Leopold Kohr

Optimum Size




This is Chapter II of The Over-Developed Nations. The idea put forward here by Leopold Kohr is that there exists a optimum size for the different social functions (convivial, economic, political, cultural). To remain below or to go beyond that optimum size means to live in a dysfunctional society.
The author indicates also some figures for the optimum size, but they should not be taken in a narrow sense because, historical evolution (cultural, technological) can change the conditions (dimensions) for the appropriate and fruitful enjoyment of social life. The ideal for Leopold Kohr seems to be a global society made of a loosely knit federation of convivial societies capable of responding to the basic social needs of an individual.



You may remember this cartoon. It shows a portly English Lord at breakfast table in one of his castle's many splendid rooms. Windows reach to the ceilings, and doors open on graceful Greek statues posed under Venetian chandeliers along seemingly endless flights of corridors facing into the distant reaches of the eye. Against this background of wealth, the Lord, slightly intrigued by an item in his morning paper but otherwise wholly unruffled, turns to his equally lordly and unruffled butler, asking casually: “I say, Bartholomew! Did you know that our East wing burned down last night?”

The cartoon well illustrates the problem of oversize. For a house so large that its own occupant has to rely on newspapers to learn what is going on in it, is obviously too big. But when is a house not too big? What is the proper or optimum size?

As in the case of all questions of size, the answer depends on the function a thing is supposed to fulfil. A structure may be a railroad terminal, a factory, a school, a wharf, a home. In the case of a home, the size determining function is to provide shelter. This does not mean, however, that the proper or optimum size of all homes must be the same. For differences in taste, temperament, and culture patterns give a wide elasticity to a person's concept of shelter. Diogenes thought its sole purpose was to protect his body from the vagaries of weather. So he considered anything larger than a barrel both superfluous and bothersome. A Medieval knight, on the other hand, thought a man's shelter should extend also to his family and friends. In addition, he wanted it to provide facilities for education, worship, hospitality, song, and sport, as well as protection from enemy attack. So his home was a castle.

While the concept of optimum size, though strictly defined for each individual, thus permits a wide range between these two extremes, there are nevertheless absolute limits beyond which a home becomes not only too small or too large but loses its function. It ceases to be a home. A structure smaller than a barrel becomes a coffin. One larger than a castle becomes a community. While still providing shelter for its occupants, it begins to socialize them as well.

The same principle applies to the size of society. For here, too, size is determined by function. The only difficulty is that our concept of the function of society is less clear than that of the function of a home. So before we can arrive at a concept of optimum social size, we must first ask ourselves: what exactly is the purpose for which man should have formed or joined a community? What benefits does he derive from it which he could not enjoy by living alone?


The Convivial Society

The first and, indeed, the founding function of society seems to be strictly convivial. Pre-social man could work alone, eat alone, and sleep alone. And, considering that, in his early pioneer existence, he would rarely encounter anyone but other solitary pioneers, his strength was sufficient to defend himself alone. But he could not enjoy company alone. This required others. The impulse driving him to the formation of his first societies was therefore in all likelihood his desire for companionship. This is why terms such as social or society are to this day endowed with both political and convivial meanings; or why such authors as Hesiod or Pausanias, intuitively still close to the beginnings of human development, envisioned the first social gatherings as convivial occasions in which gods and men were joined as table companions, Prometheus serving as host.

Theoretically, the convivial function could be satisfied by a society numbering no more than three or four individuals. However, seeing nothing but the same three or four faces would soon become unbearable. To fulfil the companionship function to the fullest, that is to ensure both variety of contacts and constancy of relationships, in addition to the upkeep of communal meeting place such as a public house or commons, a membership of perhaps 80 to 100 may be necessary. A larger group would increase variety but hurt constancy. A smaller group would strengthen constancy but curtail variety. In addition It would make the individual share of maintaining the communal meeting place more burdensome. As far as the purpose of society is convivial, a membership of from 80 to 100 adults (a figure not much different from that of a well functioning club) might therefore be considered as constituting optimum social size.


