On Thursday the people of Scotland will vote on whether or not to leave the United Kingdom.

The usual classical liberal view of secession is that it’s a good thing. After all, if all association should be voluntary, then if a group of people wishes no longer to be part of a larger group then they should be allowed to leave. So, classical liberals should favor Scottish independence.

But it’s not clear to me that things are that straightforward.


 

Let’s put to one side secessionist movements that are based on a desire to oppress a particular group within the geographic area some of whose population wishes to secede. And let’s also put to one side secessionist movements that are based on the desires of members of a culturally homogenous group located in a particular geographic area to secede from a larger political entity in which they are distinct minority. (Even in the first case secession might be justified—it’s not secession, but the oppression, that we should condemn.) So, we’re focusing on the question of how we should assess the secession of a group of people located in a particular geographic area, some of whose members wish to secede, and some of whose members do not. Without taking sides on the particular issue of Scottish independence, here are a few reasons that make me pause before endorsing any secession movement:

  • It might be orchestrated by a well-organized and well motivated minority, and opposed (albeit relatively weakly) by a majority of the population. Given well-known collective action problems the well-organized minority could secure secession even though this would on balance make the population of the seceding territory worse off, at least with respect to the satisfaction of their desires concerning secession.
  • The above point was neutral on the values that the pro-secession minority held. But what if they were pro-secession because they were pro-State, and wished to secede because they thought that the State from which they wished to secede wasn’t statist enough? Secession could thus lead to a State that (plausibly) could make the lives of the population in the geographic area that seceded worse off. (What if the pro-secession minority was pro-liberty? This raises a nice concern: Should such a minority impose secession on the [more pro-State] majority for what they believe to be both its and their own good?)
  • By creating a new border secession could serve further to restrict person’s freedom of movement, freedom of employment, and freedom of trade. This could occur even if the seceding population merely desire political autonomy and embrace having an open border with their former compatriots.
  • If the seceding population installs a Government (or enlarges what was previously a regional Government) and the State from which it seceded retains its Government at its prior size, secession would increase the overall size of Government.
  • For some people—perhaps even most people—a successful secession will simply mean that they are subjected to the will of a political class that’s different from the former political class they were subject to. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss…..

I don’t think that any of these issues are by any means conclusive reasons to oppose any given secession movement, in either theory or practice. And I do think that a concern with voluntary associations gives at least a prima facie reason to favor secession. I just don’t think that the classical liberal case for secession is as simple and straightforward as it’s often held to be.

And now here’s a picture of me in a kilt:

KILT

 

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Lately I’ve been thinking about my reasons for endorsing a UBI, especially given that I also share Michael Huemer’s skepticism about political authority. Consider this case:

  • (1) Anne runs a business called PropertySystem, which manufacturers and maintains a private currency that can be traded for goods and services. The currency exists in users’ private accounts and Anne’s company provides security services for users. If someone tries to hack into the accounts she prevents them from doing so. The company also punishes users who violate the rules of PropertySystem. So if someone steals or tries to steal the currency from users, that person may have some of their currency taken away or they may even be held in one of PropertySystem’s jails. These services are financed through a yearly service fee.

This sounds fine. If everyone consented to join PropertySystem then they can’t really complain that Anne charges a fee for the services. There will be some questions about those who are not PropertySystem members, and how Anne’s company should treat them. But for the membership, consent seems to render what Anne is doing permissible. Next,

  • (2) Anne thinks that it would be morally better if she gave money to poor people. She changes the user agreement for her currency holders to increase her maintenance fee and she gives some of the money to poor people. Or, Anne decides to just print more money and mail it to people so that she doesn’t have to raise fees, even though this could decrease the value of the holdings of her richest clients.

By changing the user agreement or distribution system in this way, Anne doesn’t seem to violate anyone’s rights. And PropertySystem does some good through its currency and protection services by using the company to benefit people who are badly off. Now imagine,

  • (3) Anne decides that she doesn’t like PropertySystem competing with other providers so she compels everyone in a certain territory to use PropertySystem’s currency and protection services and to pay service fees, which she now calls taxes.

