The Breakdown of Nations

The Breakdown of Nations was the economist and political scientist, Leopold Kohr’s first book. It was published in 1954, but is remarkably relevant to the modern day. In it Kohr puts forth, and defends, the assertion that the primary cause of social misery, be it in the form of crime, tyrannical government, or war, is an excessive size of the social unit. It follows, according to Kohr, that in order to minimize the impact of these social miseries, and thus promote human flourishing, decentralization, or the breakdown of the massive nation states must take place. Kohr builds a very convincing case for the benefits of decentralization, looking closely at historical examples, such as the Middle Ages and the time of the Greek city-states. Kohr is a remarkably witty writer for someone who tackles an issue with such depth, making the book both enjoyable and highly insightful.

Key Passages

“As the physicists of our time have tried to elaborate an integrated single theory, capable of explaining not only some but all phenomena of the physical universe, so I have tried on a different plane to develop a single theory through which not only some but all phenomena of the social universe can be reduced to a common denominator. The result is a new and unified political philosophy centring in the theory of size. It suggests that there seems only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness.” (Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations)

 

“. . . the solution of the problems confronting the world as a whole does not seem to lie in the creation of still bigger social units and still vaster governments whose formation is now attempted with such unimaginative fanaticism by our statesmen. It seems to lie in the elimination of those overgrown organisms that go by the name of great powers, and in the restoration of a healthy system of small and easily manageable states such as characterized earlier ages.” (Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations)

 

“Many will object to the power or size theory also on the ground that it is based on an unduly pessimistic interpretation of man. They will claim that, far from being inspired and seduced by power, we are generally and predominantly animated by the ideals of decency, justice, magnanimity, and so forth. This is true, but only because most of the time we do not possess the critical power enabling us to get away with indecency. We behave simply because we know that crime does not pay and that, with the limited power at our disposal, it is more profitable to use it for good than for bad.” (Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations)

 

“Now let us trace the effects of the same problem [a dictator gaining power] in a small-state world. If a power maniac gets hold of a government there, both the internal and external consequences are vastly different. Since a small state is by nature weak, its government, which can draw the measure of its strength only from the measure of the country over which it rules, must likewise be weak. And if government is weak, so must be its dictator. And if a dictator is weak, he can be overthrown with the same leisurely effort which he himself had to apply in order to overthrow the preceding government.” (Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations)

 

“. . .it is not submissive disposition that leads to the misery of tyranny, but tyrannical power, growing in proportion to the size of the community, that leads at a critical magnitude to the condoning spirit of submission. Submissiveness is thus not a human quality that could be explained to a significant extent as the result of upbringing, tradition, national character, or the mode of production. Like most other social attitudes, it is the adaptive reflex reaction with which man responds to power. Its degree varies directly with the degree of power, just as its opposite reaction, the assertion of freedom, varies inversely with it. Where there is power, there is submission, and where there is no submission, there is no power. This is why, historically, the seemingly most freedom-loving peoples have accepted tyranny as submissively as the seemingly most submissive ones, or why it is safe to say that even Americans would submit if our federal structure permitted the accumulation of the necessary volume of governmental power. For, as young Boswell confided so touchingly to his London Journal, ‘when the mind knows it cannot help itself by struggling, it quietly and patiently submits to whatever load is laid upon it’.” (Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations)

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