If we can’t live without states, then, it may be better to have actually _more_ of them.


As the President of the Catalonian region and wannabe government Carles Puigdemont flew for Belgium, the entire cause of Catalan secessionism appears endangered. Nine of his ministers have been jailed. By fleeing to Belgium, Puigdemont is actually doing the opposite of escaping: he is trying to bring the Catalan cause to the heart of the European Union, searching for support. Or so his supporters think. Civil disobedience is certainly admirable, but the threat of arrest is a serious one and the impulse to run away is simply human, and I feel a lot of sympathy for that.

Going back to the Catalan issue itself, Jason Sorens has put together an excellent summary of the arguments in favour of the Catalonian secession. I think Jason is fairly representing both the arguments in favour and those against secession from a moderate, classical liberal viewpoint, including the argument that more than “a threshold like 52.5% or 55%, not 50% plus one” would be needed for secession. He points out that if, on October 1, 75% turned out for the referendum, even “if every single one of those additional voters voted no, the pro-independence vote would still outnumber the anti-independence vote”. Read the whole thing, it is worth it.

An interesting but sad side effect of the Catalan story is that it points to a growing difference of approach between Spanish libertarians, and libertarians elsewhere. To understand why, I recommend this article by Alvaro Vargas Llosa.

So argues Alvaro:

Whatever one’s position, when considering the Catalan issue one should take into account that the region’s nationalist movement places a collectivist notion, the “Catalan nation”, above individual rights. The majority of Catalans, who oppose independence, believe that their individual rights are protected by the Spanish constitution and the system of “autonomous communities” put in place, and approved in a referendum, during the transition from dictatorship to liberal democracy. Those were not perfect documents by any means. The financial arrangements that sustain the system of autonomous communities, for example, should be more decentralized and give Spaniards much more power over how their taxes are collected and spent. But compared to any other time in its history, Spain’s liberal democracy gives its citizens a significant measure of freedom.

For a libertarian, it will never be enough, but for millions of Catalans who would like the system of autonomous communities, which by international standards is significantly decentralized, just remaining in Spain is a better option than allowing a group of nationalists to unilaterally break away and impose on them the highly statist policies that Catalan nationalist parties stand for (and the violent methods used by some nationalist organizations).

Jason answers to that, too but while I do not necessarily agree with Alvaro on the point (it is hardly clear to me that “the majority of Catalans oppose independence” – if that was true, why all this fuss?), we need to come to grips with a sad but true fact.

This sad but true fact is that the reasons for which libertarians are enthusiastic about secession are not necessarily the reasons why people support it.

Why do libertarians approve of secession?

For one, because we think “the right of self determination” to be an important one. The boundaries of political community tend not to coincide with the boundaries of communities people want to be part of. It is one thing to talk of “nations by consent”, but any nations, including newly formed ones, will necessarily include somebody who doesn’t particularly share the sense of belonging of her fellow citizens. I’m sure that in Catalonia you have provinces that are more, and provinces that are less, enthusiastic about leaving Spain. But, in full awareness of this imperfection, if the Catalans overwhelmingly want to be subject to a Catalan government, a Catalan republic is certainly less imperfect than Spain as it is now.

Another reason we libertarians like secession is that we think that power is dangerous. Sovereign states are all-powerful entities which can do very bad things to their subjects. If we can’t live without states, then, it may be better to have actually _more_ of them. Smaller states may have an harder time in becoming despotic. More governmental pluralism per se decreases the cost of leaving one country for another, which emphasizes individuals’ liberty to move around and choose the more agreeable jurisdiction. But more government pluralism should also increase institutional competition: being threatened by the possibility that people (and businesses) leave to pay their taxes somewhere else, governments should try to appeal to them, perhaps cutting taxes and regulations.

Jason Sorens argues convincingly that, “The more Spain punishes Catalonia for the independence process, the more desirable independence becomes, because the more obvious it becomes that Spain is willing to harm Catalans for its own political purposes”. But then he adds that “the choice is between being ignored, exploited, and trampled forever or suffering those costs all at once for a chance at living free and prosperous forever”. The problem, to me, is the magnitude of those costs.

How much of social peace, by which I mean the possibility for the average guy to live an ordered life, is worth sacrificing for political independence? Will all costs in the short run be balanced by benefits in the long run? But if these costs involve the destruction of private property, let alone human lives, can it be true?

The Spanish government, which has de facto reined in Catalan autonomy, is planning new elections for December. The secessionists seem determined to take part in it, therefore recognizing their legitimacy.

It seems to me that this is a time when the old cry “we need rules” is for once totally legitimate, and wise. Rules are not devices to make people “behave well”. Their rationale is to avoid conflict, or reduce its impact. In this instance, it is clear that we do need rules that could be accepted by both parts as fair: for example, a new referendum for independence, with a quorum and requiring a super-majority. Spain should demand that, at the same time accepting that the new state, if it ever comes to life, shouldn’t be kept out of the EU by a Spanish veto (membership applications require unanimity support).

All of these “negotiations” are, of course, out of constitutions and out of the EU treaties. But this is inevitable: this impasse is a novel situation. You can pretend it doesn’t exist because the Catalans’ requests do not fit into the Constitutions. Or you can try to work to make an ordered resolution possible.

Mr Rajoy has been so far strongly opposed to that. This is where I find my Spanish friends, who are critical of Catalan nationalism, to be in their weakest spot. It seems the Spanish leadership is actively engaged in building consensus over, well, nationalism: be bold and make them stay, willing or not! In what sense is this nationalism less nationalistic than the Catalan one? It is not clear to me. You may argue that smaller groups are likely to be more oppressive of minorities, because they are smaller and more homogeneous. Yet there I do not see the evidence that shall bring us to claim that this will be the case with Catalonia.

In this political conflict, overarching ideological buzzwords are being generously and emphatically used on both sides, but people are driven by quite different reasons. It may well be that you have always disliked your neighbour, and now you got a chance to take at him, because he belongs to a different ethnic/religious/political group than yours. The more we move away from a peaceful debate over independence to something that resembles civil war (which I hope it is not going to happen), these motivations are going to play a bigger and bigger part. People are not very likely to risk their life and their property for a reward so vague to them as Catalonia being independent: but they might to grab someone else’s property, or to take vengeance against what they consider unjustly privileged classes, or just to get rid of people they deem inferior or hostile.

As the situation gets more serious and tense, I think men of good will should try to agree on a process, more than go on arguing they’re right.

I maintain, on balance, secession and more government pluralism would be good to weaken the potential evil inherent in nation states.

But this is easy to claim if, as I’m sure many of my fellow secessionist libertarians do, we basically assume that the costs of separating are small and temporary, and do not involve major destruction. But if they are not?