Secession is the act of political divorce from a political entity into a new political unit. At the moment, Scotland, Catalonia and Flanders among many other places have growing secessionist movements. Opponents have oftentimes called the act of secession immoral and treasonous for its refusal of political obligation to common state authority. However, in this post I will attempt to defend the ethical right of secession based on a libertarian perspective of self-ownership. My argument will remain exclusively theoretical, although the discussion of the practical means by which secession could be achieved would be interesting as well.
My argument in this post is deductive and runs as follows:
(1) People have the right of self-ownership in accordance with the non-aggression principle, and based on the natural rights philosophy put forward by Rothbard;
(2) If people have the right of self-ownership, they also have the right of voluntary association, voluntary formation of communities, and the right to choose their own leaders;
(3) Sometimes the state that the individual belongs to, violates the rights of the individual to the extent that the individual does not feel associated with it anymore;
(4) Under such circumstances the individual may perceive the state as an unacceptable aggressor, and he is justified to revolt by separating himself from the state. He can form communal associations to secede as a new political unit;
(5) There is no limit to secession. Provinces have the right to secede from a state, a district from the province, a town from the district, a neighbourhood from the town, a household from the neighbourhood, and an individual from the household.
I will firstly provide a justification of the natural right of self-ownership as it stands central in my defense of secession. From this justification, the right of unlimited secession will follow. Afterwards, two possible counter arguments will be raised and dealt with accordingly.
The right of self-ownership and property rights
In For a New Liberty (1973), Murray Rothbard deduces natural law from the essential nature of human beings. He writes that it is in man’s nature to use his mind in order to select values, ends and the means to attain these ends so that he can “act purposively to maintain himself and advance his life” (1973, p. 33). He furthermore contends that it is absolutely “antihuman” to interfere violently with a man’s “learning and choices” as “it violates the natural law of man’s needs” (1973, p. 33). Therefore, man’s nature should be protected through his right of self-ownership. This right asserts that man has the absolute right to “own” his body and “to control that body free of coercive interferences” (1973, p. 34). This right includes the practice of such essential activities as thinking, learning, valuing, and choosing ends and means without any coercion, since such activities are necessary for the enhancement of man’s life.
There are only three alternatives to self-ownership: either (1) nobody owns his own body, hence there is no self-ownership; or (2) a group or someone else entirely owns your body; or (3) everyone owns a part of everyone’s body. The first alternative can be countered with Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s argumentation ethics to show the inherent contradiction of the statement. Argumentation ethics is not much different from an argument that Rothbard has used in The Ethics of Liberty (1982) when he stated that “any person participating in any sort of discussion, including one on values, is, by virtue of so participating, alive and affirming life” (Casey, 2010, p. 42). In an argument on ethics whether self-ownership exists or not, it is impossible for the opponent of self-ownership to justify his opposition, because in arguing he already reflects his presupposition that he controls his body and mind exclusively. Hence his argumentative claims like “I think” or “I believe”. The “I”-form postulates that the “I” is a separate entity who is capable of controlling his own body, speech and mind and is therefore able to create own opinions. The ownership of one’s body is hereby already verbally implied in one’s speech by taking a particular position in the argument (Hoppe, 1989, p. 158). Argumentation ethics is still a much debated concept within libertarian circles, however one could also claim that self-ownership is intuitively plausible: if you do not own your eyes, wouldn’t that then give other people the right to take out your eyes? The second alternative is that you do not own your own body, but instead your body is owned by someone else. This statement denies universal ethics and asserts that there are subhumans who do not possess their own body (Rothbard, 1982, p. 45). The second alternative is implausible, because natural rights ought to be universally applicable for the simple fact that every man, for being human, must hold the same nature to use his body and mind in order to select values, ends, and the means to attain these ends. Moreover, there is a practical objection to this alternative. By arguing that someone owns your body you are implying your own slavery, a condition whereby you are a subhuman who is controlled by other humans. Alternative 3 is the communal ownership of everyone’s body. Rothbard calls this condition “participatory communalism” (1973, p. 34). It is an absurd notion, because it would require everyone to gain approval of everyone else in order to take any action. Since it is impossible to gain everyone’s approval, it would freeze all human action which would result in the extinction of man. (1973, p. 34) As natural rights exist for the preservation of the human race as well as for “what is best for man and his life on earth”, statement 3 should be rejected (Rothbard, 1973, p. 34). By rejecting the three alternatives to self-ownership, we can therefore conclude that everyone has the natural right of self-ownership.
