Lee, the Confederacy crumbled, and the idea of secession disappeared
forever, or at least that's what the conventional wisdom says. Secession
is no historical irrelevance. Quite the contrary, the topic is integral
to classical liberalism. Indeed, the right of secession follows
at once from the basic rights defended by classical liberalism.
As even Macaulay's schoolboy knows, classical liberalism begins
with the principle of self-ownership: each person is the rightful
owner of his or her own body. Together with this right, according
to classical liberals from Locke to Rothbard, goes the right to
appropriate unowned property. In this view,
government occupies a strictly ancillary role. It exists to protect
the rights that individuals possess independently – it is not
the source of these rights. As the Declaration of Independence puts
it, "to secure these rights [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness],
governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers
from consent of the governed." But what has
all this to do with secession? The connection, I suggest, is obvious:
if government does not protect the rights of individuals, then individuals
may end their allegiance to it. And one form this renunciation may
take is secession – a group may renounce its allegiance to
its government and form a new government. (It is not, of course,
the only form. A group can overthrow its government altogether,
rather than merely abjure its authority over them.) The Declaration
of Independence adopts just this position: whenever a government
"becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people
to alter or abolish it." But the American colonists did not attempt
to abolish the British government; rather, they "altered" it by
withdrawal of the colonies from its authority. In brief, they seceded
from Britain. As such, the right of secession lies at the heart
of our country's legitimacy. Deny it, and you must reject the American
One might here
interpose an objection. Regardless of one's opinion of Jefferson
and the Continental Congress, is it not consistent to accept natural
rights, as conceived of by classical liberals, but refuse to recognize
a right of secession? On this position, individuals have natural
rights, but once they choose a government they are stuck with it.
In response to this objection, we must distinguish two cases. First, the
position might hold that even if the government violates the rights
it was established to secure, its subjects may not depart from it.
But this is a strange contention: government exists for certain
purposes, but it may continue unabated even if it acts against these
very aims. To this, it
might be replied that to protect individual rights, resort may be
had to means other than secession. One must concede to this view
that alternatives to secession do indeed diminish the force of the
imperative in its favor. After all, if a state may interpose its
authority to block an enactment of the federal government within
its borders, why must it also be accorded the right to leave altogether? This view,
I think, is logically consistent, but it has little to recommend
it. Why should people give up this very potent means of keeping
their government in check? To do so leaves their natural rights,
if recognized in theory, nugatory in practice. At the very least
we may say this: those who deny the right of secession have the
burden of advancing a rationale for their view. Why should supporters
of natural rights reject the right of secession? Opponents of
secession may, however, take a less extreme position. They may concede
that secession is to be allowed should the government violate individual
rights, but not otherwise. A group may not renounce duly-constituted
authority just because it would rather be governed by others. Does
not the Declaration itself say that governments should not be changed
for "Light and transient causes"?
no doubt is stronger than the utter repudiation of secession, but
we must once more inquire: What is its justification? Prima facie,
it appears that to hold that a group may remove itself from a government's
authority whenever it pleases is more in line with classical liberalism's
purely functional view of government. To deny this insinuates that
the state is something other than a tool to secure rights. Just
as an individual need not retain the services of a business, but
may change to another, why may not a group switch protective agencies? Further, the
Declaration of Independence need not be read to endorse only a limited
right of secession. The passage that refers to light and transient
causes forms part of a discussion of when change of government is
prudent, but the issue that concerns us here is not prudence, but
rights. Many exercises of one's rights are imprudent – I may
have the "right" to walk into oncoming traffic, if the signal is
in my favor – but I have these rights regardless. Thus, a group
may secede imprudently, but act within its rights. Once more: If
not, why not? The argument
may proceed one more step. Suppose a group wishing to secede is
guilty of violating individual rights. Does it still have the right
to secede? I do not see why not. Of course, it should not violate
individual rights, but why should the fact that the group does so
compel it to submit to a government it no longer wishes to obey? Allen Buchanan,
is the most influential discussion of our topic in contemporary
American philosophy, rejects the legitimacy of Southern secession
in 1861 on the grounds just suggested.
