…it seems to me that what fits within classical liberalism is a defense of the right to secede, and such right should be uphold no matter what is the possible output, when it comes to political economy choices, of the future born state.


Pierre Lemieux has written a very thoughtful post in reply to an older post of mine about Catalonia. Pierre makes a series of very interesting arguments, but two stand out.

The first one is a somewhat classic discussion. Pierre maintains that a larger state can be less oppressive precisely because it is less homogeneous. The higher degree of homogeneity of a smaller state would make it easier for such homogeneity to be kept, coercively, therefore closing the door to immigrants or ostracizing people whose preferences appear “deviant” as opposed to those dominant in society.

This is not a new argument, but it is an important one. It bears some rather obvious exceptions: Hong Kong is freer, more tolerant, and more open to strangers than the Republic of China, for example. And yet this argument sounds compelling, as a general rule.

The counter-argument was first advanced by David Hume, in his essay “Of the rise and progress of arts and science“. To such progress, Hume argues, a multiplicity of sovereigns is actually agreeable.

“Extended governments, where a single person has great influence, soon become absolute”, so Hume writes…

“but small ones change naturally into commonwealths. A large government is accustomed by degrees to tyranny; because each act of violence is at first performed upon a part, which, being distant from the majority, is not taken notice of, nor excites any violent ferment. … large states can afford a great expence, in order to support the pomp of majesty; this is a kind of fascination on men, and naturally contributes to the enslaving of them… In a small government, any act of oppression is immediately known throughout the whole: The murmurs and discontents, proceeding from it, are easily communicated: And the indignation arises the higher, because the subjects are not apt to apprehend in such states, that the distance is very wide between themselves and their sovereign”.

Sure Pierre is speaking of extended governments which are republics, as the United States, and not monarchies. But perhaps bigger states still beat in pomposity little ones. It seems to be that their need to invest in symbols is more marked than smaller governments’.

Pierre’s second argument is that there is no correlation between “economic freedom” (as it is assessed by international rankings, such as the one published by the Fraser Institute) and state size. He takes “the point correlation is not causation; but neither is non-correlation” but he argues that “from my simple statistical analysis, one conclusion follows: whatever the arguments for the outlook of liberty under secession as opposed to existing national unity, there is no empirical evidence that the size of a country has any effect one way or another”. It seems to me that Economic Freedom Indexes tend not to take into account the extent of public spending, even measured as a percentage of GDP. I’d be interested in Pierre looking into correlations (or perhaps lack thereof) between “bigger states” (in the sense of public spending as a percentage of GDP) and population.

But my rejoinder would actually be different. Suppose indeed secessionist movements tend to be run by socialists, as Pierre alludes to, thinking of Catalonia but also of Quebec. Would that be enough for libertarians to take a stance against the right to secede?

It seems to me that “when in the Course of human events” some people deem it “necessary” for it “to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another”, they should be allowed to. The key issue to me becomes for this process to be peaceful, smooth, and governed by rules that avoid a tiny minority imposing upon everybody else.

In other words, it seems to me that what fits within classical liberalism is a defense of the right to secede, and such right should be uphold no matter what is the possible output, when it comes to political economy choices, of the future born state.

Why? I won’t appeal to any higher doctrine. It seems to me rather simply that doing the opposite would be worse, that forcing people to stay together even if they don’t want to is less acceptable and less liberal.

Pierre’s point that size and economic freedom aren’t correlated just reminds us that politics is always a dreadfully difficult thing, in which many factors are at play at the same time and, of course, unintended consequences may be more relevant of intended ones. But it doesn’t look to me an argument to deny the right to secede to those who want to make use of it.