Is Iceland Too Small? An Icelander Says No.
Thank to Thorvaldur Gylfason for pointing out his 2009 article examining the economic implications of Iceland's small population of only about three hundred thousand people.
Gylfason noted how Icelandic politicians have claimed that the country's small population was "our most serious social evil," and that the critical mass for a well-functioning society must be much larger than was currently available.
But Gylfason notes:
Yet, medieval Florence and Venice flourished with 70,000 and 115,000 inhabitants. They were better situated in Europe and better served by sea lanes than Iceland was and could, therefore, easily make up for their small size through trade. Economic integration is vital to small countries. The population of ancient Athens was 200,000. Too small? Hardly.
Or take modern Barbados (pop. 300,000), independent since 1966, a prosperous and stable democracy where virtually every child completes primary and secondary school and life expectancy matches that of the US. Is Barbados too small? No. Barbados has not even felt it necessary to pool its currency with its eight neighbours comprising the East Caribbean Currency Union (ECCU, pop. 600,000). Since 1975, the exchange rate of the Barbados dollar has been kept fixed vis-à-vis the US dollar at a rate of 2 to 1 (and the ECCU, meanwhile, pegged the East Caribbean dollar to the US dollar at a rate of 3 to 1).
Is there a lower bound on population below which countries cannot stand on their own feet? Yes, but it seems to lie far below 300,000.
The answer lies in free trade. Gylfason writes:
Fuelled by free trade, small nations have increased in number. Without external trade, many small nations would be inefficient on account of their small size and would seem, on economic grounds, to need to merge with larger nations. Foreign trade relieves small nations of this need by enabling them to reap the benefits of scale and scope through trade.
This is how trade has helped increase the number of sovereign states over the years. Without vivacious trade, the costs of small size to many countries would almost surely outweigh the gains. The inability of a small country to benefit from specialisation by exploiting its comparative advantages would by itself be disastrous.
Not that everything is fine when a society is small:
Even if small countries can succeed by being open and peaceful, their small size presents challenges. Strong checks and balances are imperative in small, heavily politicised, clan-based societies to prevent relations between politics, banking, and business from becoming too cosy, not to say incestuous. Here Iceland failed. High-quality recruitment into political service and careful selection of key public officials, from abroad if needed, are also important in a small country with a small pool of appropriate local talent. Here, too, Iceland missed the boat.
But the benefits do outweigh the costs, Gylfason concludes:
Some observers at the time thought Belgium and Portugal were too small to be viable as independent countries. The tables were turned in the twentieth century when centrifugal forces prevailed, facilitated by the worldwide liberalisation of trade after World War II. Iceland attained home rule in 1904 and transformed itself from economic parity with today‘s Ghana in 1900 to parity with Scandinavia in 1980 (Gylfason 2008a). Gradual liberalisation of trade from 1960 onward played an important role in Iceland’s transformation.
One consequence of the social accord that tends to go along with small size may be a shared interest in education, as children in cohesive societies are less likely to be deprived of schooling. Countries with 300,000 or fewer inhabitants keep their young people in school a year longer on average than larger countries, in the sense that the small countries have an average school life expectancy—i.e., the expected number of years of schooling that will be completed as measured by UNESCO—of 13 years compared with 12 years elsewhere.
Another consequence of small country size, especially in a strategic location, may be that neighbours may be willing to share the costs of national defence. France spends 2.4% of its GDP on national defence compared with 1.1% in Belgium and 0.8% in Luxembourg. This tendency may offset some of the higher per capita cost of public services in small countries. Moreover, and this may surprise you, small countries tend to have less corruption than large countries as measured by Transparency International. In 2008, the Corruption Perceptions Index—which ranges from 1.4 in Somalia to 9.4 in Denmark—was 4.6 on average in countries with 300,000 or fewer inhabitants compared with 4.0 in larger countries.
As I noted in this article, both the empirical and theoretical evidence suggests that smallness is no impediment to growth and economic success. Smallness means more openness to trade, less aggressiveness militarily, and studies have shown that small countries have better growth rates in many cases.
In his book Human Scale, Kirkpatrick Sale covers this topic of the "ideal" size for a political entity. Sale suggests that an independent city or city-state probably reaches its ideal size for self-rule around fifty thousand people. He also notes that medieval cities that were larger than this tended to break themselves up into smaller, adjacent independent pieces, with the idea being that large scale breeds alienation, crime, and political dysfunction.