The Libertarian Principle of Secession
By Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
[Excerpted from the inaugural issue of The Austrian.]
For a century and a half, the idea of secession has been systematically demonized among the American public. The government’s schools spin fairy tales about the “indivisible Union” and the wise statesmen who fought to preserve it. Decentralization is portrayed as unsophisticated and backward, while nationalism and centralization are made to seem progressive and inevitable. When a smaller political unit wishes to withdraw from a larger one, its motives must be disreputable and base, while the motivations of the central power seeking to keep that unit in an arrangement it does not want are portrayed as selfless and patriotic, if they are considered at all.
As usual, disinformation campaigns are meant to make potentially liberating ideas appear toxic and dangerous, and conveying the message that anyone who seeks acceptance and popularity ought to steer clear of whatever it is — in this case, secession — the regime has condemned. But when we set the propaganda aside, we discover that support for secession means simply this: it is morally illegitimate to employ state violence against individuals who choose to group themselves differently from how the existing regime chooses to group them. They prefer to live under a different jurisdiction. Libertarians consider it unacceptable to aggress against them for this.
The libertarian principle of secession is not exactly embraced with enthusiasm by the people and institutions I call “regime libertarians.” Although these people tend to be located in and around the Beltway, regime libertarianism transcends geographical location, which is why I coined this special term to describe it.
The regime libertarian believes in the market economy, more or less. But talk about the Federal Reserve or Austrian business cycle theory and he gets fidgety. His institute would rather invite Janet Yellen for an exclusive cocktail event than Ron Paul for a lecture.
He loves the idea of reform — whether it’s the Fed, the tax code, government schools, whatever. He flees from the idea of abolition. Why, that just isn’t respectable! He spends his time advocating this or that “tax reform” effort, instead of simply pushing for a lowering or repeal of existing taxes. It’s too tough to be a libertarian when it comes to antidiscrimination law, given how much flak he’s liable to get, so he’ll side with left-liberals on that, even though it’s completely incompatible with his stated principles.
He is antiwar — sometimes, but certainly not as a general principle. He can be counted on to support the wars that have practically defined the American regime, and which remain popular among the general public. He sups in happy concord with supporters of the most egregiously unjust wars, but his blood boils in moral outrage at someone who told an off-color joke twenty-five years ago.
I suppose you can guess where our regime libertarian stands on secession. Since the modern American regime emerged out of the violent suppression of the attempted secession of eleven states, he, too, is an opponent of secession. If cornered, he may grudgingly endorse secession at a theoretical level, but in practice he generally seems to support only those acts of secession that have the approval or connivance of the CIA.
Mention secession, and the subject immediately turns to the southern Confederacy, whose moral enormities the regime libertarian proceeds to denounce, insinuating that supporters of secession must be turning a blind eye to those enormities. But every libertarian worthy of the name opposes any government’s support for slavery, centralization, conscription, taxation, or the suppression of speech and press. That goes without saying.
As Tom Woods has pointed out, the classical liberal, or libertarian, tradition of support for secession can boast such luminaries as Alexis de Tocqueville, Richard Cobden, and Lord Acton, among many others. I’d like to add two more figures: in the nineteenth century, Lysander Spooner, and in the twentieth, Frank Chodorov.
Spooner presents a real problem for the regime libertarians. Every libertarian acknowledges the greatness and importance of Spooner. The trouble is, he was an avowed secessionist.
Lysander Spooner was born in Massachusetts in January 1808, and would go on to become a lawyer, an entrepreneur, and a political theorist. He believed that true justice was not so much a matter of compliance with man-made law, but a refusal to engage in aggression against peaceful individuals. His American Letter Mail Company competed successfully against the US Post Office, offering better service at lower prices, until the government forced him out of business in 1851. His work No Treason (1867), a collection of three essays, took the position that the Constitution, not having been agreed to by any living person and only ever expressly consented to by a small handful, cannot be binding on anyone.
In a work called The Unconstitutionality of Slavery, Spooner had argued that the primary interpretive key in understanding the Constitution was what we now call “original meaning.” This is different from “original understanding,” the concept referred to by figures like Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia. According to that view, we should interpret the Constitution according to the original intent of those who drafted and ratified that document. Spooner rejected this.
What mattered, according to Spooner, was not the inscrutable “intention” behind this or that word or passage, but rather the plain meaning of the word or passage itself. Furthermore, given that human liberty was a mandate of the natural law, any time constitutional language might appear to run contrary to the principle of liberty, we ought to prefer some other meaning of the words in question, even if we have to strain a bit to do so, and even if the anti-liberty interpretation is the more natural reading.
Thus Spooner could claim, contrary to the majority of abolitionists, that the Constitution was in fact an antislavery document, and that its oblique and fleeting references to slavery — a word never used in the Constitution — did not have to carry the meanings commonly attributed to them. Frederick Douglass, the celebrated former slave turned abolitionist writer and speaker, adopted Spooner’s approach in his own work.
