The modern problem is most assuredly one of scale. The industrial, transportation and media revolutions have generated a world of enormous scale indeed. There seems to be a consensus on the Civitas thread that scale imposes formidable problems in creating and sustaining community life. Likewise, the modern scale of things presents serious challenges to our most cherished form of government - republicanism.
Professor Donald Livingston of Emory University, in an article titled "David Hume and the Republican Tradition of Human Scale" in the journal Anamnesis, explains the history and philosophy of this tradition.
"Ancient Greek civilization was the work of some one thousand five hundred small, independent republics of which Athens, one of the largest, had a population of around one hundred sixty thousand. Notwithstanding their small size these Greek polities created a brilliant civilization from which we still draw inspiration. The republic of Rousseau’s Social Contract was modeled on Geneva, which contained around twenty-five thousand people. A wide range of scholars from different disciplines who have studied the matter have concluded that every need of high culture, along with a high standard of living, can be achieved in a modern city state of between fifty and two hundred thousand. Throughout history republics have fallen within or even below this range. The Italian republics that created the Renaissance: Florence, Padua, Venice, Bologna, and others were in this range. Venice had a population of around one hundred ninety thousand. Florence and Bologna had around sixty thousand each."
From these numbers I think it's safe to say that my population-quality argument still holds. What American city of similar population is capable of cultural achievements on the level of these older republics? If none, why might that be? These questions are beside the point of Dr. Livingston's discourse, but I think them worth asking and answering.
The main thing to note about these cities is that, due to their human scale, they were both governable as republics and conducive to the virtuous lives of their citizens.
David Hume was a notorious skeptic and was certainly not a friend of the Church. One can detect more than a little Rousseauian naivety in his ideas as presented here. His historical claims, then, should also be scrutinized. Nevertheless Hume's political ideals resonate with the deep Christian humanism of St. Thomas More's "Utopia", and we have to concede that his theory of republican scale is far more consistent with fallen human nature and experience than More's imaginative portrayal of a perfect human society.
"Hume agrees that it is 'more difficult to form a republican government in an extensive country than in a city.' But once established, its extensive size and division into small republics would make it less likely to fall into faction and disorder which has been the weakness of small republics throughout history (E, 527). Sheer size alone would make it difficult for the parts to combine to form a special interest. I will not take space here to explore the essay in detail; rather, my remarks will be limited to the parts salient to Hume’s view on the size and scale of political order.
The extensive republic, which Hume says is the size of Britain or France, is divided into one hundred small republics; each of which is further divided into one hundred parishes. Those satisfying a property qualification for voting meet annually in the parish church and elect one representative to their small republican government. This body of one hundred representatives elect, among themselves, ten magistrates and one senator. The senators, to the number of one hundred, meet in the national capital and exercise the executive and supreme judicial powers of the commonwealth. However, the ten magistrates and one hundred representatives remain in the capitals of their respective republics. The magistrates exercise the executive and judicial powers of the provincial republic while the representatives exercise the legislative powers. The provincial republics can pass laws within their territory, but these can be vetoed by the national senate or by another republic, in which case the matter must be decided by the legislative power of the whole commonwealth. The vote is by republics. Each republic has one vote, and a majority of republics decides the question."
And what of large republics like Great Britain and the United States?
Britain in Hume’s day had around nine million inhabitants; today it has over sixty-five million. In Hume’s Britain there is one representative for every nine hundred persons; in Britain today there is one for every one hundred four thousand, not a human scale ratio of representation to population. Or consider the United States, which styles itself a republic. There are only 435 representatives in the House of Representatives, ruling over some 309 million people. This yields a ratio of around one representative for every seven hundred ten thousand people. A regime with this ratio cannot be considered a republic, not even a large Humean republic. What is true of the out-of-scale ratio of representatives to people in Britain and the United States is true of most large regimes in the world that style themselves republics. But if they are not in any meaningful sense republics, what are they? An answer was suggested by Tocqueville, who viewed the emerging European 'republics' as in reality extensions of absolute monarchy.
I think such regimes are more accurately described as empires, which exhibit all of the power of absolute monarchies (and more) but none of the personal, familial, cultural or national qualities. The good news is that American institutions are still patterned on republican subsidiarity, however obscured by overreach at all levels. It is certainly true that a modern country of 300 million souls will never look much like the city-states of ancient Greece and medieval Europe, no matter the political structure. Bigness is probably here to say. But in the United States we have reason to hope that the republican tradition of human scale, so essential to our political heritage, is still capable of informing our politics.
The entire article is well worth your attention.