Is every Secession justified?

 

A Polemic with Walter’s Block Arguments

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Walter Block (2002) offers a vigorous and somewhat plausible defense of secession. Author claims that from a libertarian perspective, a right to secede should be considered as an embodiment of law of free association, which in turn is a natural extension and logical implication of clearly libertarian self-ownership rule.

There could be no misunderstanding here. If individual has an absolute right to make ultimate decisions considering his own body, and to have such a control on yours body means to be able to resist others wishes and claims to yours body and physical space this body exists in, there is no doubt that secession is a „must be” in the human individual rights arsenal.

If right to secede is an elongation of self-ownership, then infringement of this right must be treated as form of slavery. Block notes:

Those who are not free to secede are in effect (partial) slaves to a king, or to a tyrannous majority under democracy. Nor is secession to be confused with the mere right to emigrate, even when one is allowed to take one’s property out of the country. 

As such, right to secede from a larger, sociopolitical body should be independent from any other factor, especially from the opinion about such an act expressed by people representing interests of this specific political body, which the rebels are seceding from, since oppressor should not have anything to say about right of oppressed to leave. [1] This point is clearly of the heaviest virtue, but we owe it to Clyde Wilson quoted by Block, not to Block himself.

But there is more. Block claims, that right to secede is an absolute right, what implies, that every secession, no matter what, is justified. Such a claim should raise an alarm, since there is an (almost) endless set of possible factors, which could change the circumstances so radically, that it is hard to imagine the „absolute” rule what could afford each of them. And, although Block is making an attempt to evaluate some of these circumstances, he fails to recognize their true meaning.

Block considers the case of American Civil War as a problematic example which – in his interpretation – only proves his point. But he starts with sole description of the popular objection addressed against South attempt to secede:

One of the grounds upon which so called libertarians oppose secession, the right to be left alone politically speaking, is that those who wish to secede might be less than fully perfect in various ways. For example, the Confederate states practiced slavery, and this is certainly incompatible with libertarian law.

But there are some problems with this representation, and this is making whole Blockian reasoning around it futile and as so, somewhat erroneous. As it is provided by Block, this objection is not directed against secession per se, but against some acts of secession – those attempted by the „less than perfect” rebels. If it were objection against all kind of secession, it would be obviously wrong (and it could not be a „libertarian” objection at all), since there are, or at least there could be some „perfect” secessionists (let’s imagine a group of libertarians trying to secede from totalitarian, communist state). So, according to this line of reasoning, these „perfect” rebels should be allowed to divorce with polity, they no longer want belong to. Since for the libertarian philosophy an individual could not be responsible for other person’s sins[2], even if someone is not „perfect” enough to be allowed to secede, the other „perfect” one must be allowed – if the moral, ethical or other kind of „perfection” is the only and sufficient criterion of deciding his right to secede. So, as we have seen, what Block is arguing against, could not be considered the point against all cases of secession. To this point, Block is perfectly right: if so-called libertarians are opposing secession in general on such grounds, they are not libertarians at all.

But what is really interesting is the reasoning, Walter Block employs in his attempt to convince us, that even-though secessionists (as in the case of Confederates[3]) are far from being perfectly lawful from the libertarian point of view, their act of secession is still perfectly justified.

To examine this claim let us consider failed secession attempt of Confederated States, Walter Block was discussing in his article. Were Confederates justified in their attempt to secede? Were they not? Is the right to secede absolute one, or not?

First, we must remember, that a group of people, has no more rights than any individual[4], even if such a group would call itself a „government”. So, if an individual is restricted in his actions to such behavior which would not surpass other people’s borders and are non-invasive, also government is restricted to such non-invasive behavior. This is the universal, libertarian non-aggression principle. What then, if we spoke not about the Confederated States, but a sole slave-owner living in the society, which decided to abolish slavery? The right to secede is an individual right, as wrote Ludwig von Mises:

If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done.[5]

Let us forget the technical issues of individual secession, which made Mises unbelieving in such possibility, and put them aside for the need of the theoretical discussion. Walter Block also scales-down the pondered question to the realm of individual. He maintains, that we cannot deny an individual his right to secede, even if he is „not perfect”:

For example, divorce. Under this „logic” no spouse could leave another if the departing one were less than perfect.