The Economic Society

However, this picture is not quite complete. For, so that a hundred persons can enjoy each other's companionship more generously than perhaps once or twice a year, a society must almost simultaneously with its convivial role assume also an economic function. As long as each member must chase his own food, cook his own meals, build his own hut, mend his own shoes, weave his own cloth, till his own fields, he will be able to exist. But he will be so busy that he will have no time for convivial purposes even if surrounded by an otherwise large enough group. To liberate some of his time for convivial purposes, it is therefore essential that he increase his productivity. And to increase his productivity, he must specialize in activities in which he is particularly proficient, and then exchange his surplus product for that of other specialists.

But specialization requires a more numerous society than conviviality. If it takes a shoemaker one day to make a pair of shoes, and if one pair of shoes is worn out in a year, a society numbering 100 members would obviously be too small to support a specialized shoemaker. He would be idle and starve during 200 out of 365 days. Taking shoemaking as a typical activity, a society beginning to fulfil its economic function would therefore have to number about 365 adults or - if we make allowance for reduced working time and free holidays which specialization yields as the first and most cherished benefit of increased productivity - at least 300. But since a full and rich material life must also provide for children, and since not all commodities can be produced at the rate of one unit per day, economic optimum social size requires actually an adult membership of perhaps 1,000, or a full membership of 4,000 or 5,000 inhabitants - a little less than the population of present-day Andorra or Anguilla.

At this size, society seems capable of furnishing its members not only with most of the commodities we associate with a high standard of living, but also of surrounding each person with the margin of leisure without which it could not properly perform its original convivial function. This does not indicate that, contrary to our initial assumption, convivial and economic optimum social size are actually identical. Nor does it mean that the larger economic optimum can be accomplished only at the expense of sacrificing the smaller and more important convivial optimum.
It merely means that one optimum economic society nourishes, let us say, ten optimum convivial societies, and that convivial societies cannot reach optimum size singly but severally in the form of a loosely knit federation.


The Political Society

But while specialization answers both the convivial and the economic optimum needs of a community, it breeds previously nonexisting complexities. For once man acquires his means of subsistence by exchanging goods, disputes begin to arise regarding their value. And once disputes arise, men joined convivially may come to blows. To preserve the benefits of their life in common, judicial and police authority must therefore be established. And since a prosperous society is likely to be attacked by envious neighbours, defence measures must be taken. But none of these new tasks - peace, justice, defence - can be discharged by individuals. As a result, just as the convivial function leads to the economic function, the economic function leads in turn to a third function which only society as a whole can perform - the political function.

To discharge this effectively, however, neither convivial nor economic optimum size is sufficient. For while the margin of leisure emerging from specialization relieves every person of part of his work, giving him time for enjoying the pleasures of convivium, it is too narrow to release anyone wholly. Since the discharge of the political function requires not only the maintenance of a communal meeting place but the full-time services of human agents, society cannot reach political optimum size before it has grown to the point where specialization begins to support an idling ring not only around individuals but also of individuals. For only when a sufficient number of individuals can be spared from participation in the chores of basic economic production, does it become possible to appoint from amongst them the judges, policemen, and soldiers necessary for the fulfilment of the political function of society (whose assumption, incidentally, implies the transformation of a stateless society into a state).

Thus, if economic optimum social size requires a population of around 1,000 adults, political optimum size will need one of around 1,500, or a full population of between 7,000 and 12,000 - a figure existing in such a flourishing contemporary states as Andorra, Monaco, San Marino or Liechtenstein [1].
At this size, the 150 to 200 persons needed for the tasks of peace, justice, and defence can be liberated without thereby depressing the level of individual living standards obtainable at the less costly smaller economic optimum. Once more, the larger optimum does therefore not need to come into conflict with the size requirements of a smaller optimum. For just as the seeming contradiction between convivial and economic optimum size resolved itself through the federal instead of the centralized pattern of growth, so does the contradiction between economic and political optimum size. Rather than stretching one economic society beyond its optimum to the proportions required by the political society, the number of economic societies, in the form of villages and cities, is multiplied until their total is large enough to constitute one flourishing political society, the state. In this way, the new political optimum is accomplished without affecting the optimum proportions of its several constituent economic societies.


