Monday, October 2, 2017

A Libertarian Perspective on Separatist Movements

With separatist movements in the northern Iraq region of the Kurds, and in Catalonia, grabbing headlines, it is an appropriate time to think about such movements.

Murray Rothbard once wrote:
There runs through For a New Liberty (and most of the rest of my work as well) a deep and pervasive hatred of the State and all of its works, based on the conviction that the State is the enemy of mankind. 
This is an understandable position for anyone who is an advocate of a Private Property Society.  It is sound and noble. Noble, because
although sound, it goes against the perspective of the masses and the house intellectuals.

If we take this Rothbard insight of hate of the state as our guiding light, what should we make of separatist movements?

We should recognize that separatist movements are not the discarding of state rule. They are merely the reorganizations of state rule over given areas.

The reorganization can lead to a state rule that is less oppressive or more oppressive. A separatist movement, without an understanding of the new rule that will replace the old rule, tells us nothing as to whether the separatist movement is moving away from or toward liberty--whether it will result in more statism or less statism.

Just because the region of rule will be smaller does not imply a move toward liberty, Both North Korea and Cuba are relatively small countries but have horrific totalitarian rule.

Thus, more must be asked if one is in the middle of a domestic separatist movement. Namely: What will come in its place?

For an outsider looking at a separatist movement, the perspective is different, For the outsider, almost always, smaller governments are preferable to larger governments, because larger governments are almost always more capable of launching wars. (The United States has much greater nuclear capability and other military resources than North Korea).

Governments that maintain a larger region have more men and resources to use in war. Thus, for the outsider, separatist movements are a positive as they lead to steps in the direction of greater peace.

But it is the domestic separatist movement fighter who must be careful that his actions will not, from a domestic perspective, lead to more chains. The idea of separatism fills the air with high energy by the battlers for such, but rarely is the questioned asked: What will come in its place?

And in the end, domestically, that is the most important question.



Also see: "The Catalan Referendum is a classic bait-and-switch operation"


  1. Yeah I often wonder about this question in regards to the US constitution and particularly the Commerce Clause.

    Obviously centralization of power is dangerous to liberty for many reasons, but to the degree that a political union allows for the expansion of free trade and migration within that union, it could have some offsetting benefits.

    1. Not sure I agree. States are likely to regulate up to the limits of their power. Swapping out being ruled by a less powerful state for being ruled by a more powerful state through a political union only feeds the beast. The EU is the best modern example of that. I believe it was sold to the public on the basis of "free trade" and "free migration," but look at what has happened. Trade has become less free with external states, and now all states are subject to the EU's centralized immigration rules, as opposed to each making their own.

  2. Gary North has an interesting take on the American Revolution:

    I will say it, loud and clear: the freest society on earth in 1775 was British North America, with the exception of the slave system. Anyone who was not a slave had incomparable freedom.

    1. That's a good article, however that secession was a violent one, supported by only a third or so of the (white) population.

  3. This is certainly a great point. I believe libertarians need to not present secession as a miracle cure but a tactic. It also should be advised to watch what leaders of secession movements are also advocating since people can be swept up in the excitement of leaving the bigger state.

    1. What is even less obvious in a situation like this is the renegotiation
      of the current arrangement with Spain. Catalonia is in a world stage visibility that creates inordinate leverage against larger Spain to cut a deal muchhhh more beneficial to Catalonia.

      Something to consider when you options it the toxic EU and NATO

  4. A serious scholar should not be guided by raw emotions like hate. We need a state to suppress warring factions and foreign attacks. People are tribal. They form groups and fight. The only way to keep the peace is to have a government over the top of all these groups to keep them from fighting.

    1. So would you favor a world government?

    2. "The only way to keep the peace is to have a government over the top of all these groups to keep them from fighting."

      Couldn't disagree more! It is the state that encourages warring factions and initiates foreign attacks. It defies sense to put a group of people who are tribal and form groups to fight others in government over the top of others who form groups and fight.

  5. To the extent we're talking about a broad-based secession movement creating a new state, and not armed revolution by a minority faction, there may also be benefits to internal parties (not just outsiders) in being part of the smaller state, even if it turns out to involve less liberty initially. I doubt we're going to see a breakaway portion of Spain devolve into a North Korea, so I'm not commenting on Robert's observation that small states can be brutal.

    I would expect all new states to eventually renege on pre-secession promises (at a minimum, the leadership will change over time), so it may be of little value to consider current promises when evaluating the long-term liberty score of a new state. I think of more relevance is how much the state can get away with, which is a function of its size (among other factors). Size is important for a number of reasons.

    First, the precedent of a secession provides a strong alternative to staying with the new, smaller state, which such state cannot really deny and thus must bear in mind. One secession could lead to another. And a smaller state may be less able to prevent the next secession from occurring than a larger state.

    Second, a state that is smaller and thus less powerful on the international scene has no empire to milk if it starts declining internally due to statist economics. This may be a constraint on its domestic policies.

    Third, the smaller tax base of the new state makes it more vulnerable to capital or human flight to friendlier, nearby jurisdictions (which may be quite close in cultural terms, given the location of the new borders that were just interposed). This may be another constraint on the new state's domestic policies.

    Finally, a citizen of a new, smaller state is more likely to know or be able to access state personnel than in a larger state, and thus to the extent personal relationships can impact policy, that factor will be stronger in a smaller state.

  6. I like Jefferson’s thoughts on the subject.

    “ The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then.“
    It’s when people become satisfied with the State that the State can become more tyrannical.
    Maybe if the “spirit of rebellion” stays alive in Catalonia, they will one day achieve Liberty.
    Americans certainly would have been the better if such a spirit continued to thrive over the last 250 years.
    Rothbard and Hoppe both agree that the American Revolution itself was good.
    And while the freest person on earth may have been the British American in 1775, he was not the most free in America.
    It was the American from 1776 to 1788.
    There were a few glorious years in America when there was no central government, and hardly any “government” at all, and certainly no State.

  7. RW is actually consistent with the warnings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who said that even the overthrow of tyrants may lead to something worse, and hence cautions against that path.