In this case, our response would be, that we must be much more specific about what „less than perfect” really means? If it is a personal opinion of the other spouse, that he was not treated gently enough by the divorcing partner, we can easily put it aside. Their marriage did not work well, and – as it usually happens – presumably both of them are „guilty” of its final demise. But what would be really important for us, as libertarians, is situation, when „less than perfect” means an acts of aggression against partner or children. Being perfect is something completely different than not initiating violence against others or their property. For example, if a woman is divorcing her husband, and is willing to keep her kids with, we should ask: „Is she treating the kids properly? Does she feed them, and care for them? Or does she abuse them?” If we found that she abuses their children, we can conclude that form of divorce (secession) she expects is illicit one and as such, it would be not justified. We can forcibly stop her from taking the kids and leaving her husband with them. Only when she accepted to leave alone, would it be justified to let her divorce. As we see, it is important, what form secession takes, and who is seceding from whom.

Is the slave-owner allowed to „secede” from his neighborhood, town, county or state and, in by doing so, avoid being forced to free his slaves? Could he announce that from the very moment, his private ranch constitutes an independent political entity, so he and his slaves are outside of the abolition-laws jurisdiction? And what, if he – being aware that his current country is preparing the abolition – announces his act of „secession” first, before the abolition is even enacted?[6]

Since, the institution of slavery was completely „legal” and considered as „natural” in the past, we probably should replace it with more straightforward, less historic context-sensitive crime: murder or rape.[7] Such crimes would not connote with a „positive” law, in which every crime could be perfectly legal, if enacted so.[8] Would it be „justified” for a murderer or rapist to „secede” from rest of his country because he does not agree for the law, which penalizes murdering or rapes? Of course, if the only person, who would secede in effect, was him, there would be no problem. The only person, who would be then endangered by murder or rape, is him (there is nobody else to be raped or murdered in his private separated enclave). And as long, as no one else is harmed by him, he is justified to claim his independence, since he does not initiate aggression against anybody else or anybody else’s property. 

In such a case, he could as well secede from „law of gravity” or from „entropy”. If no one is living under his draconian pro-murder and pro-rape private code of „law”, these laws are merely his fantasies, like would be his „freedom” from gravity or entropy. In regard to murder and rape it is true as long, as he is not allowed to enter the outside land and force other people to go with him into his independent property (e.g. kidnap somebody, or buy a slave illegally).

But if some people (his guests, relatives, workers, tourists etc.) live or stay on his land, should they obey „his” code of law, in which murder or rape (or both) are not penalized? Some could say, that if other people are informed about the rules on his premises, they enter his property on their own risk and are obliged to obey the law, the owner established. According to this logic, when the murder-lover announces his secession, he must enable other people, who do not agree for his rules, to leave his premises. That would be an analogy of informing outsiders, what they could risk, entering his land before they do. Such kind of law of land is favored by some radical libertarians.

Let us reiterate, that such propertarian wanna-be-murderer is allowed to live independently on his property as long, as he does not initiate aggression against outsiders, who have not voluntarily entered his jurisdiction.

Here, we return (in our discussion) to the slavery institution, since, if other people are not allowed to move out, when a rebel commit his act of secession, their individual rights are certainly infringed. This would be an analogy to the situation of slaves living in the Confederated States when South announced secession. And, because we have seen already, that group of people, even if it calls itself „Confederated States”, could not poses more rights, than each individual has, so Confederates had no right to secede from slavery prohibition law.

Since such secession would mean, that they are not obliged to free their slaves, this act was an illicit one and could not be seen as justified. What is the secession about? It is an act of individual’s or group’s independence from orders and laws enacted by other individual or group (polity). Secession could not be partial or fragmentary, which means, that you cannot secede from some parts of foreign law, and still obey other parts. It is not like A secedes from B-enforced taxation but not from B-provided social-welfare or protection, or legal code.[9]

This is the point, where Mr. Block is trying to avoid some unwanted consequences of his points on behalf of „always just” secession. He clearly understands, that the result of letting South to secede freely would lead to birth of slave-owners nation living next to the United States. Such result would be certainly evil from the libertarian point of view. State, where slavery is perfectly legal is no less ghoulish place than the Soviet Union (where slavery was omnipresent in the form of special zones of exile, gulags and kolkhozes).

It should be obvious, that we are discussing the scenario, which is a scaled-up version of divorce problem discussed earlier. Mother abusing her children would be a slave-owner, and North would be the husband, who sees his wife as „less than perfect” – to call it, like Mr. Block does with the Southerns patronizing institution of slavery, Africans cultivating tradition of clitorectemy[10], or Hindu people with their suttee custom.[11]

So, what is the Block’s remedy for this blatant abuse arising from his own prescription of letting Southerns, or Africans or Hindu wife-burners to secede? He writes:

Under libertarian free market anarchism, it would be permissible for a private defense agency to invade private property if a crime is occurring there (…)  If A is about to murder B in A’s house, A may not properly object when the police kick in his door to forestall this dastardly act. Thus, free market competing defense agencies could have gone into the south to free the slaves…