The Cultural Society

The convivial society offers its members companionship, the economic society - leisure and wealth; the political society - security. But if man is to enjoy the fullest measure of a good life, he must also have culture. True, culture is not created by society. It is created by individual poets, musicians, artists, and scholars. But society alone offers the environment which permits these individuals to exercise their talents. This leads to the fourth and last of the life enhancing functions which only society can perform - the cultural function.
As a result, the concept of optimum social size must once more be extended. For, populations of 7,000 to 12,000 may be large enough to furnish all the material amenities of life and, in addition, constitute vigorous political communities. But if we are to have theatres, galleries, museums, churches, universities, as well as the poets, composers, artists, and scholars to give them life and variety, our social enterprise must be capable of producing a second and deeper margin of leisure than is necessary if all we need is a reservoir from which to draw 200 policemen, soldiers, and judges.

The optimum cultural society will therefore require a membership from perhaps 50,000 to 200,000. The city states of ancient Greece, or of medieval Italy, Germany, and Flanders produced all the culture the heart could desire and the mind absorb with populations rarely exceeding 100,000. For at this figure, a society is statistically huge enough to contain not only the greatest variety of talent but also the necessary number of ordinary citizens sufficiently interested in the variety of cultural offerings to provide for its material support.

As in the other cases, the larger cultural optimum size does not need to push the smaller political society supporting it beyond optimum limits. This in spite of the fact that the federal pattern of growth by duplication is less useful culturally than economically or convivially. For the concept of the political society implies sovereignty. It might therefore not be entirely satisfactory to have one opera or one university serving several political societies (though in the case of ancient Greece a number of sovereign city states actually did constitute a single cultural society with respect to a few common institutions such as language, oracles, or Olympic games).

But fortunately, the concept of political optimum, unlike that of the economic or convivial optimum, is sufficiently elastic to permit a large enough extension to cover optimum size without affecting the optimal functioning of the political society. For though a community of a few hundred thousand members needs a somewhat larger political apparatus than a society of ten thousand, its social complexities do not grow at a rate that could not be offset at this stage by the more than proportionate growth of intellectual and economic resources which can still be made available by its now more numerous constituent economic societies. Thus while a society begins to fulfil its expected political function at a membership of around 10,000, it will still give optimum service at 200,000 and more.


The Optimum Society

However, this is about the size at which it is large enough to give man everything he expects from it. It gives him taverns symbolizing the convivial function; factories and market places symbolizing the economic function; courts, city halls, armories, symbolizing the political function; and finally theatres, churches, museums, universities, and stadia symbolizing the cultural function. Together they constitute the aggregate social function of providing man with the supreme content of Aristotle's summum bonum, the good life. And since there is nothing left that man could wish for, a society of about 200,000 can be thought to represent the ultimate concept of optimum social size.

Societies growing beyond this figure no longer can add significantly to human happiness. True, at larger size they can give us airplanes, cars, television sets. But these are principally size commodities, not happiness commodities, which we need only if our communities have grown so big that we can no longer reach the inn, the theatre, the market, the fields and streams simply by walking around the comer. From a personal point of view, larger societies are therefore not necessary.

Nor, however, are they necessarily detrimental. For though a community growing larger can no longer add to man's individual happiness, it does at first not detract from it. This indicates that the boundary of optimum is in the nature of a ribbon rather than a sharp line. And the width of the ribbon permits considerable stretching before it reaches the outer limit at which optimum size turns into critical size.


Optimum Extending Factors

The degree to which the boundary ribbon can be stretched depends on three variables connected, this time, not with any further function of society but with man’s capacity to administer the original functions on an enlarges scale. One of these variables is technological, one educational. During the Middle Ages, a society could not have extended its optimum far beyond a few hundred thousand without becoming critical. For its rising complexities would soon have grown to such proportions that proper administration could have been achieved only at the price of sacrificing the cultural and economic optimum. This is why smaller medieval societies developed faster than the larger ones.

