Economics, Consequentialism

The Limits of Secession

Outside libertarian circles, many believe that communities may democratically choose virtually any political and economic system they wish. The imminent Scotland vote (see James Taylor’s recent post) suggests some general reflections on the the following issue: what kinds of secession choices may the inhabitants of a territory make? (Two caveats: First, I do not suggest that any or all of the following reflections apply to Scotland; in fact, I suspect they do not. Second, I think the following reflections may apply beyond secession to the general question of democratic authority, but I do not address it here.)

The issue of secession is complex, so I want to confine myself to the issue just described: Assuming that the people in the territory in question have otherwise the right to secede, what limits are there to the new state they intend to create?

Let us start with (what I believe is) a simple case. Imagine that province Outpost wants to secede from rights-respecting state Ruritania in order to establish a new totalitarian state where people will have no rights. They hold a referendum and the majority of Outpostians approve the secession. I take it the secession would be morally unacceptable, even if voted by the majority of the people of Outpost. Ruritania has an obligation to protect the rights of Outpostians that are threatened by the proposed secession (I do not believe this is solved by granting the right of exit, not only because emigration costs may be prohibitive, but also because it is false that if in a moment of weakness I voted for a tyrannical government I have lost my rights forever.)

Now let us consider a less simple case. The province Insula wants to secede from Randia, a free-market, rights-respecting state, to establish a new democratic-socialist state. Once successful, the secessionists intend to expropriate all means of production while simultaneously guaranteeing the civil and political rights people presently enjoy. The majority of inhabitants in Insula, that is, want to abandon Randia’s free market and establish a socialist economy. They hold a referendum and the majority approves the secession. Is this permissible? Most people will say yes. Global-justice writers and international lawyers concur in this regard. The idea is that, as long as a state respects traditional civil and political rights, its economic arrangements, including the extent and strength of property rights, are properly a matter for democratic deliberation and decision.

Now think about someone who owns a farm in Insula. The new state will expropriate his farm, and the compensation, if any, will be insufficient.  The referendum, in fact, has amounted to a violation of his property rights, which he presently enjoys under Randian law.  Further, Insula’s minority has expressed the view, supported by the evidence, that the contemplated socialist arrangements will cause general impoverishment. The standard of living all currently enjoy in Randia will predictably drop.  These problems illustrate two points: (1) the incidents of property (own, use, dispose) are essential to persons’ life plans, and (2) suppressing property rights (beyond a threshold) predictably leads to the destruction of markets and consequent general impoverishment. It would seem, then, that Randia, like Ruritania in the previous case, has an obligation to protect its citizens who live in Insula (at least the dissenters) against these ills.

If so, the mainstream position is wrong, at least in its unqualified version. A majority cannot legitimately run roughshod over people’s property rights in this way. More precisely, I suggest that a majority cannot validly choose to (1) violate property rights beyond a certain threshold; and 2) subject everyone to a system that seriously hampers or destroys markets. This suggestion, of course, raises as many problems as it solves. It requires specifying a deontological threshold for property rights. It requires specifying when the state’s regulatory action seriously hampers or destroys markets. Since most economic regimes fall somewhere between the two examples I gave, laissez-faire and democratic socialism, determining at which point state taxation and regulation violate people’s autonomy or destroy markets is a Herculean task.

But the central point remains, and it is a disarmingly simple one: a state, or a majority, may not validly choose just any economic system. If it is true that property rights are an essential expression of our autonomy and that they are the precondition of markets, which in turn are the engine of prosperity, then an economic system that suppresses them is unjust, even if supported by a majority.

Published on:
Author: Fernando Teson
  • Fritz

    The proper limits of secession are also the proper limits of state power. But not enough voters and politicians see that there are proper limits to state power. Thus our present mess.

  • simba

    A majority may choose any economic system: yes. Any political system: no. Anyone wanting to go back to the question of whether economic liberties are basic?

    • adrianratnapala


  • Eelco Hoogendoorn

    For me, the issue of implicit versus explicit social contracts makes all the difference. Is one implicit social contract better than another implicit social contract? Some implicit social contracts may be more tolerable than others, but they are never going to satisfy everyone. I would always support the right of everyone to secede and start a new political body, but the implied part where everyone within the same territory gets swept up along in this novel implicit social contract is the iffy bit. Ideally, territorial integrity wouldn’t be a thing, but then there is the real world…

    • Theresa Klein

      the implied part where everyone within the same territory gets swept up along in this novel implicit social contract is the iffy bit

      Right, there’s always been a tension between social contract theory and geographic realities. It would be nice to say that everyone in America agreed to the Constitution. (Nevermind that much of federal law has evolved beyond the Constitution anyway). But, in the real world, that’s a lie. The concept of a social contract is kind of a pretty lie that covers up the reality that the system has always been forced upon people whether they like it or not.

  • Jerome Bigge

    This is pretty much what happened in Africa. The newly formed “democracies” (more in name than reality) dispossessed the white land owners of their land and turned it over to people who had little idea of how to run a modern farm. The results were that countries that used to feed themselves now had to depend upon foreign imports and aid in order to survive. Nor was the average person better off in most cases, with the negative often more being the case. The Soviets dispossessed those who owned the land and created “collective farms”. Which were less productive than what had came before Lenin and his gang took over. Unfortunately this seems to be a lesson that has to be repeated again and again…

    • Fernando Teson

      Jerome: totally in agreement. These disasters are unfortunately enabled by the false idea that the government owns everything by default and can dispose of land and resources as it sees fit.

  • Just one observation- rather than Randia, as a State, having an obligation to protect its citizens against these ills, I would say the people of Randia have a responsibility to protect their individual rights. That’s a different way of looking at it that empowers the private realm and establishes individual rights as the sine qua non of civilized , flourishing society. How rights are protected can be debated, but the rights themselves are not up.for debate.

