How to Fight For Liberty, Part Seven – Decentralisation and Secession
By Duncan Whitmore
In the six, previous parts of this series of essays, we have considered a wide range of factors relevant to our attempts to devise a successful libertarian political strategy. In Part One, we explained the difference between libertarian theory and libertarian political activism, and how each was a somewhat separate endeavour that required its own, specialist attention. In Part Two, we looked in detail at the nature and ambitions of the enemies of liberty so as to gain a better understanding of how we should confront them. Part Three demolished some of the obstacles that are often cited as roadblocks towards achieving a freer world, concluding that the task ahead of us is squarely one of motivating people away from social structures such as the state – the power of which is sustained not by guns and gallows but by the perception of its legitimacy. In Parts Four and Five, we assessed the value of radicalism and of conservatism to the libertarian movement, before concluding that our approach requires a synthesis of the two: radical through our uncompromising rejection of state power, but conservative through our efforts to achieve this rejection from the bottom-up rather than imposed from the top-down. Part Six, the most recent instalment, elaborated on the necessity of this bottom-up approach.
In this seventh part, I wish to come full circle by crystallising all of this analysis into a particular concrete component of a political strategy that we first mentioned in Part One: decentralisation. While, at the conclusion of Part Six, I stated that this would be the final part, I will make some concluding remarks in an epilogue subsequent to this instalment.
Decentralisation and Liberty
It cannot be repeated often enough that the primary element in any libertarian strategy must be an uncompromising commitment to the decentralisation and the de-homogenisation of power. This is true almost by definition: the libertarian ideal of every person having complete self-ownership over his body and the property that he has either homesteaded or received in voluntary transaction is itself the ultimate form of decentralisation of decision making power to each and every individual. Thus, anything that moves us away from a greater concentration of power towards its dispersal and diffusion is likely to be a boon for liberty, while, conversely, anything that reverses this process will put us on the path to despotism.
Indeed, it is worth reiterating an important point from Part Six: that a freer world is incomprehensible if the present structures of our large, nation states remain intact, even if the machinery of government is temporarily taken over by those sympathetic to liberty. This is not merely because such a structure can call on the police, armies and weapons of war to crush opposition – we exposed in Part Three the common error that the state can sustain itself through actual, physical force alone. Rather, it is because the very existence of the state is possible only if a majority of the people believe in the legitimacy of its use of violence – in other words, if the people themselves have rejected social structures more conducive to freedom. Thus, if large, consolidated states can thrive only as a result of this (at minimum) tacit acceptance of legitimacy, their continued existence must always be understood as a sign of our failure not to overthrow the state as such, but as a failure to win the people onto our side.
Decentralisation can take any number of several forms. One of the most ideal is the separation not of functions of power (as attempted by many modern constitutions that sunder the legislature from the executive and judiciary) but of sources of power. For instance, the religious/moral authority of the Church was once separated from the power of the state. Alternatively, or additionally, there could be a separation of allegiance between, say, a hereditary monarch on the one hand, and a parliament/diet on the other. In these cases, each group attains its power and authority from different, sometimes antagonistic sources – from God in the case of the Church, from ancestry in the case of hereditary monarchy, and, in the case of the English Parliament, formerly from the economic power of landowners, but now from the ballot box. All of this we have explained in more detail in a previous essay, where we outlined also how pre-Reformation Christianity offered a kind of “intellectual” decentralisation between faith on the one hand and reason on the other: that humans applied their faculty of reason in order to understand and interact with the world, yet within the bounds of a higher, moral order cemented by their faith. Such a commitment avoided the pitfalls of either unbridled faith or unbridled reason.
One reason for the untrammelled growth of the state today is that democracy has demolished all competing sources of legitimacy for the exercise of power, thus leaving it unrestrained by any opposing force. Indeed, we have also addressed previously the question of whether the aim of libertarians should be to eradicate all sources of political power or whether it is better to divide and balance them. By design, the Founding Fathers of the United States opted for the latter through the multipolar arrangement of state governments and the Federal government. In the words of Frank Chodorov:
The citizen of divided allegiance cannot be reduced to subservience; if he is in the habit of serving two political gods he cannot be dominated by either one.
History supports the argument. No political authority ever achieved absolutism until the people were deprived of a choice of loyalties. It was because the early Christians put God above Caesar that they were persecuted, even though they paid homage and taxes to the established political establishment. Stalin’s liquidation of the religious and fraternal orders followed from his basic premise that the Soviet was the only deity. Mussolini was always bothered by the hold the Catholic Church had on the people, and Stalin would never have been Stalin if he had not brought the orthodox church to foot. And so, if the Californian thinks of himself as a Californian as well as an American and has two flags to support his contention, the central authority rests on shifting ground.