As Michael Huemer rightly points out, (3) is a significant injustice. If Anne acted like this, using threats of kidnapping and imprisonment to get people to sign up with her company, Anne would be doing something seriously wrong. This is the problem of political authority. Public officials, like Anne, are not entitled to coerce everyone to join and pay for a property system and citizens are not liable to be threatened or forced into joining.

This is Huemer’s objection to a guaranteed basic income. On his account, a basic income requires a tax system and “carrying out the coercive threats on recalcitrant citizens is practically necessary to maintaining a tax system in any realistic society.” Since a tax system that engages in wealth redistribution, like any tax system, is unjust, a basic income is unjust.

But this objection to a basic income isn’t an objection to wealth redistribution per se but rather with the coercive imposition of any property system. Once we acknowledge the initial injustice of forcing everyone to join a property system and pay taxes, it remains an open question how that system should be structured.

Consider an analogy. Bill takes Clive hostage. Taking Clive as a hostage is wrong. But given that Bill has taken Clive as his hostage, Bill could make Clive’s accommodations better or worse. Bill might say, “Not only have I made you my hostage, Clive, but I am also going to make it so you are hungry and so that my other hostages have enormous power over you!” Or, Bill could say, “You had no choice but to be my hostage, but I am going to try to minimize the harm of what I have done. Help yourself to the food in my well-stocked kitchen, and I’ll try not to bother you.” Similarly, if you are going to forcibly impose a property system on everyone, you should set up that property system in a way that tries to compensates people for the harm you have done while taking care to make it minimally burdensome to those you have wronged.

Once we concede that the imposition of a property system on all people is unjust, we should still ask the further question of how that unjust property system should be structured to not commit further injustices. It shouldn’t further violate peoples’ natural rights, it shouldn’t benefit some people enormously while leaving others to suffer from deprivation and domination, and it should refrain from additionally disrupting people’s ability to plan their lives as they choose.

Moreover, there are moral reasons in favor of Anne’s policy changes from (1) to (2). She changed the property conventions in ways that did not violate anyone’s pre-political ownership rights while still benefiting the badly off. If Anne implemented policy (2) after she started forcing everyone to join her company (3) it would still be morally better than policy (1) despite the fact that (3) is unjust.

This is the reason I favor a basic income. Such a policy balances the reasonable complaints that people may have about the effects of a property system that they never consented to join. Though redistribution cannot justify forcing everyone to join a property system, it can at least compensate people who are very badly off partly because they were forced to join that property system. Some people will do very well under a property system that nevertheless violates their rights. But it is not a further rights violation if a property system doesn’t benefit the rich as much as it possibly could.

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Given:

a) That politics is a violent business in a fallen world;
b) That it is conducted by a mixture of good and bad actors with good and bad motives and various mixtures of opportunism, bad faith, and genuine pursuit of the various and contradictory goals they think best;
c) That there are asymmetries of attention and information between ruling political elites and other persons, especially with regard to things happening in other parts of the world;
d) That no country or alliance of countries will ever be powerful enough to end all political violence and politically-created suffering in the world even if they were genuinely motivated to:

1) There will always be a abundance of political violence and politically-induced suffering in the world;
2) Political elites will never effectively follow a consistent rule of eliminating it all;
3) There will always be enough of it that political elites can choose among episodes of violence and suffering in order to rally support for acts of warfare at the times and in the places of their choosing.
3a) They will usually be able to do this by telling the truth about one episode at a time and just focusing on it to the exclusion of other episodes. When not, they will often be able to do so with partial truths about the episode. When not, they will often be able to do so with facially plausible falsehoods that non-elites have no way to effectively check or challenge.

e) A maxim of political judgment must be understood to be usable by real political actors of the sort described in (b).

4) The maxim “my country must fight a war to end this episode of political violence and politically-induced suffering” is approximately equivalent to the maxim “the political elites of my country may fight wars at the times and places of their choosing, for the reasons of their choosing, whether their motives are good, wicked, or opportunistic.”

Note that this is compatible with thinking that some particular episode really is unusually appalling.

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