What is the best way to think about secession?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

When an empire is crumbling, and the rulers are very bad, the libertarian approach to secession makes good sense. That said, it’s not a fully general principle.

Sometimes a region wants to leave a country because of differences of ethnicity, religion, language or background culture, as is the case with the Scottish independence movement and the Catalonian secessionists. In those instances, it’s not obvious whether a unified or a newly independent government would result in greater liberty and prosperity. And for all the strong feelings you will find, I am not sure there is an objectively correct moral answer as to whether there should be one nation or two.

We do know, however, that political tensions rise and emotions tend to flare as such secessions approach the realm of possibility. For instance, there is a chance the government of Spain would react aggressively to what it perceives as an unconstitutional Catalonian secessionist attempt. Madrid might institute legal sanctions against Catalonian leaders or, in an extreme case, send in troops. The final result could be no independence and less liberty in all parts of Spain.

The problem is that people are often overly passionate about political boundaries, and an extra dose of irrationality isn’t exactly what the world needs right now. To cite another example of this problem, the Brexit referendum seems to have lowered the quality of debate and governance within the U.K.

There is much more at the link, including a discussion of why the American Revolution might have nonetheless been a good idea, and also why the libertarian approach needs to be supplemented with conservative ideas.

How democratic was Southern secession?

Perhaps less than you might think.  There is a new paper by Mario L. Chacon and Jeff I. Jensen:

We use the Southern secession movement of 1860-1861 to study how elites in democracy enact their preferred policies. Most states used specially convened conventions to determine whether or not to secede from the Union. We argue that although the delegates of these conventions were popularly elected, the electoral rules favored slaveholders. Using an original dataset of representation in each convention, we first demonstrate that slave-intensive districts were systematically overrepresented. Slaveholders were also spatially concentrated and could thereby obtain local pluralities in favor of secession more easily. As a result of these electoral biases, less than 10% of the electorate was sufficient to elect a majority of delegates in four of the six original Confederate states. We also show how delegates representing slave-intensive counties were more likely to support secession. These factors explain the disproportionate influence of slaveholders during the crisis and why secessionists strategically chose conventions over statewide referenda.

Not entirely unlike the first American secession!

For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Secession threats magnify petty resentments (there is no core, ultimately)

Here is the latest:

David Cameron faces a “bloodbath” at the hands of Tory MPs after all three parties pledged to continue high levels of funding for Scotland if it rejects independence.

The Prime Minister is facing mounting dissent among English backbenchers after promising that Scotland’s special funding arrangements will continue even when the country is given control over its own taxation and spending.

One Tory MP said the promise to Scottish voters, issued by Mr Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg in the Daily Record newspaper, “smacks of desperation”.

Under the Barnett formula, devised in the 1970s by Labour Treasury minister Lord Barnett, spending is allocated according to population size, rather than the amount each country actually needs.

Critics say this gives Scotland an unfair share of government spending and even Lord Barnett has called for it to be replaced.

According to research at Stirling University, England loses around £4.5 billion of public spending every year because the money is handed to Scotland instead

In other words, this story will not end with a “no” vote from Scotland, unless it is strongly decisive.  Regardless of the result, allowing this referendum to go forward likely will go down as one of the greatest unforced errors in recent times.

Andreu Mas-Collel calls for Catalonian secession

The article, in Spanish, is here.  He refers to staying in Spain as “el camino de la decadencia.”  By the way, he is now the finance minister of Catalonia.

He taught me Ph.d Micro I at Harvard, so it’s too bad he wants to wreck both Spain and Europe, and for so little in return.  Didn’t one of his theorems suggest this was a bad idea?  It’s not as if Catalonia is treated like Tibet.  (Haven’t I spent a few nice days walking around Barcelona in my time?  Didn’t Air Genius Gary Leff get a decent meal at El Bulli?  Didn’t they once make a young people’s movie about the place in which no one has to do any work?)  Don’t we have bigger problems to worry about?  How easily does he think negotiations for separation can go, especially with entire eurozone deals at stake and a Spanish history of sending in troops?  He mentions that the territory is subjected to «humillación constante» de España.  Maybe he’s been misquoted, but from what I see I take this as a paradigm example of how a really smart person can be taken in by rather primitive tribal arguments.

