Archive | July 2, 2007

By the Numbers

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

In the latest (August 2007) issue of Liberty, Bruce Ramsey writes:

A libertarian blog considered the argument, raised by antisecessionists, that a region can’t secede without paying back some common liability to the nation. The most obvious one is the national debt.

The blogger asked the reader to accept that argument for a moment, and apply it to the individual. Would we ban an individual from moving out of his country because he hadn’t paid his share of the national debt? No. It would be barbaric to do that. East Germany used an argument like that for why it wouldn’t let citizens cross the barbed wire. And so, if we would not apply that to an individual, logically we cannot apply it to a region. Therefore, a region can secede, irrespective of any liability to the country it is part of.

No Exit And I thought: here is an argument wholly uninterested in consequences – such consequences as what the liability is, how big it is, who was supposed to pay it, and who will have to pay it now. Such arguments absolve libertarians from having to think about any of that stuff. The principle is all that matters – though it occurs to me that if your principle allows you to get away with all that, maybe you have the wrong.

The argument also implies that quantity doesn’t matter. If one person can do a thing, 5 million can. But life isn’t like that. One dog defecates on your lawn and you are annoyed; 5 million do it, and you are inundated. Your problem is of a different quality. Quantity becomes a quality.

And yes, I know, there is the problem of drawing a line. The philosophers ask how many grains of sand it takes to make a heap, and I do not have the answer. But the fact is, there are grains and there are heaps, and they are not the same.

I suspect I may be the “libertarian blogger” to whom Mr. Ramsey refers. At any rate, I gave precisely this argument in a May 23rd post. If so (or even if not), let me reply to his criticisms.

Berlin Wall First: I certainly do not regard consequences as irrelevant to political conclusions. As I’ve argued here and here, consequences are among the factors to be taken into account in framing general principles. But that’s precisely where consequences need to be taken into account – in the initial framing of the principles. Waiting until principles are already in place and then suddenly throwing them out when the consequences go the wrong way is inconsistent with the concept of “principles” – and incidentally is a policy with reliably bad consequences. Now, are the potential consequences of secession so horrendous that in framing our principles we should abandon self-determination and allow prohibition of secession? If so, Mr. Ramsey owes us an argument for that remarkable conclusion, rather than simply an unsupported assertion that anyone who favours the right to secession must be indifferent to consequences.

Second: I also certainly don’t regard quantity as irrelevant either. On the contrary, I’ve endorsed Marilyn Frye’s birdcage argument in the comments section of this post. My observations above apply here as well, however.

But, perhaps most importantly, third: Mr. Ramsey’s invocation of consequences and quantity is a complete red herring. It has nothing to do with the issue at hand. My argument was that if a certain argument worked against permitting secession, it would also work against permitting emigration. Mr. Ramsey spins this into a contrast between single individuals and large groups. But what do numbers have to do with it? Mr. Ramsey seems to be assuming that emigration involves single individuals while secession involves large numbers. But where does this assumption come from? The would-be secessionist region might be a township of 50 souls, while the number of would-be emigrants might be in the millions. If Mr. Ramsey really thinks that the numbers matter so much here, then he is logically committed to forbidding emigration if the numbers get high enough. But I suspect that he would, to his credit, be reluctant to embrace such a blatant enslavement of his fellow citizens. Yet if so, then his opposition to prohibiting emigration turns out not to depend on consequences and/or quality after all. And so my original question remains: if prohibiting emigration is unacceptable, what is the difference between emigration and secession that supposedly makes prohibiting secession acceptable? For as we’ve seen, it can’t be the numbers.

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