Is there a Libertarian right to secession? The majority of Libertarians would answer in the affirmative. Moreover, Libertarians have historically been supportive of secessionist movements all over the world, including many current secessionist or secession-lite movements, such as “Brexit” in the United Kingdom and the “Texit” or “Cal-Exit” movements in Texas and California, respectively. However, the secession question is more complicated than most Libertarians realize.
For instance, there are examples of secession that Libertarians would not be eager to support. The German-majority population in the Sudetenland seceded from Czechoslovakia to join Nazi Germany in 1938, but Libertarians wouldn’t think to endorse secession when a region became more authoritarian as a direct consequence. One could also imagine many other similar circumstances where communist or socialist groups desire to break away from less statist countries because of their desire to increase government control. For a Libertarian to approve of such an arrangement would be tantamount to approving potential increases in the power and scope of the state, which most Libertarians would not sit comfortably with.
In times of intellectual distress, Libertarians often turn to pure Libertarian theory — predicated on the Non-Aggression Principle and the protection of property rights — as a guide. However, there is not a clear answer here either. If we look at states as essentially being mafia-esque groups, then the essence of secession is declaring independence from one mafia group and joining or creatin another mafia group of your own. Under Libertarian theory, it doesn’t seem as if there is any justification for secession as such.
There are several different avenues that the Libertarian thinker can take in response to these difficulties. One could adopt the position that secession should only be conditionally supported — specifically under the condition of whether or not it will reduce state power and aggression. In the case of the Sudetenland Germans, their secession to Nazi Germany would be condemned on the grounds that state aggression against that population has been increased as a result of their defection. In another situation where the population would become freer as a result of the secession, however, the Libertarian would approve of such an action.
As attractive and simple as this solution is, it is troublingly ill-defined. How exactly are we supposed to measure if a state power in a region has increased or decreased? If, for example, regulations on businesses have been removed as a result of the change in government, but taxes have increased, is state aggression more or less acute than before? Similarly, on what time span are we measuring these “aggregate state power” levels? If as a result of a secession, a region becomes more authoritarian over a period of thirty years, but then becomes less oppressive for the following fifty years, are we as Libertarians to support this secession or not? Moreover, even if this argument of secession-conditional-on-outcomes can be defended, it doesn’t seem to fit neatly into the corpus of Libertarian ethical theory. Libertarians pride themselves on having an intellectually consistent, rigorous theory. Having a position on secession as being contingent only on the outcomes involved as opposed to relying on a universal principle seems out of place, if nothing else.
Nevertheless, a Libertarian solution to the question of secession — one that is both consistent with Libertarian theory and a principled stance on the matter — is not out of reach. But first, we must look closer at this concept of “secession” to parse out the correct Libertarian stance on the topic.
Strictly speaking, what we generally refer to as “secession” involves two separate actions, not just one. First, there is the assertion of independence from another state. Second, there is the joining or establishment of another state. While these two often happen simultaneously, or near-simultaneously, they are two distinct and separate actions. Despite the frequent synchronization between the two, it isn’t necessarily true that a state will be created or joined after secession is declared. For example, if an Anarchist or Libertarian community were to secede from a nation, they would obviously forgo any establishment of a state as a function of their ideology. To help further differentiate between these two elements, I will refer to “secession” to denote only the breaking away of one region from another, whereas “state formation/annexation” denote either the creation of or joining a state after secession has taken place.
But if we can identify secession and formation/annexation, then we must evaluate each of these elements independent of each other. If we amalgamate them together, then we miss the nuances of the nature of both of these actions. This results in two questions which must be answered. What is the Libertarian view on secession, and what is the Libertarian view on formation/annexation?
It would behoove us to return to our analogy of the state as a mafia group. From a Libertarian ethical perspective, there is no problem at all in declaring oneself free from the oppression of a mafia group. The mafia — as a function of its very existence — initiates aggression against non-violent individuals. If it didn’t do so, then it wouldn’t be a mafia! Freeing oneself from this oppressive entity is perfectly justified under a Libertarian framework (providing any violence used in removing oneself from mafia control is not greater than the violence of the mafia itself). The same is true for the individual and the state. The state’s authority over him is ethically illegitimate, and thus, he may endeavor to remove himself from under the state’s authority at any time. Consequently, the Libertarian should both support and affirm the right of any group, community, or province to secede from the rule of a state.
Conversely, there is no Libertarian justification for the joining with or formation of a mafia group. To do so would entail — as a function of your membership — initiating aggression against non-violent actors. Doing so is strictly prohibited by a Libertarian system of ethics. Even if the mafia group you are joining is less aggressive than other mafia groups operating around it (by whatever metric used to discern that), joining is still not permitted. The correct course of action from a Libertarian view would not to join any mafia group at all! This answers our second question: Libertarian ethics does not in any way permit the joining or creation of a state.
As a result, there is a Libertarian right to secession, but only secession. There is no Libertarian right to state formation/annexation after secession has occurred. Thus, in the traditional course of “secession”, only one of the two actions taken are justified. Independence from a state — or mafia group, if we wish to keep with the analogy — is permitted by Libertarian ethics, but the forming of new state associations afterwards is not.
A point of clarification is needed here: this does not mean that Libertarians cannot support secessionist movements, even when it is clear that they will join or create a state after their secession is complete. Even when this is a firmly stated (no pun intended) end of the secessionist, this does not disqualify them from Libertarian support. They are not disqualified from their right to secession, as the question of whether or not they can secede is completely unrelated from what actions are taken after the secession is complete. This extends even to staunch statist groups whose sole purpose in seceding is to create an even larger state apparatus. The only circumstances where the right to secede may be voided is where the act of secession itself involves greater violence than that being employed against them by the state. For example, if a secessionist group, in their efforts to win independence, decided to launch a nuclear strike against state forces, then these secessionist efforts should be unreservedly condemned! Similarly, if the secessionist forces inflict violence (intentionally or otherwise) against the civilian population in excess of the violence being levied against them by the state, their movement would be unjustified as well.
Even if Libertarians affirm the right of secession, should Libertarians be eager to lend their support to secessionist groups in practice? Well, it depends. Libertarians should favor those secessionist groups that lead to more liberty-saturated outcomes. However, as was noted above, determining this is not always easy or clear. Nevertheless, in those cases where it is clear that secession will lead to more and greater liberty in a region, those secession movements should be supported. The Sudentland Germans are an obvious example of secessionists that Libertarians should avoid, but there are many more movements that would warrant Libertarian support. Additionally, one could make the argument that any secessionist movements should be supported, as breaking up larger states into smaller ones will almost certainly have a net positive effect for liberty. However, that would require a separate article altogether.
It is a hallmark of Libertarianism that the positions it holds are detailed, nuanced, and philosophically consistent. Its position on secession should be no different. The vast majority of Libertarians affirm the right to secession, and should continue to do so. However, they should be clear that this right extends only to — and only to — secession away from the clutches of the state. There is a right to escape from state oppression, but never to create or impose new oppression after the fact. Libertarians should continue to support the rights of peoples to separate from this oppression — at least as long as we can put an “-xit” on the end of the name.