Since slavery violated rights, no slaveholding state had the right
to leave the Union. But why does this follow? (Incidentally, Buchanan
holds that Southern secession, absent slavery, would have
been justifiable.) Clearly, Buchanan's discussion of the Southern
case would have gained from close attention to the contemporary
arguments of the Southern secessionists. We may distinguish
an even more difficult case. Suppose that a group which violates
individual rights secedes. May the government formerly in authority
interfere only to the extent necessary to secure the rights of those
put at risk by the secession?
we need to sound a note of caution. The attempt to resist secession
may itself lead to rights violations, and the benefits of intervention
need to be weighed carefully against its costs. Even if one agrees
with Locke that there is a general right to enforce the law
of nature, this generates no duty to do so. Robert Barro,
a distinguished economist associated with the "rational expectations"
movement, has addressed this issue with insight. Of course, during
the Civil War, Lincoln's government did not act only to secure the
rights of the enslaved. But suppose that it had. Would it have been
justified in using force to resist secession? Not, Barro
suggests, given the cost of doing so:
Civil War, by far the most costly conflict ever for the United
States ... caused over 600,000 military fatalities and an unknown
number of civilian deaths, and it severely damaged the southern
economy. Per capita income went from about 80 percent of the northern
level before the war ... to about 40 percent after the war....
It took more than a century after the war's end in 1865 for southern
per capita income to re-attain 80 percent of the northern level.
But, it may
be replied, this quotation from Barro does not address the point
at issue. No one denies the costs of the Civil War, but our question
concerns justification: Does one have the right to interfere
with a secessionist group that violates rights? Yet surely
the point raised by Barro is relevant. The costs of an action
cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to morality. This is all the more
true if one takes account of another issue that Barro raises. The
claim, once more, is that the Civil War illustrates (or rather,
would illustrate, had it been conducted differently) the thesis
that secession may be blocked to protect individual rights.
makes a typical economist's point. The goal of defending individual
rights could likely have been secured through less costly means.
would have been better off if the elimination of slavery had been
accomplished by buying off the slave owners – as the British
did with the West Indian slaves during the 1830s – instead
of fighting the war.
And what if
this proposal is dismissed as unrealistic? What would have happened
to slavery had the Southern states been allowed peacefully to secede?
Barro suggests that slavery would soon have come to an end anyway.
Here a more detailed discussion by historian Jeffrey Hummel lends
support to Barro's view:
was completely peaceful, but the United States and Haiti are just
two among twenty-odd slave societies where violence predominated.
The fact that emancipation overwhelmed such entrenched plantation
economies as Cuba and Brazil suggests that slavery was politically
moribund anyway.... Historical speculations about an independent
Confederacy halting or reversing this overwhelming momentum are
hard to credit.
But have we
not addressed our question on too narrow a front? However ill-advised
Northern policy was during the Civil War, this does not suffice
to show that any resistance to secession that aims to defend
individual rights is without justification. Here, for once, I grant
the objection, but those who wish to restrict secession in cases
of this kind need to show how their preferred interventions
may avoid the costs that our example illustrates. At one point,
I fear, this analysis of secession lies open to misunderstanding.
Secession arises from individual rights: I have not attempted to
defend it as a group right unreducible to individual rights. Thus,
it by no means follows that the majority of those living in a territory
can compel these residents to secede who do not wish to do so. The
question is not one of majorities or minorities but of individuals.
As such, the argument offered here in no way depends on "democratic"
The issue has
been addressed with unsurpassed clarity by one of the foremost of
all classical liberals, Ludwig von Mises.
of self-determination ... thus means: whenever the inhabitants
of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole
district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by
a freely conducted plebiscite, they no longer wish to remain united
to the state to which they belong at the time ... their wishes
are to be respected and complied with.
that this right
the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent
administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this
right of self-determination to every individual person, it would
have to be done.
Once one has
grasped Mises's point, the fallacy in an often-heard argument is
apparent. Some have held that the Southern states acted "undemocratically"
in refusing to accept the results of the election of 1860. Lincoln,
after all, received a plurality of the country's popular vote.
To a Misesian,
the answer is obvious: so what? A majority (much less a plurality)
has no right to coerce dissenters. Further, the argument fails on
its own terms. It was not undemocratic to secede. The Southern
states did not deny that Lincoln was in fact the rightfully elected
president. Rather, they wanted out just because he was. Democracy
would oblige them only to acknowledge Lincoln's authority had they
chosen to remain in the Union. But a problem
now arises. I have endeavored to defend secession from an individual-rights
standpoint. Notoriously, Mises did not acknowledge natural rights.
I fear that, like Jeremy Bentham, he regarded declarations of rights
as "nonsense on stilts." Why, then, did Mises accept self-determination? Mises's reasoning
is characteristically incisive. If people are compelled to remain
under a government they do not choose, then strife is the likely
outcome. Recognition of the right to secede "is the only feasible
and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international
argument does not rest on natural rights, but it is of course consistent
with the approach I have sketched out. Regardless of one's moral
theory, it is surely a strong point in favor of a view that it has
Ibid., p. 28. Several of my remarks have been adapted from David
Gordon, "In Defense of Secession," review of Getting It Right:
Markets and Choices, by Robert J. Barro, The Mises Review
3, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 1–5.