From this natural right follows the right to do anything with one’s body, including the right to form free associations and communities, and the right not to be violated in one’s self-ownership. Thus, one has the right to associate oneself with the leader of one’s choice, but not the right to impose a leader unto someone else. Likewise, people should be free to join and to leave communities voluntarily. In addition to the right of free association, people also have property rights. Rothbardian property rights are directly derived from self-ownership rights, and are based on the Lockean homesteading theory (Casey, 2010, p. 49). It states that since man owns his person, he owns his labour, and therefore he also owns the fruits thereof. John Locke (1689) has put homesteading theory in the following way:
… every man has a property in his own person. … The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state of nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined it to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. (Rothbard, 1973, pp. 37-38)
Given that man has the right of self-ownership, and that he must employ natural objects for his survival, “then the sculptor has the right to own the product he has made” through the “mixing of his labour” (Rothbard, 1973, p. 37). In other words, by producing something with one’s energy through the utilization of unowned nature, one has “placed the stamp of his person upon the raw material” (Rothbard, 1973, p. 37). One therefore rightfully owns the product. Any violation of self-ownership and property rights should hence be regarded as an act of aggression.
The state is nonetheless a social institution that has historically interfered most often with people’s self-ownership and property rights. Max Weber has recognized it as an institution with a territorial monopoly of compulsion in his essay ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (Weber, 1919, p. 1). Hoppe, in Democracy – the God that failed (2001), asserts that every government will use this monopoly to exploit its citizens in order to increase its wealth and income. “Hence every government should be expected to have an inherent tendency toward growth”. (Hoppe, 2001, p. 15) State exploitation happens in the form of expropriation, taxation, and regulation of private property owners. A state at best respects the rights of individual sovereignty and private property, but because its functioning is dependent on the expropriation of its citizens’ wealth there is a natural conflict between the state and its citizens. According to Franz Oppenheimer (1908), the state can impossibly finance itself without its productive citizens. It can only take that what has already been produced, and therefore it can only exist as a result of the “economic means” (1908, p. 25). However, this confiscation often involves state violence and aggression as nearly no one is willing to give up on his property voluntarily. Under such circumstances, it is understandable that conflicts may arise between citizens and the state; sometimes resulting in citizens’ feelings of dissociation from their governments.
Frédérik Bastiat maintains in The Law (1850) that if everyone has the right to “his person, his liberty, and his property”, then “a number of men have the right to combine together to extend, to organize a common force to provide regularly for this defense” (1850, p. 2). Following Bastiat’s reasoning, I believe that citizens who feel dissociated can then revolt and opt for secession as a form of self-defense against state aggression on their self-ownership and property. Any state that does not recognize its citizens’ rights of secession does not sufficiently recognize the sovereignty of its people. Secession is a powerful means of political action to show the people’s discontent with their leaders. If secession would be impermissible, then the people who want to disassociate themselves from the state have the following three options: (1) continue living under the oppressive state rule; or (2) revolt against the state; or (3) emigrate to another state. By doing (1), the people continue living under perpetual state aggression, and their sovereignty is continually violated. If the people choose option (2), then there will be severe and costly consequences which can involve war and destruction of private property. In addition, there are also no guarantees that the revolt against the state will be successful. For these two reasons, this option seems to most secessionists to be the least preferable of the three. The people can alternatively choose (3) and emigrate to another state. This alternative is often used as an argument against secession under the presumption that those who are unhappy within one particular state, should simply emigrate. However, the cost of emigration can be so significantly high that it is unfeasible. One has for example the costs of finding information on the procedure of emigration, becoming accepted by the other state, finding a new workplace etc… The state can also exert barriers of emigration through tedious bureaucratic processes and passport controls, which makes emigration even more unattractive.
