Public choice theory teaches us that the bigger the political entity, the less incentives the citizens have to participate actively and to be well informed within a democracy. Democracy and its advantages should be discussed while taking the size of the democracy in question into account.
During my last visit to Switzerland, I was astonished to learn about the election process of local judges and other public offices, where some local towns and villages elect them by assembling at the local town square and vote. This form of democracy is totally different from a democracy that consist of over 300 million people, as in the case of the United States of America. The citizens of Switzerland know the people who are in charge. They are able to give direct feedback to them in the form of conversations, citizens’ advocacy groups, or in severe cases, social ostracism. These mechanisms are not available, or at least weakened, in the case of the USA, where one member of Congress represents 600,000 citizens (when the U.S. constitution was written the number of citizens represented by an elected official was 30,000). Debates about the merits and shortcomings of democracies would benefit if the size of the state in question would be taken into account.
Social science and statecraft are complicated and their insights opaque. There are no conditions that can be held constant to accurately test the effects of one policy and compare it to another. It had to be learned the hard way that one cannot simply take a given institutional framework that has worked in one context (for instance common law or the rule of law) and enforce it onto a different society and get the same results. Institutions are sticky and are hard to change. This mistake is encapsulated for me by a presentation by the former commander of the US forces in Afghanistan, General McChrystal. One slide of the presentation showed the blueprint for Afghanistan to become a functioning state. This desire for such large scale planning is a Pretence of Knowledge.
Institutions are the result of evolutionary forces and built upon complex foundations. One cannot just simply transfer a set of institutions from one society to the next and expect the same results. That the U.S. has moved private troops out of (and have left numerous private mercenaries in) Afghanistan does not lead to the conclusion that“nation-building” was successful.