[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]
For the first two rounds of my exchange with Bruce Ramsey on secession and emigration, see here and here. Now for the third round.
The September 2007 issue of Liberty published the following letter from me, along with Mr. Ramsey’s response. I wrote:
I suspect I am the “libertarian blogger” whose argument on behalf of secession Bruce Ramsey criticizes in “Pondering a Heap” (Reflections, August). Mr. Ramsey objects to my analogy between prohibiting emigration and prohibiting secession on the grounds that it ignores the difference between the consequences of a single individual’s action and that of many.
But I do not understand how the relation between emigration and secession suddenly becomes a difference between individuals and large groups. Is Mr. Ramsey assuming that emigrants will be few but secessionists many? If so, he offers no reason to follow him in this assumption.
And if he thinks it’s numbers that matter, does that mean that he would be happy to prohibit emigration if the number of emigrants were high enough? Presumably not; so it remains unclear why he rejects my analogy.
Nor does he offer any argument for his claim that anyone who defends secession must be uninterested in consequences. As an Aristotelean, I certainly think consequences are part, though not the whole, of what we need to take into account when framing moral and political principles.
To this Mr. Ramsey responded as follows:
Mr. Long recognized himself, all right. To compare secession to emigration is a neat lesson for a philosophy class, but as a practical matter the two are not as comparable as Long maintains. And yes, I am assuming that emigrants will be a dribble and secessionists a movement of mass.
The reason is that secession is the collective action of a political subdivision, one that thinks of itself as an independent nation, and this tends to take a significant group of people. And historically, I think of the 13 states of the Confederacy, from the United States; Norway, from Sweden; Singapore, from Malaysia; Slovakia, from Czechsoslovakia; Slovenia, Croatia, et al., from Yugoslavia; and the de facto secession of Taiwan from China. Unlike emigration, secession happens all at once and takes the physical territory with it. It involves issues that don’t come up with emigration, such as what becomes of the central government’s resources: would the gold in Fort Knox, for example, be Kentucky’s if Kentucky seceded? If Taiwan formally secedes, should it return the Chinese art taken to the island in 1949? If Quebec secedes from Canada, will it pay its share of Canada’s national debt? Would Quebec have the right to block the movement of people and goods between the Maritimes and the rest of English Canada?
I doubt Liberty would want to publish yet another round of relies and counter-replies, so I’ll respond here instead. Let me take Mr. Ramsey’s points in sequence.
“To compare secession to emigration is a neat lesson for a philosophy class, but as a practical matter the two are not as comparable as Long maintains.”
Mr. Ramsey has an odd conception of the relationship between philosophy and reality if he thinks something can be good in philosophy but impractical in reality. I regard philosophy as the steersman of life (philosophia biou kubern?t?s), not an ivory-tower pursuit; hence if something is unworkable as a “practical matter” then it’s not “a neat lesson for a philosophy class.”
But Mr. Ramsey has done nothing to show that a right of secession is impracticable; all he’s pointed out is that its implementation is complicated. Well, sure. The abolition of slavery was complicated to implement too; does that mean it shouldn’t have been done?
“And yes, I am assuming that emigrants will be a dribble and secessionists a movement of mass.”
Even granting this assumption (which, as we’ll see, one shouldn’t), Mr. Ramsey still hasn’t answered my question: what if those seeking emigration were a mass? Would he then favour forbidding emigration or not? If he would, then he’s taking a creepier position than I suspect he’d want to take – effectively endorsing a Soviet-style Iron Curtain policy. Or if he wouldn’t, then he can’t consistently use the disparity in numbers as an argument against secession. So which is it? I still await his answer.
“The reason is that secession is the collective action of a political subdivision, one that thinks of itself as an independent nation, and this tends to take a significant group of people. And historically, I think of the 13 states of the Confederacy, from the United States; Norway, from Sweden; Singapore, from Malaysia; Slovakia, from Czechsoslovakia; Slovenia, Croatia, et al., from Yugoslavia; and the de facto secession of Taiwan from China. Unlike emigration, secession happens all at once and takes the physical territory with it.”