This is nothing new for any libertarian reader (expect of, maybe, the proprtarians meant earlier). The private property is not ultimate barer protecting evildoers from their victims or agents hired by their victims. You cannot punch me and then flee to your bungalow, close the door and declare that I cannot punish you, or claim any satisfaction. If you do so, I’ am lawfully calling some tough guys (private police), and they politely crack your fingers, to force you paying me back for my harm (but that would happen only, if you have not decided to pay as fast, as the police showed-up in front of your door, and of course that is taking place after the private judge’s legal verdict). So, the justice system in libertarian society is not so different to what we have now.[12]

But what, if my private police has no legal right to enter your premises, and my private judge has no legal right to sentence you, since your private ranch is an independent country, which declared successfully it’s secession last week and this country does not recognize you punching me as a crime? And what if it is even worse (at least for me), and I have no private police protecting me and enforcing that others would be punished for any crime done to me, because I’ am living on your property, being a slave on your mercy? Is my private police, or some tough guys which are not being paid by me, but have good hearts, allowed to enter foreign country and operate there against this country law? If so, what the independence, and hence the whole „secession” thing was about? What is such secession worth, if it does not provide freedom for rebels? Can we even call such a meaningless declaration with no legal implications a secession at the first place? I would rather call it a simply joke, similar to the Liberland’s declaration of independence, which is of no worth.[13]

When foreign thugs can enter your country and are allowed to ignore the law of this country, it is not an independent political entity. No „secession” took place. So, only here Blocks allows the true secession:

(…) but once this was done, given that there were no other crimes occurring, and that due punishment was meted out to the evil-doers, that would be the end of the matter. There would be no further interaction. The south (or India in the case of suttee) would then be allowed to go its own way.

What we have just seen is a statement of the great importance, since it explains the real Blockian stance on the secession, which is, on the practical grounds, completely different, than what he suggests saying that every secession is legitimate. But it eventually occurs that not every secession is! Shortly, he provided us first, that even „less than perfect” rebels are perfectly „justified” in their attempt to secede, but then, he showed us, that after such act, they are still subjects of the foreign law (in this case, abolitionist law of Union).[14] Either he believes, that secession and independence does not mean political freedom, or there was some fancy gimmick in his argumentation conduct.

Presumably, the second one is correct, and we see the real act of so-called secession at the very end of Block’s story, when private agencies left the seceding territory after they violently enforced that rebelling people are obeying not the law, they wanted to keep, but the new, abolitionist code (of Northern States). So, not only the secession was forcibly postponed, but it was violently distorted in its shape also. It is no longer the secession, which original rebels wanted, but the secession, their ex-motherland graciously let them have. Like Block writes: they would „be allowed to go its own way”. But it is no longer “its own” way!

Here, we come to the more fundamental issue. Which is the question: „How far could the individual freedom (and so the group freedom, e.g. independence) reach?” Are there some universal laws, which everyone on the whole Earth must obey, no matter what, and if not, he should be forced to? If, for example, libertarian non-aggression axiom is such universal rule, the libertarian country can violently impose not only on its own citizens, but also on other countries and their citizens, then we cannot seriously talk about secession as „always justified”. It should be clear, that there are cases, when secession is not justified: that is, when rebels secede with intention of abandoning the non-aggression principle. If so, they are not allowed to freely secede and live, as they want (and they want to initiate invasive violence against others). They could be forced to resign from their political program and adopt the universal one – the libertarian code.[15] But someone could ask: „Why should it be a libertarian code, and not the Marxist one, or Islamic sharia law, or any other?” And can we avoid the problem that someone could not agree for our rational rules, such as: not killing, not murdering, not raping and not stealing from each other? Probably not. And we are going to violently deal with such people. As wrote Jan Narveson:

Every theory has to face the prospect that some people will claim to have no use of morality. With those people, all we can say is that we, the rest of mankind, are in principle at war with them—because they, after all, are at war with us.[16]

Conclusion

Walter Block provides an intransigent and mordant, but somewhat quaint defense of secession. He is absolutely right in building premises for his claims, but, as I tried to point out, that he failed to prove his, to some extent too enthusiastic, thesis, which is, that every act of secession is per se justified. His conclusions built on the correct premises is reaching too far, and must either lead him to self-contradictory definition of „secession” and/or „independence”, or he should soften his main argument. To say, that there is an absolute right to secede is to say, that no one can dictate you any rule, either moral or legal (even the libertarian non-aggression principle!). Otherwise, the right to secede is not absolute, since the only universal and undoubtedly fundamental rule of libertarianism is not the „political freedom” but freedom from uninvited, invasive initiation of aggression by others. Because some forms of secession could include initiation of aggression (and historically speaking, some cases of secession did so), they cannot be considered lawful from libertarian perspective.