One can raise the following question: who are morally justified to secede? Following man’s right of free association, the answer should be: anyone, as long as it happens on a voluntary basis. Even though most secessionist movements are built on a common ethnicity or common cultural heritage, such precepts are not necessary to justify secession. Moreover, secessionists should not be prescribed any form of social organization as they should be free to choose their own form of government. This means that a multitude of social organizations are possible, including those that are currently non-existent. By being epistemologically modest of what governmental form is best, communities are allowed to experiment and find their own form of government. This will eventually add to our understanding of human social organizations.
Lastly, it is important to note that if secession is ethical, ultimately based on the principle of self-ownership, then it follows that the individual has the right to secede as well. This right cannot be exclusively granted to groups, because only individuals can have ownership of their own bodies. Self-ownership cannot be shared, just like the mind cannot be shared. The mind is an attribute, inherent only to individuals, and collectives only derive their rights from the rights of their individual members. Therefore the right of self-ownership must necessarily imply the right to practice unlimited secession. In other words: provinces should have the right to secede from a state, a district from the province, a town from the district, a neighbourhood from the town, a household from the neighbourhood, and an individual from the household. This logical consequence is anarchism. (Rothbard, 1982, p. 182)
Two common arguments against (unlimited) secession
Having provided my defense of the ethical right of secession, I will now raise two possible objections.
1. A person cannot survive in isolation and therefore unlimited secession should be prohibited.
It is certainly true that seceded isolationist individuals will have to forego many luxury pleasures and conveniences that can only be provided in a larger community, but to say that isolationists cannot survive is an overstatement. There are several records of people who have been able to survive for a long period of time, while living entirely detached from society. Furthermore, I would like to contend again that as every individual has the right of self-ownership, every individual also has the ethical right to become isolationists. However, it is unlikely that many people will choose to live in isolation. Most people who decide to secede will choose to secede in larger political units so that they can benefit from the division of labour that is only possible in larger communities. Rothbard has made a similar statement in For a New Liberty (1982) when he stated that man is a social animal who need cooperation and interaction with others, because it is important for man’s survival chances (p. 33). The primitive individualism in Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature, with prevalent “war of all against all”, is hence a myth. People have a natural tendency to live together in communities. Having said that, I would also maintain that it is not for any of us to decide how other people should live. Especially, since the difference between the mother state and the seceded person is that the latter has emerged voluntarily, whereas the mother state is coercively binding its citizens under its rule. Under voluntaryism, every person and community have the right to choose their own values of life and live accordingly, even if it means that their lifestyle, including isolationism, may seem brutish to us.
