“Growth is a costly and dangerous process,” says John H. Bodley, professor of anthropology at Washington State University. For the past several years, Bodley has been researching the role of scale, or size of communities, as it relates to socioeconomic growth and prosperity. His hypothesis is that growth is an elite-directed process. In other words, although the majority of people bear the costs associated with growth, only a few receive the primary benefits.
In all cases that Bodley has studied–from the global community to small towns–his hypothesis holds true. The bottom line is that as scale increases, fewer people reap the rewards of growth.
There are different kinds of growth, says Bodley. “Sometimes growth involves segmentation–a society grows to a certain size, it reaches a threshold, and then splits into two or more similar societies. This kind of growth fills up a space with more societies of the same size,” he says.
“The other kind of growth involves a single society getting larger. It is growth by aggregation, or accumulation,” Bodley says. “This is growth that changes scale and requires cultural transformation such as bureaucratization and specialization, and it concentrates power.” Bodley studies this second type of growth.
Bodley says you can apply the theory that growth is an elite-directed process to any socioeconomic category, such as American taxpayers by size of income or American corporations by size of revenue. These are two measurements you can find in Bodley’s latest book, The Power of Scale, A Global History Approach (M.E. Sharpe, 2003). The book reveals that as the number of taxpayers or businesses increases, wealth becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
This is the case on both a global and community scale, says Bodley. A few years ago he tested his power-elite hypothesis in the Palouse region of eastern Washington and published his findings in an article titled, “Socioeconomic Growth, Culture Scale and Household Well-Being” (Current Anthropology, December 1999).
Bodley ranked property owners in 27 municipalities in the Palouse by the value of their property. His data show that as the size of communities increased, or as villages became towns and cities, a few families became very prosperous, while the number of poor and maintenance-level households increased. In other words, the gap between the haves and have-nots grew bigger.
A small number of prosperous families typically own property and become the power elite. In their power positions, they become involved in city and county government and are able to encourage further growth through annexation and zoning changes. Thus, these elite individuals increasingly concentrate their power, and the growth process becomes self-perpetuating.
Bodley has concluded that the perception that growth benefits everyone is inaccurate. “Growth is not likely to benefit the majority of the population.”
Bodley’s research also suggests that the concentration of wealth due to increases in scale diminishes the democratic process and is costly to the non-elite. Often the non-elite end up subsidizing the cost of programs created by the power-elite by bearing increases in the cost of such things as transportation, storage, packaging, and advertising. Bodley goes on to say that urban growth, national markets, and large accumulations of private wealth, whether held by individuals or corporations, must be supported by taxpayer-funded subsidies to pay for the necessary infrastructure including police, courts, public education, and the military.
In his study of the Palouse, he found that non-property-owners in towns of 2,500 people or less participate in the governance of their communities. This is less likely to be the case in larger cities, where government positions are often held by elite property owners.
Based on this finding, Bodley concludes that “to the extent that growth concentrates power, it is anti-democratic.”