  • Jojo

    Of course, the Insulan socialists will say, why should the farmer in Insula have a right to that land when the ownership was gained in the prior, unjust system? Land that was once part of the commons, appropriated by state or robber barons at some prior time has come to be held by this person, sure, but why should we respect the historical chain of injustices that allowed that farmer to own that land?

    • Fernando Teson

      Jojo: good point that requires an answer. I assume that the farmer’s title to the land is clean back to whoever legitimately acquire it from the commons, or terra nulla. But suppose it is not, that he bought the farm in good faith from the robber barons, as you say. Still it does not follow that the state owns it and can expropriate it. Suppose no one really owns anything. It still doesn’t follow that the government owns something. I know that original appropriation is a large question that cannot be answered in a short post, so I owe you one.

    • Theresa Klein

      Under Lockean homesteading and other doctrines, if the farmer and his family have lived and worked on that spot for sufficiently long, then it would be considered his property, title or not.

      I agree that if the land was *recently* acquired in an unjust fashion, then it would be fair to expropriate it. Recently being perhaps one or two generations.

      • Jojo

        Of course, the Insulan socialists are hardly going to sign up to these doctrines. They’ll say that the land is the common property of all Insulans, and that bourgeois philosophies justifying private appropriation of the means of production are self-serving rationalisations of existing privileges.

        • Theresa Klein

          I recall reading a post either here or at Econlog recently about how libertarianism tolerates socialism, but socialism does not tolerate libertarianism. I guess this is a case in point. A group of socialists could, under a Nozickian meta-state acquire some land and form a commune, and share the land collectively, according to whatever property system they invented. Nobody would bother them. But under socialism, a group of libertarians could never legally acquire any land or other property, since it belongs to the state, and thus could never form any independent mini-society of capitalists under a socialist umbrella. Indeed, lots of socialists argue that they wouldn’t have a right to do so since their minds and bodies are products of benefits society has given them, so they are morally obligated to work for the collective, anyway. There is just something inherently monopolistic about socialist ideology. It wants to own everything and everyone.

  • Theresa Klein

    Why is it that “global-justice writers” think that property rights are ok to put to a majority vote, but traditional civil and political rights are not?

    In the case of Insula, the whole problem could be resolved if Insula simply agreed to compensate the farmer justly for his property. He had a property right in the Randian system, a group of people vote to secede from Randia, if they want to do that they should respect the property right and buy him out, not just expropriate his farm. After buying him out the land can be property of the government and they can do whatever socialist experiment they want with it.

    Historically, this has been a big problem with socialist revolutions everywhere, of course. Instead of buying up privately owned assets, they just nationalize them, thus violating the rights of the former owners.

    • Fernando Teson

      Theresa. I might agree if compensation leaves the farmer whole. Global-justice writers…you’ll have to ask them. But the dominant view is just what I said: the state has ultimate dominion over land and resources. According to some, the state or the collective acquires the territory and then enforces a property system (any property system) there. See Cara Nine, Global Justice and Territory (Oxford U.P. 2012) and Anna Stilz, “Nations, States, and Territory” Ethics, vol 121 (2011): 572. In the same sense David Miller and others.

      • Theresa Klein

        One could just as easily say that the state has ultimate dominion over the airwaves and the newspapers and can enforce a speech system there. That doesn’t really tell us much about whether the speech system or the property system are just. And if some speech systems are unjust, such that majorities should not be allowed to choose them, then why not say that some property systems (i.e. socialism) are unjust and majorities should not be allowed to choose them?

  • Jojo

    It also strikes me that you could run this line of argument about any kind of voting. Voting in Party X leads to impoverishment of Group A in predictable ways, so the existing powers that be have a moral obligation to disallow people voting in Party X.

  • Wilson263

    Arguably, any succession that leads to unambiguously less freedom would be morally invalid, since a nominally free country can ostensibly contain wholly self-contained enclaves of self-selecting totalitarians, but totalitarian countries can not (or attempt not to) contain self-contained enclaves of free folk. If the majorities in Outpost and Insula want the policies they want, in each of Ruritania and Randia, they would be free to self-organize such that they get them.

  • I always got the impression that most international human rights lawyers think uncompensated takings of property are problematic and often violative of rights. Even when a democracy does it. For example, here in the America’s the international human rights community has worked pretty hard to limit the takings of lands from indigenous people’s in the Amazon. Since the international human rights regimes in the America’s don’t recognize tribal or economic rights, this has been done under arguments rooted in traditional civil rights. In Europe the ECHR protects property rights and that has been used to litigate nationalizations in the ECtHR, though I will admit that the court has granted a relatively wide margin of appreciation to national governments under the issue.

    I know that the German Constitutional Court more-or-less said that nationalizing the means of production was OK back in the late 40’s, but other than that I can’t think of a court in a Western government or of an international human rights organ that has said the same thing. Is there really a consensus that that’s ok?

  • Samarami

    Thomas Pynchon is quoted as having said, “if they can keep you asking the wrong questions they don’t have to worry about answers”.

    Two imposing upon one is not freedom. (Thanks,

    Delmar England)

    I am a sovereign state. I’m astounded at how few “libertarians” make that declaration, or even agree that I indeed can be sovereign. Most argue, bicker, and go right back into statist thinking. And “theory”.

    I have no “rights”. I have choices. And my choice is to be totally responsible for the security of my property and myself and, to some extent, those I love (to the extent that they want my assistance in their defense). This applies — whether I reside in Randia, Ruritania, Insula, or New York. Nobody — certainly anybody associated with a “state” or a “country” or a “nation” — is going to stand up for my liberty or my freedom. Sam

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