This response strikes me as an ignoratio elenchi. The reason that most historical cases of secession have involved large groups is that only large groups have had sufficient political clout to have a reasonable prospect of being allowed to secede. That’s why it tends to happen “all at once” if it happens at all. But I’m arguing for secession as a right, not a grudging concession. Hence under the policy I favour, counties, towns, neighbourhoods, and individual households would be permitted to secede. In short, the disparity in numbers between secessionists and emigrants is an artifact of the anti-secessionist policies I oppose, and so cannot be used as an argument against the right of secession. (And of course mass emigration is not exactly unknown to history either.)
“It involves issues that don’t come up with emigration, such as what becomes of the central government’s resources: would the gold in Fort Knox, for example, be Kentucky’s if Kentucky seceded?”
To repeat myself: I favour a universal right of secession, not just a right of secession for large entities. Hence if Kentucky seceded from the U.S., the owner of the Fort Knox gold depository (let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that the U.S. government is that owner) would be equally free to secede from Kentucky and attach itself to the United States. So what’s the problem?
“If Taiwan formally secedes, should it return the Chinese art taken to the island in 1949? If Quebec secedes from Canada, will it pay its share of Canada’s national debt?”
I don’t know, but a) these questions are no different in principle from questions of whether emigrants should have to pay back tax-funded benefits they receive, and b) surely the civilised way to solve such problems would be, not to forbid emigration/secession, but to sue the emigrant/secessionist in court for whatever goods or revenue she is alleged to owe. After all, if I think my neighbour owes me money and won’t pay, I hire a lawyer; I don’t barricade her house.
“Would Quebec have the right to block the movement of people and goods between the Maritimes and the rest of English Canada?”
If Mr. Ramsey is asking whether Quebec would have a moral right to do this, the answer is obviously no, since the whole point of my position is that no government has the right to block the free movement of people and goods across national borders.
If instead Mr. Ramsey is asking whether Quebec would be able to do this under a system of universal secession rights, the answer is almost certainly no again, since any part of Quebec would likewise be free to secede from Quebec; and if Quebec erected protectionist barriers, there would be a strong economic incentive for portions of Quebec to secede in order to attract the trade that would otherwise be blocked.
In short, it seems to me that Mr. Ramsey’s latest response still does not address my actual position or reply to my original argument.
In his list of historic examples, Ramsey omits any mention of the secession of the 13 North American colonies from the British Empire in 1776. That was also rife with complicated questions but seemed to work quite well for quite a long time…At least until the elites of those former colonies began to emulate their former rulers, demonstrating all over again why secession would be a great thing for Americans to undertake.
Well… Private property owners have a right to block travel across their property if they wish, correct? How is state-owned property different from private property? Private property in itself does not mean it is owned by a single individual. It can be owned by many people: family, a neighborhood, a business. How is a state different? The citizens of a state pay taxes to maintain the property, so why should they not be allowed to regulate traffic across it?
Granted, the citizens don’t have much choice in the matter. If left to spontaneous order, the state-owned property might very well be owned by fewer people than make up the state. But I don’t think the compulsory citizenship and taxes of a state invalidate any property claims the citizens might have towards public land.
Assume for the sake of argument that the state legitimately owns its property — then sure, it has the right to control who crosses it. But this won’t work as an argument for closed borders (closed in either direction). Suppose that the states owns all the land along the border. Then we have the same situation as one in which one person buys all the land surroundig another person’s property, thus keeping them prisoner (if they were on it at the time) or keeping them away from their proeprty (if they were off it). Since you can’t legitimately use your property in a way that interfere’s with the liberty and property of others, you are obligated to provide an easement. So even if the state owned all the land along the border they’d have to provide easements too.