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.