Secession: Coming Soon to a State Near You?

Those of us who believe there should be no state, or at most a very restricted one, must view all current states with dissatisfaction, despite the fact that some are better than others.

Does the amount of territory a state governs have any bearing on evaluating its quality? You may initially believe that it does not. Isn't the nature and degree of a state's influence over its citizens the only valid criterion for evaluating it? The United States in the nineteenth century was far superior to Cambodia under Pol Pot, although being considerably smaller. In his outstanding new book, the great historian Ryan McMaken argues that a state's size does matter, and he makes a compelling argument for secession from existing states and decentralization within them.

He claims that it is much more difficult to establish totalitarian rule in a small state than in a large one, as it is simpler for people to flee.

Because of their physical size, large states are able to exercise more state-like power than geographically smaller states—and thus exercise a greater deal of control over residents. This is in part because larger states benefit from higher barriers to emigration than smaller states. Large states can therefore better avoid one of the most significant barriers to expanding state power: the ability of residents to move away. (p. 27, emphasis in original)

"In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt investigates a variety of nontotalitarian dictatorships that arose in Europe before to World War II.... In several of these instances, Arendt argues that the regimes strove to become totalitarian but failed. This was primarily owing to their small size" (p. 49, emphasis in original).

On the other hand, doesn't a high number of minor states increase the likelihood of trade barriers? McMaken disagrees, and in response to this claim he employs an analogous argument to the one regarding totalitarianism. Because small states have limited influence over the global economy, it is difficult for them to isolate themselves from international trade. In addition, a small nation with little economic linkages to other states may soon find itself in a precarious geopolitical situation (p. 91). In this context, it is interesting to note that the oft-repeated assertion of American centralizers that a strong central government was required to deal with trade obstacles under the Articles of Confederation is without merit, as Merrill Jensen and Murray Rothbard have demonstrated.

McMaken is aware of the counterargument that, regardless of how desirable small nations may be, they cannot defend themselves against larger governments that desire to conquer them. He argues that small states can join together to fight an invasion, and that conquering a recalcitrant population is not a simple task, as Russia discovered in Afghanistan and Finland. Moreover, "international relations pundits and academics have relied for too long on basic aggregate measurements that imply much higher levels of relative military power than are likely in countries like Russia or China... it is not true that huge, populous governments hold all the cards." Economic growth, which tends to be more advanced in smaller and more decentralized states, is likely a more important component." (p.122)

But wouldn't a high number of minor states increase the likelihood of nuclear proliferation? McMaken argues that this could reduce the frequency of wars. In this context, he quotes a well-known argument by political scientist Kenneth Waltz. Kenneth Waltz was the first influential theorist to express doubts about the established non-proliferation narrative. According to George Perkovich, Waltz "has been the most illustrious proponent" of the view that "the major benefit of nuclear proliferation could be to create deterrence relationships that reduce or eliminate the risk of war between a certain set of adversaries." (pp. 124–25).

The author states that "this work is not essentially theoretical" (p. 12), but it does contain a substantial "philosophical component." Large states frequently have dissatisfied minority groups that are mistreated by the dominating majority. Minority votes are typically drowned out by the majority vote, so democratic voting is not a viable cure for this sorry state of affairs.

In any case, democracy offers no solution in addressing profound cultural differences among the residents of a single political jurisdiction. When populations with sharply differing world views must exist under a single regime, voting resolves nothing, and one side will ultimately impose its preferred policies on the other side. Noncompliance will bring down the full weight of the law, the police, and all the coercive institutions the state frequently employs. (p. 133)

Under these conditions, secession is unquestionably warranted, and Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard fully acknowledged this. According to McMaken, Mises stated that "the right of self-determination... is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the population of every territory large enough to constitute an autonomous administrative unit." If it were possible to offer this freedom of self-determination to every single person, it must be done" (p. 66). Rothbard "went the extra mile" and advocated individual secession. "Rothbard advocated secession for two primary motives. First, he viewed it as a good strategy for achieving his ideal of individual liberty. Even when this ideal is not realized, decentralization is advantageous since smaller states are less able to exercise monopoly power than large states (p. 66, emphasis in original).

I have only been able to discuss a handful of the several topics covered by McMaken. Breaking Away is an invaluable resource for comprehending the political realities of the present day as well as an insightful guide to the past.

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