Their Own Separate or Private Idaho?

It turns out the B-52’s were ahead of their time. Not musically, of course. No, they were forerunners in the great privatization debate about the great state of Idaho.

Kidding of course, but the always interesting Marginal Revolution blog put its spotlight on the state and wonders how things would be different if the 1846 border dispute between the U.S. and Great Britain had ended differently. In the inevitable surfing which ensues, we end up with some interesting facts about Idaho:

  • Idaho first appeared as a Territory name in 1860, but was edged out at the last minute by Colorado in 1861
  • Idaho was supposed to be an Indian name signifying ‘Gem of the Mountain,’ but there was no mention of that in the newspapers of the time
  • There was an eccentric lobbyist / politician named George M. Willing, who claimed that he made up the name as a hoax
  • The Peoria Indians [today based in Miami, Oklahoma] told the first white settlers that the tribe living in that area (their rivals) was named the Moingoana, which became the root of Des Moines. But it turns out that Moingoana was really the Peoria word for ‘shitfaces.’

Lyrics to Private Idaho and article referenced are copied in full at end of post.

Private Idaho Lyrics
Hoo Hoo Hoo Hoo Hoo Hoo Hoo Hoo Hoo
You’re living in your own Private Idaho
Living in your own Private Idaho
Underground like a wild potato.
Don’t go on the patio.
Beware of the pool,
blue bottomless pool.
It leads you straight
right through the gate
that opens on the pool.

You’re living in your own Private Idaho.
You’re living in your own Private Idaho.

Keep off the path, beware the gate,
watch out for signs that say “hidden driveways”.
Don’t let the chlorine in your eyes
blind you to the awful surprise
that’s waitin’ for you at
the bottom of the bottomless blue blue blue pool.

You’re livin in your own Private Idaho. Idaho.
You’re out of control, the rivers that roll,
you fell into the water and down to Idaho.
Get out of that state,
get out of that state you’re in.
You better beware.

You’re living in your own Private Idaho.
You’re living in your own Private Idaho.

Keep off the patio,
keep off the path.
The lawn may be green
but you better not be seen
walkin’ through the gate that leads you down,
down to a pool fraught with danger
is a pool full of strangers.

You’re living in your own Private Idaho,
where do I go from here to a better state than this.
Well, don’t be blind to the big surprise
swimming round and round like the deadly hand
of a radium clock, at the bottom, of the pool.

Woah oh oh woah oh oh woah oh oh
Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah
Get out of that state
Get out of that state
You’re living in your own Private Idaho,
livin in your own Private…. Idaho
Marginal Revolution blog
Would Idaho have more people if it were a separate country?

Call me silly but I think about questions like this. It’s a big state with only about 1.5 million people, even though it is the only place with six pointed star garnets (refined here). Much of the state is beautiful.

Imagine the counterfactual that, in 1846, when the U.S. and Great Britain resolved the border, one part of the area went its own way. Today an independent Idaho would probably a) be more “right wing” than the U.S. as a whole, and b) free ride upon U.S.-provided public goods, such as national defense. A federal Idaho government might be more concerned with boosting tax revenues (it would be full residual claimant) than is the current state-level government. All those factors would militate in favor of population increase. Most of all, I have the odd (Bayesian?) notion that since it would look and feel like an underpopulated country, more people would flow in.

On the other hand Idaho would face the risk of trade barriers and its legal order might be less secure than for the U.S. as a whole. The prospect of mobility barriers could either keep people in the area or out of it.

Would the place still be called “Idaho”? I doubt it. Might the town of Nampa — #2 in the state — be much better known to the world at large? I think so.

Does EU accession add or drain people from its smaller units, such as Slovakia and Estonia? There’s much at stake here, yet governments sign on to many agreements without thinking about the long-term consequences for their populations, whether pro or con.

Note: The comments section on this post is not for rehashing standard debates over immigration.

Posted by Tyler Cowen on March 30, 2009 at 08:26 AM in Political Science | Permalink

Additional to the question on the EU’s affect on smaller unit population, does the EU facillitate the creation of smaller units (such as “devolution” in Scotland, or Catalonian autonomy) by taking on the desirable qualities of the nation states they are currently a part of? And further to this, on Idaho, would it become more nation like if a multinational entity (say, NAFTA, for hyptohesising stakes) replaced many of the functions desirable in the United States?

Posted by: Richard Green at Mar 30, 2009 8:52:20 AM

The only way an Independent Idaho would beable to free-ride on national defense is if it weren’t afraid of being taken over by the US. Its own national defense would have to be quite strong if it felt threatened by the US or Canada.

