Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Dedman College Research Economics Faculty News

Identity—not income—drives desire to secede, according to a model created by SMU economist Klaus Desmet and other researchers – What most sparks a region’s desire to seek independence from their country—income or identity?

A new study from SMU (Southern Methodist University, Dallas) and UC3M (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Spain) found that the group people identify with tends to play a bigger factor in secession than differences in per capita income between regions.

Identity was shown to be a larger factor than income for many real-life examples of pro-independence movements in recent years—such as Tibet in China and Tigray and other Southern Nations in Ethiopia. Researchers looked at a total of 173 countries with 3,003 subnational regions, like Texas and California in the United States or Canadian provinces in Quebec and Ontario.

The mathematical model that SMU and UC3M created also would have correctly predicted that the Soviet Union was in danger of collapsing before its eventual demise in 1991 and which Soviet republics would have been the first to declare independence.

“What we found is striking: separatism would be alive and well even if there were no income differences between regions, whereas it would almost completely die out if everyone spoke the same language,” said Klaus Desmet, Ruth and Kenneth Altshuler Centennial Interdisciplinary Professor of Economics at SMU and author of the study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “From this we can conclude that the key driver of secessionist sentiment is identity, rather than income.”

Desmet and economists Ignacio Ortuño-Ortín and Ömer Özak used their model to test if support for secession would grow stronger or weaker if there was no difference in the incomes of the people who lived there or no difference in their identity.

Across the globe, they found that support for secession would drop from an average of 7.5 percent of a region’s population to 0.6 percent in the absence of identity differences. Yet eliminating income differences would do almost nothing in terms of weakening the desire for secessionism, the study shows.

Ortuño-Ortín is a professor of economics at UC3M. Özak is an associate professor of economics at SMU and a research fellow at IZA.

The research team wanted to identify the major cause of secessionism because there are often questions of whether economic policies could potentially ease tensions.

“Of course, the drivers of separatism are complex, but if we want to simplify a bit, there are two key reasons why certain subnational regions might prefer to become independent,” Desmet said. “A first is income per capita: if my region is relatively rich, I may feel that I am ‘subsidizing’ the rest of the country, and that I would be better off if my region became independent. A second is identity: if my region has a separate ethnic or linguistic identity, I may feel less connected to the nation, and prefer to secede.”

Desmet, Ortuño-Ortín and Özak were particularly curious about what was driving secessionist tensions in two of the team’s home countries—with Flanders in Belgium having a strong pro-independence movement and Catalonia having made a bid for independence from Spain a few years ago.

“Interestingly, because Flanders and Catalonia are relatively rich, the push for independence has been couched in economic terms,” Desmet said.

However, the study indicates that economic forces tend to be secondary when it comes to understanding secessionism.

Read the full article.