All People Have the Right of Self Determination
The recent vote within the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union has implicitly once again raised the issue of the right of self-determination through secession. In other words, do individuals have a right to determine under which political authority they shall live and have representation?
This is, of course, an almost taboo subject in the United States because of its linkage with the Southern Confederacy and the attempted preservation of slavery in the 1860s. While defenders of Southern secession often argue that there were other issues besides slavery that motivated the Southern states to leave the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860, including tariffs and government spending, the fact is slavery was the most important catalyst for Southern secession.
Southern Secession in the 1860s vs. Self-Determination Today
Anyone who reads the proclamations of secession issued, for example, by South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, or Texas, soon finds that at the core of their decisions to withdraw from the Union was the desire to preserve slavery as the fundamental institution of their societies from perceived anti-slavery threats from the North.
The proponents of Southern secession declared theirs to be a “democratic” choice reflecting the will of the people in these Southern states. But as the nineteenth century British political philosopher, John Stuart Mill, pointed out in 1863, “Secession, may be laudable, and so may any other kind of insurrection, but it may also be an enormous crime” when its purpose is the preservation of holding a portion of the population in perpetual bondage. If secession was meant to be an expression of the will of the people, Mill asked, “Have the slaves been consulted? Has their will been counted as any part in the estimate of collective volition? They are a part of the population . . . Remember, we consider them to be human beings, entitled to human rights.”
However, in the context of Europe or the United States today, for instance, this type of challenge to self-determination and secession no longer applies. Personal freedom and a general equality for all citizens under the rule of law are taken for granted on both sides of the Atlantic, even if rarely perfectly practiced. There is no longer a call for secession for the purpose of maintaining a slave system in place. It has far more to do with the distinct principle of the right of people to decide on the political regime under which they wish to live, especially if they consider the existing one to be harmful to the preservation or restoration of a greater degree of liberty in society.
Government Control versus Individual Freedom to Choose
The most guarded prerogative of every government is its legitimized monopoly over the use of force within its territorial jurisdiction. The second most important prerogative is its exclusive control over all its territory. By implication, governments therefore claim an exclusive right over the political, economic, and cultural destinies of the people under their control. If people may not voluntarily and peacefully separate from the state in which they live, then it is tacitly claiming ownership
Of course, the most fundamental right of self-determination is the individual’s right to live his life as he chooses, as long as he does not violate any other person’s right to life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. In other words, the core principle underlying any free society is the right of self-ownership. The individual is not the property of the state, any collective group, or any other individual. Without this principle, freedom is unsustainable in the long run.
The classical liberals of the nineteenth century believed that individuals should be free to determine their own lives. It is why they advocated private property, voluntary exchange, and constitutionally limited government. They also believed that people should be free to reside and work in any country they wish. In general, therefore, they advocated freedom of movement. Governments should not compel people to stay within their political boundaries, nor should any government prohibit them from entering its territory for peaceful purposes.
Individual Self-Determination and Secession
An extension of this principle was
that individuals should be free to
determine through plebiscite what
political authority would exist where they lived. It should be kept in mind that this is distinctly different from the collectivists’ notion of “national self-determination,” the alleged necessity for
all members of an ethnic, racial, linguistic, or cultural group to be incorporated within a single political entity, regardless of their wishes. Thus, for instance, the Nazis demanded that all members of the “Aryan race” be forcefully united within a Greater Germany under National Socialist leadership.
Classical liberalism implies “individual self-determination.” Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises argued in his book on Liberalism (1927) that the liberal ideal would allow individuals within towns, districts, and regions to vote on which state they would live under; they could remain part of the existing state, join another state, or form a new one.
Mises stated that in principle this choice should be left to each individual, not majorities, since a minority (including a minority of one) might find itself within the jurisdiction of a government not of its own choosing. But because it was difficult to imagine how competing police and judicial systems could function on the same street corner, Mises viewed the majoritarian solution to be a workable second best.
Or as Mises expressed it:
“The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with . . .” “However, the right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done. This is impracticable only because of compelling technical considerations, which make it necessary that a region be governed as a single administrative unit and the right of self-determination be restricted to the will of the majority of the inhabitants or areas large enough to count as territorial units in the administration of the country.”
Precisely because it could turn out that an individual found himself still living under a political regime not of his choosing even with this territorial conception of individual self-determination through plebiscite, the classical liberals argued that the best way to assure that the state did not abuse him through the use of state power on behalf of some others should be that every government be limited to only protecting the life, liberty, and honestly acquired property of its citizens in a social order based on voluntary association and free-market exchange.
In such a world the use of political power to benefit some at the coerced expense of others would be eliminated or at least reduced to the smallest amount humanly possible. Government, then, would be only a “night-watchman” responsible for guarding each individual from force and fraud under the equal protection of law within its monopoly jurisdiction.