Secession Is Not a Principle of Liberty
Ron Paul has stirred a media buzz by praising Scotland’s secession effort—an effort the Scots themselves rejected. Dr. Paul’s views are shared by many libertarians and conservatives, as well as a few folks on the left. Americans tend to think of secession only in the context of our own Civil War, but most acts of breaking away from a larger political unit have nothing to do with chattel slavery. Unfortunately, they don’t necessarily have anything to do with individual liberty either.
“The growth of support for secession should cheer all supporters of freedom,” the former Texas congressman writes, “as devolving power to smaller units of government is one of the best ways to guarantee peace, property, liberty—and even cheap whiskey!” Alas, there’s reason to think otherwise, and not just because Diageo is a London-based multinational.
The specifically libertarian case for secessionism is manifold: in fact, it’s several cases for different things that may not add up to a coherent whole. First, there is the radical theory that secessionism in principle leads to free-market anarchism—that is, secessionist reduction of states to ever smaller units ends with reduction of the state to the individual. Second, there is the historical claim that smaller states tend to be freer and more prosperous. Third is the matter of self-determination, which is actually a democratic or nationalistic idea rather than a classically liberal one but historically has been admixed with liberalisms of various kinds. What it means is that “a people” has “a right” to exit a state along with its territory and create a new state.
A fourth consideration is that suppressing secession may require coercion. And finally there is the pragmatic idea that secession is the best way to dismantle the U.S. federal government, the summum malum for some libertarians. (As an addendum, one can mention the claim that the U.S. Constitution in particular tacitly approves secessionism, but that’s a separate argument from cheering for secession more generally.)
It should be obvious that the first and third claims negate one another, and in practice the third overrules the first: real-world secession never leads to individualist anarchism but only to the creation of two or more states where formerly there was one. The abstract claim that every minority within the newly formed states should then be allowed to secede doesn’t translate into anyone’s policy: instead, formerly united states that are now distinct security competitors tend to consider the residual minorities who belong to the other bloc to be internal security threats. These populations left behind by secessionism may or may not be disloyal, but they are readily used as pretexts for aggressive state actions: either for the stronger state to dismember or intimidate the weaker one in the name of protecting minorities or for either state to persecute minorities and build an internal security apparatus to suppress the (possibly imaginary) enemy within. Needless to say, none of this is particularly good for liberty.
The coercion point doesn’t stand without support from nationalistic or democratic claims. After all, “coercion” is a function of legitimacy—no libertarian thinks that using force on one’s own property against trespassers constitutes coercion. Yet radical individualists have no adequate theory of national self-determination. What gives the people in seceding territory X the right to shoot at people from integrated territory X+Y? “Coercion” is a question-begging argument: it says, on some unstated non-individualistic principle, that the South has the right to shoot at the Union but not vice versa.
Only the second argument for secession is not easily dismissed. It can be divided into two kinds of assertion: 1.) an abstract claim that smaller states are always better (freer, more prosperous, etc.) than larger states, and 2.) concrete historical claims that many in fact have been better.
I’ll offer a few summary remarks on this point. First, smaller states can indeed be freer and more prosperous, although there’s a hitch: circumstances in which this is true tend to be those in which small states are free riders on international security provided by large states. Hong Kong, Singapore, Monaco, San Marino, Belgium, and Switzerland are all cases in point. None of these micro-states are capable of defending themselves against large aggressors. Their security depends on great powers keeping the peace on a continental or oceanic scale. Hong Kong had first British, now Chinese protection–hardly an unmixed blessing, to be sure. Singapore had first British, now U.S. protection. Small states such as Monaco, San Marino, Belgium, and Switzerland have derived their security from a balance of power in Europe underwritten by Britain or the United States. None of them alone, or even in concert with one another, could prevail against a Revolutionary France or Nazi Germany (or indeed non-Nazi Germany).
A few radical libertarians seem to think that foreign conquest shouldn’t matter because it just trades one master, one state, for another. But of course, if that’s true, there’s no argument for secession since in practice it too merely trades one state for another. The question that has to be asked is a prudential one: is a particular state more or less free than the alternatives? There’s no abstract, dogmatic answer where secession is concerned.
To note that secession is not a “good idea” in principle is not to say there aren’t good examples of secessions in practice. Czechoslovakia peacefully separated. The decomposition of the Soviet Union was a positive development of world-historic proportions—though surprisingly large numbers of former Soviet citizens themselves disagree: Gallup found last December that “residents in seven out of 11 countries that were part of the union are more likely to believe its collapse harmed their countries than benefited them.”
The leaden lining to the silver cloud of Soviet secession comes in part from the security competition it has entailed: Russia and neighboring Soviet successor states have had difficult dealings with one another—including wars—and ethnic tensions are sometimes grave. Despite all that, the world is well rid of the Soviet Union. But even this sterling example of secession is not without its tarnish.
