Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Today many thousands of people demonstrated in Barcelona in favour of the independence of Catalonia from Spain. I was not among them, because my current position (which I am open to discuss in a civilized debate) is against opening a process of secession. But I think that if so many people are in favour of independence, there should be a serious debate about it, even if the current wave is a result of economic collapse and political opportunism, or precisely because of it. Here are some sources that may be helpful. All these sources have in common that they have nothing to do with Catalonia, and therefore are far away from the emotions that plague this debate locally. Therefore, they may provide some objectivity:

-Samuel Bowles: in his book on “Microeconomics” and in some more recent contributions explains both how ethnic and national groups are part of the mechanisms of cooperation (sometimes against others) present in human life since early history, and how the nation-state developed as a complement to large scale capitalism.
-John Roemer, in his paper on “Why the poor do not expropriate the rich in democracies?”, explains how minorities in the income scale may skillfully use other dimensions (such as religion or ethnicity) to obtain votes that they would not obtain if the cleavage were only income distribution.
-Ernest Gellner, in “Nations and Nationalism”, explains both how nationalism should never be underestimated and how national cultures in nation-states have provided the necessary glue in modern industrial societies to avoid entropy and facilitate exchange and mobility. Then if there are more nations than states, nations compete to become states.
-Claudio Magris in “Il Danubio” explains how multi-national and multi-cultural states are everywhere in Europe, and how the ethnic dream (or nightmare) of having uni-national states is futile, at least in most of Europe.
-Josep M. Colomer, in “Great Empires, Small Nations”, explains how more small nations have become states, or have achieved success in promoting their interests because larger "Empires" have been allocated the task of building global public goods.
Other interesting authors include Alesina and Spolaore, who have a paper where in a globalized world small nations face little costs of abandoning big states; Ginsburg, who discusses the economic and welfare aspects of linguistic policies; and Sen, who analyzes the implications of people having a variety of overlapping identities.
Any serious discussion of independence should attempt to answer both positive and normative questions. Among the positive questions: how have current frontiers been fixed? How many of them are the result of wars and violence, and how many of them the result of civilized settlements? How many of them have required international agreements or the collapse of a former empire or international bloc? Which would the distributive implications of independence be? Which social groups would benefit most? How would the transition process be? How would assets be split? How would the new social security system be?
Normative questions should include what is the relevant collectivity whose welfare should be considered? In the case of Catalonia, the project of its independence should consider only the citizens of Catalonia, those of Spain, or all the world (some externalities are conceivable: imitation effects, collective action deviated to nationalistic issues instead of global public goods)?
In the case of Europe, how would secession processes in Scotland, Catalonia and other nations interact with the political construction of Europe which is necessary to resolve the current economic and financial crisis? Can secession and a federal Europe be achieved at the same time starting from the current stus-quo? Would the new states be accepted in the European Union and the euro?
The necessary cost-benefit analysis should consider the huge role of uncertainty and the application of a discount factor. It seems plausible that the benefits could increase in the long run, especially for rich regions, but the costs would be concentrated in the short run and in transition. How should the future be valued compared to the present? If in the current legal framework there is no way to make democratic independence possible, should peaceful resistance of armed struggle be adopted? What would the costs of these be?
How should shared symbols and common history be accounted for? Some people in the potentially independent land may have family, linguistic, cultural, sport or heritage links with the bigger nation-state. 
What can we expect in terms of changes in terms of government and regulatory capture? What happens if mechanisms for tax harmonization are not strong enough and there is a race to the bottom in labour laws, corporation and other taxes, and other regulations? If social and identity issues are non-orthogonal dimensions, how are they related? What are the implications for social capital of the “us and them” rhetoric? Is it true that homogeneous societies facilitate cooperation and the implementation of a social democratic agenda?
It would be good to have a civilized debate and to have a mechanism to resolve this issue peacefully. And perhaps the sooner we do it, the better, so we can move on to more important issues (which will still be there regardless of the status of Catalonia in Spain, Europe or the world).

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