Self-Determination and Secession
By Ryan McMaken
The secessionist impulse doesn’t seem to be going away in Europe. This month, the Wall Street Journal reported that the latest drive for secession comes from Sardinia. The leaders of the movement propose that the island, only part of Italy since the 1860s, be joined to Switzerland instead.
The Sardinians have a tough row to hoe in convincing the Swiss to accept them as the newest Swiss canton (Sardinians do have a coastline to offer, however), but the whole episode illustrates yet again that the national borders drawn on the map over the past two centuries are beginning to outlive their usefulness.
What Is Self-Determination?
As with the Venetians, the Scots, and the Catalonians, the matter of Sardinian secession and/or annexation involves any number of referenda and discussions about “self-determination.” And in this case, as with most similar cases, one is left with the problem of determining how one can morally go about switching state affiliations without precipitating war or accusations of human rights abuses. The Europeans don’t phrase it this way, but when they discuss the need for plebiscites and “democracy,” this is what they mean.
Certainly, this problem was not at all alien to the laissez-faire liberals of the nineteenth century, including Ludwig von Mises, who wrote: “No people and no part of a people shall be held against its will in a political association that it does not want.” Mises then went on to defend “the right of the inhabitants of every territory to decide on the state to which they wish to belong.”
Murray Rothbard explained Mises’s position further:
The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.
On a purely technical level, it’s easy to imagine this sort of territorial plebiscitary process. The problem one is left with in these cases, however, is what to do with minorities that oppose the secession or annexation by other states. This is the claim made by nationalists who oppose secession by Catalonia, for example. The nationalists assert that even if a majority were to prefer independence, minorities within Catalonia itself would be disenfranchised by secession.
The nationalists’ solution in this scenario, therefore, is to disenfranchise the majority. But this “solution” is nothing more than an appeal to the central government to unilaterally “settle” the problem with force. In contrast, the proper solution lies not in centralization but in further breaking down the size of each territory into smaller pieces to account for demographic realities and minority populations (which are rarely evenly dispersed) within the regions themselves.
Doesn’t This Lead To Anarchism?
But if any community, no matter how small, can simply break off and join another state or remain independent, what’s to stop single households from doing this?
Rothbard asked this same question, and it brings us back to Mises’s comments on self-determination. Mises writes:
If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done. This is impracticable only because of compelling technical considerations which make it necessary that the right of self-determination be restricted to the will of the majority of the inhabitants of areas large enough to count as territorial units in the administration of the country.
In other words, anarchism is theoretically justifiable, although technically problematic. Mises no doubt has a point here since there are economies of scale in both military and civil defense. It is debatable whether or not the technical consideration — from the state’s perspective — cannot be overcome with technological innovation, however. Bureaucratic administration (whether governmental or private) may have required a certain minimum size of departments and territorial units in Mises’s day, but it’s unclear that such problems are insurmountable today given the decentralization and networking capabilities of modern administrative and communications technology.
Nevertheless, from a sociological and economic standpoint, Mises’s concern about there being a practical “floor” to the extent to which states can be broken up appears to be useful. After all, there is no denying that people like to join together in groups for a variety of purposes not limited to military and economic ends. The mega-states of the modern world are held together by coercion, but cities, towns, and communities are naturally occurring phenomena that pre-date states.
Moreover, just as I give up the freedom to talk loudly or adjust the volume when I watch a movie at a theater instead of my home, virtually everyone — even in a system of theoretically limitless secession — would give up at least some of his own personal prerogatives in the name of joining a municipality, league, or association that could provide legal and defense services. At the same time, individuals would be careful to keep the majority of power at the local level, since individuals can still exercise influence over localized governments. (This is not the case in a huge state like the United States where an individual who is not a billionaire has nearly zero influence over anything the national government does.)
But this raises a new question. If people “choose” to give up certain prerogatives to join with others in cities and towns, isn’t this true of all states? Haven’t people “voluntarily” chosen to be part of Russia, or part of the United States? The answer here is “no” because without a meaningful ability to make choices — or provide a new choice via secession — no truly voluntary choice has been made.
A Sliding Scale From One-World Government To Statelessness
As I’ve noted here, states erect legal and practical barriers to extend their monopoly powers over a large area, and over many facets of life in order to diminish choices and options. Likewise, states generally prohibit the creation of new states, so as to further strengthen their monopolies.
So, the extent to which one is voluntarily subject to a civil government moves along a sliding scale. At one end of the scale is a one-world mega-state where no choice is possible at all. At the other end of the scale is a totally stateless society. Most — if not all — of human history has been characterized by civil governments that fall somewhere in between. Some civil governments are very large and very coercive. That is, they are quintessential states. Some governments are very small and very decentralized and are much less state-like. These later governments must compete with numerous nearby options for citizens and capital.
Naturally, a world with fewer states and very centralized states offers few options, which in turn means fewer choices for persons, cities, towns, and communities.
In spite of this, we still sometimes encounter the bizarre argument that secession is bad because secession “creates a new state.” But, just as consumers of pizza benefit when a new Pizza Hut opens down the street to compete with Domino’s Pizza, consumers of defense services and legal systems benefit when a new competitor becomes available in their neighborhood of states. If Domino’s Pizza managed to use force to prevent any other Pizza chain from opening up in town, that would clearly be a bad thing. Likewise, when a state uses force to prevent the creation of a new state, or prevent the movement of a region from one state to another, we can see this is undesirable because it limits choice, freedom, innovation, and all the good things we associate with a lack of monopoly power.
So Can Sardinia Morally Secede?
In the unlikely event that Switzerland declared it would love to welcome Sardinia into the confederation, Italian unionists would still oppose secession on legal and sentimental grounds. They would also claim that Sardinia cannot secede because some Sardinians wish to remain part of Italy. If a majority of Sardinians actually wished to secede, though, then Italian unionists are making the arbitrary claim that most Sardinians should be forced to remain in Italy because some Sardinians say so. And of course, the power of the Italian state would be hung as a constant threat over the heads of secessionists as well.
The answer to this conundrum is not to simply accept the might-makes-right argument, of course. The answer is to therefore break Sardinia itself into smaller pieces. If the people of North Sardinia want to secede, and the people of South Sardinia, do not, then our problem has been solved. Even after this division is made, there are sure to still be disagreeable minorities, but with each reduction in the size of the territory in question, the amount of choice for those in the unfortunate minority increases. A move to South Sardinia from North Sardinia (to escape the secessionists) is far less disruptive to one’s life than a move from Sardinia to the Italian mainland for the same purposes.
There is no perfect and clean method of breaking down nation-states, but as the Americans, the Irish, the Chechens, and many others could tell us, state intervention to prevent secession is often the bloodiest and messiest option of all.