Sunday, 6 November 2011


Sometimes it pays to take a simple look at complex problems, so let’s take a brief look at the problem of scale – meaning scale as in magnitude. We all know what scale is, but don’t always apply what we know – possibly because simple answers are too accurate for modern tastes, too stark, too lacking in those furtive nuances which make such good hiding-places.

It seems to me that here in the UK we have drifted into a major problem with scale. We humans are fixed-size beings with certain capacities, intellectual and physical and a certain number of allotted years to make the best of what we have. We can’t change that and it affects what we may do, what we should expect to do, how quickly we evolve serviceable solutions to social and economic problems.

Climate is a good example of a very simple problem of scale. Although this post isn’t about climate change, it will do as a familiar example. A serious and obvious problem with climate science is it not being scaled to our scientific ambitions. We can’t do unambiguous experiments because it’s too big and too complex. We also have only one example to play with, can’t take representative samples and can’t do much in the way of controlled changes. We can’t change one climate parameter, see what happens to all the others then wind it back to where it was.

Okay, so that’s a brief physical illustration of how scale can be a serious problem even though we don’t usually catch sight of it through all the climate cant. Obvious enough but it seems to need saying, because scale is a type of problem we so often ignore. What else?

Well we need our clans to be scaled correctly because a healthy society needs bidirectional feedback between clan leaders and clan members. I’m going to take that as given because I want to keep the focus on scale.

Assume a nation state is about as big as a healthy clan can be – a mega-clan. It’s at the top of the clan scale. It follows that increasing complexity, cultural diversity and erosion of national functions will all cause problems with scale. States can become too complex, too diverse and too highly integrated into transnational processes.

Mega-clan members still need bidirectional feedback if they are to be an active part of a healthy mega-clan. Size isn’t just physical size; it is complexity, boundaries and rules. Increase complexity, blur boundaries, multiply rules and the clan becomes more difficult to understand, more difficult to relate to, more difficult to be a member of. It goes off-scale with respect to our capabilities.

Mega-clan UK suffers from this problem - it went off-scale as the EEC scaled up to the EU without knowing how. The EU is too big, complex and diverse to be a properly functioning clan. The scale is hopelessly wrong – obviously well outside any clan scale we learned to cope with as a nation state. There are far bigger states than ours, but they evolved their own solutions to the problem of scale over long periods of time. EU states have never done that. Germany tried of course, but that’s another story.

The answer is simple. We need to pay attention to scale and scale back to a nation state where we are generally handling known risks – those risks we learned to cope with over the centuries. The UK needs to be reasonably homogenous and independent if it hopes to get back to some kind of healthy democracy of which citizens generally approve. 


rogerh said...

Scaling back is rather like standing in a malfunctioning oil refinery and proposing to take it to bits and re-assemble as a pre-1960 model. No, if the plant next door blows, ours will blow too, so send out a few fire extinguishers, alert the damage
crew - and hope the blockages clear somehow.

No good trying to fix the fences either - too big and too full of holes, maintenance bill too big already, abandon them. Stop handing out free sarnies and we won't need fences.

A nagging worry or two. Since we automated the plant we find it hard to find work for the entire crew. Some advised we should get into 'clever stuff' whatever that is - turned out an illusion. Worse still, some new, but distant, plants do what we do cheaper. We would encourage emigration but only our best crew want to go.

Now someone mentioned Soylent Green, must look into that one. Politics, it ain't engineering!

Sam Vega said...

"The UK needs to be reasonably homogenous and independent if it hopes to get back to some kind of healthy democracy of which citizens generally approve."

Pure gold.

I also, however, take rogerh's point. The democracy needs to function in such a way as to meet the challenges of globalisation and interconnectedness with systems over which we have no control, and of which we do not approve. Perhaps this is what the leadership angle is about. Our current leaders give every impression of wanting to keep us in good stead with the forces of international capital, etc., yet caring nothing about the public.

Mark Wadsworth said...

The question of what the optimum size of 'a state' is purely in terms of population is one that interests me.

I'd guess that the bare minimum is not very much, i.e. a few hundred thousand or maybe a million, which gives its inhabitants most of the marginal advantages of specialisation within a single legal framework, with a minimum of the disadvantages of being too big (top heavy bureaucracy, lack of social cohesion, lack of feedback between rulers and citizens) and so on.

But then again, tiny countries like Luxembourg aren't really that different to huge countries like the USA with six hundred times the population.

A K Haart said...

rogerh - "Politics, it ain't engineering!" good point unfortunately - politicians don't seem to understand the idea of fixing things and designing them to be fixable.

SV - I think the major problem in steering clan UK is simply the dishonesty of our leaders. We can't have a grown-up debate.

MW - I'm sure states learn to cope with their own size, whatever it happens to be, but I'm not so sure about coping with the complexities of globalisation without some degree of honesty from the elite.