Freedom Discussions

Secession – A “Crime” Or A “Right”?

by Sauvik Chakraverti

Arundhati Roy is in the news these days because of a speech she made supporting the Kashmiri people in their battle against the central State. Apparently, the Delhi Police were about to register a case against her for the “crime of sedition.” Most commentators have appealed to the “right to free speech” in order to defend Roy. In this post, I seek to go further, and uphold the right of any people to secede from any State that they do not wish to be part of.

Let us begin with the basic theory of “political organisation” – which in modern times is the Hobbesian “nation-state,” run on the principles of “liberal democracy.” The most important aspect of this State is that the people are governed not by force, but by consent. In the case of Kashmir, or Manipur, or the areas now under the sway of Naxals and Maoists, it is obvious that “consent” has been entirely lost, and all that is being applied is “force.” This is quite like the despots of yore, of whom Mises writes, in Liberalism: The Classical Tradition (pdf here):

As long as nations were ruled by monarchical despots, the idea of adjusting the boundaries of the state to coincide with the boundaries between nationalities could not find acceptance. If a potentate desired to incorporate a province into his realm, he cared little whether the inhabitants—the subjects—agreed to a change of rulers or not. The only consideration that was regarded as relevant was whether the available military forces were sufficient to conquer and hold the territory in question. One justified one’s conduct publicly by the more or less artificial construction of a legal claim. The nationality of the inhabitants of the area concerned was not taken into account at all.

Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and the Socialist Indian State – all believe in this theory. These ideas were finally destroyed by the great classical liberal political philosophers of the 18th and early 19th centuries. As Ludwig von Mises explained the liberal ideal:

The goal of the domestic policy of liberalism is the same as that of its foreign policy: peace. It aims at peaceful cooperation just as much between nations as within each nation. The starting point of liberal thought is the recognition of the value and importance of human cooperation, and the whole policy and program of liberalism is designed to serve the purpose of maintaining the existing state of mutual cooperation among the members of the human race and of extending it still further. The ultimate ideal envisioned by liberalism is the perfect cooperation of all mankind, taking place peacefully and without friction.

This is the “international division of labour” the liberals of yore thought would be accomplished through peaceful and free international trade.

Therefore, since the essential liberal ideas are those of peace and trade between and among peoples, of Property and Liberty, with only “negative duties” for the State, it made no sense to expand territory while endangering the vital peace. After all, Property is all Private. And the idea is not that The State creates wealth, but people do – so the fatal idea of “territory” did not appeal to them at all. They did not want a State that sought “acres and revenues.” The classical liberals did not believe in territory as a “collective property.” Thus we see Adam Smith strongly supporting the American demand for secession. He also opposed the colonisation of India.

Following this great tradition, Mises stood for the right to secede as an essential aspect of the “right to self-determination.” He wrote thus, in 1927:

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 form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.

Remember: the goal is peace and peaceful co-operation and trade. Territory is immaterial.

Mises then added a qualification:

To call this right of self-determination the “right of self-determination of nations” is to misunderstand it. It is not the right of self-determination of a delimited national unit, but the right of the inhabitants of every territory to decide on the state to which they wish to belong.

Unfortunately, the 20th century did not see these liberal ideas victorious. This was when the planet and its peoples were divided into “nation-states,” each nation behind its own tariff walls, and each operating a “national economy.” This is the only reason why this century was a century of great wars engulfing the whole world. Total wars. These wars continue because of these very same stupid ideas. The only cure: Libertarianism, the direct descendant of classical liberalism.

With modern “liberal democracy” – which is essentially Hobbesian – there has come about a new kind if illiberal doctrine regarding the “right to secede.” According to this doctrine, the liberal democratic nation-state is “perfectly just” because it provides each citizen with “human rights” and further dispenses to him “social justice.” This adds Rousseau’s “Social Contract” to Hobbes. The theory of justice is the one propounded by John Rawls.

Thus, the right to secede has been eliminated – even in America! And Abraham Lincoln is the man responsible.

This is really not “liberal democracy”; rather, it is just democracy shorn of the liberal ideals of old; it is the ritual of voting – without Liberty, without Property, and the added plunder of protectionism. It is basically “socialist,” sometimes even “fascistic.” It is Legislation; it is bureaucracy. It is the “politicization of economic life.” It is nothing but “statism.” And as for the “political parties” – I have only just written a post on these gangs of thugs.

But this was never the social theory of the classical liberals, according to which, rather than a monolithic Hobbesian central State monopolising “security,” each Individual was pre-possessed of Property as well as the right to defend himself and his property. All that the classical liberals desired is a system of laws by which Life and Property could be better protected. They did not accept the “myth of national defence” and they did not desire any “social justice,” nor any “redistribution.” Property and Liberty were the only great ideas, then.

(You can read an excellent journal article on the Right to Secession, explaining all these ideas, here.)

In modern India, we have got the whole thing completely wrong – because of wrong ideas. There is no point in upholding “territorial integrity” when vital peace, trade and co-operation are missing. Arundhati Roy has done the right thing by supporting the struggle of the Kashmiri people. This surely cannot be a “crime.”

My ideal is a world of independent, self-governing and free-trading cities and towns. Peace, Trade, Property, Liberty, Civilisation. Thus, there is no need for a Kashmiri “nation state.” Rather, Srinagar, Jammu and Leh should have independent local governments running the cities, ditto for all the towns. I believe that this approach, entirely consistent with the principles of classical liberalism, is the only solution to the crisis of political organisation that faces the people of India today.