Would Idaho have more people if it were a separate country?

by on March 30, 2009 at 8:26 am in Political Science | Permalink

Call me silly but I think about questions like this.  It's a big state with only about 1.5 million people, even though it is the only place with six pointed star garnets (refined here).  Much of the state is beautiful.

Imagine the counterfactual that, in 1846, when the U.S. and Great Britain resolved the border, one part of the area went its own way.  Today an independent Idaho would probably a) be more "right wing" than the U.S. as a whole, and b) free ride upon U.S.-provided public goods, such as national defense.  A federal Idaho government might be more concerned with boosting tax revenues (it would be full residual claimant) than is the current state-level government.  All those factors would militate in favor of population increase.  Most of all, I have the odd (Bayesian?) notion that since it would look and feel like an underpopulated country, more people would flow in.

On the other hand Idaho would face the risk of trade barriers and its legal order might be less secure than for the U.S. as a whole.  The prospect of mobility barriers could either keep people in the area or out of it.

Would the place still be called "Idaho"?  I doubt it.  Might the town of Nampa — #2 in the state — be much better known to the world at large?  I think so.

Does EU accession add or drain people from its smaller units, such as Slovakia and Estonia?  There's much at stake here, yet governments sign on to many agreements without thinking about the long-term consequences for their populations, whether pro or con.

Note: The comments section on this post is not for rehashing standard debates over immigration.

1 Richard Green March 30, 2009 at 8:52 am

Additional to the question on the EU’s affect on smaller unit population, does the EU facillitate the creation of smaller units (such as “devolution” in Scotland, or Catalonian autonomy) by taking on the desirable qualities of the nation states they are currently a part of? And further to this, on Idaho, would it become more nation like if a multinational entity (say, NAFTA, for hyptohesising stakes) replaced many of the functions desirable in the United States?

2 Diversity March 30, 2009 at 9:05 am

Perhaps the best example for aspiring micro-nation population experts to examine would be Switzerland. Their cantons seem to remain much more distinct than US states; and they have on -Lichtenstein – that remained independant.

3 anon March 30, 2009 at 9:09 am

My curiosity is what the relationship would be between this federal Idaho government and the Mormon Church. Would the State have prevented the Mormons from moving there in the first place? Would the current residents have felt more threatened? Perhaps they would have allowed the Mormons to move in, and it would have created a safe heaven. It seems to me it would have had to have gone one way or the other. I think the answer to this question would have a large impact on the question of whether Idaho would be more or less populated today.

4 Zamfir March 30, 2009 at 9:10 am

The European examples are a bit odd, Slovakia and Estonia were very recently parts of larger countries. In Estonia, there was a large influx of Russians. Czechoslovakia saw a faster population growth of Slovaks than of Czechs, but I don’t think there was a large flow from one side of the country to the other.

Some important points here are that very few European regions are underpopulated in an American sense of the word, and that language barriers can be much more important in the long run than trade or legal barriers. I doubt Idaho can teach us much about the EU.

5 davidc March 30, 2009 at 9:35 am

Why do large countries allow small countries to exist so close to them? Andora, San Marino, Losetho. Do these countries provide benefits to their larger neighbours?

6 Peter March 30, 2009 at 9:39 am

I think Idaho would be indepenedent in name only. Since it would be much smaller than Canada and without access to water

Idaho actually has a port, the city of Lewiston, which is on the Columbia-Snake river system.

7 CJ March 30, 2009 at 9:44 am

Ports? I think this question would be much more interesting if the state was adjacent to the ocean and had ports. Then again, I suppose such a state wouldn’t be so underpopulated either.

8 Thomas Purves March 30, 2009 at 9:57 am

Quebec as the center of Canadian finance? Maybe before the 1970s that was correct, but the escalation separatist movement in the 1970s caused all the major banks, and much of corporate Canada to decamp to Toronto. Montreal was once Canada’s largest city but now Toronto is by far.

Separatism has helped Quebec earn substantial tax subsidies from the rest of Canada but otherwise the implied risk of political instability has hurt them economically, reduced direct investment and a relatively negative effect on population growth.

9 MS March 30, 2009 at 10:02 am

Peter: But would Columbia-Snake river be considered international waters? I think the Dunabe is but I’m not
sure what the general practice is for rivers.

Zamfir: I think EU examples are a bit different. There we have many small countries and a few larger countries.
In the Idaho example, we have one giant supercountry (in terms of economy, culture, influence and so on) that is dominant globally, let alone in its own back yard. Sometimes when you are small, you can still choose your patron, other times you can’t.

