Big is Not Always Better

And small can really be beautiful.

When I was a young woman I read a book called Inside the Third Reich by Hitler’s personal architect, a man named Albert Speer. I remember some amazing things about the book that have stayed with me all these years since I read it.

In addition to being Hitler’s architect, Speer also served as Minister of Armaments and War Production in Germany during most of World War II. A close ally of Hitler’s, he was convicted at the Nuremberg trials and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was the only Nazi official we know of who ultimately awakened to the level of deep depravity and evil that had been perpetrated by the Hitler regime, and his insights in the book are revealing.

One of the most interesting things in the book is Speer’s reflections on size and scale. Hitler had wanted Speer to redesign Berlin based on the architecture of Paris: he had wanted a huge palace with a German version of the Champs-Elysees in front of it, at the end of which there would be the German equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe. All of this was to be built after the war, of course, in celebration of a great German victory.

But there was to be something distinctly different about this plan for Berlin: it was to be many times bigger than the Parisian design. Speer points out in his book that one of the sure signs of a declining civilization is things getting too big, unnaturally larger than human scale. He pointed as well to the difference between Greek and Roman statues, where one can see the same developmental arc from human scale to giantism.

To me, there’s a lot to look at there in terms of our reality now.

I live in Washington DC, and like anyone who lives here I enjoy walking by the White House. One of the things that has always impressed me about the “President’s House,” as it was originally called, is its size; it’s a mansion, to be sure - 55,000 square feet - but it’s not gargantuan. It is big enough, but it isn’t oversized.

To give a comparison, Turkey’s White Palace, built by their dictatorial president Erdogan in 2014, is 30 times larger than the White House. I shudder to think what our political establishment would come up with today if they were building the president’s house from scratch. I have a definite feeling it would be bigger. A whole, whole lot bigger.

And what else is bigger - perhaps too big - in America today? Our financial powers. Facebook perhaps? Amazon? The Pentagon? All of Big Tech? Big Oil? Big Ag? Big Pharma? Such things are called “Big” for a reason. They’re not really too big to fail, so much as they’re too big to mess with. And that’s the point. Monopolistic power, like Speer’s architectural designs for Berlin, are meant to convey a power larger than the individual, and therefore beyond the reach of any one person’s ability to challenge.

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We should be aware that when a company, or an industry, gains so much size and so much power that the individual is deemed powerless in relation to it, then something has gone off the rails. Small companies should not be obliterated by big conglomerates, just as the voice of the individual should not be silenced by the power of Big Money. A society should be built on scale. Look at nature to see how much power and beauty resides not only in huge things but also in small ones. There’s as much beauty and genius in the wings of a sparrow as in the branches of a giant oak.

Big companies, big political parties, big whatever — always watch out for the unnatural way that unmitigated growth can diminish human values. How it often signals just that: an attention to size at the expense of righteousness. We have more than a right to say “Break ‘em up” - whether it’s to big tech companies or any form of financial monopoly. If anything we have the responsibility to do it, taking a stand for the beauty of a society aligned with the scale of the natural world.

Even in a huge country like ours, we can keep our allegiance to the value of scale. In fact, we’re yearning for it now. Many people want to shop at the independent bookseller. They want to walk into that unique Mom and Pop coffee shop. And they want to support the local artist. Corporatism is unaligned with our deepest nature.

Another wonderful book that I read when I was young is Small Is Beautiful, by E.F. Schumacher. The book is a collection of essays advancing small, appropriate technologies, policies, and community efforts as a superior alternative to the mainstream ethos of "bigger is better." Reading that book in the 1970’s, it still felt like we had a fighting chance against the gargantuan power of encroaching giantism among corporate elites. It’s easy today to feel we don’t have that chance - that they’re all too big and they’re all too powerful. But in reality, they’re not. If anything, as with dinosaurs, it’s their giantism that will doom them. What is true to scale is true to our deepest nature, and what is true to our deepest nature is what will ultimately prevail.