The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism


Secession has reference to the withdrawal of a people and the territory they occupy from the sovereignty of an existing government and the establishment of a new government with sovereignty over the seceding group and its territory. Secession has held enduring interest for libertarians for several reasons. First, libertarian moral theory holds that individuals enjoy a right to secede without penalty from political institutions to which they have not previously consented. Second, secession is a method by which large, intrusive governments may be reduced to smaller, more consensual units. Third, secessionism as a political strategy encourages central governments to shift power to a more local level. Finally, even if secession, in a particular instance, might have harmful consequences, “legalizing secession” may be the best way to tame ethnic and nationalist movements that might otherwise resort to violence.

Following John Locke, natural rights libertarians hold that any infringements on the individual’s natural rights to life, liberty, and property are presumptively illegitimate. Thus, any government actions that regulate individuals’ bodies or seize their legitimately acquired property without those individuals’ consent are unjustified, except perhaps under emergency circumstances. Because all existing independent states assert a plenary legislative power over the fate of those individuals residing within their borders, and virtually none of them have acquired the unanimous consent of these individuals to such power (Vatican City may be an exception), libertarians who embrace a theory of natural rights generally hold that existing states are to varying degrees illegitimate. Philosopher A. John Simmons has termed this view empirical anarchism. Empirical anarchists do not hold that all governments are necessarily illegitimate, merely that governments act illegitimately whenever they assume powers beyond the scope assigned to them through the express consent of those they govern.

The immediate implication of this view is that any individual who has not consented to an actual contract with the government may secede at any time, and it would be unjust for any government to restrict this right of secession. Secession also might be an appropriate remedy if governments that were once legitimate came to violate the terms of the social contract. In addition, libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard argues that the natural right of liberty implies that individuals cannot be held to specific performance of contractual obligations, but could be held liable for damages from breach of contract. If Rothbard is correct, then even those individuals who have consented to the authority of the government under which they live enjoy a basic right to withdraw consent, perhaps by paying a penalty.

Theories of individual secession are abstract and may lack relevance for a world in which actual secessionist movements typically claim to speak for many thousands or even millions of people. If Quebec secedes from Canada, the new state will inevitably take with it thousands, possibly millions, of people who would rather Quebec had remained a part of Canada. Secession violates their rights. Therefore, libertarian moral theory gives us no clear guidelines on how to treat messy, real-world secessions that take place without unanimous consent. Some theorists of secession hold that the “least bad” solution is to allow a group of people to secede whenever a majority of voters in the group endorse secession. If this principle were followed, then territorially contiguous communities of Quebec opposed to Quebec’s secession from Canada could themselves secede from Quebec and rejoin Canada, an act known as “recursive secession.” As attractive as this solution appears, it raises several problems, not least of which occurs when the seceding group pursues separation from another in order to violate the rights of a minority within its midst. The historical example of the Confederacy is often cited as an example of this scenario. Additionally, if the minority is territorially dispersed, then recursive secession is not an option for them.

Because in the real world secession almost always violates the rights of some people, some libertarians have turned to consequentialist criteria to assess the desirability and permissibility of secession. A world of small countries might be freer and more prosperous than a world of large countries: if so, then widespread secessions could lead to a freer and more prosperous world. Economists have found that smaller countries tend to embrace free trade to a greater extent than do larger ones because autarky is a more costly policy for them. However, political borders seem to pose a restraint on trade via such subtle hindrances as currency exchange and customs delays, and secession would multiply international borders. Political scientists have found that smaller countries tend to be more democratic than larger ones perhaps because when people are allowed to vote on the matter, they tend to prefer smaller jurisdictions that permit better access to officials. Nevertheless, they also have found that ethnic homogeneity in countries increases the size of their welfare states, confirming the preference of Lord Acton, one of the greatest classical liberal thinkers, for multinational empires over homogeneous nation-states. Because secession is usually motivated by ethnic or national differences, widespread secession would create smaller countries that are more ethnically homogeneous than those that exist at present, causing welfare spending to increase worldwide.

One consequence of secessionism is not ambiguous, however. In advanced democracies, regions with secessionist parties tend to receive more autonomy than regions without such parties. As a result, governance has become significantly more decentralized in democracies with strong secessionist parties. The United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy, and Spain are excellent examples of this trend. Libertarians see several advantages in local governance or federalism: the ability of individuals to move to jurisdictions with policy regimes more to their liking, the creation of competitive constraints on governments’ overtaxing and overregulatory tendencies (businesses flee big government and seek free markets), and the strengthening of voters’ control over their elected officials. Thus, the fact that secessionist movements create pressure on central governments to grant more autonomy to lower level regions is a positive byproduct of such campaigns.

Libertarians are wary of nationalist ideologies that often motivate secessionist movements. However, constitutionalizing secession does not imply endorsing it. If American states enjoyed the right to secede, it is unlikely that any of them actually would do so. Yet the mere existence of such a right would create a “threat point” for the federal government, potentially constraining federal attempts to usurp powers properly left to the states and the people under the 9th and 10th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In multinational countries such as Ethiopia, Britain, India, and Iraq, a right of secession might actually be used, but countries that already recognize such a right, formally or informally, see far less of the violence often associated with secessionist movements. By ruling in 1998 that the Canadian federal government must negotiate “in good faith” with any province that votes to secede “by a clear majority on a clear question,” the Canadian Supreme Court helped to set an emerging international precedent: that secession should be negotiated rather than ruled out automatically.

In the United States, the status of secession remains unclear. The Supreme Court ruled in 1869 in Texas v. White that unilateral secession was unconstitutional. Although scholars continue to debate the merits of that decision, it is noteworthy that it does not rule out negotiated secession approved by Congress. The United States are, strictly speaking, not indivisible—unlike Spain and France, whose constitutions proscribe secession, and who, perhaps as a result, continue to suffer secessionist violence.

Just as libertarians support legalizing drugs in order to reduce the social ills associated with drug use, but not to encourage drug use, so libertarians may well support legalizing secession in order to encourage decentralization and reduce the risks of violence.


Further Readings

Buchanan, Allen. Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Gordon, David, ed. Secession, State, and Liberty. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1998.

Macedo, Stephen, and Allen Buchanan, eds. Secession and Self-Determination. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

Simmons, A. John. Moral Principles and Political Obligations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Sorens, Jason. “Globalization, Secessionism, and Autonomy.” Electoral Studies 23 no. 4 (2004): 727–752.

Walter, Barbara. “Information, Uncertainty, and the Decision to Secede.” International Organization 60 (2006): 105–135.

Originally published .