More states or fewer?

I was going to write something today about monetary economics, the 2008/09 crisis, and reform options for financial systems and economies, but….the Brexit aftermath is pretty much all-absorbing, at least to a politics/economics/geopolitics junkie.   So far, it is difficult to see why anyone would be very surprised about what has happened since Friday, but of course it is very early days.  Media coverage seems dominated by perspectives from those –  including the journalists writing the stories – almost personally affronted that the populace of a major, quintessentially moderate, country could have voted as they did. The stories highlight, without really needing to try, the disconnect between what might be loosely described as a metropolitan urban liberal mindset that downplays the local in favour of a network of internationalist rule-setting, and what might loosely be described as a more small-c conservative mindset that puts a greater emphasis on the local and the national as the basis for rule-setting and governance.  Peter Hitchens highlights this contrast in his column here – highlighting how detached the majority of MPs of both main UK parties have become from the views and attitudes/priorities of very large shares of their voters.  The situation probably isn’t much different in a whole variety of advanced countries.

But what got me particularly interested over the weekend was talk of the United Kingdom itself breaking up.  Of course, that started a long time ago.  The Irish Free State (as it was then called) became independent in 1922.  If Northern Ireland should eventually reunite with the Republic of Ireland –  and frankly I would be surprised if it happens in the next few decades, given the risk of reigniting the decades-long civil conflict – it would only be the culmination of the Home Rule movement that was convulsing British politics as far back as the 1880s, and which saw Britain facing the possibility of an army mutiny and civil war on the eve of World War One.

The chances of Scotland becoming independent seem somewhat higher –  after all, the Out vote got 45 per cent in the last referendum only two years ago.  If the headline-grabbing opportunity to push for a new referendum is the desire to stay in the EU –  and for all the hype, even 38 per cent of Scots wanted out –  they had better hope there is still an EU to belong to a decade hence.  But even if not, is the idea of Scottish independence so different from that of Irish independence –  which we all now take for granted, even if (at the time) it probably came at a considerable economic cost?  Scotland had been independent for hundreds of years, and if it did well economically from the Union and its people played a huge role in the British Empire, who could begrudge them the right to govern themselves?

After all, although it wasn’t always so, the people of England and Wales make up 90 per cent of the population of today’s United Kingdom.   Even without Scotland and Northern Ireland, England and Wales would be the fourth most populous country in Europe, just a little behind Italy.

But then I got thinking about other countries.  Hasn’t a move towards more countries been underway for some considerable time?  The unification of Germany and of Italy were huge developments in the mid 19th century, but they were largely completed by 1870.   Our own Land Wars finished around the same time, securing a single state entity on these islands. The US grew hugely (in territory) during the 19th century, but had largely reached its current size with purchase of Alaska (from another large state) in 1867.  Even the acquisition of Hawaii was almost 120 years ago now.

I found a list of countries ordered by population in 1900.  Here was the 25 largest:

China 415,001,488
Indian Empire 280,912,000
Russia 119,546,234
USA 75,994,575
Germany 56,000,000
Austria-Hungary 51,356,465
Dutch East Indies 45,500,000
Japan 42,000,000
United Kingdom 38,000,000
France 38,000,000
Italy 32,000,000
Ottoman Empire 30,860,000
Spain 20,750,000
Brazil 17,000,000
Mexico 12,050,000
Korea 12,000,000
Northern Nigeria 8,500,000
Egypt 8,000,000
Morocco 8,000,000
Philippines 8,000,000
Southern Nigeria 7,500,000
Siam 7,200,000
Persia 7,000,000
Romania 6,630,000
Belgium 6,136,000

Of these, the two parts of Nigeria (both then administered by the UK) are now one country.  Quite a few of the other countries are much the same as they were then, subject to some (mostly relatively minor) border adjustments (eg the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France).

But the bigger story surely is the break-ups.   What was the United Kingdom is now two countries, the UK and Ireland.  What was Korea is now –  at least for the time being –  two countries, North and South Korea.  India as it was is now Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and (depending where the boundary lines were drawn) Burma.  And the erstwhile Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires have split into dozens of new independent countries between them.

What of today’s 25 most populous countries?

China 1,376,048,943
India 1,311,050,527
USA 321,773,631
Indonesia 257,563,815
Brazil 207,847,528
Pakistan 188,924,874
Nigeria 182,201,962
Bangladesh 160,995,642
Russia 143,456,918
Mexico 127,017,224
Japan 126,573,481
Philippines 100,699,395
Ethiopia 99,390,750
Vietnam 93,447,601
Egypt 91,508,084
Germany 80,688,545
Iran 79,109,272
DR Congo 77,266,814
Turkey 78,665,830
Thailand 67,959,359
United Kingdom 64,715,810
France 64,395,345
Italy 59,797,685
Tanzania 53,470,420
South Africa 54,490,406

Of these countries, only the last two comprise what were smaller entities in 1900 –  and neither is, perhaps, an advert for the cause of ever-larger unions.   Tanzania was previously the colony of Tanganyika and the protectorate of Zanzibar (ruled by a Sultan, under British oversight).  Zanzibar was granted independence in 1963, but this was quickly followed by a bloody revolution, at the end of which Zanzibar was absorbed (semi-autonomously) into the new Tanzania.  And, of course, South Africa in its current legal form was the fruit of the Boer War, essentially a war of conquest in which –  at great cost –  the British Empire and the British colonies beat the Afrikaaner states.

