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Squiggly border theory

Squiggly border theory

Some nations are just doomed from the start, often because their borders are not squiggly enough. That’s the conclusion of a recent NBER study by Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Janina Matuszeski and NYU’s Bill Easterly. 

The researchers developed an equation for measuring the “squiggliness” of national  borders using grids, coming up with (ln (box count) = a + b * ln (box size)), which they argue roughly corellates with how “artificial” or “natural” a state is – that is, how well a country’s borders reflect existing regional, ethnic, historical, geographical, and linguistic fault lines. They also developed another measure to determine to what extent borders “partition” ethnic groups.

The researchers then set out to find whether artificial states with straight, partitioning borders do any worse than natural states with squiggly borders. The findings? The names of the “most artificial” states according to both the “squiggly” and “partition” measures – Chad, Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Guatemala, Jordan, Mali, Morocco, Namibia, Niger, Pakistan, Sudan, and Zimbabwe – should give you a clue (hint: a lot of them show up on FP‘s Failed State Index). Yup, less squiggly countries turned out to do worse all around: they are poorer, more prone to unrest, governed poorly, and have higher infant mortality rates. 

Amity Shlaes at summarizes the “squiggly” index well

The least squiggly nation in the world is Papua New Guinea, the site of chronic and violent feuds. Saudi Arabia is right down there with a squiggliness rank of 143. Somalia and Libya are 142 and 141. Iraq is 110. Iran is 86. Afghanistan is fairly squiggly, ranking 62nd.

Squiggliness isn’t a perfect measure of state success, however. Lebanon is the 11th squiggliest state in the world, and it currently lies in post-war ruin. And even though this paper surprisingly couldn’t find a link between war and squiggliness, that’s the aim for future research: 

The lesson of history is respect nationality,” Easterly says. “For Iraq, at the very least you want to emphasize the federalism established there and strengthen it.” He and his partners are looking at this in a new study, on wars and squiggliness.