Closer to home, the case that most Americans think of when they hear the word “secession” runs entirely in the other direction from Soviet disintegration. Successful Southern secession would have entailed results even more illiberal than the outbreak of the Civil War, which is saying a lot. The Southern Confederacy would have maintained slavery and looked to extend it to new territory, including perhaps Western territory claimed by the United States. Instead of fighting a war with the powerful North, however, the Confederacy might have sought expansion to the south through Cuba and Latin America, as indeed some Confederates dreamed of doing. In the North, meanwhile, you would have had industrial “Hamiltonian” policies and a domestic political climate over time much closer to a European level of statism than has ever been possible with the South as part of the Union. A social-democratic North and a slave South, each ready for war with the other, and at least one looking to expand. What’s libertarian about this?
The case can be made that the threat of secession at least imposes a check on central government expansion—a Washington with the secessionist sword of Damocles hanging over its head would have to respect to states’ rights. But this neglects reasons why the Union was created in the first place: notably, in the competitive world of empires and nation-states, bigger is more secure—not always, but often enough. Keeping the British Empire at bay—fortified as it was in Canada and for many years on the Mississippi and even in U.S. territory—was best achieved with a federation more tightly knit than that provided for by the Articles of Confederation.
But hadn’t America beaten the British once before under the Articles? Yes—with the help of another predatory superpower, France. A country that has the choice of providing its own security or living at the pleasure of others tends to go for growth, unless, like Japan and Germany in the last century, it gets beaten down. And to say that a territory is too large for self-government begs an important question—how can there be self-government at all if a state is not large enough to be secure?
American independence from Great Britain was in the first place driven by concerns for civil and ecclesiastical self-government: the colonists gambled their security and won. The continental United States proved to be a defensible territory without need of larger imperial union with Britain or permanent alliance with France. America’s neighbors north and south were weak and underpopulated. (Mexico’s population boomed only in the 20th century.) Further wars with the British Empire after 1815 were precluded by a balance of power: the growing military, demographic, and economic power differential between Canada and the booming U.S. meant that Canada, far from being a British imperial threat to the U.S., became a hostage held by the U.S. to insist upon British good behavior. The British could not defend Canada; America did not want war with the Royal Navy. That was the balance. A weaker or fragmented U.S. would have been in less of a position to keep it.
Elsewhere in the world, union and secession are questions of ethnonationalism, but for the English-speaking peoples security has always been the crux. It accounts in large part for why Scotland and England united to begin with. Scotland for most of its history was too weak and poor to resist English power. An independent Scotland was a Scotland subject to English predation. But England’s own security was jeopardized by its weak neighbor, which was at times a near-failed state—quite capable of launching raids across the border, if not much more—and at others, even when it posed no direct military nuisance, was a strategic threat as a potential base for French influence.
Great Britain as an island is readily defensible. So the English solved a security problem, and the Scottish conceded the unchangeable reality that their neighbor to the south was more powerful and prosperous. Scotland could start wars with England; it could not win them. Better for both, then, to have no more. Prosperity may be unequally divided, but Scots would be no worse off as a minority within a union dominated by England than they were as a weaker people outside its borders and legal order. British security was perfected by the Act of Union, and it led to a century of British global preeminence—quite an attainment for a country much smaller than France or Spain.
Today, of course, Britain’s security is guaranteed not by British arms, which proved inadequate by themselves in two World Wars, but by an American alliance. Scotland could indeed act like Switzerland or San Marino in this secure, American-backed European order. But such an “independent” Scotland today would only be choosing a hoped-for union with Europe over union with the rest of the UK. Would America’s enthusiasts for Scottish secession want their own state to secede from the U.S. merely to join Mexico or Canada? Size still matters, and Scotland depends for its security and prosperity on someone else—the U.S. and UK or the U.S. and Europe—in any scenario.
Self-government is only possible within the context of security, and individual liberty arises from the rule of law that self-government makes possible. None of these things is synonymous with the others, but all are intimately related. Union and secession have to be considered, even at the theoretical level, in this setting.
The world is relatively peaceful today not because peace among states is natural but because the power differential between the top and almost everyone else is so great as to dissuade competition. Indeed, the world order is so top-heavy that the U.S. can engage in wars of choice, which have proved disastrous for almost everyone. A world consisting of more states more evenly matched, however, would almost certainly not be more peaceful. Libertarians and antistatist conservatives, of all people, should appreciate that all states are aggressive and seek to expand, if they can—the more of them, the more they fight, until big ones crush the smaller.
For America, as historically for Britain, secession and union are questions of security and power, which undergird prosperity, self-government, and individual freedom. For much of the rest of the world, poisoned by ethnic and sectarian hatreds, secession means nationalism and civil strife. In both cases, breaking up existing states to create new ones is a revolutionary and dangerous act, one more apt to imperil liberty than advance it.
Ron Paul and others who make the case for secession do us all a service, however: these are serious matters that deserve to be taken seriously, not taken for granted. Secession is a thing to be discussed—and finally, as in Scotland, rejected.