Adam Smith, one of the leading figures of the 18th century Scottish intellectual enlightenment, liked free markets and restrained governments. The 21st century campaigns for and against a Scottish political liberation show that governments have acquired an economic importance which Smith could hardly have imagined.
If the government’s economic role was as limited as Smith would have liked, the debate preceding the Sept. 18 independence referendum would mostly have been about national identity and the advantages and difficulties of becoming a small country in a big world. The economy would hardly be an issue, since only the most rabid Scottish nationalist would accuse the English of cruelty in that domain.
In fact, though, the purely political issues seem less important than the question of what might be called political economy: would a Scottish government with full regulatory, fiscal and monetary control make the nation richer? The answers differ, of course, but there is a shared assumption that the government is right at the centre of the economy.
In a way, that is quite right. The remit of modern governments runs through the entire economy. They regulate, adjudicate and motivate. They are the largest employers and purchasers in any country. They run complicated welfare states. They build infrastructure, protect private property and make key investments. Their deficits help keep the economy on an even keel.
For Scotland, however, most of that hardly matters. This referendum is politically momentous, but economically nothing like the 1990 East German parliamentary election, in which voters chose to abandon the communist model for the West German social market. The Scottish nationalists are not planning any radical alterations to a British system which works pretty well.