References:

Block, Walter. 2002. „Secession”, LewRockwell.com, article available on the web page: https://www.lewrockwell.com/2002/07/walter-e-block/if-at-first-you-dont-secede-2/

Buchanan, Allen, „Secession”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/secession/&gt;.

Comegna, Anthony. 2016. “Why Did the Southern States Secede?”, Libertarianism.org, article available at: https://www.libertarianism.org/columns/why-did-southern-states-secede

Mises, Ludwig von. 2000. Liberalism in the Classical Tradition, Ludwig von Mises Institute (online edition). Available at: https://mises.org/library/liberalism-classical-tradition

Narveson, Jan. 2016. „Contractarianism”, in: A. R. Powell, G. Babcock, Arguments for Liberty, Cato Institute, Washington.

Jones, Peter, „Group Rights”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2016/entries/rights-group/&gt;.

[1] We should note that this interpretation would not be obvious for non-libertarians, such as proponents of Plebiscitary Theory of secession, and its critics – both sides consider secession regarding majority opinion, as describes Buchanan(2017):

The core idea is that the basic moral equality of persons requires that they have an equal say in the decisions that determine the basic character of their polity. But it appears that this justification for democracy does not imply that the decision whether to secede should be determined unilaterally by a majority in favor of secession in a portion of the territory of an existing state as opposed to being determined by a majority of all the citizens.

As we see, there is a major misunderstanding here, about who really needs the justification for his actions, and also about whom the land belongs to. Buchanan suggests, that secessionist have to justify their claim to the land occupied by original state, and later, he even writes, that they do not have obvious right to use force against state agents. Libertarians would reply, that also the state agents do not have right to interfere with secessionists bodies and property (e.g. force them to pay taxes), and if they interfere, rebels acquire moral right to defend themselves and their property against state agents.

[2] This kind of responsibility is incoherent with libertarian self-ownership, since if A commits a sinful act, e.g. commits a crime, then for B to be responsible for this crime would mean, either that B controls A, or A in some mystical way transgress into B, and B could be punished for A deeds. So, either we have a kind of slavery, or it is a bee-hive collective mind-set. Both are incompatible with libertarianism. 

[3] Comegna (2016)

[4] With the exactly opposite view reader can acknowledge himself in: Jones (2016).

[5] Mises (2000, pp. 109–10).

[6] Of course, for libertarianism, there is no such thing as „historic context” and slavery is a crime no matter what people think about this institution and independently from its legal status. We are replacing slavery with other crimes just for making discussion clearer of cultural and historical distortions in reader’s judgment. The additional virtue of that is showing that there is no real difference between slavery and murder or rape: they all are individual rights violations.

[7] He can, of course, announce his secession with absolutely no knowledge of future abolition enactment. Would it be completely another case? What moral or legal claims could his neighbors have against him then? These are also interesting questions, but, since we are discussing with Mr. Block’s point, which contains the Confederated States secession case mostly – where slave-owners seceded with intention to keep their institution of slavery, we would stop here.

[8] The best examples are known in Soviet Union or III Reich history, but these are not the only cases. Almost all civilizations and their legal systems used to legalize some murders, either because of religious factors, or other „higher causes”. The second factor is most common, for example: death penalties for spies, cowards on the battlefield, traitors, saboteurs, state enemies etc.

[9] That would be a regional autonomy.

[10] A barbarous act of cutting-off part of clitoris (and sometimes other body parts), which is done to the young girls. More: https://www.healthdictionary.info/Clitorectomy.htm

[11] Another, savage tradition of burning alive the wife of dead man. More: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sati_(practice)

[12] But it is expected to be much more effective, since for the private security company and private arbitraging court it is crucial to provide the best possible services to its customers. On the free market long court-trials, lazy police-officers and ineffective detectives would go bankrupt. In contrast, ineffective state-law enforcement agencies are not interested in providing high-quality protection services to the public, since they are paid by government, raising funds through taxation, so the market profit/loss mechanism does not work in the case of public police and justice system.

[13] How can you call a political entity „independent” one, if foreign police officers are free to enter it’s territory as they wish, or close it’s borders and isolate it incarcerating every person, who tries to go there.

[14] We ought to stress that it is not a scenario of, more or less voluntary going by foreign law, like in the case of international agreements or treaties, since the „seceding” rebels are not agreeing for anything. They are forcibly made to.

[15] We, libertarians, would not oppose such order of matters, since we adhere to non-aggression principle, and there is no surprise in that libertarians want everyone to obey this rule. What I’am trying to express here is not a critique of libertarian axiom, but to show the incoherence between such universal rule and „always justified” interpretation of secession, as provided by Mr. Block.

[16] Narveson (2016. p. 140).

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