Smallness vs. Homogeneity

John Robb had an interesting post at his personal blog “Right On: For Nations, Small is Beautiful“, arguing that smaller nation-states have an advantage over larger rivals:

Gideon Rachman writing for the Financial Times:

The World Economic Forum’s competitiveness index suggests that five of the seven most “competitive” countries have populations of less than 10m. The Human Development Index – which ranks countries by measures such as life expectancy and education – places only one large country in its top 10: Japan.

Look at almost any league table of national welfare and small countries dominate. The International Monetary Fund’s ranking of countries by gross domestic product per capita shows that four of the five richest countries in the world have populations of less than 5m. (The US – placed fourth in wealth-per-head – is the exception.) The Global Peace Index, produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit, ranks nations by criteria such as homicide rates and prison populations and it too makes pleasant reading for pocket-sized countries. The most peaceful place on earth is, apparently, Norway (quite cold, though) and eight of the 10 most peaceful countries have populations of less than 10m.

Roll out economic portability and collective security and why not get small? The political buffet awaits…”

Hmmm. I’m not sure that small size or size at all is the critical variable here.

Looking at the WEF Report list , the only “multicultural” nations in the top twenty are the U.S., Switzerland, France, Singapore, Canada and Belgium.

Of these, Singapore is an efficient autocracy that severely punishes ethnic agitation; France, the U.S. and Switzerland have political systems whose legitimacy goes back centuries that are respected by citizens of all ethnicities; while Canada and Belgium are merely bicultural. All of these states are strongly committed to the rule of law and all of them, save Singapore, are tolerant, liberal democracies.None of these states resembles the ethnosectarian crazy quilts that are Nigeria, Russia, Lebanon, Iraq, India and so on. Or suffers from a paralyzing level of systemic corruption that plague so many potentially viable states that languish on the edge of failure and civil war.

Perhaps relative homogeneity intersecting with legitimate rule-sets is the key?


I agree with Shlok, take a look at “Becoming a Micropower

20 comments on this post.
  1. Shlok:

    Harks back to a Coming Anarchy discussion here.

  2. Phil (Pacific Empire):

    But it is widespread fragmentation of the sort that John envisages which will not only break those "ethnosectarian crazy quilts" up into relatively homogeneous enclaves, but cause a proliferation of micropowers and small states. Small state theory will need a lot of revision at this point.  Welcome to the age of hyperpolarity…

  3. zen:

    Hi Phil,

    "the age of hyperpolarity…"

    Cool neologism. A scenario that offers promise to he who can be the world’s most gigantic dwarf amongst a sea of midgets…..

  4. Dan tdaxp:

    I’m skeptical of claims that small size is necessary good, because small players are overrepresented among high achievers of some thing.

    Think back to academic competitions, like spelling bees.  Kids from small schools (and the smallest of schools, home schools) are over-represented.  Why?  Small size means less regression to the mean, more variance.  You get more on top and more on bottom.

    Without looking at data, I guess that the variance among small countries likewise is greater than the variance among big countries, because there are more small countries than big countries.  (Especially true wrt "nation-states…" relatively few of them, because they emerged at a specific time in European history.  Most countries, I’d guess, are multicultural    )  

  5. deichmans:


    You’ve been on quite a tear lately — great recent content to keep up with the sharp new ‘blog look!

    As for your assessment of "multicultural" nations on the list, I disagree that Canada is "merely bicultural".  In fact, a quick glance at Wikipedia’s entry for our northern neighbor shows fully nine (9) "ethnicities" numbering at least 1,000,000 citizens — which, for a nation of about 30M, is significant.  One of those nine accounts for a conglomeration of First Nation, Métis, and Inuit peoples.

    Living in almost-Canada, you ought to know, eh? 🙂

  6. zen:

    Heh. It only felt like Canada outside this morning.

    Thank you and your caveat is true. However the aggregate of minorities ( Inuit and NW Pacific Indians are not really the same – and what do they have in common with, say, Canadian Sikhs, Afro-Canadians or Japanese-Canadians ? Nothing)  do not really exercise countervailing power against the Anglo -Quebecois hegemony.  Each group by itself is too small.

    If they did, Canada would be the Yugoslavia of the North and most likely, not make the top twenty.

  7. Adrian:

    How are those small states in the South Pacific doing?

