This Thursday, Scottish voters decide whether they want to break away from the United Kingdom and reclaim their independence.
Do advocates of economic liberty in America have a dog in this fight?
Well, there’s very solid academic evidence from economic historians that Europe originally became rich precisely because power was decentralized among lots of small jurisdictions that had to compete with each other.
Moreover, I’ve argued that we’d get better policy if Belgium split into two nations.
So would the same be true if Scotland broke off from the United Kingdom?
Niall Ferguson, born in Scotland, is opposed.
Scotland regained its own Parliament in 1999, following an earlier referendum on so-called devolution, which significantly increased the country’s autonomy. Since 2007, there has been a Scottish government, which is currently run by the Scottish National Party. So much power has already been devolved to Edinburgh that you may well ask why half of adult Scots feel the need for outright independence. The economic risks are so glaring… What currency will Scotland use? The pound? The euro? No one knows. What share of North Sea oil revenues will go to Edinburgh? What about Scotland’s share of Britain’s enormous national debt? …Petty nationalism is just un-Scottish. And today’s Scots should remember the apposite warning of their countryman the economist Adam Smith about politicians who promise “some plausible plan of reformation” in order “to new-model the constitution,” mainly for “their own aggrandizement.”
I’m sure that many pro-independence politicians in Scotland are looking out for themselves, so that’s a compelling argument.
And David Frum is similarly skeptical, arguing that the United States should worry about an independent Scotland.
A vote in favor of Scottish independence would hurt Americans…a ‘Yes’ vote would immediately deliver a shattering blow to the political and economic stability of a crucial American ally and global financial power. The day after a ‘Yes’ vote, the British political system would be plunged into a protracted, self-involved constitutional crisis. …a ‘Yes’ vote would lead to a longer-term decline in Britain’s contribution to global security. The Scottish separatists have a 30-year history of hostility toward NATO. …a ‘Yes’ vote would embitter English politics and empower those who wish to quit the European Union. …The United States has traditionally preferred an EU that includes the U.K. …a ‘Yes’ vote would aggravate the paralysis afflicting the European Union.
Since I’m not a fan of the European Union and I think NATO is a bureaucracy that has lost its purpose, some of these arguments don’t move me. However, I do believe the world is a better place because of the United Kingdom, so David’s core argument shouldn’t be dismissed.
But there are other voices that have a more optimistic assessment.
Here’s Ewan Watt, one of the few Scotsmen I personally know, arguing in the Daily Caller that independence will force his statist countrymen to rein in their big-government impulses.
I’ve often been asked to try and summarize the tortuous Scottish independence campaign from a libertarian perspective to an American audience. …this nicely sums up the independence campaign: Scots and other Scots fighting over who can further spread the specter of socialism, inhibit individual liberty, and, ultimately, ruin Scotland. Both sides have strived to out-promise each other on more public spending, greater economic centralization, and cradle-to-grave public services.
Statists fighting for more statism? Sort of like Bush v Obama? That doesn’t sound like someone who thinks independence will produce good results.
But keep reading.
And yet…, independence could ultimately provide a boon to the movement and rejuvenate classical liberal ideas in the land that helped give them life. Given that Scotland lacks the tools that even a U.S. state possesses to attract external investment, it’s little surprise that at times it’s been nothing but a laboratory for successive socialist experiments. …Under independence Scotland will be forced to create an economic environment that can compete with both the lure of London and Ireland’s 12.5 percent corporation tax, while also avoiding the very government largesse and fragile financial system that the Bank of England has been able to artificially prop up. Far from becoming a socialist utopia, the conditions of independence will not only force Scotland to live under strict fiscal discipline, but embrace the very free-market philosophy that she helped export to prosperous nations around the world.
And my Cato colleague David Boaz also thinks an amicable divorce will lead to more economic freedom.
Here’s some of what he wrote for USA Today.
…whatever the benefits of union might have been in 1707, surely they have been realized by now. And independence for any country ought to appeal to Americans. So herewith a few arguments for independence. …England and Scotland are both nations with history and culture. They need not be combined in one state. …There’s some evidence that small countries enjoy more freedom and prosperity than larger countries. …Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party and the likely first prime minister of an independent Scotland, may be a socialist, but he’s not an idiot. He knows that a tax hike in Scotland wouldn’t work. Asked in a televised debate, he responded, “We don’t have proposals for changing taxation. We certainly are not going to put ourselves at a tax disadvantage with the rest of the UK.” …With a top British tax rate of 45 percent, and 41 percent in Ireland, Salmond doesn’t want to raise the Scottish rate to 50 percent and push out top earners. …An independent Scotland would have to create its own prosperity, and surely the people who produced the Enlightenment are smart enough to discover the failures of socialism pretty quickly if they become free, independent, and responsible for their own future. …Scotland had a successful independent monetary system from 1716 to 1845,… So maybe it doesn’t need the pound sterling.
By the way, the independent monetary system David mentions was based on competitive currencies and it is perhaps the best example of a free-market monetary policy. But that’s a topic for another day.
Back to the issue of Scottish independence, a former Cato Institute expert, Patrick Basham, also writes that an independent Scotland will have no choice other than capitalism.
