The Size of Nations

My Wryside Economics talk on ABC Radio National’s Life Matters program tomorrow is on “The Size of Nations”, a terrific book by Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore, which posits that country size is a tradeoff between the economic benefits of being big (economies of scale in public spending, large internal market) and the political costs of size (more heterogeneous interests to manage). If time permits, I’ll discuss why 100 countries have arisen in the past half-century, whether there should be more nations in Africa, the impact that free trade has on separatist movements, and whether Australia should merge with New Zealand.

Update: The audio file is here. Incidentally, the line of questioning didn’t quite permit me to mention how we chose the topic. It came about because of a quip that Richard made the last time, in which he mentioned the size of Greenland. A subsequent conversation with my mother got me thinking about whether economics had anything to say about the size of boundaries, which turned out to be a great excuse to read a book I’d heard a lot about.

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4 Responses to The Size of Nations

  1. Ben says:

    A cursory glance at quality of life tables and GDP per capita tables suggests little benefit to upsizing.

    I’ll have to take a look at Alesina and Spolaore’s book. Sounds interesting. I presume free trade suppresses separatist urges??? If this is the case, whether this is positive or negative is a heavily value driven determination.

  2. peter says:

    Does the book discuss language? Surely most nations are no larger than the largest contiguous geographic area containing a group of people speaking a shared language, and often nations are much less than this size. Even if every person treated others speaking different languages the same as themselves and history played no part in nation formation, this issue of language would still be important, because of the diseconomies of scale in administering (and doing politics in) regions containing multiple language groups.

  3. perhaps says:

    The authors state the purpose of the book is exploratory; rather than providing answers they state their aim is to seek to open a ‘new’ area of research (p.9).

    One of the criticisms of economics as a discipline is that it colonizes others, leading to error. Pace your own unfounded criticisms of birth risks and the timing of conferences – a charge that was both inflammatory and not supported by the evidence – and one you did not withdraw to the best of my knowledge. (Please correct me if I am wrong). It also fails as a disciple by claiming fields as ‘new’ that, in fact, are not. It is good to see the authors cite Chuck Tilly, and others, but it is to economics’ eternal discredit that it continues this practice.

  4. wmmbb says:


    I for one will be very interested in your thoughts and conclusions as to whether “Australia should merge with New Zealand”. I had not, for example, that the government, rather than the people of Aotearoa, made the decision to stay out of the Federation, after having involvement in the earlier constitutional conventions.

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