The only way to defend this move is a kind of Leninist “things must get worse before they get better” approach to the eurozone.  Even if that is true, this hardly seems like the smoothest way of traversing that path.

For the pointer I thank @AlexFont.


In advance of July 4, Patri Friedman and co-bloggers are discussing secession (remember, we call it the American revolution they call it secession) at Let a Thousand Nations Bloom.  Here is Patri on secession as a startup

America did not merely secede and copy the governing documents or style of the United Kingdom. Rather, it innovated, creating a system based on the English Common Law, yet different, one with explicit checks and balances to restrain government, and with no place for a monarch. It was an experiment with a more radical form of democracy than existed anywhere in the 18th-century world.

And it was an incredibly successful experiment, as the combination of that innovative rule-set and the empty frontier resulted in America growing rapidly in population, wealth, and influence. During the open immigration periods of the 19th century, some years saw over a million new immigrants arrive “yearning to breathe free”. As a result, the new American state had influence far beyond its shores.

This influence occured in two major ways. First, America served as a test of the brand-new American Constitution, and the Founding Fathers’ philosophy about the role of government. By showing that it worked well in practice, political philosophers, politicians, voters, and revolutionaries around the world were (slowly) convinced that this was the best government technology to be had. Second, America dramatically outcompeted existing states, based on the simple metric of net migration. Those million+ people a year who went to America can be thought of as customers of government services voting with their feet, which means that other countries were losing market share.

You may not be used to thinking of government in this sort of economic and business framework, but it is a core part of our philosophy here at Let A Thousand Nations Bloom, and we find it provides a unique and refreshing angle on government. In this case, it shows us the invisible, long-term effects of the American Revolution.

They are covering a lot of other related material such as the optimal size and number of nations this week as well.  Here is a guide.  On a related point, I argued earlier for The Great State of Northern Virginia.

Finally, don’t forget: If at first you don’t secede, try, try again.

The economics of secession

The classic paper is Buchanan and Faith, AER 1987.  Here is a recent extension of this classic work, with a dash of economic determinism:

Secessionist movements present themselves to the global public as analogues of colonial liberation movements: long-established identities are denied rights of self-determination by quasi-imperial authorities. Self-determination is presented as the solution to the challenge of peaceful coexistence between distinct peoples. The global public not only accepts this message but reinforces it: both Hollywood and diasporas relay it back to populations in developing countries. In this paper, we will argue that the discourse of secessionist movements cannot be taken at face value. We will suggest that a more realistic characterization of secessionist movements is that their sense of political identity is typically a recent contrivance designed to support perceived economic advantage, if the secession is successful, and facilitated by popular ignorance.

There are, of course, plenty of successful secessions.  Slovakia has been successful nation because of a language and a desire to be free of Czech rule, backed by EU free trade, EU largesse and political precommitment.  Or secession can help you break free of an evil empire, such as when Georgia left the former Soviet Union.  The most likely American state to make a success out of secession is, I think, Texas (or offer up your pick in the comments).  A Texan nation is hardly a good idea, but at least the state is big, has a diversified economy, has an outlet to the water, has a history of independence, and has a border with another nation, namely Mexico. 

The least likely American state to make a success of secession is, I think…Alaska.  The state takes in lots of federal money, has only a small natural population base, and is not too far from Russia.  Here are some data on which states receive the most on net from the federal government.  According to these numbers, only the state of New Mexico benefits more in (proportional) fiscal terms.  The states which fare the worst from federal transfers are New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Illinois.


Recently Killington voted to secede from Vermont and join New Hampshire. Some people find this desire quixotic since Killington is smack dab in the middle of Vermont. The classic Tiebout argument says that voting with one’s feet helps to discipline government and provide a better match between government and citizen preferences. But why should the dissidents have to pack their bags? It’s the Vermont taxes that the residents of Killington want to escape not the skiing. Wouldn’t it be less costly to switch governance rather than citizens?

Does such a system sound crazy? Perhaps, but it is essentially the same supra-competitive federalism that has worked well for corporate law, so maybe we ought to give it a try.

And remember, if at first you don’t secede, try, try again.

