Current Events

Secession: A Brief Comment

Yeah, not so much.

The majority of Scots voted against secession. Was that good or bad? I dunno. But I want to discuss, briefly, whether we should see this as a gain or loss of freedom in any meaningful sense.

Some libertarians–by which I mean a bunch of Facebook friends, at least–seem reflexively to view secession movements in terms of freedom. The Scots seceding from the UK would mean they are in charge of their own destiny, rather than being outvoted by the damn English.

But let’s not anthropomorphize Scotland. The Scots are not one person, nor are they a big family. They are a bunch of strangers who don’t much care about each other, and who have different ends, ideas, and goals. They are not a tribe with real solidarity and real common bonds.

In the abstract, secession just means replacing one democratic body with a different one. It’s switching one government for a different one. Individuals within those bodies remain basically powerless regardless. Their lives might become better or worse. They might end up having more freedom or less. But whether they gain greater freedom isn’t an automatic result of their seceding, but rather just a question of what the new government chooses to do (or not do).

Suppose there were a big secessionist movement in the American South. Suppose a majority of Southerners wanted to leave the Union and establish a new, mild theocracy, Jesusland. Suppose they held a referendum, and the Jesusland initiative won. Suppose that, as a result, Northern Virginia (which is not the South, by the way–the South doesn’t begin until you get past Fredericksburg) is made to leave the union. What would this mean for me (or Chris, or Mike)? Would we be any freer? For me, all it means that the majority of the eligible voters who live South of me scratched some boxes on some paper, and as a result, rather than being ruled by the American electorate and its leaders, I am ruled by Jesusland’s electorate and their leaders. It means I’d have to stand in longer lines and deal with more tax forms when I give guest lectures at other universities.

I think the question of secession thus is rarely about the “freedom of peoples to have self-rule” or anything like that, because the idea that you form a coherent “people” with 4.5 million strangers is almost always a silly, bullshit, childish idea. Nations are a mythology, and a crappy, dangerous one at that, unlike the mythology of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

The main question for secession is just: is this likely to result in better quality government, government that more closely tracks the objective truth about justice and the right ends of government?

  • You’re right that secession doesn’t automatically mean more freedom, but more competition should generally translate into better consumer outcomes, shouldn’t it?

    • ZPT205

      There are big transactions costs to changing citizenship, so the competitive benefits are limited. And theyre offset by more trade barriers, possibly even reduced economies of scale depending how small the secceding state is.

      • True, but one need not change one’s citizenship to reap the benefits of competition among governments. I’ve lived in a couple of different countries myself…

        • Michel Ibarra

          Even moving countries has big transaction costs. Migration requires money.

          If the government of the new, smaller country decides to “nationalize” its oil industry, create a “national” currency (easier to manipulate than the euro) and impose protectionist measures, those are awful news for those that have to face higher migration costs (i.e. the poor, the elderly, families with children, low-skilled workers, etc.)

          • So, back to my first comment: You’re right that secession doesn’t automatically mean more freedom, but more competition should generally translate into better consumer outcomes, shouldn’t it?

    • Jason Brennan

      I’d agree if it were easy for people to vote with their feet.

      • Sean II

        Okay but don’t evade the implication of your own words. If the idea of kinship with 4.5 million strangers is silly childish bullshit (and it certainly is), then the idea of kinship with 7 billion strangers is at least as silly, and roughly 1,500 times as childish.

        • Michel Ibarra

          That is not what his words imply, at all.

          • Sean II

            Okay…you wanna explain that or should we just go back and forth with a game of “is not” / “is so”?

        • Jason Brennan

          You’re right! But cosmopolitanism isn’t nationalism or tribalism extended to everyone. Rather, cosmopolitanism is the denial of nationalism or tribalism, extended to everyone.

          • Sean II

            Sure, but what about people who reject cosmopolitanism? They may not stand for that idea being extended to them, so what’s plan b?

            This is our concern, dude.

          • +1 on this point. From an individualist perspective the idea of a group of any size forming a coherent body is suspect — I mean, even within a nuclear family people can have bitter disagreements. But if people have a common language, shared history and culture, some degree of shared ancestry, etc., then they’ll have a higher degree of coherency as a “people”. And since those common characteristics are often a function of living in a common territory, the larger the territory then the less coherent the “people” will likely be, and vice versa.

