Thursday, December 06, 2012

is secession a right?

mises | The issue has been addressed with unsurpassed clarity by one of the foremost of all classical liberals, Ludwig von Mises.
The right 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.[5]
Mises emphasizes that this right
extends to 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.[6]
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 wars."[7] Mises's 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 beneficial consequences.


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