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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7 Responses to By the Numbers

  1. Taylor July 3, 2007 at 10:40 am #


    I had commented on that original post so it was somewhat fresh in my mind still when I read this article by Ramsey in Liberty, which seemed to be referencing it.

    I didn’t really get Ramsey’s logic (and I am not sure I now get your half-concession concerning taking into account the consequences of numbers when shaping principles)… how is it that an individual would lose his right to property (including self) if a sufficient number of other people were to behave in the same, nonviolent manner as him? And who gets to decide the sufficient number?

    Can you explain that further?


  2. Administrator July 3, 2007 at 11:03 am #

    I didn’t say, and don’t believe, that “an individual would lose his right to property (including self) if a sufficient number of other people were to behave in the same, nonviolent manner as him.” The only concession I made was that the moral status of an action sometimes depends on how many other people are doing it. (I think this tends to affect primarily virtues otehr than justice — since part of the point of justice is that it needs to be less flexible and responsive to situational details than the otehr virtues.)

  3. Taylor July 3, 2007 at 1:27 pm #

    Thanks, I see where my confusion lies now.

    Ramsey seems to be speaking about political rights, in terms of what people should and shouldn’t be allowed to do, whereas you are speaking about morals in terms of what people should or shouldn’t do.

    Ramsey thinks there are certain actions which individuals should be prevented from carrying out if a number of other people are also engaged in the action. You are just saying that there are some things people should not participate in from a moral perspective if there are already too many people participating.

    Is that right? I think that’s what you are saying and what he is saying. If I am still confused, please patiently explain to me where I am going wrong.

    But this makes much more sense to me and I’d have to agree with you and still disagree with Ramsey.

    (On a somewhat unrelated note, is it just me or is Liberty going “soft” in the sense that there are more writers taking a classical liberal, minarchist, “meh, government ain’t too bad, and here’s what I think it should do” spin, and less and less radicals going for the an-cap, voluntaryist, individualist approach? Sometimes I feel like I am reading National Review, especially in the section after letters when I know I am reading something that was written by self-proclaimed classical-liberal Gary Jason many paragraphs before I see his signature!)

  4. Joshua Lyle July 4, 2007 at 12:12 am #

    By my understanding there’s a simple illustrative case to be cited where this principle of numbers applies: driving. Driving on the right side of the road is the right thing to do, morally, politically, and practically if and only if most everyone else drives on the right side of the road.

  5. Otto Kerner July 4, 2007 at 10:33 am #

    Ye, gods, man: reading Liberty? What is this, 1997? Or, better yet, 1987?

    And, seriously, this is just the sort of thing that I would expect to see within its pages. Taking consequences ever so seriously … but, somehow, the consequence we’re most worried about is, “Who will pay the national debt?” rather than “Will peaceful regions remain under the heel of the states that dominate them?”

  6. Administrator July 4, 2007 at 6:14 pm #


    Is that right?

    Sounds about right.

    is it just me or is Liberty going “soft”

    Well, under Bradford it was always pretty consequentialist. But yes, it does strike me as having gotten somewhat less radical.

  7. Miguel July 4, 2007 at 7:36 pm #

    There is a difference betwen secession and emigration – if a city secedes, usually the state property within the city reverts to the new state; if I emmigrate, I don’t carry a fraction of the state property with me. Then, if a secessionist region have a right to a fracion of the original state assets, should also have a duty of paying a fracion of the original state debts.

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