Mike Kueber's Blog

February 3, 2011

Secession in the 21st century

I recently blogged that I admire Rick Perry’s vision of federalism, as described in his book Fed Up.  My estimable historian friend from Austin, Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez, responded that Perry’s version of federalism, with some reference to secession, dated back to ante-bellum days and was supposedly extirpated by the Civil War.

Robert is a lifelong Texan who was doubly blessed to graduate from both Texas A&M and UT-Austin Law, yet he is an unabashed supporter of the Union.  By way of contrast, I am a transplanted Texas from North Dakota who is drawn to the principle of States’ Rights. 

Robert recently earned his Masters Degree in History with a Civil-War emphasis, and during one of my visits to Austin a couple of years ago, we discussed the issue of States’ Rights in the context of secession.  I wondered how the northern states could have felt so strongly about the Union in 1860 that they were willing to go to engage in America’s deadliest war to prevent secession.  After all, this country had seceded from England less than a century earlier. 

I suggested to Robert that there was no way people in the 21st century would fight and die over whether a state – e.g., California – should be allowed to leave the union; especially if the war did not involve a huge moral evil like slavery (or some would say abortion).  Academics call my position “The Choice” theory of secession.  As Thomas Jefferson said:

  • If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation…to a continuance in union… I have no hesitation in saying, let us separate.”

Robert disagreed with Jefferson and me.  He believed that Americans still adhere to the precedent established by Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.  This is called “The Just Cause” theory of secession – i.e., secession only to rectify grave injustice.  The problem with that theory is that a grave in justice to me might be a minor accommodation to you. 

Since then, I have asked other friends the same question, and they tend to agree with Robert.  Further, a Zogby poll in 2008 reported that only 22% of Americans believe a state or region should have the right to secede.  Union, forever. 

Perhaps I am fundamentally a pacifist – like Jimmy Stewart in the movie Shenandoah or Mel Gibson in The Patriot.  I believe in what America stands for, but if some part of America doesn’t want to be a part of that team, I wouldn’t block their exit.

Wikipedia provides an interesting list of reasons to allow secession and a contrary list to prohibit it.  Maybe it’s just me, but the pro-secession list seems long and substantive while the anti-secession list seems short and fluffy.

Arguments to allow secession:

  • The right to liberty, freedom of association, and private property
  • Consent as important democratic principle; will of majority to secede should be recognized
  • Making it easier for states to join with others in an experimental union
  • Dissolving such union when goals for which it was constituted are not achieved
  • Self-defense when larger group presents lethal threat to minority or the government cannot adequately defend an area
  • Self-determination of peoples
  • Preserving culture, language, etc. from assimilation or destruction by a larger or more powerful group
  • Furthering diversity by allowing diverse cultures to keep their identity
  • Rectifying past injustices, especially past conquest by a larger power
  • Escaping “discriminatory redistribution,” i.e., tax schemes, regulatory policies, economic programs, etc. that distribute resources away to another area, especially in an undemocratic fashion
  • Enhanced efficiency when the state or empire becomes too large to administer efficiently
  • Preserving “liberal purity” (or “conservative purity”) by allowing less (or more) liberal regions to secede
  • Providing superior constitutional systems which allow flexibility of secession
  • Keeping political entities small and human scale through right to secession

Aleksandar Pavkovic, associate professor in Australia and the author of several books on secession describes five justifications for a general right of secession within liberal political theory:

  • Anarcho-Capitalism: individual liberty to form political associations and private property rights together justify right to secede and to create a “viable political order” with like-minded individuals.
  • Democratic Secessionism: the right of secession, as a variant of the right of self-determination, is vested in a “territorial community” which wishes to secede from “their existing political community”; the group wishing to secede then proceeds to delimit “its” territory by the majority.
  • Communitarian Secessionism: any group with a particular “participation-enhancing” identity, concentrated in a particular territory, which desires to improve its members’ political participation has a prima facie right to secede.
  • Cultural Secessionism: any group which was previously in a minority has a right to protect and develop its own culture and distinct national identity through seceding into an independent state.
  • The Secessionism of Threatened Cultures: if a minority culture is threatened within a state that has a majority culture, the minority needs a right to form a state of its own which would protect its culture.

Arguments against secession:

Allen Buchanan, who supports secession under limited circumstances, lists arguments that might be used against secession:

  • “Protecting Legitimate Expectations” of those who now occupy territory claimed by secessionists, even in cases where that land was stolen
  • “Self Defense” if losing part of the state would make it difficult to defend the rest of it
  • “Protecting Majority Rule” and the principle that minorities must abide by them
  • “Minimization of Strategic Bargaining” by making it difficult to secede, such as by imposing an exit tax
  • “Soft Paternalism” because secession will be bad for secessionists or others
  • “Threat of Anarchy” because smaller and smaller entities may choose to secede until there is chaos
  • “Preventing Wrongful Taking” such as the state’s previous investment in infrastructure
  • “Distributive Justice” arguments that wealthier areas cannot secede from poorer ones