Want to Secede? First, Take This Test

How libertarians can separate some independence movements from others.

Dawn in Catalonia isn't so clear.

Credit: MafrMcfca/Getty Images

As the issue of Catalonian secession comes to the fore once again, and with America’s celebration of its independence immediately behind us, it is worth pondering when secession makes sense as a political principle. Many observers judge particular cases of potential secession in terms of their cultural loyalties: The typical American, for instance, favors the War of Independence, but would be upset if a current state wanted to leave the Union. 

So what more general principles might govern when secession is a good idea?

One approach to secession is the libertarian notion of self-governance. In this view, secession is a check against potential tyranny. If the rule of a centralized authority becomes too oppressive, part of the larger unit can break away and move toward freer and more democratic policies. 

A good example of a relatively libertarian secession was when Estonia left the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991. Today, governance in Estonia is much better than in Russia, and the separation, while perhaps still precarious, has been fully peaceful.

When an empire is crumbling, and the rulers are very bad, the libertarian approach to secession makes good sense. That said, it’s not a fully general principle. 

Sometimes a region wants to leave a country because of differences of ethnicity, religion, language or background culture, as is the case with the Scottish independence movement and the Catalonian secessionists. In those instances, it’s not obvious whether a unified or a newly independent government would result in greater liberty and prosperity. And for all the strong feelings you will find, I am not sure there is an objectively correct moral answer as to whether there should be one nation or two.

We do know, however, that political tensions rise and emotions tend to flare as such secessions approach the realm of possibility. For instance, there is a chance the government of Spain would react aggressively to what it perceives as an unconstitutional Catalonian secessionist attempt. Madrid might institute legal sanctions against Catalonian leaders or, in an extreme case, send in troops. The final result could be no independence and less liberty in all parts of Spain. 

The problem is that people are often overly passionate about political boundaries, and an extra dose of irrationality isn’t exactly what the world needs right now. To cite another example of this problem, the Brexit referendum seems to have lowered the quality of debate and governance within the U.K.

Another problem with the libertarian approach to secession is that it doesn’t offer a limiting principle. Say the city of Portland, Oregon, by a margin of 70 percent wanted to leave the Trump-led United States. Few people would regard this as a good reason to allow the separation, and it could lead to the messy fracturing of many larger political units. A successful Southern secession during the 1860s would have meant a continuation of slavery in that new country.

The conservative (small c) approach to secession tends to oppose the idea, unless there is a clear and overwhelming benefit from a political split, or unless both parties are in calm agreement, as with the separation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. That would mean thumbs down for the secessionist movements in Scotland and Catalonia. 

For all the pleas about identity, arguably Scot and Catalonian cultures are defined as much by their centuries-long unions with England and Spain as they would be by wrenching separations from the larger political units (since 1707 for Scotland and arguably 1474 or 1714 for Catalonia, depending on how one interprets history). In contrast to those cases, there is a chance Belgium someday goes the route of a mostly consensual separation.

What then was the case for American secession, putting aside the biases of American patriotism? Had America stayed part of the British Empire, taxes would have been fairly low, and perhaps slavery would have been abolished more quickly. Still, it doesn’t seem that British rule could have been stable for much longer from such a distance. The question is then whether 1776 was a relatively propitious time for a separation, and given the quality of American political thought and leadership at the time, one can rationally believe the answer is yes.

If we apply such an argument to today, it does not seem that the current British and Spanish arrangements are hopelessly imbalanced or doomed to disappear, and, as mentioned, those unions have existed for centuries.

Another argument for secession is what economists call “option value.” The real choice isn’t secede vs. don’t secede, but rather secede vs. wait and see if things get better. When you add in the value of the wait-and-see option, the correct choice is usually not to secede, unless one is living under unacceptable tyranny.

In sum, there is wisdom in both the libertarian and conservative approaches to secession, and prudence consists of knowing when to apply each one. And when it comes to Catalonia and Scotland, there is no obvious green light flashing, “Yes, let’s do it.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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