Jacob Levy recently wrote an essay airing his teary-eyed dismay that so many of his libertarian friends are cheering on Britain’s bow down from EU membership. This comes to no surprise, since BHL seems to be bent on presenting us with the “libertarian case” for anything from a swollen welfare apparatus to mandatory sex-reassignment surgery. There are a few basic theses in this article, for instance, that the EU is not a regulatory monster and that all the all other EU member states are economically freer than Britain (an assertion that not even his own citation really backs up). One point I would like to extract from Levy’s article and complain about in length, though, is his idea of secession. Namely, Levy claims that secession obviously cannot be a libertarian position, because, uh, like, what if the new country isn’t as libertarian as the parent nation, dude? From the article:
“There’s no reason for us to start with some enthusiastic assumption that secession is always better and that more-local, more-homogenous levels of government are friendlier to freedom than larger and more pluralistic ones. Nor is there any reason to assume that removing a level of government just makes its whole system of regulation stably disappear; we need to think about what’s likely to replace those regulations at the nation-state level.”
Now, from what little I know about Levy, he doesn’t seem to be an anarchist, so perhaps I can’t blame him for having such a provincial and one-sided view of it, but if I might be so bold, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind ourselves, as a movement, that pan-secessionism is the heart of libertarian anarchism. I need only cite de Puydt’s Panarchy or any of Mises’ rousing endorsements of secession to close the case. But that might not imprint the importance of secession as a technique to every reader.
For the record, we could also very effectively argue that, with Levy’s low, low, low standards for what constitutes a market-friendly government organization, we could, perhaps, say that the British Empire of the 1760s and -70s was a better fit for the American colonists than a new federal republic. After all, the colonists paid lower taxes than British citizens and…well, that’s basically it, but I’m sure Levy’s 18th century counterpart would’ve written a pamphlet along the lines of Nay, There Art Not A Marquette-Liberale Case for Rebellionne.
We can explore this more effectively with Texas’ (sadly tongue-in-cheek) proposition to leave the United States, a meme that will not die simply because it was never alive. Let’s say, despite all common sense, the new Republic of Texas gets together and decides that Marxism-Leninism is the way to go. Do we, as libertarians, intercede? Do we all enlist in the US military and decide that statist adventurism and warmongering are acceptable so long as they are pointed at communist secessionists? Clearly we don’t. But as anarchists, we can’t condone that Texas remain a state, communist or otherwise. The active prefix we must pay attention to is pan-. It is not enough to be a secessionist – who, like a thief who does not appreciate being stolen from, rejects any plans to secede from his seceded state – but a pan-secessionist, whose understanding of secession is not conditional. If Texas leaves the United States, then Brazos County’s vie to secede from Texas has equal merit, as do the 76,000 residents of the town of Bryan, and an individual person who lives in Bryan. Likewise, when Britain leaves the EU, Scotland may leave Britain, Glasgow and Edinburgh may leave Scotland, further and further down to the atomistic level of the individual seceder. This position does not preclude the consensual annexation of individuals, towns or nations into larger entities, either. As Mises put it in Nation, State and Economy,
“Liberalism knows no conquests, no annexations; just as it is indifferent towards the state itself, so the problem of the size of the state is unimportant to it. It forces no one against his will into the structure of the state. Whoever wants to emigrate is not held back. When a part of the people of the state wants to drop out of the union, liberalism does not hinder it from doing so. Colonies that want to become independent need only do so. The nation as an organic entity can be neither increased nor reduced by changes in states; the world as a whole can neither win nor lose from them.”
So, in short, the solution to the People’s Republic of Texas we’ve concocted is to allow for anyone not content with breadlines and price controls to secede right back. This is the point we must take away from de Puydt’s essay, Panarchy: if laissez-faire in economics is clearly superior, the market-liberal must also at least entertain the idea of laissez-faire in politics. Now, de Puydt, as with the greater Franco-Belgian radical liberal tradition of which he was part, did not frame this argument with the context of anarchy, since anarchism was then associated with…well…breadlines and price controls, but today, we must admit to ourselves that for such a system as de Puydt’s to work, we cannot rely on states, properly understood as warlord monopolists, to courteously step out of the citizen’s way as he declares himself the Republic of Jim. While John Locke and the American Founding Fathers he inspired said so blithely that the right of the people to overthrow their government is sacrosanct and foundational to liberty, they lacked either the foresight or the beneficence to actually provide some legitimate mechanism to do it in their model of government, and if they did, the nature of the state has made its use a distant hope, far, far from the common man’s reach.
If I have not been clear enough yet: the point, I believe, in de Puydt’s essay, is that the “market-liberal case” for secessions, and quasi-secessions like Brexit, is simply that it creates a market in governance. Though Brexit is small potatoes compared to an actual secession, it cannot be misstated that, in the panarchist analysis of state relations, the only reliably market-liberal position is to break the ties that bind.