The size and homogeneity of a country’s population has a big bearing on its economic policies

Economist, SMU, Economics, Klaus Desmet

The Economist’s “Free Exchange” column covered the research of SMU economist Klaus Desmet as part of a larger examination of the ideal size of nations from an economic perspective and within the context of Scotland’s recent vote on the question of independence.

The article, “Goldilocks nationalism,” published Sept. 27.

Desmet is an expert in international trade, regional and urban economics, macroeconomics and political economy. He is the Ruth and Kenneth Altshuler Centennial Interdisciplinary Professor in Economics.

Desmet’s research published in the Journal of Development Economics, “The political economy of linguistic cleavages,” and looked at the genealogical relationships between the world’s 6,912 languages.

The data revealed which linguistic cleavages are most relevant for a range of political economy outcomes.

Desmet and his co-authors on the study found “that deep cleavages, originating thousands of years ago, lead to better predictors of civil conflict and redistribution. The opposite pattern emerges when it comes to the impact of linguistic diversity on growth and public goods provision, where finer distinctions between languages matter.”

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The Economist
WHEN Scotland turned down independence, it was bucking a trend. Since 1946 the number of sovereign states has soared, from 76 to 197. The steady shrinking of the world’s political units raises the question of what the ideal size would be from an economic perspective. Separatists from Catalonia to the southern Philippines should be aware that a country’s population, economists believe, has a big impact on all sorts of policies, from the level of government spending to its openness to trade.

Separatists eyeing the exit have many motivations, but economics typically plays a big role in the choice to stay or go. In their book “The Size of Nations”, Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore lay out the costs and benefits of going it alone.* Scale has its advantages: bigger countries are easier to defend from foreign aggressors, for instance. When barriers to trade are high, a bigger domestic market allows for more internal specialisation. A 19th-century British prime minister is reported to have complained to a French ambassador, “If you were not such persistent protectionists, you would not find us so keen to annex territories!” America’s size allowed it to develop new and highly productive forms of industry in the late 1800s, which Europe’s smaller countries could not match until tariffs fell in the 20th century.

Yet the bigger a country grows the more multitudes it contains. Larger populations are not always more diverse than smaller ones—Japan is both much larger and more homogenous than Belgium—but in larger countries there are generally more politically distinct subgroups. As the voting public becomes more heterogenous, the scope for intractable disputes over government policies grows.

Messrs Alesina and Spolaore reckon falling barriers to trade have reduced the cost of being a small state and boosted interest in separatism. Ironically, the European Union has made breaking up especially attractive. Catalan nationalists, for instance, assume that if Catalonia parted ways with Spain, which it currently subsidises by paying more in taxes than it receives in government spending, it would nonetheless remain within the single market. That makes independence a much easier sell.

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