December 2, 2022

Secession: Coming to a State Near You?

In his superb new book, the gifted historian Ryan McMaken states that the size of a state does indeed matter, and he makes a powerful case with regard to secession from existing says and for decentralization within all of them.

Breaking Away: The situation for Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities


by Ryan McMaken
Mises Institute, 2022, 230 pp.

Those of us who believe that there should be no state in any way, or at most a very restricted one, must view almost all existing states with discontentment, though some are better than others. In assessing how good or bad a state can be, does the extent from the territory it controls matter? Offhand, you might think it doesn’t. Is not the only relevant dimension through which to judge states the nature and degree of control they have more than their people? The United States in the nineteenth century was much better than Cambodia under Pol Pot, though vastly bigger. In his superb new guide, the gifted historian Ryan McMaken argues that the size of a state does indeed matter, and he makes a effective case for secession through existing states and for decentralization within them.

It’s much harder, he admits that, to establish totalitarian rule in a state than in a large 1, because it is easier for people in order to leave.

Because of their physical size, huge states are able to exercise a lot more state-like power than geographically smaller states— and thus physical exercise a greater deal of control over residents. This is in part mainly because larger states benefit from increased barriers to emigration than smaller states. Large declares can therefore better avoid one of the most significant barriers to expanding state power: the  ability of residents to move away . (p. 27, emphasis in original)

McMaken cites the eminent political philosopher Hannah Arendt within support: “ In the girl book  The Roots of Totalitarianism , Hannah Arendt examines a number of nontotalitarian dictatorships that sprang upward in Europe before the Second World War…. In many of such cases, Arendt contends the regimes attempted to turn themselves into totalitarian regimes, but failed. This was largely due to their lack of size” (p. 49, emphasis in original).

On the other side, though, can not a large number of small states make trade barriers more likely? McMaken does not think so , and responding to this contention he or she uses an argument parallel to the one about totalitarianism. Because small states have small control over the world’s economy, it is difficult for them to insulate themselves from international business: “ After all, an autarkic small country that lacks a diverse economy or perhaps a large agricultural sector will quickly find itself running out of food, skilled labor, plus raw materials. Moreover, a small country without close economic ties to other nations will also soon find itself in a very dangerous geopolitical position” (p. 91). In this connection, it’s interesting to note that the oft-repeated claim of American centralizers that a strong central government had been needed to cope with trade barriers under the Articles of Confederation has no basis, as Merrill Jensen and Murray Rothbard, following him, have stated.

McMaken is usually alert to the objection that will however desirable small claims may be, they cannot in practice protect themselves against large states that wish to take them more than. Not so, he says: small says can band together to repel invasion, and in any kind of case, conquest of an obdurate population is no easy task, as Russia found out in order to its cost in Afghanistan and earlier in Finland. Further, “ pundits plus scholars who comment on international relations have too long counted on crude aggregate actions which suggest far higher levels of relative military energy than is likely in cases like Russia or China … it is not the case that big, populous states hold all of the cards. Economic development— which, we know, tends to be more created in smaller and more decentralized states— is likely a more important factor. ” (p. 122)

But didn’t a large number of small states create nuclear proliferation more likely? Possibly it would, but McMaken keeps that this may make war less frequent. He cites regarding this a famous contention of the political scientist Kenneth Waltz. “ The first influential theorist to express doubts about the set up non-proliferation narrative was Kenneth Waltz, ” who, “ as George Perkovich put it … ‘ has been one of the most illustrious proponent’ of the see that ‘ The major advantage of nuclear proliferation conceivably will be to create deterrence relationships that lower or eliminate the danger of war between a specific set of adversaries’” (pp. 124– 25).

The author tells us that “ this book is not primarily theoretical within nature” but it does have a “ philosophical component” (p. 12), and this is a solid one. Large states often contain within them disaffected minority groups, subjected to ill treatment by the dominant majority. Democratic voting offers no adequate remedy for this depressing state of affairs, since minority ballots will usually be swamped.

In any case, democracy offers no solution in addressing profound cultural variations among the residents of a individual political jurisdiction. When populations with sharply differing world views must exist within single regime, voting solves nothing, and one side will ultimately impose its favored policies on the other side. Noncompliance brings down the full weight from the law, the police, and all the coercive institutions the state regularly employs. (p. 133)

In these conditions, secession is clearly pointed out, and this is something Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard fully recognized. Since McMaken points out, Mises said that “ the right of self-determination … is not the right associated with self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination from the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent management unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to each individual person, it would have to be done” (p. 66). Rothbard “ went the extra mile” and favored secession at the individual level. “ Rothbard pushed secession for two major reasons. First, he regarded this as a useful tactic in  moving toward their ideal   of individual freedom. Second, even when this ideal is not accomplished, decentralization is valuable mainly because smaller states are  less able to exercise monopoly power than large says ” (p. 66, emphasis in original).

I have been able to talk about only a few of the many areas McMaken covers.   Breaking Away   is indispensable for understanding the politics realities of the present day as well as a discerning guide to the past.


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