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NIALL FERGUSON

Of size and the state

January 29, 2007|NIALL FERGUSON

I FIND myself confronted with a "trilemma" -- a three-horned dilemma. If, as seems likely, Scottish voters choose to mark the tercentenary of the Act of Union by voting the Scottish National Party into power in Edinburgh, I would be a significant step closer to having to choose between British and Scottish citizenship. If, however, my application for permanent residency in the United States is successful, I would be a significant step closer toward American citizenship.

This is more than merely a personal identity crisis. All over the world, people are facing similar choices. Millions are strongly attracted to the idea of having their "own" little country. But other millions are just as attracted to the idea of emigrating to someone else's big country. Can they all be right?

Let us begin in Scotland. Three hundred years ago, the land of my birth gave up its own Parliament -- hence its legislative sovereignty -- under the terms of the Act of Union with England. According to the Scottish Nationalists, the time has come to tear that law up and to follow the examples of Australia, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Montenegro, New Zealand and Norway -- places where, in the words of the SNP website, "independence has worked."

Granted, it is not wholly implausible to imagine an independent Scotland as Finland West or New Zealand North. But there are plenty of countries with populations of around 5 million that have made rather less of a success of independence. Sierra Leone springs to mind. As do Eritrea and Turkmenistan. Small isn't always beautiful. The question therefore arises: When does it make sense for a people to go it alone?

The last century has seen a remarkable global experiment in what used to be called "self-determination," so we have plenty of evidence to go on. Back in 1913, about 82% of the world's population lived in 14 empires. Nation-states were the exception, not the rule. But two world wars, a depression and a spate of revolutions shattered the old imperial order, ushering in an era of almost incessant political fragmentation. In 1946, there were 74 sovereign states in the world. By 1995, there were 192.

Today, Scotland is far from the only place bidding to follow East Timor and Montenegro, the newest members of the United Nations. The majority of the population of the Serbian province of Kosovo, which is less than half the size of Scotland, is eager to secede from Belgrade. If civil war leads to partition in Iraq, that country's 26 million people may have to choose between Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite statelets.

From a strictly economic point of view, the size of a country does not seem to matter much. Statistically, there's no relationship worth talking about between total population and per-capita income. So the arguments against independence come down to two interrelated things: power and culture. Though the small and smart can beat the big and blundering on occasion, in general there are economies of scale when it comes to warfare. There are also economies of scale when it comes to communication. Most of humanity's greatest achievements, from Ming China to 20th century America, have come where large numbers of people have been able to exchange ideas in a common language.

If the Scots all spoke Gaelic, the argument for independence would be more compelling. The reality is that they mostly watch English TV and read English newspapers. If the British Isles were menaced by a foreign invader, the argument for independence would collapse. There's safety in numbers.

This sheds light on the peculiar character of our age. Thanks to air transportation and electronic communications, the spread of language has become disconnected from the realm of politics. English now serves as a global lingua franca without needing the old agencies of conquest and colonization. At the same time, the decline of expansionist empires has reduced the hazards of being a small country.

Might that change in the future? There are 21 countries with populations greater than 60 million. Of the remaining 171 countries, only 16 have more than 30 million people and only 22 more than 15 million. The rest are states that would struggle to survive in a world where war was more commonplace and communication more expensive.

Imagine, then, a dangerous world, in which most of the world's population chose, or were compelled, to inhabit empires. China's, India's and Russia's already exist. Would a new Persian empire arise in the Middle East? Or a restored Sunni caliphate? Would the dream of Simon Bolivar belatedly be realized in Latin America? Would the Scots and the English become citizens of a United States of Europe? Or, as Winston Churchill insisted, would we stick in time of crisis to the tested union of the English-speaking peoples?

For now, my "trilemma" will endure: Do I stick with the dear old Disunited Kingdom, go west to the Big Country that is the U.S. or head home to the People's Republic of Caledonia?

History is telling me that size isn't everything. But it's not nothing either.

nferguson@latimescolumnists.com

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