the state. A state is more prosperous by trade. Many of the examples I listed of prosperous small states are preeminently un-self-sufficient, like Hong Kong, with no natural resources whatsoever to offer and no agriculture. Trade has the additional benefit of reducing the likelihood of war, since countries mutually dependent on each other through trade, are disinclined to start pointing the guns at each other (is it a coincidence that the two countries the US is currently at war with are countries it has been openly restricting trade to, imposing economic sanctions on Iraq for years, and trying to prevent the only substantial trade with Afghanistan, recreational drugs, especially heroine, from entering the country). I guess as soon as we start to say things like "could there be a state with only one person, or two people, or four people?" that it seems feasible that there could be a lower limit to the size of a state. If you're too small it seems unnecessary to declare yourself independent. So what would the minimum size of state be?

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