A Half-Truth, Not a Halfway House: National Independence and You

The fifty-five percent of the eighty-five percent of the people who were allowed to vote in the Scottish independence referendum and actually did so, has decided that the UK is indeed “better together”. Or – what is apparently the same thing – Scotland has decided that it should not be an independent country. For a lot of libertarians this has been, and still is, an issue of great importance. So much so that the victory of the No campaign has even led to some conspiracy theorizing – although when roughly one quarter of the Scottish population is employed by the British government and another quarter lives off British state pensions, bringing in MI5, the CIA, Mossad, and shape-shifting lizards to ‘explain’ the result is probably overkill. Fantasies aside, secession is thought to be an inherently liberal thing, and national independence movements something we should get behind. But why should this be?

The liberal aspect of secession comes from the “right to freedom of association”: men should be permitted to pick and choose with whom they associate. The idea that no one should be forced to interact with anyone else against their will is very widespread, and certainly not one whose appeal is limited to libertarians (though funnily enough it is the source of the only marginally less widespread idea that libertarianism is a racist philosophy). Aside from the sadly obligatory “rights-talk”, this is indeed a noble ideal, and one that when applied consistently leads directly to the ideal liberal order – anarchy. Anarchism is secession at the level of the individual. But just because at this level secession is liberal doesn’t neccessarily mean it is liberal at any other level; something that is missed by libertarians eager to get to the finish line, so to speak.

National independence movements seek to create an additional government – there is no getting around this brute fact. The choice is never “liberty or government”, only “this or that government”. So, what of secession at this ‘higher’ level? How is it achieved? What does achieving it involve? Obviously, we are here talking about the “will of the majority”, about democratic decisions. In other words, we are in the realm of collective choice (decisions made by some that are binding on all), and wherever there is collective choice individual choice has of necessity been overridden. If the question was “liberty or government?” then there might be a moral case for accepting a majority vote for anarchy and telling the statist minority they can lump it. But this is not what is being offered. No matter which way a man votes, he votes to impose unwanted rulers on others; he votes to impose his will (albeit by proxy) on others who must submit or else. Secession at the national level, like anything else at the national level, is neither liberal nor merely a-liberal. It is illiberal, pure and simple.

The sight of libertarians rooting for the creation of additional governments (governments, we should note, that will be staffed by people who are very keen on ruling), is one that I find baffling, not to say disappointing. This isn’t a specifically anarchist complaint, either. As Jasay reminds us (in ‘Is national rational?’), “A proliferation of governments is itself a wasteful phenomenon, making room for the growth of parasitism, even if the governments are just the average, indifferent sort.” And further (and with characteristic understatement), “That the multiplication of states should give rise to two good governments where only a bad or indifferent one existed before, is of course possible, but it is hard to see on what grounds one should expect such an outcome.”

Nevertheless, national independence is a big deal for many libertarians. Most likely this comes from their opposition to “big government”: break up a country and you get smaller government. But smaller is not less. There is no necessity for a government covering a smaller area to govern less; bigger government and bigger area governed are entirely different things. For example, North Korea, while not being of a particularly enormous size, seems to have no shortage of government.

Perhaps though, secessionist movements, as anti-government movements, will lead us at least some of the way to a voluntary society? This seems unlikely, if only because they are precisely not anti-government movements. The goal of secession is to replace a less legitimate state with a more legitimate one; a less “responsive”, less “efficient” state with a more “responsive”, more “efficient” one; a less stable state with a more long-lasting one. In short, the goal is to create a state that is better at being a state. Given what the state is, cheering these people on might not be the smartest idea.

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Buy one get one free, like it or not

Originally at Libertarian Home. It seems I got the wrong end of the stick at one point here. Richard’s “mutual defense associations” are just that, apparently. Although, as he gives no reason why these genuinely anarchist associations would become new states I’m now entirely at a loss as to his point. The stuff about specialist defense agencies below reflects my scepticism about traditional market anarchist responses to dealing with disputes in a voluntary society.

Richard Carey wrote a post about anarchy last week in response to a post of mine that was not about anarchy. My views on the possibility of anarchy (along with a corrective to Richard’s fond beliefs about “social contracts”) can be found in Anarchy, and nothing but anarchy, but there are a few criticisms of Richard’s post that I’ll make here.

Firstly, given the title of Richard’s post it’s unfortunate (not to say, ironic) that when it comes time for presenting us with an argument for why anarchy will fail, he instead  gives us this: men might band together in groups that could become states; these groups will become states. Clearly, there is a gap here. We could, if we were so inclined, put it like this:

1. There is a chance this will happen.
2. ?
3.This will definitely happen.

As I said, unfortunate; though quite understandable. Finding just the right South Park clip on Youtube to go with your snappy title is bound to be a very time consuming process, so naturally a man will have that much less time available to check that he hasn’t glossed over anything important. Still…

Much more serious, Richard gets the order wrong: “abolishing government” comes after “harmony among men”, in theory just as much as in practice. If we are reasoning from anarchy to government, then the conditions for anarchy must have existed. But what are those conditions? That the vast majority of people believe that human interaction is only just if it is voluntary. This being so, any “criminal” elements must be outnumbered by a tremendous margin – even more than they are now, and always have been, as it happens. This is not “idealism”: there are currently approximately 170,000 men, women and youths locked-up in the UK out of a population of approximately 64,000,000. Assuming everyone locked-up actually deserves to be, that’s 0.26%. Given that “big” criminals get “big” doing stuff that’s lucrative simply because it’s currently illegal, and given that unhampered markets will outperform state monopolies, I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over the prospect of the “bad guys” taking over if I were you, reader.

The “good guys”, the specialist defense agencies, taking over though? Well, that’s a far more serious problem; indeed, once created it may even be an unsolvable one. While we can point to various aspects and effects of unhampered markets (free entry, need for customer approval, cost of aggression,  free riding, etc) that would work against specialist agencies either alone or in concert becoming states once created, it is probably not worth the risk to invent principal-agent problems unneccessarily. My guess would be that this is why no anarchist society in history has created (perhaps tolerated is a better word) specialist defense agencies.

It’s worth noting that in Robert Nozick’s telling of the tale – which Richard is echoing – the minimal state is created by defense agencies forcing non-joiners (those who would occupy Richard’s second class: those who are happy to “keep aloof… [and] live peacefully and possibly self-sufficiently” – anarchists, in other words) to join, then “compensating” them according to its own satisfaction post facto. That is to say, the minimal state, whether inevitable or not, is most certainly not arrived at from anarchy in a manner “compatible with libertarian principles”. Perhaps this should give us pause.

Developing this point, it’s very interesting – for connoisseurs of all things compatible with libertarian principles at least – to note that in Richard’s post “natural rights” are both conspicuous and conspicuously absent; this is odd because he is usually terribly enthusiastic about them. They get a mention early on to justify the creation of the specialist defense agencies that may or will become the state, but by the time we get to the meat, they are gone: anarchy is rejected on practical grounds. 

Now, let’s say, for the sake of argument, that in practice anarchic societies are bound to devolve into a state-ridden societies. The question is, Is that a good enough reason for libertarians not to be anarchists? Can forcing those who are “aloof but peaceful” to join a state ever be compatible with libertarian principles? Unless we want to invent a “natural right to govern”, obviously not. But states surely must do this when they are formed, and they certainly continue to do this throughout their existence (there are anarchists after all, and one is all it takes). This being the case, it seems that libertarians, if they want to be true to their philosophy, must be anarchists.

Twitter @StrictlyLiberal

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