on October 13, 2006
This is a wide-ranging but not closely argued defense of a utopian vision in which the primary value is right-sizedness. Kirkpatrick Sale argues that almost everything in modern America and the West generally is too big, and that our problems in everything - buildings, cities, agriculture, firms, schools, government - can be traced to size. He wants to live in a world where people literally know everyone affected by their actions and decisions.
It's a tempting argument from a classical liberal (libertarian) point of view. Most would agree that firms are the size they are because government and laws create an environment in which they thrive and florish. Reduce the size and scope of government and the size and scope of corporations will follow. Decentralization is an accepted principle. Few classical liberals will have many problems with the laws and ordinances enforced at the city level: laws against crimes against person and property, traffic ordinances, and the like. Other local issues can be managed in smaller cities: financing schools, managing parks, etc. Local government means people vote on things they understand and can monitor and with which they probably have some interaction. Local tradeoffs are personal: pave a road or build a new library, pay lower taxes or get more services. Either is just as likely to benefit the people paying for it. In contrast, federal tradeoffs are unknowable: build a bridge in Alaska, or a tunnel in Boston. Relatively few people are likely to benefit from those things, much less understand what they do or whether they are done economically or even well. Everyone thinks their own Congressmen is relatively clean and all the others are pork dealers. Sale seems to share this distrust and even dislike of large government. Sale mostly glosses over a problem that he and David Friedman (Machinery of Freedom) seem to agree is the most difficult: defense. Sale's answer is that small, no-growth, stable villages are not likely to be attacked because there is nothing they have that is worth stealing. Perhaps, but that doesn't mean that external aggressors will note that, or that they will understand that they can't have the thriving village's golden eggs if they kill the goose. Brutes have always thought that they could easily steal and emulate the success of capitalist societies.
I especially enjoyed reading the sections about alternative work organizations such as the Mondragon cooperative. However, some of Sale's examples are impractical. Sure, I admire the Amish and Mennonite communities, but Sale's readers, whom I assume are mostly atheist or agnostic, aren't likely to adopt those lifestyles anytime soon. The same is true of his other examples: kibbutzim, Owenist and other socialist communes of the 19th century, and "hippy" communes.
As much as I agree with him about size in general and size of government specifically, there were some quaint ideas in this book that I did not agree with. Some of those were related to the time at which he wrote the book (1980), but others are timeless. For one, I don't understand how a man could be considered "anarchist" when he repeatedly returns to a theme of strict democracy in everything. He occasionally pays homage to consensus, but it isn't a recurring theme, so I could only assume that he views direct majoritarian democracy as the answer to governance in everything from workplaces to civil authority. At no time does he suggest that restrictions like the Bill of Rights be established as an exception to direct democracy.
Two other recurring, quaint themes are the idea that manufactured products are always inferior, and that manufacturers plan obsolescence. Manufactured products are sometimes far superior to what you could create on your own, especially at the same cost. It's easy to see how he would have made that mistake in the late 1970s when GM and Ford were floundering, but today would you prefer a Toyota or a handcrafted car on your budget?
The claim that appliances could be made to last longer but are intentionally not is based on two mistakes. The first is based on a misunderstanding of statistical quality control (SQC). We can, after analyzing lots of appliances over time, figure out that an appliance will fail in a predictable manner, so we can say that Refrigerator X will last on average Y years. From this, people will infer that the refrigerator was designed to fail in Y years. In a sense, it was, since the refrigerator was designed within certain constraints: existing technology, cost points, market demand, competitive expectations, cost of inputs including capital and materials, etc. The end result of those design choices is a refrigerator that lasts, on average, Y years. But the direction of causality is from the design to the durability, not from a selected goal of durability to the design. This is a misapplication of statistics, and is usually committed either out of malice or ignorance. I'll assume Sale does so out of the latter.
The other mistake is the idea that people *should* design 50 year refrigerators (or whatever). You can, right now, buy outstanding appliances that are also very expensive. At the same time, technology is changing and that the rate of change is increasing. Given both of those, why would you want to pay extra for something that will be overtaken by scientific and engineering - not design - obsolescence within a few years? For example, the incandescent lightbulb has been overtaken by the CFL and is about to be overtaken by the LED.
Sale is also vague on the definition of "human" scale. In Human Scale, Sale endorsed the relatively inefficient, silicon-based photovoltaic (PV) solar power technology of the time. Recently, he has been concluding his public talks by destroying a computer with a sledgehammer. Nevermind the waste, the real question is - how is the PC not human scale, but PV electricity is?
All in all, I would recommend Human Scale to both classical and modern liberals; there are consequences of largeness of which we should all take heed. I doubt if modern conservatives would find anything of interest here. But while I am interested in discovering the underlying causes of the size of particular groups or industries - for example, is there an actual scale economy benefit or a distortion caused by a feature in the Internal Revenue code? - , Sale is more interested in describing a future in which everything is considerably smaller without examining how things got big. I find that a little disturbing, since his favorite remedy, direct democracy, is at least a little likely to be the cause rather than the solution, especially of the largeness of government which he rightfully fears.