Posted by: Rochelle at Mar 30, 2009 8:56:16 AM

Perhaps the best example for aspiring micro-nation population experts to examine would be Switzerland. Their cantons seem to remain much more distinct than US states; and they have on -Lichtenstein – that remained independant.

Posted by: Diversity at Mar 30, 2009 9:05:59 AM

This is essentially the crux of the Independant Quebec movement. Quebec meets alot of the descriptions outlined for Idaho and has the added perk of being the center of canadian finance. Quebec might make for an interesting template to think about Idaho, esp given how many opinion papers and how much research has been done both on the “for” and “against” side

Posted by: Farmer at Mar 30, 2009 9:08:42 AM

My curiosity is what the relationship would be between this federal Idaho government and the Mormon Church. Would the State have prevented the Mormons from moving there in the first place? Would the current residents have felt more threatened? Perhaps they would have allowed the Mormons to move in, and it would have created a safe heaven. It seems to me it would have had to have gone one way or the other. I think the answer to this question would have a large impact on the question of whether Idaho would be more or less populated today.

Posted by: anon at Mar 30, 2009 9:09:53 AM

Idaho probably would not be more “right-wing” than the rest of America. Depends how you define it. My guess is that Idaho would be more “cruncy con” – more family focused than the US, socially more conservative but that independent Idahoans would have less sympathy for American neoliberal/neocon interventionist foreign policies. Also as a small fairly homogeneous country Idaho would probably be much further to the “left” on welfare issues like healthcare and social security and would tend to be more influenced by its northern neighbor Canada in these areas.

Posted by: vanya at Mar 30, 2009 9:09:58 AM

The European examples are a bit odd, Slovakia and Estonia were very recently parts of larger countries. In Estonia, there was a large influx of Russians. Czechoslovakia saw a faster population growth of Slovaks than of Czechs, but I don’t think there was a large flow from one side of the country to the other.

Some important points here are that very few European regions are underpopulated in an American sense of the word, and that language barriers can be much more important in the long run than trade or legal barriers. I doubt Idaho can teach us much about the EU.

Posted by: Zamfir at Mar 30, 2009 9:10:44 AM

I think Idaho would be indepenedent in name only. Since it would be much smaller than Canada and without access to water, it would be very difficult to maintain truly independent trade policy, as well as economic and foreign policy.
Independent Idaho would not be independent in any meaningful way (it could legalize pot maybe, but not much else).

Also, if I’m not mistaken, rural, low-population states generally receive large transfers of wealth from large states like NY, California, etc via farm subsidies and income taxes so most Idaho citizens would be paying more.

Posted by: MS at Mar 30, 2009 9:15:50 AM

Why do large countries allow small countries to exist so close to them? Andora, San Marino, Losetho. Do these countries provide benefits to their larger neighbours?

Posted by: davidc at Mar 30, 2009 9:35:38 AM

Take it from someone who lived in Idaho for more than 20 years and visits family there all the time- it is already more right-wing than the rest of the country and free-rides on the federal government in a way that it would not be able to if it were independent. factor in that federal money largely made Idaho habitable (by building dams that allowed for the larger part of the agriculture) and the idea that it would have been a plausible independent country or more people would live there than do now seems unlikely.

Posted by: Matt at Mar 30, 2009 9:37:00 AM

I think Idaho would be indepenedent in name only. Since it would be much smaller than Canada and without access to water

Idaho actually has a port, the city of Lewiston, which is on the Columbia-Snake river system.

Posted by: Peter at Mar 30, 2009 9:39:33 AM

MS says: I think Idaho would be independent in name only.

Quirky history can produce small, landlocked states, although they are rare. Botswana is very similar in size, Luxembourg and Bhutan are smaller than Idaho, Paraguay and Switzerland are not that much larger. The former USSR and Yugoslavia have given us some new examples, but how long those will stay really independent is a bit of a guess.

Posted by: Zamfir at Mar 30, 2009 9:42:30 AM

Ports? I think this question would be much more interesting if the state was adjacent to the ocean and had ports. Then again, I suppose such a state wouldn’t be so underpopulated either.

Posted by: CJ at Mar 30, 2009 9:44:00 AM

Southern Idaho, curiously, has almost exactly the same climate as Switzerland.

Posted by: Sammler at Mar 30, 2009 9:44:02 AM

Quebec as the center of Canadian finance? Maybe before the 1970s that was correct, but the escalation separatist movement in the 1970s caused all the major banks, and much of corporate Canada to decamp to Toronto. Montreal was once Canada’s largest city but now Toronto is by far.

