When you envision the key components of the good life, I bet you don’t see a strip mall. Chances are if you’re reading this, you are someone who sees the importance of eating local foods and supporting small businesses in your community. You may not be a Marxist, but the concern that workers can become cogs in a machine does resonate with you. Handmade beats mass-produced, and big box stores and chains are suspect at best.
These are good instincts and commitments. We all ought to have a healthy skepticism when it comes to that “scaling up” that seems the ubiquitous signal of success for private industry and non-profits alike. Uniform and often low-quality goods dominate our marketplace, and it’s particularly depressing when we think of the wasted resources behind superfluous trinkets or luxury goods that do not ultimately support human thriving.
But what happens when we think of social goods—those that contribute to human thriving? Is scale just as problematic in those cases, or might we use its powers for good?
When economists talk about “scale,” you probably think immediately of the argument they might make for efficiency being improved by a bigger operation. That is actually one particular concept, called “increasing returns to scale.” While the formal definition is expressed with an equation called the production function, it can be expressed intuitively: a production process has increasing returns to scale if doubling the inputs would more than double the outputs. That’s it. Some processes lend themselves to increasing returns to scale almost implicitly, like building an electrical grid or a water system. Others might display this characteristic only up to some particular scale of operations, and then further increases in inputs no longer generate disproportionate outputs; we say these processes have some “optimal scale.” In these cases, the scale of operations can be too big or too small in terms of getting the most out of each input—there is a sweet spot. Still other processes may really not be sensitive to scale; if I have double the number of barbers and chairs in my barber shop, my capacity to produce haircuts doubles too: constant returns to scale. And finally, there are those processes that really don’t scale well; they have decreasing returns to scale, where doubling inputs translates into less than double the output. Only a small operation will work, if it even makes sense to have one at all.
The worries we have about scale seem concentrated primarily on the cases where there are increasing returns to scale—either intrinsically or at least up to a point. But it is these very cases, I would argue, where we also see the remarkable value of scaling up for our well-being.
For starters, being able to use fewer resources per unit produced is deeply prudent. We avoid spending more resources than needed to get a given level of provision to meet the needs of many people. Imagine having several competing sets of water pipes: the redundancy of resources spent on infrastructure would be, by almost any account, a sheer waste. Scaling up a process that already lends itself to scaling means we can avoid waste and, in the process, be able to charge a lower price for the final product or service.
Scaling up a process that already lends itself to scaling means we can avoid waste and, in the process, be able to charge a lower price for the final product or service.
The potential to operate at a large scale can also mean our communities have access to a good or service that wouldn’t otherwise be available—available to them, or possibly available at all. There are goods or services whose production requires a major investment that might not be realistic for any small organization, but with a critical mass of people interested in the product, a large producer might be able to make that investment and distribute the goods and services widely. There is no question there are trade-offs to consider, such as transportation costs (both private and environmental). But there are no shortage of cases where this approach makes plenty of sense. It is especially true when the needed investment can’t actually be made just anywhere but is a feature of nature itself. Some of our most basic goods in North America—grains, cotton—grow well in some places and not others. Trying to grow food in Arizona or Nunavut would require an exorbitant investment in artificially harnessed resources to get what can be grown with water, sun, hard work, and prayer in the Midwest or the Prairies. That diversity of resources across space, and the potential to specialize and then trade, need not be seen as a problem to be solved but as an opportunity to embrace.
Imagine this diversity even on the smallest scale: say a gardener lives next door to a seamstress. They could, I suppose, live independently—the gardener well fed but naked and the seamstress well dressed but starved. Or they could do what most good neighbours would do: choose interdependence. Bless each other with food and clothing. Be a community. In this sense, scale comes quite organically as we share our gifts with others.
It becomes clear that the question isn’t really, Is scaling up good or bad? If we are willing to have any interdependence at all, scaling up will always happen to some degree. When a parent cooks dinner for the whole family and not just for themselves, they are operating at a scale. When one person becomes a doctor and sees many patients, or a teacher serves a classroom of students, they are operating at a scale. Everything has a scale. And so instead we ask: Under what conditions is scaling up a way of improving human experience? When can it bring about improved flourishing, and even justice?
Some truly unique opportunities are created if we are open to operating at a larger scale when the conditions are right.
I think first of medical care. No hospital on its own can afford the equipment needed for a state-of-the-art cancer centre, or stroke centre, or neonatal intensive care unit if they will only use it to serve the most local population. In the US context, we often see that instead one provider invests in such a centre and it serves the whole larger region, while other hospitals can forgo those costs without failing to serve patients in their area. They may stay at a smaller scale that is more manageable, or choose a different specialty to take “to scale.” There are challenges with this, no doubt—particularly, concerns about lack of competition, which can lead to unreasonably high prices. But it’s worth remembering the counterfactual—the “what would have happened otherwise”—which in many cases would be that no hospital could afford to provide these services at all.
Then I think of education, especially universities. With too small a scale, a school has trouble offering a variety of courses adequate to attract students. If given the opportunity to “scale up,” a school that doubles the number of faculty might more than double the number of students willing to come. A school like my alma mater was able to offer a course in Frisian languages as long as it could get at least a handful of students. And beyond mere critical mass for a course to be offered, some elective courses could move from, say, five students to ten, arguably improving the experience of the class for everyone and only minimally increasing the professor’s workload. In a core class that is going to be large anyway, say eighty students, it may also save resources to increase that class size to one hundred and use the saved resources to offer another elective. These are difficult trade-offs, but I mostly write this to say: there are real constraints, and sometimes scale is a way of keeping the costs of balancing those interests lower than they would otherwise be.
And these issues of scale aren’t just about the costs and benefits for higher-educational institutions, though this may drive a lot of their thinking. For students in a larger-scale institution, it may be easier to find not just a fully functioning science lab with a critical mass of fellow students but also a group of like-minded friends. I graduated in a high school class of over seven hundred, and my experience reflected the benefits of having a large pool from which to find the few quirky people who wanted to have political debates at a birthday party, go to a Mystery Science Theater 3000 convention, and jam in the jazz band (admittedly the top of the band-geek hierarchy). A group of seven hundred was just right for finding the six people who wanted to play Trivial Pursuit Genus Edition at my house on a Friday night and fight over who got my dad on their team. When a friend at a class reunion pointed to some popular kids (now grown up) and said, “Remember how they treated us?” I could honestly say, “I don’t actually recall ever interacting with them.” A large scale meant we could sort ourselves out in ways that had a lot of benefits for those of us who might not find a kindred spirit in a smaller cohort.
Everything has a scale.
My final example moves us away from production of health or knowledge or social groups to the production of justice. Here I think of public programs and systems, and particularly the concept of just treatment of the vulnerable. It is currently the case that in some states in the US, low-income parents cannot get public medical coverage unless their income is below $350 per month, while in other states the limit is over $4,000. The only aspect operating at full scale is emergency care, which is universally available—creating a crucial though minimal safety net in an otherwise inequitable system. Similarly, some states have comparatively punitive court systems for certain kinds of infractions (or all infractions), while others have a commitment to lighter sentences or a more rehabilitative approach, particularly for juveniles. The age at which children can be tried as adults varies across states, and there is in fact evidence that these policies affect the age distribution of criminal activity in ways that can form differences in long-term life trajectories. In these cases of public programs and systems, the notion of “scaling up” takes the form of standardization. This means a painful loss of local discretion, which could arguably make decisions worse.
But there is also the indisputable fact that local discretion has been used by many as a blatant tool of discrimination and other harm. While I am not a political scientist, this is where we see one of many conflicts between local and federal control. In a world with benevolent local public servants, I’d always vote for local control, given the real advantage of local knowledge for solving local problems. But in a world where local public servants do not serve justly—say, in Ruby Bridges’s community—choosing to operate under a single larger system or set of rules may be the best protection to be offered to the vulnerable. Through reading John Lewis’s autobiographical graphic-novel memoir, March, I learned that much of the power of the civil rights movement came not in proposing new laws but in testing those that were already in place to establish whether guarantees like voting rights were really accessible to everyone. (They weren’t.) To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us that, without oversight, local evil can flourish even when the right rules seem to be in place. Like other civil rights acts, the US federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act also offers a guarantee of equal access, in this case to education for students with disabilities. It creates all manner of difficulty in terms of funding, and is unevenly implemented, and yet devolving something like this to the small scale of a local school board would be a disaster for children with disabilities in many communities.
Each of these examples provides some hint at the benefits that can accrue from operating a system at a larger scale, but even in these cases there is usually a point beyond which the increasing returns wear out. It is seldom possible to make something bigger and bigger without some costs eventually becoming too substantial to ignore; we must reckon with those costs.
