In our current system of democracy, it is the large size of election districts more than anything else that causes problems. When districts are too large, people feel like bystanders, lost in the crowd, disempowered, and everyone waits for someone else to take responsibility for the government. They only engage in token participation or don’t participate at all, and democracy becomes phony. Thus, in order for democracy to be real, election districts must be small enough that people feel they are part of a group, so they feel like their participation in the group, and thus in democracy, is meaningful.
What size would election districts need to be in order to operate as a group?
Robin Dunbar is a University of Oxford anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist who studied the group size of a variety of different primate species. In 1993 he published his findings in the article Coevolution of Neocortical Size, Group Size and Language in Humans. What he found was that each primate species had a limit to the number of individuals that a group could consist of, and if the number of individuals in a group exceeded that number, the group would split into two daughter groups. He then correlated those group sizes to the brain sizes of each species to produce a mathematical formula for how the two correspond. Using this formula he predicted that 147.8 (rounded to 150) is the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom a person can maintain social relationships, which thereby places a limit on human group size. This number has become known as Dunbar’s number. Others have proposed that this number lies at various points between 100 and 230.
Dunbar then set about to test this prediction. Since primitive hunter-gatherer societies exist in the state that humans evolved in, their group size, he reasoned, should be the best test cases. When he analyzed what is known about historical and contemporary hunter-gatherer societies from around the globe, he found that these societies generally ranged from between 100 and 200 people, with an average size of 148.4.
His research revealed that, when groups exceed this number, the stability of the group can no longer be maintained with informal means such as a sense of mutual obligation, reciprocity, and peer pressure. As groups become larger, the sense of equality is lost and a feeling of “us” and “them” develops. Group members begin to behave very differently as they become divided and alienated from one another and the group loses the ability to agree and to act with one voice. At this point the group becomes unstable and approaches social disintegration and collapse, which causes the group to split into two daughter groups.
If groups do become larger than 150, he found that the only way stability could be maintained is by creating a hierarchy with formal structures and specific roles for various group members. And since informal means of controlling the behavior of group members becomes ineffective, formal means such as a police force become necessary.
Dunbar also found evidence of the 150 limit in militaries, both ancient and modern. In the Roman Army, the basic unit was first the maniple, which consisted of 120 to 130 men, and later the century, which consisted of 100 men. In modern armies the basic unit is the company, which consists of from 100 to 200 men. Larger groups within armies are constructed of these smaller groups. He suggests that the “upper limit is set by the number of individuals who can work effectively together as a coordinated team.” Military planners throughout history have presumably arrived at this figure through trial and error.
Dunbar found further evidence of the importance of 150 in business organizations. In his book How Many Friends Does One person Need? he wrote “A rule of thumb commonly used in business organization theory is that organizations of fewer than 150 people work fine on a person-to-person basis, but once they grow larger than this they need a formal hierarchy if they are to work efficiently. Sociologists have known since the 1950s that there is a critical threshold in the region of 150 to 200, with larger companies suffering a disproportionate amount of absenteeism and sickness.” In Coevolution of Neocortical Size, Group Size and Language in Humans, Dunbar wrote “an informal rule in business organization identifies 150 as the critical limit for the effective coordination of tasks and information-flow…Companies larger than this cannot function effectively without sub-structuring to define channels of communication and responsibility.” Researchers Frederic Terrien and Donald Mills found that “the larger the organization, the greater the number of control officials that is needed to ensure its smooth functioning.”
W. L. Gore and Associates, the maker of GORE-TEX, is the company Dunbar used to describe the effect of 150 in business organizations. As W. L. Gore and Associates grew and the size of their factory came to exceed 150 people, company founder Bill Gore realized that “that the bigger the company got, people working for the company were much less likely to work hard and help each other out”…“After putting about 150 people in the same building, things at GORE-TEX just did not run smoothly. People couldn’t keep track of each other. Any sense of community was gone.” So Gore made the decision to cap his factories at 150 employees. Whenever they needed to expand the manufacturing capacity, rather than expanding an existing factory, they would just build a new factory—sometimes right next door. Things ran better this way because in smaller factories everyone knew who was who. This allowed them “to do away with hierarchies and management structures: the factory worked by personal relationships, with a sense of mutual obligation encouraging workers and managers to co-operate rather than compete.”
It is implicit in Robin Dunbar’s research that, as humans, our natural state is as part of a group. Our ancestors were all part of a group, and those groups were of course self-governing. In order to maintain group harmony, issues that affected the whole group were undoubtedly widely discussed, with every member being allowed to participate in some way until a consensus was arrived at that everyone could live with. If someone in the group had a concern, he would surely have discussed it first with the people closest to him, and if those people agreed and supported him, they would have helped him build support for the issue within the group.
This is the form of government that people naturally understand and can realistically participate in. It relies on human instincts, such as our natural sense of fairness, our appreciation of trust, and our tendency to comply to peer pressure and behave ourselves—in other words, it’s based on relationships. We developed those instincts so that we could live as part of a group, and only a system of government that relies on those instincts could possibly be truly good and democratic.
We believe that communities of 150 would work best in a system of Local Electors because that is the size that people would be most likely to participate in. Frank Bryan, Professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont, studied town hall meetings in Vermont, and published the findings of his research in his book Real Democracy. One of his key findings was that the variable that most determines how many people will turn out for town hall meetings is the size of the town. In towns with less than about 200 registered voters, a relatively large percentage of residents generally turned out, but as the number of registered voters increased, turnout dropped off dramatically.
A system of Local Electors with a group size of around 150 would create a foundation for government that is based on relationships from the ground up. Everyone in society would be part of a web of relationships that would start at the individual level and reach up to the highest levels of government. A culture of trust, mutual obligation, and reciprocity would permeate all levels of society, leading to healthier individuals and a much healthier country. The benefits could be enormous.
Since people have an inherent need to be part of a group, groups of this size would draw people into them. People would make friends with their neighbors, enjoy comradery, and feel empowered by their ability to get the government to work for them. Group participation wouldn’t just be about politics, it would be about life—enjoying each other’s company and working together to achieve our common goals and work out our differences. Politics, rather than being about a big, uncontrollable government full of conflict, would be a natural part of life that people would find stimulating and enjoyable. Politics would be (gasp) fun!
It is important to think of government in human terms. Government is about people in every sense. Government can only serve the needs of the people if we think in terms of what works for people at every level. If we base our government on human nature and what people can realistically deal with, we are well on our way to a good government and a better life for everyone.
These are some initial thoughts about community size. Much public discussion is needed in order to improve these ideas, and to come up with new ones so that democracy can be the best it can possibly be.
Continue Reading: Job Description of Local Electors