Separatism has helped Quebec earn substantial tax subsidies from the rest of Canada but otherwise the implied risk of political instability has hurt them economically, reduced direct investment and a relatively negative effect on population growth.

Posted by: Thomas Purves at Mar 30, 2009 9:57:10 AM

DavidC, Andorra and San Marino are independent countries in name only, more municipalities with some strange rules.

Lesotho is weird, with a complicated history including some recent struggles with South Africa. I think the answer to its independence is ironic: it was not independent until the 1960s or so, after which South Africa was not really in the position internationally to take it over.

Posted by: Zamfir at Mar 30, 2009 9:59:41 AM

Peter: But would Columbia-Snake river be considered international waters? I think the Dunabe is but I’m not
sure what the general practice is for rivers.

Zamfir: I think EU examples are a bit different. There we have many small countries and a few larger countries.
In the Idaho example, we have one giant supercountry (in terms of economy, culture, influence and so on) that is dominant globally, let alone in its own back yard. Sometimes when you are small, you can still choose your patron, other times you can’t.

I think Idaho could in theory be sovereign, but not really independent.

Posted by: MS at Mar 30, 2009 10:02:21 AM

Idaho is a small, agriculturally unproductive state which until recently lacked industry. It is heavily dependent on the federal government. It might possibly achieve some economic power by manufacture and smuggling of pot and crystal meth into the US and Canada.

Posted by: capitalistimperialistpig at Mar 30, 2009 10:05:28 AM

Tyler, great post. I think it offers a perfect segue: Your list of the best from Idaho?

Posted by: GG at Mar 30, 2009 10:06:49 AM

@Zamfir thanks for the info. Andorra seems to be a haven for certain activities that are not very popular with the Spanish/French government. Banking with lax regulations, distilling and prostitution. I wonder do such small principalities (gernsey the isle of man and gibralter also have odd tax status) serve to allow an acceptable level of ‘corruption’ (if that is the right word)?

Posted by: davidc at Mar 30, 2009 10:08:14 AM

A key question is how land usage would change in an independent Idaho. Over 60% of Idaho land is federally managed ( Presumably in an independent Idaho, some of those formerly federal lands would become open to commercial, agricultural, and residential uses, potentially increasing the likelihood of population increase.

Posted by: Todd P at Mar 30, 2009 10:08:22 AM

MS, I would say that realistically Tyler’s counterfactual would not necessarily have just Idaho independent. Or it could be a Lesotho-type situation: by the time Britain gave independence to Idaho, the US was no longer in a position to arbitrarily occupy land without hurting its standing. Like with Canada.

Posted by: Zamfir at Mar 30, 2009 10:13:47 AM

“Does EU accession add or drain people from its smaller units, such as Slovakia and Estonia? There’s much at stake here, yet governments sign on to many agreements without thinking about the long-term consequences for their populations, whether pro or con.”

I love this blog, but statements like this are what drive many of us nuts about economists, bloggers, and their deadly combos. What on earth gives you the confidence that governments don’t think about this? And, more generally, what is at stake in accession?

Posted by: Ani at Mar 30, 2009 10:14:54 AM

You have to look at the circumstances under which Idaho became “independent”. To me, the only plausible reason would have been if the local Indians had fought off the US cavalry and white settlers and had gained independence that way. Of course, such an “Idaho” would be very different from the current “Idaho” the state.

In other words, an independent Idaho is a contradiction in terms. “Idaho” only exists as a US state. Its boundaries were defined by the US Congress. Many of those Western states were admitted with low populations to boost Republican representation in Congress (maybe not Idaho, but this was definitely the case with Nevada and North Dakota). A more plausible counterfactual is that Idaho doesn’t become a state, either it remains a federal territory, maybe gains Commonwealth status, or is admitted as a state as part of a larger entity, maybe including eastern Oregon and eastern Washington.

These other microstates such as Luxemburg and Lesotho were formed before their much bigger neighbors, and for various reasons the neighbors decided not to absorb them.

A better counterfactual would be Utah as an independent country. The Mormons settled the area before it became US territory.

Posted by: Ed at Mar 30, 2009 10:27:24 AM

@ Thomas
re: Quebec
That’s why it’s interesting! That is has (almost) been done before. the results seem to be you loose enterprise but you gain rents.

Posted by: Farmer at Mar 30, 2009 10:32:44 AM

About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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