Scotland is an anachronistic place where leftist thinking remains in vogue. Scots strongly dislike, for example, the UK government’s introduction of market forces and fiscal discipline into the provision of health care, education, and welfare. …Although the Scots are ideologically to the left of their English neighbors, in practice their semiautonomous government is comparatively frugal. For example, Scotland has a lower deficit and lower public spending relative to GDP than the UK. …Given that Scotland’s top parties, the nationalists and Labor, are left-wing, it’s also possible that an independent Scotland will tax, spend, and regulate itself into an economic tailspin. That would be a travesty for many individual Scots, but not a national tragedy. Hitting the economic wall without a UK-size safety net would teach an invaluable lesson. It would rapidly cure Scotland’s entitlement culture, as a critical mass of taxpayers learned the true cost of fiscally unsustainable statism. …Ultimately, such a self-reliant, market-friendly political culture may transform Scotland into an international center of commerce and finance, such as Hong Kong, or perhaps into a tax haven, such as Guernsey or Jersey. The bottom-line is that, if Scotland decides to go it alone, it will become a very different place. An even better place.
I’m very sympathetic to sentiments in these columns, though I’m not as optimistic about an independent Scotland.
What happens, after all, if a newly independent Scotland goes through a five-year learning period of statism before it becomes clear that big government doesn’t work?
Does that mean Scottish voters will suddenly become libertarians? I hope so, but what if a non-trivial number of productive people emigrate during that period and the majority of those left still vote for handouts and dependency?
For instance, I certainly don’t expect the hundreds of thousands of people who get paychecks from government to turn into overnight libertarians.
On the other hand, maybe they’ll have no choice, sort of like the piglets in this Chuck Asay cartoon.
If you’re undecided on the issue, there is a very good role model for independence. Writing for the Washington Post, Professor Ilya Somin of George Mason University’s Law School adds a very persuasive argument in favor of secession.
One relevant precedent is the experience of the “Velvet Divorce” between Slovakia and the Czech Republic, whose success is sometimes cited by Scottish independence advocates as a possible model for their own breakup with Britain. Like many Scottish nationalists, advocates of Slovak independence wanted to break away from their larger, richer, partner, in part so they could pursue more interventionist economic policies. But, with the loss of Czech subsidies, independent Slovakia ended up having to pursue much more free market-oriented policies than before, which led to impressive growth. The Czech Republic, freed from having to pay the subsidies, also pursued relatively free market policies, and both nations are among the great success stories of Eastern Europe. Like Slovakia, an independent Scotland might adopt more free market policies out of necessity. And the rump UK (like the Czechs before it), might move in the same direction. The secession of Scotland would deprive the more interventionist Labor Party of 41 seats in the House of Commons, while costing the Conservatives only one. The center of gravity of British politics would, at least to some extent, move in a more pro-market direction, just as the Czech Republic’s did relative to those of united Czechoslovakia. If the breakup of the UK is likely to resemble that of Czechoslovakia, this suggests that free market advocates should welcome it, while social democrats should be opposed.
Ilya is right. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have better policy as separate nations. And I say that even though I’m very disappointed that both nations recently repealed their flat tax systems.
Last but not least, let’s add a bizarre voice to the debate.
It seems that the crazies from North Korea support an independent Scotland.
North Korea is quietly backing the Yes vote in Scotland and would be keen to increase trade with a newly independent Edinburgh, according to officials of the Pyongyang regime. “I think that independence would be a very positive thing for Scotland,” Choe Kwan-il, managing editor of the Choson Sinbo newspaper, told The Telegraph. …”I believe that every person has the right to be a member of an independent nation, to have sovereignty, to live in peace and to enjoy equality,” he said. “And I believe that a majority of Scots feel the same and will vote for independence.”
There’s nothing objectionable in those words, but they come from someone who almost surely is a puppet of one of the most malignant regimes on the planet, so you can’t trust him or his statements.
This doesn’t necessarily mean Scottish independence is a bad idea, to be sure, but I surely would understand if an undecided person voted no simply because North Korea wants a yes.
But now let’s see what a true public policy expert has to say about the topic. Here’s Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons.
And since I’m sharing videos, here are the Scots in a very un-European display of patriotism. Gives these Americans a run for the money.
That’s almost enough to make me think they’ll vote yes. But my prediction, for what it’s worth, is that Scottish voters will get cold feet and vote no by a 56-44 margin.
And if my prediction is right, I’ll offer my two cents on what should happen next. The U.K.’s politicians should agree on a plan of radical decentralization. Sort of what’s already been happening, but on a much bigger scale.
The national government should maintain the military, but almost every other function of government should be devolved. England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales should each decide how much to tax and how much to spend.
Sort of like Switzerland, but even better. And what I’ve already recommended for Ukraine.
And if it works in these places, maybe we can reclaim our constitutional heritage and do it in America!
P.S. Walter Williams argues we should resuscitate the concept of secession in the United States.
P.P.S. If you’re intrigued by Walter’s idea, you’ll probably enjoy this bit of humor about a national divorce in the United States.
P.P.P.S. The tiny nation of Liechtenstein is comprised of seven villages and they have an explicit right to secede if they become unhappy with the central government in Vaduz.
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