Nothing Secedes Like Secession

I’m in Tucson for a conference. Haven’t been here for a while and it’s striking how different the world looks here in the Southwest compared to the East Coast and most everywhere else. Desert. Cacti. The architecture. Javelinas–little wild boars. Saw some on the 18th hole of the resort’s golf course, wandering around. Even the squirrels are different here.

We take it for granted that this is part of America. But this nation from sea to shining sea could easily be lots of different countries a la Europe. Jay Winik in April 1865: The Month That Saved America talks about how unlikely it appeared in say, 1790 or 1820 that the US would become what it is today. Before the Civil War, the Whiskey Rebellion threatened to split off the western part of the United States. New England almost signed a treaty with England and split rather than join in on the War of 1812. California and Oregon considered forming a Pacific Nation.

By the end of the 1820s and into the early 1830s…when many Americans spoke of the Union, however much they had come to love it, they spoke of “our confederacy,” or more simply of “the Republic.” The Constitution, however revered, was a “compact.” The United States was just as often “the states United,” or “the united States,” or even “a league of sovereign states,” and was invariably spoken of as a plural noun.

Would it make any difference if Arizona were another country? Besides the hassle of going through customs for this conference, it might make a lot of difference. It would depend on the institutions and culture. Without American culture, trust, legal system and so on, there might not be a resort here, there might not be a booming Tucson. And of course, it could be even better. And had Arizona or other states broken away, it would have changed how the rest of the country evolved along the way.

Here’s David Friedman’s theory of the size and shape of nations.

The NBA’s reopening is a warning sign

There’s only one problem: An increasing number of players do not seem very interested in being guinea pigs in this experiment. At first the secessions were a trickle. Now they are picking up steam.

Davis Bertrans, arguably the second-best active player on my home team the Washington Wizards, will not play because he doesn’t want to risk injury and endanger his prospects as a free agent next season. [TC: Bradley Beal has since announced his indecision.]  That’s an entirely reasonable excuse, and more and more players are finding them…

These players will still be paid, but they are lowering their future market value by expressing less than a full commitment to the team. And it is hard to imagine that many other workplace environments can be made much safer than the planned NBA bubble.

One has to wonder how many other players are planning to drop out, or perhaps hoping that the decision will be made for them: Maybe they will get an injury during training camp, say, or worsening conditions in Florida will require cancellation of the season, or it will become more socially acceptable not to play. In the meantime, the dominant strategy may simply be to wait and root against the resumption of play.

Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column on this topic.  The broader point of course is this: if players being paid millions, and put into a highly regulated bubble, and tested regularly, feel this way, what about the broader work force?

Monday assorted links

Will there be more countries?

Scott Sumner asks that question, I say this is an overrated pseudo-trend.  Quebec secession didn’t happen, Scotland said no, Catalonia limps along but the smart money is betting against actual secession, and Belgium is still together.  A weaker EU, NATO, and American hegemon lower the rate of return to striking out on one’s own.  China, India, Indonesia, and Nigeria probably are more unified than they ever have been in their histories.  Even Iraq is still holding together, sort of.  Brazil and Mexico are two pretty large countries that show zero signs of splitting up.  The two Yemens ended up back together again, albeit in a disastrous situation.  An Irish reunion, while unlikely, is no longer so unthinkable post-Brexit. Some of Africa still could splinter, but that wouldn’t make this much of a global trend, especially not in gdp-weighted terms.

So where is the trend?  Here is a list of ten possible new countries.  South Ossetia and Transnistria and West Papua are not impressive entries!  I do give some chance to Scotland and Catalonia, but nothing close to 50-50 odds.

How about the United States?  No way, we are…united.  The hatreds and polarizations don’t match up with state lines so simply, and it is hard to imagine an actual process of secession with focal boundaries and sufficient consent.  Neither “racists, unite!” nor “pearl clutchers, unite!” is going to carry this one across the finish line.

I thank Noah Smith and Ben Casnocha for a useful conversation related to this point.

What you can learn from the Faroe Islands

Should you go?  I give the place high marks for food and scenery, but the total population of about 48,700 limits  other benefits.  It is like visiting a smaller, more unspoilt Iceland.  There is a shop in the main city selling Faroese music and many shops selling sweaters.  They will not tell you where the sweaters were knitted.