    Smallness might build cohesion but that would be offset by overall weakness.  But what I think is really at work here is a silent evidence problem.  Natural selection of sorts means that if very small states survive and aren’t gobbled up by larger states, it is probably for a reason – they have defensible natural borders (Norway), they have special status (The Vatican), they have territory difficult for outsiders to control (Montenegro), they are inaccessible and were more trouble as colonies than they were worth (Iceland), etc.  And remember there used to be many many more small states – but Friesland, Pomerania, Genoa, Catalan, etc., all get swallowed up.  Consequently, of the small states that survive to the present day, proportionally many of them are ones that naturally end up at the top of those lists.

  8. strategist:

    Picking up on Adrian’s comment, one of the interesting things about small South Pacific states is that, yes, some are basket cases (e.g., Nauru and Solomon Islands) but some are doing ok (e.g., Samoa – the independent one, not American Samoa – and Cook Islands) by any measure of statehood. 

    Travel around the South Pacific and you realize that Pacific societies have an inherent level of resilience to external shocks – many people live in villages, close to the land and the sea, and even those that live in squatter settlements in urban areas, like Moresby (PNG) retain close ties to their ancestral areas and can head back there if times get tough.

    Put it this way – a petrol price shock will hit people in western societies very hard. By contrast, it’s not going to matter that much to people living in a village in Samoa or the PNG highlands.

  9. Lexington Green:

    Smallness only works because of United States military dominance.  In any other kind of world, small and successful states would be conquered and looted.  The Singaporeans are well aware of this.  Most of the small "scuccessful" countries are doing regulatory arbitrage, like loose banking rules or tax havens.  They are at once parasitic and reliant on a global economy that exists because large states invest in the military power and police power to keep it functioning.   Beyond that, countries do well if they are well-governed, have good institutions, and have strong cultures that promote and tolerate innovation and the necessary disruption of incumbents.  Size is not an important determinant as long as people are free to organize themselves in units of whatever size they want for business or other purposes, and as long as they can trade within their own country and with foreigners relatively freely. 

    Robb’s point seems to be that he is pushing for a "post-nation-state" world.  That is unlikely.  What makes more sense and is more likely is a world where authority is distributed, much as it is supposed to be in the USA, between national and local levels, with a large scope for private initiative. 

  10. zen:

    Strat had an intriguing observation:
    " Pacific societies have an inherent level of resilience to external shocks – many people live in villages, close to the land and the sea, and even those that live in squatter settlements in urban areas, like Moresby (PNG) retain close ties to their ancestral areas and can head back there if times get tough"
    Disconnection from a larger network is a form of insulation from perturbations. The Great Depression had little impact upon the USSR because it was effectively isolated from the world’s financial markets and what relatively little external trade it conducted was handled by barter agreements if possible, by payment in gold or hard currency if absolutely required.
    The tradeoffs of disconnectivity are costly though – lower, slower, growth for starter’s and the need for a tyrannical government to enforce disconnection with punitive measures

  11. deichmans:


    Agreed that the "First Nation" minorities are insufficient to effect major change (other than the redistricting of the Northwest Territories into two: NWT and Nunavut).

    However, note that the Anglo-Québécois "hegemony" combined accounts for barely 40% of the population — not the kind of ethnic majority I’d associate with "bicultural".

  12. Jose Angel de Monterrey:

    What impact, if any, could new the nanotechnology race have in small and micro nations and today’s world order? Could it be that one of some small nations find a way to compete against developed and vastly populated and resourceful nations like the USA?   I think about Taiwan, Singapore, Israel, and other nations that invested heavily and today produce microchips and have tech oriented economies.  

  13. Daniel McIntosh:

    Most of the better points have already been made (especially Phil on hyperpolarity and Dan txdap on variance), but I’ll add my two cents.

    Size matters if there are economies of scale.  Economies of scale matter most in head-to-head competition in a relatively stable environment.  It also allows one more capital to throw into a project.  The costs of scale are that it is more difficult to make rapid changes, or to learn from the experience of others.  If, as Robb suggests, we are in a world requiring quick adaptation to asymmetric challenges (economic or security) there is a maximum size beyond which states no longer make sense, and that size may be shrinking.

    Instead of unitary states or multiethnic empires, the capital accumulation problem can be handled by federations, common markets, etc.  Ethnic (or cultural) autonomy promotes experimentation, but a few limited common institutions allow those experiments–if successful–to be adopted, by consensus, on the larger scale.  Diversity allows choices and commonalities allow mutual support.  The result looks something like the alliances among airlines (for frequent flier programs and landing rights) or among microchip manufacturers (for R and D).

