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 than its predecessor. Given what the state is, cheering all this on might not be the smartest idea.

Twitter @StrictlyLiberal

Google+ Rocco Bogpaper

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5 thoughts on “A Half-Truth, Not a Halfway House: National Independence and You

  1. You’re right: liberals would support the right to freedom of association. Fortunately the Scottish electorate decided, by 55% to 45%, to associate as Britons, not just as Scots. I think probably that’s better for liberal minds, isn’t it? Since Scots Nats were proposing to take Scotland the other way.

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    1. Thank you for your comment, JRH. I appreciate it.

      I should make it clear though, that my position is probably best summed up by the phrase “a pox on both your houses”.

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  2. An additional rational is that smaller states tend to be wealthier but i accept your point not necessarily more libertarian? Labour argument about Scottish independence was that it could turn into a race for the bottom in tax rates which also would be a benefit.

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    1. Labour were arguing *against* independence for fear that taxes would go down? Ha Ha! I didn’t know that. TBH, I hardly paid any attention to the referendum coverage at all.

      You’re quite right, though: it’s me being a grumpy libertarian.

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