I think Idaho could in theory be sovereign, but not really independent.

10 GG March 30, 2009 at 10:06 am

Tyler, great post. I think it offers a perfect segue: Your list of the best from Idaho?

11 Todd P March 30, 2009 at 10:08 am

A key question is how land usage would change in an independent Idaho. Over 60% of Idaho land is federally managed (http://crapo.senate.gov/idaho/fast_facts/idaho_lands.cfm). Presumably in an independent Idaho, some of those formerly federal lands would become open to commercial, agricultural, and residential uses, potentially increasing the likelihood of population increase.

12 Ani March 30, 2009 at 10:14 am

“Does EU accession add or drain people from its smaller units, such as Slovakia and Estonia? There’s much at stake here, yet governments sign on to many agreements without thinking about the long-term consequences for their populations, whether pro or con.”

I love this blog, but statements like this are what drive many of us nuts about economists, bloggers, and their deadly combos. What on earth gives you the confidence that governments don’t think about this? And, more generally, what is at stake in accession?

13 Farmer March 30, 2009 at 10:32 am

@ Thomas
re: Quebec
That’s why it’s interesting! That is has (almost) been done before. the results seem to be you loose enterprise but you gain rents.

14 Matt March 30, 2009 at 10:53 am

Presumably in an independent Idaho, some of those formerly federal lands would become open to commercial, agricultural, and residential uses, potentially increasing the likelihood of population increase

Much of this land is under federal control because it’s basically unusable. The only way it could be used for farm land would be with massive increases in irrigation. That’s already pretty much at its limit in Idaho, and was made possible only via federal money and control. The idea that federal land control is keeping Idaho from being more prosperous, as opposed to helping it be as prosperous as it is, is crazy.

15 Zamfir March 30, 2009 at 11:13 am

Is there a particular reason why Idaho could not become the Swiss of the US? Farmers who live in unproductive mountains and loath foreigners sounds a lot like the Swiss. Do Idahoans like rifles?

16 anonymous March 30, 2009 at 11:21 am

Would the territory currently occupied by Canada have more or fewer people if it was part of the United States?

Almost certainly it would have fewer. Roughly 90% of the Canadian population currently lives within 100 miles of the border, so imagine if an accident of history had placed that border 100 miles further south or 2000 miles further south?

Also, the ongoing US population drain from northern states towards the Sun Belt has no counterpart within Canada, for obvious reasons. And as an independent country, Canada can pursue a different immigration policy, with a considerably higher rate of immigration.

American Toronto would probably be a city of only regional importance, like Milwaukee. Winnipeg would probably have the population of Fargo, North Dakota.

17 MS March 30, 2009 at 11:40 am

Maybe if Idaho were known for its banks and watches it could be like Switzerland.
Unfortunately, all it’s got is potatoes.

18 MS March 30, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Texas and California would probably be the best candidates for being independent – large states with abundant natural resources, access to the ocean, somewhat different culture and identity.

Alaska and Hawaii are also interesting examples.

19 R. Pointer March 30, 2009 at 1:15 pm

Re: Canada, not Quebec

I live in Toronto but was born in St. Louis. I have wondered if Toronto exists in the state it is today because of the border. A city of this size just makes no sense north of lake Ontario. Other cities such as Buffalo and Detroit are dying but Toronto continues. Is it because Canadians cannot easily migrate south? Say to warmer climates?

20 MK March 30, 2009 at 4:07 pm

“Idaho is a small, agriculturally unproductive state which until recently lacked industry.”

Mining and logging thrived in Idaho until recent decades. Since much of the nation’s potato crop comes from the state, I wonder at your definition of “agriculturally productive.”

21 trostsky March 30, 2009 at 9:35 pm

Mongolia looks and feels like an underpopulated country — but that hasn’t drawn the hordes yet.

The remote parts of the West are remote for a reason. Idaho is rugged and beautiful but not exactly friendly territory the way, say, coastal California is. (Nevermind the earthquakes and wildfires.)

22 Dan C March 31, 2009 at 11:35 am

Even if populations move…


Look where Idaho is and then look at Europe. It’s not like you really have anywhere to go..

23 Brett Dunbar March 31, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Perhaps the best candidate would be the Dominion of Newfoundland either not going bankrupt and abolishing responsible government in 1934 or choosing to resume independence in 1949 rather than join Canada. The third referendum was heavily affected by an anti-Catholic scare leading to a pro-confederation vote the second had been close with independence the most popular option but due to some support for continued British rule not getting a majority.

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