The ability to get life-saving specialty care at a regional medical centre may come with a less personal experience. It can be hard to get appropriate care from someone who doesn’t know you and may not even be familiar with the community in which you live. Linguistic work has established the importance of common language between doctors and patients for successful communication; this likely applies not just to literal languages but also to cultural and communication styles that might vary across even a small geography. A colleague of mine with experience in hospital administration told me that the accountability systems that are used to identify low-quality doctors don’t often weed out the expected “duds,” but instead identify well-loved doctors who just aren’t quite as good at the technical part of doctoring (with measurable health outcomes) as they are at the human part. Operating at a higher scale, with specialists centred in one place, could result in more successful medical procedures at the cost of relationships that patients value. More generally, there may also be difficulty in making nuanced decisions about treatment as protocols become relatively standardized when services are delivered more centrally.
And, of course, any teacher or student will tell you that whether it is a classroom or a dorm, overcrowding in an educational setting can mean a student isn’t treated as the whole person they are. Both they and the university may fail to get the most out of the student’s presence there, and professors will become miserable if they feel they’re operating a degree mill. The quality of feedback students get when their work is being graded as part of a giant stack is inevitably lower than when it is given its due attention in a smaller setting. A small setting could also get students to interact with a diversity of people outside the comfortable niche they find when there are more fish in the sea. However, expenses multiply when these kinds of improvements are made. Traditional solutions to budget challenges in higher education thus involve scaling—especially for introductory classes. In recent years, the temptation to move those large classes online has brought about a whole new set of scale questions, intertwined with the dilemma of how to properly acknowledge the embodiment of students who appear as floating heads on a screen (and that’s if we are lucky enough to get them to leave their cameras on!). Education seems to be a case where both too small and too big are clearly inferior to “just right”—but finding the scale sweet spot is not simple and may be quite context specific.
I also worry that even in cases where equity is improved, public assistance and the justice system suffer from pangs of scale. The more distant a system’s design is from its local context, the more likely it will fail—whether from lack of public servant buy-in or lack of citizen buy-in. And this can be for very good reasons. This level of uniformity has drawbacks in any setting, but if a broadly uniform program is ill-suited to some of the subpopulations it is meant to serve, the desired gains in equal treatment could be significantly compromised. Both the design and the implementation of large-scale programs—whether they are sweeping educational mandates like No Child Left Behind, blanket public-health regulations like vaccine mandates, or rigid structures like “three strikes” criminal sentencing laws—could benefit from being more sensitive to context. But again, discretion is a double-edged sword—and can be a deadly one for those most in need of help and justice. A larger scale may be the lesser of two evils.
Since reading Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, I can’t stop thinking about how regulations applied uniformly can interfere fundamentally with the good life—in Jayber’s case, they spell the end of his rural barbershop that doesn’t have the right kind of running water to pass an arbitrary inspection. In fact, the novel makes the best case I can imagine for a world in which people in different geographic places just, well, leave each other the heck alone! In the book, expansions in scale—whether of farms, transportation options, or military interventions—are inevitably doomed, and even fatal. The benefits of scale are largely invisible, and Berry’s elegy for a small-scale society is compelling. While in some ways a similar context, I get a different feeling when reading the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The self-sufficiency required when the family lives miles from any neighbours—much less a town—is sobering and, for me as a woman, unnerving. A woman in Ma’s position had the same full day’s work ahead of her every day no matter what her natural talents. Specializing and trading were totally unavailable to her during many years of childrearing. I wondered out loud to a friend: What would have become of me if I’d lived in such a time and place—if I couldn’t scale up my strengths and trade to meet my needs? She gave me the right answer, of course: that God created me for the context in which he placed me.
And so I must admit: I’m thankful for the opportunity to scale up. I am glad I can teach a group of graduate students about policy analysis while my children learn in another group at school. And as much as I do appreciate some of the benefits available in a more scaled-down life, in the North American policy context I think we simply must admit: that ship has sailed. We have decided instead, collectively and perhaps at times unintentionally, that people across North America and, indeed, all around the world should have access to medication, food, and knowledge that would have stayed localized had we taken a different path. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, even though it arrived with a mix of both wishes and nightmares come true. It is easy enough to see the nightmares, and we grieve over what has been lost—but let’s not grieve as those without hope. We can celebrate the lives enriched and even saved by access to those goods provided on a large enough scale to reach and include them. And let’s appreciate the ingenuity, brilliance, and altruism behind so many of these efforts—imperfect as they may be—to get food to the hungry, medical care to the sick, and justice to the ill-treated on a larger scale than ever before.