            Cosmopolitanism is great as far as it goes, but the number of people who are cosmopolitan in a strong sense is pretty small, and I think likely to remain small. It’s basically a thin veneer of people worldwide who have particular personality traits and personal history that predispose them to thinking globally, and who typically have talents and training that enable them to thrive in a global context. The cosmopolites seem more numerous than they actually are because they form a fairly high fraction of the global economic, cultural, and (to a lesser extent) political elite.

          • This is a little “if-by-whiskey,” isn’t it? All “cosmopolitanism” is supposed to mean in this context is “I’m not going to turn into a screaming bigot just because my neighbors have a foreign last name and watch movies in languages that I don’t understand.”

            This is what Sean II and his ilk always seem to fail to grasp. When people use “cosmopolitanism” in this context, they’re talking about a ridiculously low bar. You don’t have to be best friends with the local Sudanese diaspora in order to just not freak out about the fact that they have their own soccer league and a couple of retail shops on the same city block.

          • Jason Brennan

            Nicely said!

          • Sean II

            Oh no it wasn’t. He totally dodged my main point(1) and then set up a straw man(2) to play with.

            I’m certainly willing to admire a good burn or a snappy comeback even at my own expense, but his comment was neither.
            (1) The question whether liberalism/cosmopolitanism can survive a policy that places no limit on the inflow of illiberal provincials.

            (2) The idea that I and my ilk are really just worried about foreign movies.

          • I’ll leave Sean to respond himself, but for my part (since I might be included in “his ilk” in this context) my thoughts are as follows: For diverse people to live and thrive together in a liberal order requires certain basic traits. For example, they can’t believe that it’s acceptable to lie to or cheat people outside their own extended family/clan/tribe in commercial contexts, they can’t believe that it’s acceptable to treat government as a vehicle for enriching their own family/clan/tribe at the expense of others, and so on. That may seem a “ridiculously low bar” (as you put it), but there are lots of people around the world who fail to clear it, and some countries have a relatively high proportion of them.

            So I think it’s just being realistic to assume that some countries are going to be better able to support a liberal order than others, and that all else being equal the smaller and more homogeneous the country the more likely that they’ll be successful at it. In particular, if a successful liberal order requires some form of redistribution to ensure that basic human needs are taken care of, then I think it is and will continue to be easier to justify such redistribution to most people if the “redistributees” are seen as “kin to” the “redistributors” in some non-trivial sense.

          • Kyle Nearhood

            excellent response. I think many libertarians are guilty of a pie in the sky idea of what is possible in politics. Nations are not going away any time soon and I think that is a good thing. And of course not all cultures are able to gain the fruits that can come from democracy, free markets, etc. Some cultures will absolutely turn that into a kleptocracy almost immediately. (Argentina, Russia, Nigeria come to mind)

          • Sean II

            I hardly need to respond after that. You pretty much covered it, with one exception.*

            It says a lot about Ryan’s self-righteous and condescending SWPLism that he thinks the ONLY question is whether the mean old bourgeois natives can learn to live beside quaint and harmless newcomers.

            The idea that the those newcomers might bring a serious case of illiberal intolerance with them, just doesn’t even occur to him.

            * I don’t agree with your last two sentences. In fact I think the opposite: in many cases it seems western white folks will actually do more for out groups and demand less, than they would their own ethno-kin.

          • Sean II

            If you ever locate the rest of my ilk, do let me know. I’ve been walking around thinking I’m pretty much ilk-less for years.

        • Ryan Radia

          Not necessarily. Kinship with 4.5 million strangers may well result in inferior policies, and perhaps even fewer freedoms, than kinship with a much larger group.

          As James Madison explains in Federalist Nos. 10 and 51, the competing factions that tend to emerge in representative governments often check and balance one another. Yet in smaller governance jurisdictions, it’s more likely that one faction dominates others, whether because smaller competitors are outgunned or simply do not exist in any meaningful form.

          The NIMBY problem illustrates this phenomenon: most people in a municipality are better off if cell towers can be easily built, condominiums readily erected, highways painlessly expanded, and so forth. But vocal minorities — often composed of “assholes” to use a term of political science — tend to dominate local politics in a way that isn’t feasible on a grander scale.

