President Obama’s reelection has people talking about secession again. Unfortunately, because of the historical accident that the last American secessionists were slaveholding southerners, most people today think that secession is somehow reactionary, racist, or right-wing. The fact that Obama’s reelection served as the catalyst for these new secessionist petitions certainly doesn’t dispel that notion.
Nevertheless, the popular notion is totally wrong. Rather than being a reactionary doctrine, secession is a principle rooted in the best of the classical-liberal, Enlightenment tradition. To believe in secession is to believe in liberty, peace, free trade, and self-determination——values that liberals once held, before they fell under the spell of omnipotent government. By contrast, to believe that whatever national borders happen to exist today are somehow immutable and therefore require eternal adherence is the truly reactionary and obscurantist doctrine, more reminiscent of the divine right of kings than of anything that can fairly be called “liberal.”
The foundational principle of secessionism is the same principle embodied in the Declaration of Independence: “That to secure [people’s] 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.”
The secessionist principle is based entirely on individual self-determination. That is, it doesn’t matter whether people have objectively good reasons for seceding, as judged by some outside observer. All that matters is that they wish to do so. As long as the secessionists believe that a new arrangement will suit their individual ends better than the current one, then we should wish them well and let them leave. It was in this spirit that former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan—hardly a right-wing white supremacist—described the Sudanese 2011 secession referendum as “democracy at its most basic, where people are choosing their future, and how and by whom they want to be governed.”
Nor must secession lead to war or economic isolation. When the left-wing MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell advocated secession, in response to President Bush’s reelection, he correctly noted that, “You can secede without firing a shot.” For while it is historically true that most secessions have been violent, that is not an argument against the principle itself. Rather, it is an argument against those who want to hang onto their own power by nullifying their citizens’ freedom of exit. In order to avoid violence, all we have to do is to convince its initiators to not initiate it.
Indeed, as far as peace and trade are concerned, a world of small, secessionist states is much better than a world of large, centralized ones. Small states cannot afford to close their borders to foreign goods, but need to cooperate with foreigners to survive economically. Such international interdependence will also make them much less likely to solve disputes violently through war. Of course, large states also suffer if they adopt protectionist or war-like policies. But they have enough resources within their borders that they can chug along with a much lesser degree of foreign cooperation than can small ones. As an illustrative example, compare the United States or the Soviet Union’s treatment of foreign countries to that of, say, Belize or Liechtenstein.
Finally, secession promotes freedom within a given state’s territory. Because the smaller each state is, the easier it will be for citizens to “vote with their feet” and move somewhere else, small states have an increased incentive to keep their citizens happy and free. When states are smaller they also have less tax money at their disposal to fund gratuitously oppressive programs like the TSA or to imprison one in fifty of their own citizens, as the United States currently does.
It is therefore no surprise that many of the greatest liberal Enlightenment figures also supported secession. Lord Acton, who coined every Bush-era leftist’s favorite phrase (“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”), wrote to Robert E. Lee to say, “I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. . . . I believed that the example [of the Confederate Constitution] would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.” Likewise, Alexis de Tocqueville believed that the American Union was the result of a voluntary compact that could be dissolved at any time, while John Stuart Mill wrote critically of Southern secession in the specific context of the Civil War, but never denied the right to secede when it is exercised in service of admirable ends.
In response to such intellectual giants, the wise sages at . . . umm . . . Think Progress and the Daily Kos insist that there can be no right to secede. They tend to claim that the Civil War or the ratification of the American constitution emphatically ended that right, whatever it might once have been, and that to continue to advocate for it is unpatriotic.
That is certainly an internally consistent argument. I have no doubt that King Louis XIV would have found it quite compelling. But it is not a liberal argument. The classical liberal theory of government holds that all governments, if they can be justified at all, can only be justified to the extent that they serve their citizens’ ends. Therefore, if people conclude that their government lacks instrumental value, then they have the right to try something else. If they do not have that right, and if governments can create laws abolishing the freedom to leave, then government is no longer an instrument of its people. Rather, it is some kind of end-in-itself, that demands total obedience whether it aligns with all of its citizens’ preferences or not.
Let the Obama supporters argue that government is an end-in-itself that demands total obedience. (The Democratic National Convention came close.) But they have no basis for claiming that secession is somehow “reactionary” and that their nationalism is democratic and “progressive.”
Secession is a principle for those of us who really value peace, freedom, and international cooperation through free trade, and who believe that the sole justification for politics is individual welfare. The anti-secessionists, meanwhile, should stick to arguing as their eighteenth-century forebears did: for the sanctity of throne-and-altar and for the divine right to rule.