Catalonia’s Dangerous Illusions

By B. Arruñada and V. Lapuente Giné (Project Syndicate, September 23, 2015).

BARCELONA – Catalonia’s upcoming parliamentary election could turn Spain’s wealthy northeastern region into the European Union’s first secessionist state. But, as the possibility that separatists will win a majority of seats becomes more likely, opponents of secession are becoming more vocal. Ordinary Catalans have begun to realize that it is they who would foot the bill for independence, while any benefits would accrue to an increasingly powerful intellectual elite.

Catalonia’s radicalization seems puzzling. In 1978, an overwhelming 90.5% of Catalans (three points higher than the national average) voted in favor of the Spanish constitution, which grants individual regions self-rule over major areas such as police, education, health, and broadcasting. Over the last 37 years, Catalonia has enjoyed unprecedented economic prosperity. Why are the Catalans now willing to break with Spain and risk it all?

Most analysts believe that separatism stems from economic factors. Wealthy Catalans, who are reluctant to subsidize poorer Spanish regions, have allied themselves with left-wing radicals espousing the nationalistic populism that economic crisis and malaise have fueled on the EU’s periphery.

Catalonia’s separatists claim that a small, open state within the EU and NATO is not only viable, but also optimal in terms of economic performance and social cohesion. But transition costs would be immense, and there are serious doubts about whether such a country could remain in the EU, or even re-enter it in the short term, if it had just seceded unilaterally from another EU member state.

Moreover, Catalonia’s experience with home rule suggests that its chances of becoming a top-performing country are slim. Indeed, the quality of governance in Catalonia – where countless corruption scandals pervade cornerstone institutions – is more in line with that of Portugal. How can one expect that Catalan leaders, having missed the opportunity to build a better administration in every policy area that they controlled, would be more successful at running an independent state?

Clearly, there is more to the story of Catalan separatism. Beneath ostensibly pragmatic motivations lies dubious rent-seeking by the group Samuel Coleridge referred to as the “clerisy” – those who live from creating, preserving, and disseminating the national culture. Indeed, it is this group, not the bourgeoisie or the radical proletariat, that has been behind past efforts to win Catalan independence.

To be sure, every modern society needs a thoughtful clerisy. But this group invariably has its own interests. As the economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey has noted, while the bourgeoisie provides the clerisy with a living, in times of crisis, the clerisy tends to promote anti-bourgeois fantasies, from nationalism to communism.

Home rule has been highly profitable for the Catalan clerisy, as it has subsidized the diffusion of all sorts of beliefs, such as that Catalonia enjoyed a glorious past before being “conquered” by Spain. At the same time, this has nurtured the vision of an independent future for Catalonia as the “Denmark of the Mediterranean.”

Decades of control over education and culture budgets have produced a formidable clerisy, including legions of political apparatchiks, civil servants, writers, academics, teachers, NGO workers, journalists, and TV producers, among many others. These people viewed the austerity and liberalization policies enacted in recent years by Spain (but often mandated by the EU) as a direct threat to their livelihoods.

Whatever the outcome of the current upheaval, the clerisy will not lose. In an independent Catalonia, they would be rewarded with high-level positions. If the process is derailed, most will retain their secure public-sector jobs. And if a compromise is reached – a so-called “third way” solution involving increased autonomy within Spain – the subsidies for media and cultural outlets on which they depend will be freed from the threat of austerity. This will place them in a strong position to mount a new sovereignty challenge in a few years.

For the rest of Catalans, however, turbulent relations with the rest of Spain create considerable uncertainty. After all, many of their investments, income, or jobs depend on customers, suppliers, and employers located elsewhere in the country. In short, there are clear winners and losers in Catalonia’s push for independence.

This situation is not new for the region. The historian John Elliott describes the Catalan clerisy’s role in spurring the 1640 rebellion against Spain. Only when tensions reached fever pitch did the nobility and merchants realize that the cure would be worse than the disease. Likewise, twice in the first half of the twentieth century, in response to an increasingly radical Catalan clerisy, the region’s industrialists ended up supporting authoritarian solutions from the Spanish government.

Now, as then, the real conflict in Catalonia is between those who make their living selling goods and those who make their living selling illusions.