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Is Scotland Big Enough To Go it Alone?

  • Daily Sept 12 A 2014
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Tags Big GovernmentGlobal Economy

09/11/2014Peter St. Onge

Back when Quebec was weighing secession from Canada, I was a lowly American undergrad living in Montreal. It was an exciting time, since in America we have our railroads torn up and population starved when we secede. Now that Scotland is going through the motions, I figured I’d stir the pot, economically.

The question in 1995 was whether Quebec should secede from the Canadian Confederation. Passions were high; one secessionist leader unwisely argued that a "Yes" win would lock voters into secession like "lobsters thrown into boiling water." Fueling the drum-beat were federalist of impending economic, political, and currency chaos. At the end, the vote was incredibly close: 49.4 percent voting for secession, 50.6 percent voting no.

As Scotland goes to the polls to decide on its own separation from the United Kingdom, the tone of the campaign is, again, high on passion and, again, secessionists are inching toward the magical 50 percent line. But don’t uncork the single malt quite yet: as of today (September 2, 2014), bookies in London still put the odds at 4-to-1 against the non-binding referendum. But it remains a real possibility. [Check the latest odds here.]

One core debate is whether Scotland is too small and too insignificant to go it alone. During the Quebec referendum there was a nearly-identical debate, with secessionists arguing that Quebec has more people than Switzerland and more land than France, while federalists preferred to compare Quebec to the US or the “rest-of-Canada” (ROC, in a term from the day).

In a curious coincidence, 2014 Scotland and 1994 Quebec have nearly the same population: about 5–6 million. About the same as Denmark or Norway, and half-a-million more than Ireland. Even on physical area Scotland’s no slouch: about the size of Holland or Ireland, and three times the size of Jamaica. The fact that Ireland, Norway, and Jamaica are all considered sustainably-sized countries argues for the separatists here.

So small is possible. But is it a good idea?

The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is resoundingly “Yes!” Statistically speaking, at least. Why? Because according to numbers from the World Bank Development Indicators, among the 45 sovereign countries in Europe, small countries are nearly twice as wealthy as large countries. The gap between biggest-10 and smallest-10 ranges between 84 percent (for all of Europe) to 79 percent (for only Western Europe).

This is a huge difference: To put it in perspective, even a 79 percent change in wealth is about the gap between Russia and Denmark. That’s massive considering the historical and cultural similarities especially within Western Europe.

Even among linguistic siblings the differences are stark: Germany is poorer than the small German-speaking states (Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, and Liechtenstein), France is poorer than the small French-speaking states (Belgium, Andorra, Luxembourg, and Switzerland again and, of course, Monaco). Even Ireland, for centuries ravaged by the warmongering English, is today richer than their former masters in the United Kingdom, a country fifteen times larger.

Why would this be? There are two reasons. First, smaller countries are often more responsive to their people. The smaller the country the stronger the policy feedback loop. Meaning truly awful ideas tend to get corrected earlier. Had Mao Tse Tung been working with an apartment complex instead of a country of nearly a billion-people, his wacky ideas wouldn’t have killed millions.

Second, small countries just don’t have the money to engage in truly crazy ideas. Like Wars on Terror or world-wide daisy-chains of military bases. An independent Scotland, or Vermont, is unlikely to invade Iraq. It takes a big country to do truly insane things.

Of course there are many short-term issues for the Scots to consider, from tax and subsidy splits, to defense contractors relocating to England. And, of course, the deep historico-cultural issues that an America of Franco-British descent should best sit out.

Still, as an economist, what we can say is that Scotland’s big enough to “survive” on its own, and indeed is very likely to become richer out of the secession. Nearer to the small-is-rich Ireland than the big-but-poor Britain left behind.

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