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.