Today Catalonians vote (or not) in an independence referendum. As a result of moves by the regional government in Barcelona and national government in Madrid, Catalonia became one of the potentially most dangerous flash points in Europe. The potential for violence has been greatly elevated as a result of a reckless decision by Madrid to send Guardia Civil to suppress the referendum by force. I have no idea whether there are enough Catalonians who feel strongly enough about independence to respond to force by force, but I also doubt Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy really knows what will be the consequences of his move. As I write this post on Sunday morning, most violence is not particularly serious, but violent confrontations have the potential of escalating far beyond what either side wishes.
The Madrid government has declared the referendum illegal according to the Spanish Constitution. But that constitution is not a divine law, or law of nature. Laws are made by men, and Spain had many constitutions prior to the current one, which was adopted in 1978. In any case, human societies evolve, and laws must evolve with them. And this leads me to why the Catalonian referendum is interesting from the point of view of Cultural Evolution.
The theoretically interesting question is what is the optimal size of a politically independent unit (“polity”) in today’s world. Clearly, optimal size changes with time and social environment. We know empirically that the optimal size of a European state took a step up following 1500. As a result, the number of independent polities in Europe decreased from many hundreds in 1500 to just over 30 in 1900. The reason was the introduction of gunpowder that greatly elevated war intensity. The new evolutionary regime eliminated almost all of the small states, apart from a few special cases (like the Papacy or Monaco).
In today’s Europe, however, war has ceased to be an evolutionary force. It may change, but since 1945 the success or failure of European polities has been largely determined by their ability to deliver high levels of living standards to their citizens. Economics is not the only aspect of well-being, but let’s focus on it here because it is clearly the main driver behind Catalonian independence (since culturally and linguistically Catalonia has been given a free rein within Spain).
So the question becomes: will Catalonia be better off as an independent state, or an autonomous province with Spain (as it is now)? (Same question can be asked about Scotland, which recently also ran an independence referendum.)
About half of Catalonians think yes, because they know that the region pays much more in taxes to Madrid, then gets back from the central government. There are, of course, significant costs associated with independence. Some are transitory, and others (like the need to maintain a diplomatic service and embassies in many countries) are permanent. There are a lot of other unknowns, for example, whether Catalonia would be able to remain within the European Union, should the referendum succeed.
My conclusion: nobody really knows whether independence will make the life of most Catalonians better, or worse. Thus, I say: if the majority of Catalonians vote for secession, let them have it. If they are willing to run an experiment using themselves as subjects, they certainly have the right to do so, and their experience will be useful to other regions (e.g. Scotland) that currently contemplate independence.
This is applied cultural evolution. We can have lots of theories and models about the optimal polity size, but they are worthless without data.
And it’s much more than a scientific issue. The only way for our societies to become better in all kinds of ways (wealthier, more just, more efficient) is to allow cultural evolution a free rein. More specifically, we need cultural group selection at the level of polities. A major problem for the humanity is finding ways to have such cultural group selection to take place without violence. Which is why I find the current moves by Madrid to suppress the Catalonian independence vote by force criminally reckless. It seems that Madrid still wants to go back to the world as it was in the nineteenth century (or more accurately, Europe between 1500 and 1900).
Notes on the margin: You can read more about cultural group selection and success or failure of societies in Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth.