Trend toward more power for the people

Global movements lobbying for secession, devolution and decentralization show public dissatisfaction with the decision making processes of governments

By Michael Boskin  / 

Mon, Mar 17, 2014 - Page 9

Millions of people worldwide watched the athletic achievements at the Sochi Olympics and the opening and closing ceremonies’ majestic portrayals of Russian history and culture. However, the cost was immense, the alleged corruption dispiriting and the contrast with the political situation in nearby Ukraine alarming.

After lining up for an EU Association Agreement, former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych instead opted for closer ties with Russia, following immense pressure from the Kremlin, as well as a promise of US$15 billion in financing. Three months of protests and riots ensued. A parliamentary vote stripped the high-living Yanukovych of power, and he fled to Russia. The situation remains tense and fluid. Russian troops have occupied Crimea, and European and US leaders are threatening to impose stiff sanctions on Russia if it does not respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

However, Ukraine’s disunity is obvious. Eastern Ukraine has close linguistic, cultural and economic ties to Russia, while western Ukraine leans more toward continental Europe. Some of Ukraine’s regions have historically been a part of Russia, Poland or the Ottoman Empire. Peter the Great, whose 18th century Westernization of Russia was portrayed in Sochi, fought the Crimean Tartars, many of whose descendants were dispersed by former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to other parts of the former Soviet Union. Some fear that Ukraine could break apart.

An EU Association Agreement could be a huge boon to the Ukrainian economy. When smaller economies gain access to a much larger market, trade volumes expand and wages rise, with a small part of the trade expansion diverted from other countries (one of Russia’s concerns).

However, beyond the direct gains from trade, such a pact holds the promise of opening up and accelerating the transformation of Ukraine’s economy and polity. Competing for the EU’s more discriminating consumers would force Ukrainian producers to improve their competitiveness by raising productivity, quality control and marketing and logistical capabilities. Over time, Ukrainian producers would become part of an integrated supply chain, alongside EU producers.

Canada and Mexico were transformed in this way by the 1987 US-Canada free-trade agreement and the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. On average, 40 percent of Mexican exports to the US now have US content.

However, free-trade agreements presuppose the existence of established political borders, and Ukraine is not the only country that might come apart. The UK, Canada, Spain, Iraq — and even the US state of California — among others, face a similar possibility, albeit more or less remote. What all of these situations have in common is a wide diversity of cultural, ethnic and economic interests.

Scotland, for example, has some local authority, yet will vote on independence in September. The secessionists hark back to 18th century English brutality and say that Scotland would be able to keep all of its North Sea oil and shed its share of the UK’s debt. In fact, both are likely to be shared. Those who prefer to remain in the UK cite a loss of markets, possible loss of the pound sterling and reduced significance on the European and world stage. The betting is that the Scots will vote to remain.

In Spain, some Catalonians have episodically demanded independence, as have some Flemish in Belgium and some Quebecois in Canada. Iraq periodically verges on splitting into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish states (the Kurds already have considerable autonomy).

In California, every decade or two, proposals surface to split the state into a North and South California. The more arid and populous south has traditionally been more politically conservative than the north (Los Angeles is an exception). Water diversion in a difficult drought year, along with California Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal for massive new infrastructure to send water south, has heightened tensions.

Tim Draper, a prominent venture capitalist, wants to put a proposition on the ballot to split California into six separate states. (California often makes big decisions — from limiting property taxes to formulaic restrictions on state spending — by ballot initiative.) Even if Draper’s proposed initiative qualifies and passes, it would require approval by the US Congress, which is unlikely.

Which responsibilities should be left primarily to individuals acting within markets, families and communities, and which should fall to government? and at what level of government — federal, regional, municipal or supranational — are the latter responsibilities best exercised?

These are timeless questions, but in an era of increased and instantaneous communication, centralized, big-government bureaucracies are creaking or worse. People want more effective and more affordable government that responds to their concerns, and are demanding that decisions be decentralized.

We may be in the early stages of reversing the trend toward increases in the size, scope and centralization of government, with authority devolving on more localized environments, closer to where people live and work. An increasing number of people seem to be increasingly unwilling to live by current government decisionmaking processes.

Even with democratic majority rule, minorities believe that their interests and rights — economic, cultural or religious — are not being protected. The proliferation of calls for devolution, secession and independence is but one manifestation of this tectonic shift.

Michael Boskin is a professor of economics at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was chairman of former US president George H. W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1989 to 1993.

Copyright: Project Syndicate