Why Big Things Fail

Gigantism and the U.S. government


Evolution has produced some pretty large animals, and it seems offhand that very large organisms would have evolutionary advantages: they are intimidating and hard to kill because their organs are a long way from their skins. But there are upper limits to the size of animals on earth, and it's hard not to notice that the very biggest animals—mammoths, elephants whales, rhinoceri—are extinct or likely endangered. And obviously, very large organisms are at all times vastly more rare than very small ones.

A 2000 academic paper from a Swiss zoologist summarizes the reasons that this should be so: with increasing size come "viability costs…due to predation, parasitism, or starvation because of reduced agility, increased detectability, higher energy requirements, heat stress, and/or intrinsic costs of reproduction." For precisely these reasons, a state with trillion-dollar budgets and massive military might is in a precarious condition, and a good candidate for extinction.

Consider the military posture of the United States government.

American Iraq policy has been characterized by sluggishness. Think of it as the time it takes for a message to get from the extremities to the central nervous system and then for the response to return to the limb. While Rumsfeld and company spent years hemming and hawing over whether there was an insurgency or a civil war going on, the situation on the ground continued to change, radically, day by day. It took months to decide to send in 20,000 more troops, and during those months the situation was entirely transformed.

The supply chain is impossibly vast: you've got to keep the billions rolling in, and then distribute them; the energy requirements and heat stress are not ultimately sustainable; every increase in size beyond a certain point corresponds to a decrease in viability. Committees put up benchmarks and will now spend months evaluating whether the surge was effective. It takes years or perhaps decades to even realize if the war has been lost.

You can still be successful if you're fighting another behemoth military. But an al-Qaeda cell is autonomous, nimble, flexible, and completely committed. It responds instantly to a threat, and plans and prosecutes an attack in a matter of hours. If it attacks an American military target, it attacks an opponent without the ability to respond in kind, to say the least. The target sits there, subject to predation, parasitism, or starvation because of reduced agility. Astonishingly enough, the larger and more powerful a military establishment, the more vulnerable it is, and any band of brigands armed with slingshots can outwit the Pentagon, like stinging flies on an elephant.

That is a lesson that Alexander the Great and the Soviet Union learned in Afghanistan, that the Romans learned at the hands of Visigoths and Huns, that the United States learned in Vietnam and on 9.11. Once you get hold of a plane, it's hard to miss the World Trade Center, which is the proverbial broad side of a barn: each increase in size entails increased detectability, and increased vulnerability. As the old axiom goes, a terrorist can effect terror by succeeding in only a fraction of his attempts. The country fighting terrorism needs to be perfect.

Or consider, for example, border enforcement. You can build fences and send troops: spend a few years making a plan and another few implementing it. But so long as there's demand for their labor, the immigrants are perfectly flexible: they will find and exploit whatever holes you leave, and it will take years to plug each of them, by which time they'll have found a thousand new ones. Each immigrant is a nimble center of decision-making: in the long run, they'll always outwit a bureaucracy. Same goes for the drug war. No overarching act of Congress will ever effectively quell the small, creative, profit-driven moxie of an individual drug supplier.

It's hard to miss the irony of our gigantism. We started out by outmaneuvering the British—not hard considering that the decision-making power was impossibly remote from the action, that the British forces were governed by a set of rules and conventions that inhibited their flexibility, and that, already, British forces were engaged all over the world.

The group of agrarian republics envisioned by a Jefferson or a John Taylor was designed to create local centers of decision, a group of agile, loosely-associated organisms responding to local conditions. The tragedy of America is the story of how it mutated into an empire, both internally and externally, and hence outgrew viability.

A brontosaurus no doubt means well, but its tiny confused brain is radically inadequate to govern its astonishing body. It tramples everything until it finally runs out of vegetation or collapses under its own weight. Here's hoping the United States government returns to the decentralized principles of its founding, lest it go the way of the dinosaur.

Crispin Sartwell teaches political science at Dickinson College.

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