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I like big things: Big mountains; vast swaths of desert; endless forests lorded over by towering, majestic trees. Big steaks. Big-bored blackpowder rifles that make a big boom and a tremendous cloud of white smoke. A big, steaming mug of coffee on a chilly morning. Big books.
But big human organizations suck.
A great many of modern civilization’s discontents can be attributed in whole or in part to the loss of human scale in our endeavors. I am, of course, cognizant of the irony that I make this plaint across the largest and most complex network ever conceived and created by man. And of the irony that Running Iron is attempting to build a human-scale community amidst the heavy, speeding traffic of the information superhighway. Such are the paradoxes of modern life.
Which makes me wonder if what makes for a good way of life isn’t so much about the scale per se as it is the key element of human interaction that smaller scale permits: Trust. Within small, socially cohesive communities where people share fundamental values, the level of trust can be high. High levels of trust seem to correlate strongly with high-functioning institutions and… happiness.
Take the Danes.
Denmark is a great favorite of the American democratic socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who said:
“I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway and learn what they have accomplished for their working people… In Denmark, there is a very different understanding of what ‘freedom’ means. (The Danes have) gone a long way to ending the enormous anxieties that comes with economic insecurity. Instead of promoting a system which allows a few to have enormous wealth, they have developed a system which guarantees a strong minimal standard of living to all — including the children, the elderly and the disabled.”
Set aside for a moment any instinct to recoil from the hot-button label of “socialism.” It clearly works for Denmark. Journalist Megan McArdle notes that:
“…Denmark was indeed the happiest country in the world, according to the United Nations World Happiness Report. And also one of the richest, with a per-capita gross domestic product just a few thousand dollars less than the U.S. one. Income inequality is extremely lowthere, thanks to a combination of high entry-level wages and low executive salaries. Danes enjoy more economic freedom than Americans, according to a Heritage Foundation tally. To the consternation of many conservative economic theorists, they were somehow pulling this off despite the highest tax burden in the world.”
The nation isn’t problem-free, of course — nowhere is. But the Danes are good at solving problems, because their public sector works efficiently and people trust institutions to work effectively and for people’s benefit. As McArdle discovered, that’s mostly down to trust.
“‘Trust,” said a photographer, when I asked him the best thing about living in Denmark. ‘If we agree on something, you would live up to that.” That confidence, he added, “makes everyday life more comfortable.’
“‘There’s a lot of social trust,’ a speechwriter at the culture ministry told me. ‘Farmers putting out their products by the roadside, and then putting a jar and saying, ‘Put money in this.’ It’s very common here, and it works.’
“Las Olsen, chief economist at Danske Bank, said: ‘We have this high trust, and it is a huge asset. It is very good for productivity that you don’t have to spend a lot of time and money checking everything.’”
But Bernie Sanders is dreaming if he thinks the Danish model can be translated to America. Denmark is a tiny nation of 5 million or so people, culturally homogenous and socially cohesive. America is a geographically massive nation with more than 300 million people who manifestly don’t get along very well. We don’t trust each other and we sure as hell don’t trust our institutions.
The headline of McArdle’s Bloomberg.com story gives away the conclusion: You can’t have Denmark without the Danes.
We denizens of the Empire can never hope to reverse the trend toward gigantism that is baked into the Empire’s DNA. Eventually the leviathan may collapse of its own weight and a reset from that crash may build from and toward a more human scale, but we can’t know when that might happen or if we will survive the attendant disruption.
But as we seek to build “lighthouses and field hospitals” seeking better ways of living that must precede the development better systems, perhaps there are carveouts available to us, means by which we can create our own clans, networks and spaces built upon trust. It’s not as though there aren’t high-trust environments still extant in America. I live in a town where it’s not unusual for a wallet to be returned with cash and credit cards undisturbed, where neighbor’s know and trust each other and look out for one another.
That environment is currently under stress due to growth and the percolation downward of the toxic national discourse, but it still exists. And on an even smaller and tighter scale, I’ve been working hard to cultivate my own “circle of trust” — people with whom I have built a relationship that allows me to do business on a basis of trust, whom I can count on for help and who can count on me as well. Some of those people I don’t actually know in person — they’re part of an online “campfire” here and/or at FrontierPartisans.com. I’ve sent books to people on a time crunch before they could send a check and never thought twice about it. Never been burned.
Maybe we can’t be Denmark. Maybe we don’t want to be Denmark, exactly. But I do believe that trust is critical to a functioning society and to a happy life — and I’m willing to work to build it, in my own territory, on a small scale, among those I think of as “my people.” It’s not about changing the world, but it is about changing how we walk in it — as always, a work in progress, seeking a better path.
Paul McNamee says
I trust you.
But I have a hard-line rule against playing William Tell with anybody! 😀
Jim Cornelius says
Probably wise. Though I have a very steady hand…
Lane Batot says
What a waste of a perfectly good apple!
