July 7, 2017


Want to Secede? First, Take This Test : How libertarians can separate some independence movements from others. (Tyler Cowen, 7/07/17, Bloomberg View)

One approach to secession is the libertarian notion of self-governance. In this view, secession is a check against potential tyranny. If the rule of a centralized authority becomes too oppressive, part of the larger unit can break away and move toward freer and more democratic policies. 

A good example of a relatively libertarian secession was when Estonia left the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. Today, governance in Estonia is much better than in Russia, and the separation, while perhaps still precarious, has been fully peaceful.

When an empire is crumbling, and the rulers are very bad, the libertarian approach to secession makes good sense. That said, it's not a fully general principle. 

Sometimes a region wants to leave a country because of differences of ethnicity, religion, language or background culture, as is the case with the Scottish independence movement and the Catalonian secessionists. In those instances, it's not obvious whether a unified or a newly independent government would result in greater liberty and prosperity. And for all the strong feelings you will find, I am not sure there is an objectively correct moral answer as to whether there should be one nation or two. [...]

Another problem with the libertarian approach to secession is that it doesn't offer a limiting principle. Say the city of Portland, Oregon, by a margin of 70 percent wanted to leave the Trump-led United States. Few people would regard this as a good reason to allow the separation, and it could lead to the messy fracturing of many larger political units. A successful Southern secession during the 1860s would have meant a continuation of slavery in that new country.

The conservative (small c) approach to secession tends to oppose the idea, unless there is a clear and overwhelming benefit from a political split, or unless both parties are in calm agreement, as with the separation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. That would mean thumbs down for the secessionist movements in Scotland and Catalonia. [...]

What then was the case for American secession, putting aside the biases of American patriotism? Had America stayed part of the British Empire, taxes would have been fairly low, and perhaps slavery would have been abolished more quickly. Still, it doesn't seem that British rule could have been stable for much longer from such a distance. The question is then whether 1776 was a relatively propitious time for a separation, and given the quality of American political thought and leadership at the time, one can rationally believe the answer is yes.

The discussion of the libertarian case there presents a false dichotomy.  It is precisely because "part of the larger unit" identifies itself as distinctive in cultural (religious, linguistic, ethnic) terms that it may find central governance tyrannical even when it is actually quite liberal.  It is also a not infrequent occurrence that a distinctive geographical or cultural part will come to think of itself as a nation because its interests are not treated fairly by the central government.

Look again to the American Revolution.  It obviously would have been better for the species had America stayed a part of Britain.  Besides ending slavery, with the consequent avoidance of the Civil War, a unified Anglosphere would have acted as a stronger brake on the globalist ambitions of Napoleon, the continental Empires, Hitler, Stalin, etc. than a fairly isolated England ever could.  

And colonists did not initially seek independence, only our rights as Englishmen--chiefly representation.  Only the opposition of King and Parliament to extending these natural rights was able to create a sense of nationhood. And once England had dug in its heels, there was only one moral answer :

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. -- That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, -- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

We see something similar in the old Palestinian Mandate, where folk often argue that the Palestinians had never previously considered themselves a nation.  And? Now, largely because they are denied self-representation, they do. That cat too is out of the bag.

Meanwhile, in places Estonia, Scotland and Catalonia you have the added factor of historic nationhood and only reluctant (forcibly imposed) central unity.  Each people believe themselves a nation, so they are.

Posted by at July 7, 2017 7:25 AM