With technological progress, however, tools came for the first time into the possession of the political administrator enabling him to extend his sway as economically over societies of, let us say, two or three million members as over pre-technological societies numbering two or three hundred thousand. When technology began to run into the barrier of diminishing social productivity, a second extension to perhaps five or six million became possible by improving the individual administrator's vision through education. When this, in turn, reached its limit considering that even the best education can enlarge our individual horizon only up to a point, one last boost to perhaps ten, twelve, or fifteen million could be achieved through integration and the organization of efficient team work. But this, too, had its limit. For once the team necessary to administer a growing social enterprise becomes itself so large that it can no longer be encompassed by the vision of its presiding officer, any addition to the team would henceforth not enhance but diminish administrative efficiency [2]. This being the case, the, absolute limit, to which a society can be, extended beyond a membership of 200,000 or 300,000 without adversely affecting the optimum performance of its functions seems to be in the neighborhood of populations from 12 to 15 millions [3].


Post Optimum Societies

This does not mean that societies cannot grow beyond this limit. What it means is that if they do, their size becomes critical; that further growth increases their complexities faster than man's ability to catch up with them. Continued administrative efficiency can therefore be maintained after this point only through either the distortion or the repression of one after the other of the original four social functions. First the political function, swelling now beyond its founding intent, leads to such curtailment of individual freedom that it ceases to be compatible with the summum bonum. For the proper material of an overgrown state is not the free but the organization man.

Secondly, culture must be starved. For whatever there is in creative talent must now be employed in the purely technical task of keeping the growing social enterprise from collapsing. At the third stage, when further growth, like cancer, leads to continuous crisis, the economic level of the citizen must be lowered to free the material product necessary for the now geometrically rising requirements of social survival. And lastly, when the internal pressures of oversize are joined by the external pressures emanating from equally large rival societies, even convivial leisure time may have to be sacrificed [4]. A structure such as a mankind-embracing world state could therefore be success fully maintained only if it were organized, if not like a beehive, at least like George Orwell's 1984.

However, long before this state is reached, social overgrowth begins to produce insensibly a change in social functions. As we suggested at the beginning of this chapter, when a home becomes larger than a castle, it ceases to be a home. Its new size changes its function as well as its nature. It becomes a community. Or as Aristotle points out in a well known analogy to the changing size of states: “There may be a ship of a certain size, either too large or too small, which will still be a ship, but bad for sailing.” But “a ship which is only a span long will not be a ship at all, nor a a ship a quarter of a mile long.” [5]

Similarly, a society outgrowing certain proportions will at first become a bad, or critical, society by the standards of its original purposes, and ultimately cease to be a society in the individualistic sense at all. For though it may still be called such, its functions will now be so different that it no longer fits its founding definition. The cultural society now becomes in turn a welfare society, a military society, perhaps a space or sputnik society, and finally - as was the case in even the most enlightened, cynical, and sophisticated mass states of antiquity - a divine society, the spark of divinity being lodged not in the individual but the group. Instead of serving the summum bonum of its members, it serves from now on the summum bonum of itself. But along with its new collectivist function emerges a new concept of optimum social size which, unlike the earlier individualistic optimum, has no limit. In fact, the more subject members it has, the better it is. Paradoxically, then, at the last stage of social overgrowth, a new concept of optimum is achieved. Moreover, being synonymous with the social maximum, this new optimum can never again be disturbed by growth. But the structure it reflects is no longer man's society but society's society - a corporate entity entirely divorced from the purposes of its members, a summit stage reached long ago by the bees.



In conclusion, the preceding pages may be summarized in the following terms:

The size of society, as the size of everything, is determined by its function, and its function depends on whether we give it an individualistic or collectivist content. From an individualistic point of view, society must fulfil a fourfold purpose: ensure to its members companionship, prosperity, security, and culture. For these are the only four blessings man cannot obtain except by joining society. We may therefore distinguish between four individualistic societies - the convivial, economic, political, and cultural society. Each may exist separately, and each has its own optimum size. To enjoy the summum bonum, however, all four are needed. As history has shown and logic suggests, a society numbering from 100,000 to 200,000 members seems sufficient to furnish it.