Spooner’s anti-slavery work went well beyond this exercise in constitutional exegesis. He provided legal services, sometimes pro bono, for fugitive slaves, and advocated jury nullification as a means of defending escaped slaves in court. His 1858 “Plan for the Abolition of Slavery,” called for northern-backed insurrection in the South, as well as such lesser measures as flogging slaveholders who themselves used the whip, and encouraging slaves to confiscate their masters’ property.
Spooner was also a supporter of John Brown, and in fact raised money and formulated a plan to kidnap the governor of Virginia until Brown was released.
In other words, it would be difficult to deny Spooner’s dedication to the anti-slavery cause.
And yet here is Spooner on the so-called Civil War.
On the part of the North, the war was carried on, not to liberate slaves, but by a government that had always perverted and violated the Constitution, to keep the slaves in bondage; and was still willing to do so, if the slaveholders could be thereby induced to stay in the Union.
According to Spooner, the US regime waged the war on behalf of the opposite principle. “The principle, on which the war was waged by the North, was simply this: That men may rightfully be compelled to submit to, and support, a government that they do not want; and that resistance, on their part, makes them traitors and criminals.”
No principle, that is possible to be named, can be more self-evidently false than this; or more self-evidently fatal to all political freedom. Yet it triumphed in the field, and is now assumed to be established. If it really be established, the number of slaves, instead of having been diminished by the war, has been greatly increased; for a man, thus subjected to a government that he does not want, is a slave. And there is no difference, in principle — but only in degree — between political and chattel slavery. The former, no less than the latter, denies a man’s ownership of himself and the products of his labor; and asserts that other men may own him, and dispose of him and his property, for their uses, and at their pleasure.
By the logic of the regime libertarian, Spooner was a “neo-Confederate” defender of slavery — after all, he asserted the southern states’ right to withdraw from the Union! What other motivation could he have? But this is too preposterous even for them.
Spooner was correct about all of this, needless to say. The war was in fact launched not to free the slaves, as any historian must concede, but for purposes of mysticism — why, the sacred “Union” must be preserved! — and on behalf of economic interests. The regime libertarian expects us to believe that the analysis we apply to all other wars, in which we look beneath the official rationales to the true motivations, does not apply to this single, glorious exception to the catalogue of crimes that constitute the story of mankind’s experiences with military aggression.
Let’s turn now to the second libertarian figure. Frank Chodorov, by all accounts, was one of the great writers of the Old Right. Liberty Fund published a collection of his writings called Fugitive Essays. Chodorov founded what was then called the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, and served as an editor of Human Events, where the early presence of Felix Morley ensured that noninterventionist voices, at least at the beginning, would get a hearing. Murray N. Rothbard considered Chodorov’s monthly publication analysis to be one of the greatest independent publications in American history.
Naturally, Chodorov supported both secession and “states’ rights.” In fact, he thought every schoolchild should “become familiar with the history and theory of what we call states’ rights, but which is really the doctrine of home rule.”
Ralph Raico, the great libertarian historian and Senior Fellow of the Mises Institute, has documented how the decentralized political order of Europe made possible the emergence of liberty. The lack of a single political authority uniting Europe, and to the contrary a vast multiplicity of small jurisdictions, placed a strict limit on the ambitions of any particular prince. The ability to move from one place to another meant that a prince would lose his tax base should his oppressions grow intolerable.
Chodorov made the same observation:
When the individual is free to move from one jurisdiction to another, a limit is put on the extent to which the government may use its monopoly power. Government is held in restraint by the fear of losing its taxpaying citizens, just as loss of customers tends to keep other monopolies from getting too arrogant.
No tyrant ever supports divided or decentralized power, which is why twentieth-century totalitarians were such opponents of federalism. The US regime, too, has devoted over two centuries to dismantling the barriers that the states once imposed to their untrammeled exercise of power. As Chodorov put it, “The unlikelihood of getting the states to vote themselves out of existence turned the centralizers to other means, such as bribing the state authorities with patronage, alienating the loyalty of the citizenry with federal subsidies, establishing within the states independent administrative bodies for the management of federal works programs.”
Here’s how Chodorov concluded:
There is no end of trouble the states can give the centralizers by merely refusing to cooperate. Such refusal would meet with popular acclaim if it were supplemented with a campaign of education on the meaning of states’ rights, in terms of human freedom. In fact, the educational part of such a secessionist movement should be given first importance. And those who are plumping for a “third party,” because both existing parties are centralist in character, would do well to nail to their masthead this banner: Secession of the 48 states from Washington.
Now that is a libertarian speaking.
Secession is not a popular idea among the political and media classes in America, to be sure, and regime libertarians may roll their eyes at it, but a recent poll found about a quarter of Americans sympathetic to the idea, despite the ceaseless barrage of nationalist propaganda emitted from all sides. A result like this confirms what we already suspected: that a substantial chunk of the public is willing to entertain unconventional thoughts. And that’s all to the good. Conventional American thoughts are war, centralization, redistribution, and inflation. The most unconventional thought in America today is liberty.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.