The natives seem to think Denmark is an excessively competitive, violent, harsh and hurried place.  The norm here is to leave your door unlocked.  It is a “self-governing archipelago,” but part of the Kingdom of Denmark.  In other words, they get a lot of subsidies.

But they are not part of the EU, so they still sell a lot of salmon — their number one export — to Russia.

You see plenty of pregnant women walking around, and (finally) population is growing, the country has begun to attract notice, and the real estate market is beginning to heat up.  But prices remain pretty low, and it would be a great place to buy an additional home, if you do that sort of thing.

In the early 1990s, their central bank did go bankrupt and had to be bailed out by Denmark.  It is a currency board arrangement, and insofar as the eurozone moves in that direction, as it seems to be doing by placing Target2 liabilities on the national central banks, a eurozone central bank could become insolvent too, despite all ECB protestations to the contrary.

Every mode of transport is subsidized in the Faroes, including helicopter rides across the islands.  Often the bus is free, and there is an extensive network of ferries.  I wonder how many population centers there would be otherwise.  There is now the notion that all of the communities on the various islands are one single, large “networked city.”

The Faroes are a “food desert” of sorts, with few decent or affordable fruits or vegetables.  And not many supermarkets of any kind.  Yet the rate of obesity does not seem to be high.  And they have a very high rate of literacy with little in the way of bookstores or public libraries.

The seabirds including puffins are a main attraction, but I enjoyed seeing the mammals too, with pride of place going to the pony:

The domestic animals of the Faroe Islands are a result of 1,200 years of isolated breeding. As a result, many of the islands’ domestic animals are found nowhere else in the world. Faroese domestic breed include Faroe pony, Faroe cow, Faroese sheep, Faroese Goose and Faroese duck.


The country receives a great deal of negative publicity for killing whales, but overall they seem to treat animals better than the United States does.  Fish consumption is very high and there are no factory farms.

If the Faroes had open borders, but no subsidies for migrants, how many people would settle there?

In 1946 they did their own version of Faerexit, from Denmark of course:

The result of the vote was a narrow majority in favour of secession, but the coalition in parliament could not reach agreement on how this outcome should be interpreted and implemented; and because of these irresoluble differences, the coalition fell apart. A parliamentary election was held a few months later, in which the political parties that favoured staying in the Danish kingdom increased their share of the vote and formed a coalition.

Overall I expect this place to change radically in the next twenty years.  It is hard to protect 48,700 people forever.  In part, they are killing those whales to keep you away.

Were the Civil War and abolition a surprise?

More than I had thought.  And Lincoln really was the difference maker:

…prior to 1860, few political events seemed to affect slave prices, and even the Dred Scott decision had only a small and temporary effect. After Lincoln’s nomination for the presidency, slave prices fell, and they continued to fall once the war commenced. The overall decline in slave prices was large (more than one-third from their 1860 peak) and occurred prior to any battle losses by the South.

That is from the new AER piece by Calomiris and Pritchett.  There is an ungated version here (pdf).

The eternal quest for a free lunch, in this case Escudella

Mas-Colell recuerda que España está obligada a pagar a los pensionistas aunque Catalunya se independice

There is eventually a noisy video at the link, my apologies.  I am not sure what is exactly the best translation of “recuerda” in this context, but the article involves Andreu Mas-Colell asserting that even after Catalonian independence the government in Madrid is obligated to pay for pensions in Catalonia.  That obligation is a legal one which (supposedly) international tribunals will enforce.

The fine points of the conditional and the subjunctive are important for interpreting that article, and perhaps some of those are escaping me.  But I don’t take the journalist to be reporting a prediction that Madrid actually will pay for those pensions, only that they have such a legal obligation, combined with the assumption that this law will reign supreme and the issue therefore won’t be a problem for Catalonia.  There is no mention of the current Spanish law essentially forbidding Catalonian secession or even direct consideration of such.

I have a question.  Of all the economists who have endorsed or indeed fought hard for Catalonian independence (Galí, Mas-Colell, Sala-i-Martí, Antràs, Boix, Ventura, etc.), who offers the best and clearest account of what the associated costs would be?  Please leave your answer in the comments, or if you wish email me.

Here are photos of Escudella.


For the pointer I thank Gerardo Gonzalez.