A society of this size may therefore be said to constitute the relative optimum. Three factors - technological progress, education, organization - may however permit social growth beyond this figure to perhaps 15,000,000 without affecting optimal conditions. Beyond this point optimum size turns into critical size, with social difficulties now tending to increase faster than the human talent necessary to cope with them, so that further growth can be sustained only at the price of diminishing the services connected with the original four social functions. Moreover, growth now not only begins to entail a distortion of functions but an insensible change from individualistic to collectivist purposes. The four individualistic societies are thus supplanted by collectivist societies such as the welfare, military, space, or divine society. Their purpose being social health, power, glory, conquest, empire, sputniks, or anything pleasing to their collectivist ego, produce a new concept of social functions, changing the original character of society
This, in turn creates a new concept of optimum size which, unlike the individualistic optimum, can no longer be outgrown. For the collectivist optimum is synonymous with the maximum. A larger society is then not only automatically better than a smaller one; the larger is actually the best; the world state - the pinnacle of human accomplishment.

Why the farmer in his cottage, the fisherman by the pond, the father playing with his child, the poet admiring nature, the worker enjoying his beer, should require it in their pursuit of happiness is, however, another question.




[1] Strangely enough, most utopian authors envisioned similar populations for their perfect societies, varying in their estimates according to whether they had merely convivial-economic, or also political functions in mind. Plato thought a population of 5,040 was the best. Thomas More's towns held 6,000 families. Charles Fourier's phalansteries contained 400 to 600 families or 1,500 to 1,600 individuals. Robert Owen's parallelograms comprised 500 to 2,000 members, and Horace Greeley's associations from “some hundreds to some thousands.”

[2] By this figure is meant the population of a fully developed, centralized, administratively and technologically integrated society. In the absence of one or more of these qualifying conditions - if a society is for example highly decentralized (in which case the figure would apply to its subordinate units), or if integration, as in the great powers of the past, remains relatively tenuous and movements amongst its citizens consequently slow - the size of its populations can be much larger and yet not violate the demands of optimum. Thus, the same population of London, which now suffers severe overpopulation problems, enjoyed quite pleasant optimum conditions as recently as 50 years ago, when it was barely smaller in size but still living in a number of decentralized, socially almost self-sufficient, communities. See in this connection the various attempts at defining the concept of social size in E. A. G. Robinson, The Economic Consequences of the Size of Nations, London, Macmillan, 1960. It should also be stressed that none of the figures above represents dogmatic magnitudes. Their significance lies not in their size but in the idea of limitation they imply.

[3] This point has been dramatically illustrated by the French management consultant V. A. Graicunas who, in the early 1930s, worked out the mathematical aspects of the gallopingly rising complexities of growing team size. “Just why” he wrote “an executive already having four subordinates should hesitate before adding a fifth member to the group which he controls directly, becomes clear if it is realized that the addition not only brings twenty new relationships with him, but adds nine more relationships to each of his colleagues. The total is raised from 44 to 100 possible relationships for the unit, an increase in complexity of 127 per cent in return for a 20 per cent increase in working capacity.” (Quoted from B. Y. Auger: How to Run Effective Business Meetings. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964, pp. 21-22).

[4] The crescendo of claims on the citizen in post-optimum societies is well illustrated by the following three successive policy statements of three successive presidents of the United States. President Truman's Director of Defence Mobilization forecast in 1952 what the New York Times headlined in lapidary simplicity “Higher Production but 'severer' pinch.” President Eisenhower followed this up with the consoling prospect that “there is no sacrifice - no labour, no tax, no service - too hard far us to support the logical and necessary defence of our freedom.” Whose freedom? Clearly society's, not the citizen's for whom there is nothing left but labour, tax, and service - a triumvirate which has never before been associated with either a particularly high degree of freedom or a particularly high standard of living. And finally, President Kennedy has given the unpalpable truth the last in stylistic elegance when he told in his masterful inauguration address his sorely tried fellow Americans: “Ask not what the government can do for you. Ask what you can do far the government.”

[5] Politica, VII, 4. The full text of Aristotle's 'analogy is as follows: “To the size of states there is a limit, as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements; for none of these retain their natural power when they are too small, but they either wholly lose their nature, or are spoiled. For example, a ship which is only a span long will not be a ship at all, nor a ship a quarter of a mile long; yet there may be a ship of a certain size, either too large or too small, which will still be a ship, but bad for sailing. In like manner a state when composed of too few is not, as a state ought to be, self-sufficing; when of too many, though self-sufficing in all mere necessaries as a nation may be, it is not a state, being almost incapable of constitutional government. For who can be the general of such a vast multitude, or who the herald, unless he have the voice of a stentor?”


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