2. A small autonomous political unit is economically unviable, and secession should therefore be prevented.
Two reasons that are often given for the unviability of small autonomous political units are (a) economies of scale is difficult to realize in small states (Charles et al., 1997, p. 25), and (b) they are vulnerable to trade shocks because their size prevents the states from wide diversification in economic activities (Charles et al, 1997, p. 25). If these reasons would hold, then we would certainly find that micro-states are generally poorer than larger states. However, Easterly and Kraay (1999) have empirically found that micro-states are 40-50% richer than other states when controlled for location by continent, controlled whether they are oil producers, and controlled whether they are members of the OECD (p. 5). In addition, Easterly and Kraay have found that life expectancies in these states are about four years higher and that the under-five infant mortality is lower by 22 per thousand (p. 5). This suggests that micro-states do not suffer from developmental disadvantage. Micro-states have been particularly more successful, because without abundant access to land and labour they are pressured to specialize their national economies, and to engage in international trade (p. 9). International trade is particularly important in order to acquire goods that cannot be produced nationally. This pressure thus fosters peaceful inter-state cooperation. Moreover, due to the small size of the state, the consequences of public policies are easier to follow which tends to result in greater political transparency. It increases the incentives of citizens to become politically involved. The rule over a small territory makes public policy targets also more efficient, and as a result fewer taxes are required. Nevertheless, one could still argue that micro-states in Easterly and Kraay’s research are large enough to be economically viable, but that especially those states that consist of as few as 100 members would suffer from developmental disadvantage. This however, is a question of what the smallest possible size is for an economically well-functioning state. It is an interesting question that I unfortunately will not tackle, but I will leave a note from Plato on the subject to emphasize again the importance of the division of labour in a well-functioning state.
In setting forward a natural rights defense of self-ownership, I have concluded that individuals have the right to free association and property rights. Unfortunately, states sometimes violate these rights to the extent that its people do not want to be associated with their state anymore. Under such circumstances they retain the right to secede. Secession should however not only be limited to communities. Single individuals also bear the right to secede, since only individuals can possess self-ownership, and since groups can only derive their rights from its individual members. Even though persons hold the right to live fully detached from society, i.e. to become isolationists, it is unlikely that they will do so. Human beings are namely social animals who have natural inclinations to live in communities, because in solitude man cannot fully prosper. An extended community is able to provide goods that are beyond pure necessities through the division of labour. Lastly, I have contended that micro-states do not suffer from economic developmental disadvantage. They generally are more successful in capital accumulation and have higher life expectancies.
 I employ Steven Yates’ definition of secession from his essay ‘When is political divorce justified?’ (1998, p. 35).
 (Knowledge@Warton, 2013, December 2)
 See for example ‘Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethic: A Critique’ (Murphy & Callahan, 2006)
 Libertarian non-aggression principle (Rothbard, 1974, p. 116).
 Even governmental leaders in representative democracies are chosen to govern a people without explicit consent of all the governed, i.e. they are imposed on all citizens. Representative democracies are neither democratic, nor representative (Casey, 2012, p. 128).
 Oppenheimer calls economic means “one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others … for the satisfaction of needs” (1908, p. 25).
 Natural rights libertarians should therefore support any voluntary secessionist movement and condemn forced integration.
 Malcolm X (1964) has for example opted for complete separation of blacks on the grounds of “black nationalism” (Breitman, 1965, p. 20).
 Howard Roarke, the protagonist in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, describes the individual attributes of the mind as follows: “[T]here is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought. An agreement reached by a group of men is only a compromise or an average drawn upon many individual thoughts.” (1943, p. 1727)
 The Telegraph has reported that a Vietnamese man and his son have been found living in the Vietnamese jungle for 40 years (Alexander, 2013, August 8).
 Condition of the state of nature as described by Thomas Hobbes in De Cive (1651, p. 49).
 Friedrich von Hayek has stated in The Fatal Conceit that “[T]he savage is not solitary, and his instinct is collectivist” (1988, p. 12).
 Micro-states are defined by Easterly & Kraay as states with populations of 1 million or less. Some examples of the 33 investigated states are Belize, Cyprus, Gabon, Iceland, Luxemburg and Suriname (1999, p. 2).
 Specialization increases productivity, and hence competitiveness. (von Mises, 1953, p. 164)
 In Plato’s Republic, Socrates asserts that the state arises from the division of labour that can supply the goods to fulfill our needs. The smallest notion of the state then exists of at least four persons who can produce the greatest human necessities: a farmer, builder, weaver, and shoemaker. (Evers, 1980, p. 45)
Alexander, H. (2013, August 8). Vietnamese father and son found living in a treehouse for 40 years. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/vietnam/10231861/Vietnamese-father-and-son-found-living-in-a-treehouse-for-40-years.html
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