J.F. Bell says
Past a certain point, every human endeavor becomes a racket.
More on this later. Have to organize the thoughts somewhat, but suffice it to say the gist of this article has been a subject of considerable discussion on this end of late.
Jim Cornelius says
Outstanding. I look forward to your thoughts. It’s interesting how many of us are thinking along similar lines. This is an excellent development.
Paul McNamee says
It must be wonderful to be able to trust your societal institutions. And I just don’t mean trust them not to engage is shifty practices or conspiracies but also to be able to trust they aren’t going to f— up everything they touch.
That’s a hell of a luxury.
A luxury, history has shown, we probably will never have in the U.S.
Craig Rullman says
I think we can have it, but only at a local level where accountability still has a chance. Anything bigger than say, a neighborhood, has a diminishment in returns of the honesty and integrity of its leaders to a corresponding degree–particularly in a nation as diverse as this one. We should probably be working hard as individuals to insulate ourselves from what we know is coming…eventually. An excellent window into the future can be found in the Netflix Documentary series “Flint Town”.
One of the things about places like Denmark, or Finland, or other northern European nations that “progressives” like to cite as being really nifty places that we should emulate is that they are essentially nation states in which the population is largely made up of the direct descendants of very few people.
Right away, when you say that, you start getting into trouble with some people who assume you are saying something you are not, but it’s quite true. Indeed, it’s the most common element among modern nations that are cited by progressives as being nifty. Otherwise, they often don’t share that much in common with each other, in terms of being examples. Denmark, for example, is highly urbanized. Finland, in contrast, has vast unsettled tracks.
But the Finns are mostly descendant from a pre Ice Age population and have been in place that long. To the extent they are not, they’re mostly descendant from a migrant Swedish population that entered Scandinavia in a few thousand years ago and were originally believed to be made up of just a small group of families. Likewise, the Danes, to whom the Swedes are related, have occupied Denmark for a few thousand years. Yes, there has been immigration into these nations, but its quite small in comparison to what the US takes in every year, so their makeup changes very little. Even in the modern EC era most Europeans move a lot less than Americans are accustom to.
The point is this. Many of the nations that are cited to by progressive, such as the examples cited above, or even Japan, are basically nations made up of what amounts to a very large family group with a very defined set of values and a highly common history. They don’t need to go to Ancestry.com to figure out their family history and its probably pretty close to almost everyone else’s that they know. Most of the kinks in the system in their countries were worked out a very long time ago and the countries are sort of very large family groups. To the extent that they weren’t, the wars of the last couple of hundred years tended to decide them. And that’s precisely why they’re poor examples for the United States, as that isn’t what we are.
To the extent they provide examples, that example is that a nation should be careful to buy into the American concept of ever growing, and that everything, or view, has value. Indeed at some point growth itself becomes destructive. That would suggest, perhaps, that focusing on something other than perpetual growth might be something that the US ought to strive for.
Not sure if that made sense and what I’m not saying is that these nations are really special because their Scandinavian. The same analysis pretty much applies to any very stable culture as the same influences are at work in them.
It’s weird that people who talk about multiculturalism in hush tones look to single culture countries as examples. The US is multicultural whether you like it or not. Even before the first white man came here the Indians had different cultures.
Jim Cornelius says
Your analysis is on the mark, methinks. Unfortunately, in the current climate, merely pointing out that the belief that “diversity is our strength” is not necessarily compatible with a high degree of social cohesion is enough to get a man labeled as a racist. That’s absurd, not least because it reduces the concept of “diversity” solely to race or ethnicity, but that’s where we are.
The U.S. was never as socially cohesive as our mythology would have us believe, and it becomes less and less so all the time. That’s not a “good” or a “bad” thing; it’s simply a condition of the manner in which we have developed. Those of us who seek a sense of community, then, must look elsewhere than the “nation” to provide it — which means, in my view, making our own homegrown. Which is alright by me.
That is the reason that Federalism is so important to the US. There are cultural differences between the states (and different parts of a single state). A white person from New York and a black person from New York aren’t really any more different than a white person from Texas and a white person from NY. Even within a state regional differences abound. Joe Lansdale talks about how East Texas is much more Southern than west Texas and he’s right. (Though there isn’t a fine division.
Paul McNamee says
I am constantly going back to;
“But we’re America, the great melting pot!”
“Yes, but to you want a puree or a stew?”
“Mutliculturalism” at best, should be a stew with well defined chunks of meat and potatoes, etc., that contribute to the overall whole without losing their own identity.
J.F. Bell says
In all fairness…
‘America, Land of the Pink Slime’ doesn’t have much of a ring.
This brings to mind the poetic inscription at the foot of the Statue of Liberty as regards tired and poor and huddling masses. And also the retort found in some corners of the internet that those words are a poem, not a suicide pact.