Have there been other mergers attempted?  Well, yes, after World War One the artificial state of Yugoslavia was created by the powers.  That has now long gone.  Czechoslovakia also emerged from that settlement –  also (peacefully and successfully) gone.  In the 1950s there was political union between Egypt and Syria: it last for all of three years.  The British created the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in the 1950s, and it was also gone a decade later.

Can one think of exceptions?  No doubt.  Various colonial enclaves have been reabsorbed by the surrounding power, peacefully or otherwise –  Goa, Hong Kong, Macau.    But there isn’t much else for more than 100 years, and none that I can think of where the voluntary choice of the respective populaces has led to the formation of larger states from smaller states (happy to hear if I have forgotten any).  Germany reunited –  but then it never separated voluntarily, and indeed in 1945 the intention was never two separate states.

None of this should really be very surprising.  The other great trend of the last couple of hundred years has been towards democratic government. People clearly  seem to want to rule themselves with – and be governed by  – people with whom they feel some significant sense of common identity and shared perspectives (which might be ethnic, or religious, or linguistic, or simply historical).  Little really –  in the scheme of things –  divides New Zealand and Australia, and yet there is no great appetite for the two to become one.   The metropolitan elites might wish it were otherwise –  and might even believe quite genuinely that everyone could be better off it only things were done their way –  but the citizens of the world show little sign of being convinced by their story.  Are the people of the world poorer as a result?  Possibly –  despite the huge volumes of cross-border trade –  but some things seem to matter more to most of them.

And it isn’t as if the trend towards more and smaller states looks like having run its course.  Even in Western Europe, there is Scotland, demands from Catalans for independence, and the ever-present question of what unites Belgium other than, say, a football team.

In that light I was quite puzzled by Wolfgang Munchau’s FT column today. In many ways it was a hardheaded piece, noting that the risk from the UK referendum for the rest of Europe may be greater than those for the UK.  Highlighting Italian risks in particular –  and Italian stocks fell savagely on Friday –  he ends

To prevent such a calamity, EU leaders should seriously consider doing what they have failed to do since 2008: resolve the union’s multiple crises rather than muddle through. And that will have to involve a plan for the political union of the eurozone countries.

How he imagines that the citizens of the Eurozone countries will ever agree to political union, especially now, is beyond me.    I guess the traditional European elite approach is not to give them a say.

UPDATE: For anyone wanting a more systematic treatment of some of these issues, see Alesina and Spolaore The Size of Nations (my copy of which I finally found on my shelves).  They devote an entire chapter to the EU.  In a book published in 2005 – with an expanding EU, and the general contentment with the early years of the euro –  they seem (perhaps understandably) slightly  uncomfortable with how the EU fits with their general model in which lower trade barriers and fewer wars would typically result in more states, not fewer.  But they conclude their EU chapter boldly: “Quite simply, it is not possible for Europe to become a federal state”.


9 thoughts on “More states or fewer?

  1. Flicking through the Australian papers this morning, I saw a lot of hand wringing and not a lot of constructive suggestions. So here’s a few. Restructure the EU as a free trade area with a mutual defence pact. Make a plan to dissolve the euro and return to national central banking in an orderly fashion. Restore national borders with a common set of guidelines for work visas for skilled labour.


  2. I’d largely sign on to that, altho NATO is probably more useful for most members. But your suggestions are consistent with the point that a return to national policymaking need not be inconsistent with either open deregulated economies and easy international trade, nor with a strong outward looking foreign and defence policy where that is required. The risk is that if the EU states delay reform too long, or try to push ahead with ever-closer-union – it will eventually prompt a more severe backlash in which countries could end up turning their backs on each other for a generation.


    • Thanks. Perhaps the only example of countries that were never previously one country joining by democratic consent. And even then it would be interesting to know the counterfactual if newfoundland had never bankrupted itself b- would they have joined anyway at some point, or just remained a little Dominion on the edge of north America. I don’t enough about the detail but eg the Channel Islands never felt the need to become a part of the UK.


  3. My main takeaway from Brexit was “a lot more people than I thought are far less comfortable with the present rate of social change than I personally am, and we are going to have to take their views into account more than we have done over the past few decades”.

    BTW I enjoyed Tyler Cowen’s little essay this afternoon.


  4. yes, fair point, altho I deliberately omitted it – as the lists I drew from did – to treat non-contiguous empires differently from multi-national contiguous empires (Ottaman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian). The latter are probably somewhat more akin to conceptions of the EU.


  5. The Indian empire is actually British Indian Empire until 1945. What I admire of colonial Brits was being able to rule millions of Indians for 200 years. I have enough trouble just managing 1 indian for a year. I hire 1 indian site manager and suddenly the entire contract workforce is indian.


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