Monday, May 18, 2020

Secession, Foot Voting, and Self-Determination

Guest Blogger

For the Symposium on Timothy William Waters's Boxing Pandora: Rethinking Borders, States, and Secession in a Democratic World (Yale University Press, 2020) and F. H. Buckley's American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup (Encounter Books, 2020).

Ilya Somin

The conventional wisdom on secession is that it is rarely justified and should only be used as a last resort for escaping severe oppression, as a means of “decolonization,” or perhaps to give autonomy to some  ethnic group that deserves a state of its own. In different ways, Timothy William Waters and my George Mason University colleague Frank Buckley offer powerful challenges to that conventional wisdom. Waters contends that any group that wins a majority-vote referendum within a given territory with a population of at least 1 million people should have a presumptive right to secede and form their own independent state. Buckley suggests that the people of the United States might be better off if secession movements resulted in its partition, though he ultimately shies away from recommending such a course of action.

Waters and Buckley are right to argue that secession is justifiable in a wider range of circumstances than conventionally thought. But I am not convinced that secession rights should be as ubiquitous as the former advocates, or that the world would be a better place if secession led to the breakup of the United States. Both Waters and Buckley also do not give sufficient weight to some significant downsides of secession, such as the role of political ignorance in promoting secession movements, and the danger that the newly established governments might be severely oppressive. For these reasons, the problems that secessionists seek to address will often be better managed through decentralization of power within federal systems and expansion of opportunities for people to “vote with their feet.”

Waters’ Boxing Pandora is perhaps the most sophisticated and compelling argument for broad secession rights to date. If we value self-determination, he argues, why not extend the right to form new nations to a much wider range of groups than currently possess it? That way, as Waters puts it, “more individuals [could] rule themselves, in communities reflecting their preferences.” Fewer would be trapped in states whose policies they abhor or – worse still -where they are doomed to be permanent minorities.

Waters’ approach would obviate the need for arguments about historical group rights to territory and claims to statehood based on race, ethnicity, or culture. As he points out, this expands the right of self- determination to more people and groups. I would add that it would also reduce the morally dubious practice organizing states based on racial or ethnic discrimination. If we generally reject such discrimination in other contexts, it is not clear why it should be permitted when it comes to eligibility to establish a new nation or become a citizen of an existing one.  Waters’ analysis also effectively addresses a range of practical problems with expanded secession rights, such as how to set up secession plebiscites, and whether it is just for the new nation to claim ownership over resources within its control.

Whereas Waters outlines a general theory, Buckley focuses on the United States. He suggests that increasing polarization and hostility between right and left strengthens the case for breaking up the US into two or more nations. That way, both “Red” and “Blue” states could rule themselves as they see fit. He also buttresses his case with statistical evidence indicating that smaller nations on average outperform large ones on such metrics as self-reported happiness, corruption, and indicators of political freedom.

There is great merit in Waters’ case for expanded secession rights, and in particular for decoupling the right to form new governments from ethnicity and culture. Buckley, for his part, is right to argue that the US has become dangerously polarized, and excessively centralized.

Nonetheless, I have reservations about their case for expanded secession rights, both generally, and in the specific context of the US. A big problem neither seriously considers is whether voter decisions on secession are likely to be well-informed. Survey data from both the US and around the world indicate that political ignorance is widespread. Only about 25 to 35 percent of Americans can even name the three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. Most of the public has little understanding of which officials are responsible for which issues, how the government spends it money, and sometimes even which party controls which house of Congress. Perhaps even worse, voters also do a poor job of evaluating the information they do know, often assessing it in a highly biased way.

These problems are not a result of stupidity, but rather (for the most part) of rational behavior arising from the fact that a single vote has so little chance of changing the outcome of an election. Thus, it becomes rational for most voters to pay little attention to political issues, and to make little effort to objectively evaluate the information they do learn.

Secession referenda are no exception to this pattern. Those who vote in them may be ignorant of basic relevant facts, as seems to have been the case in the 2016 UK Brexit referendum. Despite Waters’ laudable advocacy of an identity-neutral right to secession, many secession efforts will nonetheless be based on racial or ethnic nationalism. This heightens the risk that voters who participate will be influenced by bias and do a poor job of evaluating the evidence. Ethnic conflict is rarely conducive to dispassionate, rational consideration of issues.

Mistakes based on ignorance and prejudice may not matter much if the secessionists are trying to separate from a brutally oppressive government. In that scenario, the secessionist could hardly be worse. But such errors are likely to be more important in cases where the relative merits of competing regimes are less obvious. A broad general right of secession would increase the number of situations where secession movements arise in more ambiguous circumstances where the new regime could potentially end up being worse than the old.