          • Sean II

            I don’t think we’re really adversaries here. And you’re quite right about local politics being dominated by a peculiar class of assholes (don’t forget the bitches!). If the only thing I know about a person is that they regularly attend town council meetings, I’m betting 10-1 that person is an enemy of the human race. Why? Because the motive which most reliably produces that behavior is a powerful desire to control the way other people live!

            My goal in this thread was slightly different though. I wanted to point out the tension between Jason’s very good point that one cannot be friends with 4.5 million strangers, and his it-don’t-follow idea that we somehow CAN and MUST neighbor it up with 7 billion strangers.

            That’s one of the funny things about the Scottish Withdrawal (which sounds like a sex act). It put a lot of open border libertarians in an awkward position where they tried to assert the right of Scotland not to be Britain, while at the same time denying the right of Scotland not to be Pakistan.

      • adrianratnapala

        Many Scots have already voted to live in England, and independence would have changed little. The UK already has essentially open borders with Ireland and Poland, so why not for iScotland?

        You are right secession doesn’t necessarily increase freedom. But in Scotland, various contingent factors favour more independence (or better still, devolution). (a) The nationalists are not trying to introduce anything worse than social democracy, (b) the resulting government will still be part of a European federation, which imposes some important checks and balances, (c) it will face free trade and immigration with Europe, especially the UK – this is another constraint on insolent government.

        • J. Place

          This is a bit late now but it wouldn’t have been part of Europe as the Scots would have had to seek membership with the EU once more

          • adrianratnapala

            That was the threat, but I doubt it would have mattered much. There would have been a long and gruelling process leading to independence and the EU would have been involved. The most likely outcome would been a fudge where Scotland sought membership _before_ becoming independent and then got the membership automatically on independence day. And if the EU didn’t play ball, independence would probably have been aborted.

          • J. Place

            We’ll never know obviously (unless they seek another bid for independence which i think would be a waste of time) but Spain did not want to allow an independent scotland as to not give creedence to the Catalans and Basques so it would have been very hard for them to enter and i doubt the rest of the UK would have wanted the scots to rejoin after a Yes vote, though the politicians may have been receptive if the general population wouldn’t. I realise how much speculation over a hypothetical event which didn’t happen there is but i do feel there is something to gain from considering these issues.

      • K.P.

        Smaller states, in general, would make exit easier than the alternative. Escaping from Maryland to Virginia is easier than escaping from Maryland to Mexico.

    • Sean II

      In the general case, with large samples, over a long span of time, yes.

      But here we have some very good case-specific information telling yes that a “Yes” for Scotland was going to be a “Less” for individual freedom.

  • Michel Ibarra

    You’re absolutely right on this. Love the prose too. “a silly, bullshit, childish idea” Love it.

  • adrianratnapala

    They [the Scots] are not a tribe with real solidarity and real common bonds.

    This is not true. Or at least it sets a weirdly high bar on what “real solidarity” is. They bonds between Scots are real, if of a weaker and less important kind than the bonds within a family. And overall, they are stronger the (also real) bonds that Scots have with other Britons, other Europeans and other Humans.

    Indeed one reason I like the Union is because of how distinct the nations are. They all support different football teams and resent being mistaken for one another, and with the partial exception of the English they usually resent their nation being symbolically subsumed into Britain. But they also happily British, both in practical matters and as an addition and adornment to their main national identity.
    My preference is for this episode to result in political federalism that matches the cultural reality in Britain. But an independent Scotland would probably be better in the long term than the status quo.

    • Sean II

      “And overall, they are stronger the (also real) bonds that Scots have with other Britons, other Europeans and other Humans…”

      That’s really the key thing. It’s fine to point out the weakness of nationalism as a concept, because so much of it really is bullshit. But then you must ask “compared to what?”

      Once you do that, it becomes obvious that there are, for example, such things as Canadians, and that these as a group are noticeably different from, say, Saudi Arabians.

      Surely it is childish to deny that. Or…since children aren’t naive on purpose, maybe we need a better term for the kind of people who, in the name of (admittedly sound) deductive moralizing, pretend not to notice or care about inconvenient facts.