    And has anyone been noticing what’s happening to Belgium lately?  It’s not Nigeria, by any means, but it’s getting more difficult to put together a government.

    So how about this vision of the future:  thousands of microstates (and virtual states) linked into networks of overlapping interest.  One state will be in multiple networks, depending on issues.  Any pair of states could in competitive networks and in cooperative networks at the same time. 

    Come to think of it, we’re not so far from that today.  Fragmentation within states, coupled with regional and global institutions. 

  14. Dave Schuler:

    Lex beat me to one of the contributions I wanted to make to this excellent discussion

    Smallness only works because of United States military dominance. In any other kind of world, small and successful states would be conquered and looted.

    The finding assumes the Pax Americana.

    Also, I think there’s probably a sort of selection bias in the measurement of “competitiveness”.  I wonder how the results would turn out if you considered Breton-only speakers in France, Spanish-only speakers in the United States, or Romansch-only speakers in Switzerland?

    Said another way I wonder if, the larger the country, the more likely fallacies of composition are to skew data one way or another.  Note that doesn’t mean that big nations are really less competitive in any meaningful sense it just means that the measurement may not make any sense.
    So how about this vision of the future:  thousands of microstates (and virtual states) linked into networks of overlapping interest.  One state will be in multiple networks, depending on issues.  Any pair of states could in competitive networks and in cooperative networks at the same time.
    Which, of course, assumes there’s a referee around.  The difference between 10,000,000 isolated  villages and 10,000,000 interconnected nodes in a worldwide network of communications and trade is somebody who’s willing to keep the wires up.  Note:  there’s always somebody who’s willing to knock the wires down.

  15. Larry:

    How about "To he who hath it shall be given; from he who hath not even what he hath sall be taken away", Jesus of Nasareth.

    Maybe it is not just about somebondy who’s willing to keep the wires up, but a interconnected system of nodes in which the nodes who hath not what he hath is not taken away. This would mean the system itself needs to have a worth or ethics to it that supplements the normal movement of a network in which he who hath it shall be given. of course that fact is probably a given. Of course in that system even those willing to knock the wires down would be included or perhaps not.

  16. Dave Schuler:

    Wishful thinking, I’m afraid.

    It wasn’t the Roman roads that interconnected Europe, it was the Roman legions.  In a very real sense the Roman roads are just the artifacts of the logistics of the Roman legions.  When the legions withdrew, every robber baron and bandit chief could see a very good reason for interdicting traffic along the way and the absence of the legions reduced their operating costs.  The interconnectedness broke down.

    Similarly, the Internet, satellite communications, and the worldwide oil trade are, in a very real sense, artifacts of U. S. military logistics.  If our Navy stops patrolling the sea lanes, I have no doubt that, in the presence of substantial rewards and reduced operating expenses, pirate fleets will disrupt oil traffic.  Once you’ve started paying tribute to prevent depradations you’ve increased the incentives and reduced the operating costs again.  It’s a feedback loop that results in reduced or no commerce.

  17. zen:

    This has been an excellent discussion.

    Lex and Dave have raised an important point, a flaw in the reasoning of most critics of American power, the a priori assumption that the geopolitical security status quo is some kind of " normal" or " natural" global baseline rather than a product of fifty+ years of American military, diplomatic and economic network-building. Withdraw those networks and the scenario changes as statesmen recalculate interests.

    So, is American primacy/unipolarity itself a driver of centrifugal decentralization ?

  18. Larry:

    "So, is American primacy/unipolarity itself a driver of centrifugal decentralization ?"

    All the forces in a centrifuge is towards the center. What this really means is that velocity of movement is not enough to decentralize. If only velocity was involved then the velocity of the object moving around a point would simply not change direction and revolve around the point, but would fly off into space. In that case it would be, as Dave Schuler suggests, take legions to make the connection outward from the center. It also would take a collaboration between the legions, Chinese and American to name a few, to maintain connections. It will be interesting to what becomes of American primacy/unipolarity in that event.

  19. Adrian:

    From "Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War", Fearon & Laitin, February 2003 issue of American Political Science Review:
    "Holding other variables at medians, the estimated risk of civil war over the course of a decade for a country at the tenth percentile in pouplation is 6.4%, versus 16.4% for a country at the ninetieth percentile.  This effect is not due to large states being more ethnically diverse.  We are controlling for ethnic diversity, and in any event it turns out that there is essentially no coorelation between diversity measures and log of size, even if we omit the relatively homogenous China."

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