Voter ignorance and bias also increase the risk that secession movements will lead to creation of unjust states that abuse newly created minorities within their midst. To the extent that ethnic conflict leading to secession often creates a sense there is a zero-sum game between ethnic groups, the new state may turn out to be just as bad or worse than the old when it comes to its treatment of minorities.

Waters argues we need not worry too much about secessionists abusing human rights, because evidence indicates that they are not, on average, worse than existing governments. But expanded secession rights can increase the range of groups who attempt secession, and thereby pave the way for more illiberal movements to do so. And even if secessionists are not worse than unionists on average, it would still be preferable to limit secessionism in ways that screen out the most illiberal movements of this type.

This issue is also relevant to Buckley’s optimistic assessment of potential secession within the US, as well as to lesser-developed nations. The red-blue division on the national level is replicated within nearly every individual state, all of which contain large minorities who oppose the dominant political tendency within it. These minorities would be vulnerable if their states seceded, especially if there was no longer freedom of movement between the new nation and the “rump” US.

A second problem with greatly expanding secession rights is the risk of violence. Many governments are likely to fight to block secession movements, and indeed secession attempts are a frequent cause of bloody civil wars. This would not be true if existing governments accepted Waters’ theory. Buckley, for his part, assures us that violent resistance to secession is unlikely in the US today.  But, at least for the foreseeable future, it seems unlikely that many governments will accept a theory that poses a serious threat to their control of their territory. Moreover, if the secessionist region includes a significant minority that wishes to remain part of its current state, that will increase the latter’s political incentive to resist secession with violence.

This point applies to the US, as well as to many other nations. If, for example, Texas sought to secede to form a more conservative nation, it would be strongly opposed by the large liberal minority, concentrated on major cities such as Houston and Austin. If California were to try to secede to form a progressive nation, there would be similar opposition from the state’s large conservative minority. In such a situation, the federal government (by assumption, controlled by the political party opposed to the one seeking to secede) would have strong political incentives to block secession in order to rescue its beleaguered ideological soulmates.

Buckley’s argument for secession rights within the US is also subject to objections specific to that country. One relates to the status of the US as the most powerful nation in the world. For all its serious flaws, US primacy in the international system has contributed to the development of a liberal international order that has provide many millions of people with greater freedom and prosperity than they would likely have otherwise. If the US were to break up, the resulting international system – with much greater influence by authoritarian powers such as China and Russia – would likely be worse.  The breakup of the US – even if it were better for Americans – could potentially create serious negative externalities for the world as a whole.

Buckley’s contention that size is at the root of America’s current problems is also questionable. As he notes, the US has historically outperformed other large nations on a wide range of metrics. Even if “big is bad” is a good general rule, it may not hold for the US, given its political culture and institutions. The metrics he uses also don’t always sufficiently control for other variables, though space precludes detailed examination here.
Given the dangers of expanded secession rights, it may not be prudent to move as far in that direction as Waters and Buckley suggest. Instead, it might be preferable to combine more modest expansion of secession rights with increasing opportunities for people to “vote with their feet.”

Buckley suggests as much in the last part of his book, where he concludes that, despite his generally favorable assessment of secession, the US might be better off with greater decentralization of power to the state and local level, enabling people to vote with their feet between different jurisdictions. Although Buckley may not agree, interjurisdictional foot voting could be combined with expanding opportunities for people to vote with their feet in the private sector, and through international migration. I offer a more detailed case for expanding all three in my just-published book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom.

Like secession, expanding foot voting opportunities would enable more people to escape governments they abhor and live under those whose policies they like better. But foot voting also has three major advantages over secessionism. One is that foot voters can make individually decisive choices. If allowed to migrate freely, each individual or household would have a high chance of determining their own fate, as opposed to casting a vote in a referendum that has only infinitesimal chance of affecting the result. This is both valuable in itself, and incentivizes foot voters to be better-informed than ballot box voters. Empirical evidence indicates they generally are.

The second big advantage of expanded foot voting over secession rights is that the former is much less likely to lead to violence or war, because it does not pose anywhere near as grave a threat to existing governments. Expanding foot voting opportunities is often politically difficult. But it is usually less so than carving out entire new nations from the territory of existing ones.

Finally, foot voting has an important edge over secession because it is easier to expand incrementally. Secession is generally an all-or-nothing proposition. Either a new nation is formed on part of the territory of the old, or not. By contrast, we can incrementally expand foot voting opportunities. Even if we cannot achieve full “open borders” or even full freedom of movement within existing nations, we can expand migration rights in a variety of limited ways. Similarly, we can incrementally expand foot voting opportunities within nations by decentralizing or privatizing some functions of the state, even if many others remain under the control of the national government.

Obviously, there are potential downsides to foot voting. I address many of them in greater depth in Free to Move. But in several ways, it offers greater hope for expanding political freedom than secession.

Ilya Somin is Professor of Law at George Mason University. You can reach him by e-mail at isomin at gmu.edux

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