      • AP²

        Once you do that, it becomes obvious that there are, for example, such things as Canadians, and that these as a group are noticeably different from, say, Saudi Arabians.

        Surely it is childish to deny that.

        Sure it is. It’s also just a small part of what is meant by “nationalism”, as far as I’ve always seen it described.

  • Hugo Newman

    The only reason I see for a libertarian to be disappointed with the result is on grounds of decentralisation. Other things equal, libertarians (reasonably) should favour smaller and smaller political units, for obvious reasons (greater regulatory diversity/competition and the marginally stronger incentives to inform oneself and engage the electoral process given the marginally higher chance of individually effecting the outcome of a national election, to name two). But aside from this, I see nothing for libertarians to get particularly agitated about (or nothing new!).

    • Sean II

      “Other things equal, libertarians…should favour smaller and smaller political units, for…greater regulatory diversity/competition…higher chance of individually effecting the outcome of a national election, to name two…”

      But other things in this case where so clearly not equal. A good analogy for the U.S. would be what might happen if California withdrew from the union. The result would NOT be greater political diversity. It’d be a one-party state controlled by prison guards and retired teachers.

      The only upshot for libertarians would be the schadenfreude of watching them get what they want. Which, come to think of it…

      • Hugo Newman

        True. I should have qualified with “IF other things were equal”.

    • Ryan Radia

      For a powerful and compelling libertarian perspective to the contrary, check out Clint Bolick’s 1993 classic, Grassroots Tyranny: The Limits of Federalism, available at

  • MJA

    Governed freedom, a Democratic oxymoron. =

    • martinbrock

      Is that reverse polish notation or something Yoda would say?

      • MJA

        I choose One. =

  • dfjdejulio

    The part I think you may be leaving out is: splitting one big government into two smaller governments could have the reasonably foreseeable result that each government is weaker than the previous state of affairs.

    As long as they remain strong enough to continue doing their legitimate jobs, that strikes me as good — I want my governments to be as weak as is reasonable and no weaker.

  • martinbrock

    The main question for secession is just: is this likely to result in better quality government, i.e. government that more closely tracks the subjective preferences of the governed about justice and the right ends of government?

    “Scottish secession from the United Kingdom” doesn’t well address this question. We (sort of) agree on this point.

    The question is: why can’t the 45% of people (over 2 million of them) who prefer not to be governed by a central authority in London somehow escape this governance without compelling the other 55%, who wish to be governed by this central authority, to escape it with them? Why can’t the objectifiers of “justice” find a way to offer both of these groups of people, and much smaller groups as well, more than two options? What’s so magical about the number “two” anyway? Does the answer have something to do with the objectifers’ the distinction between “truth” and “falsehood”, an endless application of these categories where they have no meaningful application?

    • Jason Brennan

      If there’s no truth of the matter about justice, it follows that there’s no truth of the matter about justice.

      • martinbrock

        “People prefer some formulations of ‘justice’ over others” is true, but the statement does not imply that a single formulation of ‘justice’ is true.

  • Matt Gilliland

    Even as a red-haired descendant of Scots (see last name), my sadness over the result is that England must continue to be weighed down by Scottish socialists.

  • Cris

    Showing recession instead of recession in the first sentence. Just letting you know in case you wanted to fix it.

    • Cris

      I did it too! HA! I meant to say it is showing recession in the first sentence instead of what I know you intended, secession.

    • Jason Brennan

      Thanks, I fixed it.

  • Joseph R. Stromberg

    Is the bit about “Jesusland” meant to insult us as Christians or as Southerners? Or both?

    I guess you’re not planning to have any real dialogue then.

  • K.P.

    The South used to start in Maryland, hopefully they scratch those boxes soon.

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  • Ed Ucation

    If Virginia were to secede and northern Virginia didn’t like it, they could in turn secede from the South, as West Virginia did during the Civil War. Problem solved.

    You last paragraph is a little baffling. What is “the objective truth about justice and the right ends of government”? Unless you are an Objectivist, such language is unbecoming of anyone with a little bit of economic education. Since people have different preferences, truth about justice and the right ends of government will always mean different things to different people. And there’s the rub, and why the right of secession is crucial. A right that, in order to make any sense, must be respected right down to the individual level.

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