In no country where centralism got going did the regime have to contend with divided authority such as our Constitution provides. Long before Hitler came on the scene, Bismarck had liquidated the autonomous German states. Mussolini’s march on Rome would not have gotten started in the nineteenth century when Italy was an aggregation of independent units. And, of course, the Czars handed Lenin a thoroughly centralized government.
In this country, the advocates of centralism have had hard going because of our entrenched tradition of States Rights. It is a tradition that is older than the Constitution, older than the Revolution. It is a national birthmark.1
There is nothing to suggest that our relatively brief epoch of unfettered, secular democracy has vanquished the possibility of divided loyalties from arising again, and indeed, there may already be a degree of mileage towards rekindling them in some parts of the world. In fact, given that some of these configurations laid the groundwork for Western civilisation – the only civilisation to have truly reached any significant height in terms of both freedom and accomplishment – their rediscovery may be essential if liberty is to ever have a future. An additional possibility in the twenty-first century is for the internet and instant communication to generate “cloud” cultures and communities that are unrestricted by physical location, allegiances which could challenge the authority of the state. Indeed, in spite of the lengths to which the state and “big tech” have gone in order to suppress alternative viewpoints (“misinformation”) concerning COVID lockdowns and vaccinations, it has still been possible for those suspicious of the state to connect with each other and to share information through social media or through heterodox websites, blogs and newsletters. Without all of this, isolation and loneliness amongst a sea of propaganda and compliance would have much more easily sapped people of the will to resist encroaching tyranny.
However, leaving this aside (and under the assumption that people are unlikely to rejuvenate their faith in either God or hereditary monarchy any time soon), the remaining option is to deconsolidate existing states into smaller, administrative units. Ideally, this should be by outright secession, but greater devolvement of power could be accepted as a step forward so long as it is initiated from the region rather than imposed from the centre (the latter being, as we explained in Part Six, a fault of the UK’s current devolution arrangements).2
Let us summarise some of the benefits of geographical decentralisation:
- Splitting states into smaller units makes each of them weaker in an absolute sense, minimising the severity of war and conflict; whereas today even the smallest of skirmishes can be escalated into global catastrophes, disputes between states will remain localised;
- Similarly, while any small state could still opt for oppressive and socialistic policies, their extent would be contained within the small state’s borders;
- States with smaller, geographic territories will have fewer domestic industries and, hence, a less extensive, internal division of labour; thus, they will be more inclined to embrace free trade if they wish to remain prosperous;
- The increased number of states together with the increased economic power of each taxpayer vis-à-vis any one state will lead to a healthy competition between states; the effort to retain productive citizens and businesses will induce a “race to the bottom” – a positive phrase in this instance – of lower tax rates and fewer regulations3;
- Such competition between a greater number of smaller states would make it more difficult for them to co-operate and cartelise their operations in mulcting the citizenry. For instance, co-ordinated, worldwide inflation has been much easier in an era when international finance is dominated by only a handful of prominent central banks, as has the push towards global, minimum tax rates and the elimination of tax havens. Moreover, the uniformity of the imposition of COVID-19 lockdowns and the eerie chorus of “build back better” from national leaders is also indicative of the fact that policy decisions are being outsourced to the global level, with governments seeing themselves as accountable to “the planet” rather than to their electorates.
- Smaller states are more likely to fulfil the principle of subsidiarity – the notion that political and social issues should be resolved at the lowest level of governance competent to resolve them. Thus, solutions are tailored to the needs of each region as opposed to the kinds of “one size fits all” measures imposed by large states4;
- In tandem with the previous point, a relatively smaller, more homogenous citizenry within each state is more likely to reach a level of general agreement regarding the use of residual state power, so that a de jure state operates more like a de facto voluntary association. Moreover, redistributive efforts and mutual plunder are less likely to be successful in such a citizenry. This is in contrast to a large state where even the most basic issues can be uncompromisingly divisive, and where people are happy to pick the pockets of faceless others residing in some far distant region. All of this is aided by the fact that smaller states make the emergence of a remote political/managerial class more difficult – similar to how the owners of smaller companies are less likely to be able to distance themselves from the shop floor whereas the executive and board of large corporations may sit in a completely different country from that of their operations5;
- The notion of state sovereignty is likely to wane. Such waning, however, will come not from the outside-in as envisaged by global interventionists bent on fostering some kind of international community. Rather, it will come from the inside-out, as the size, extent and perpetuity of a given state is decided not by itself from the centre, but by individual families and communities who may wish to amend, alter or even abolish entirely their allegiance to a particular state, either forming their own new unit or annexing to another. In other words, true sovereignty will exist below the state level6;
- The marriage between large states and large corporations would be curtailed; weaker states would make it less worthwhile for corporations to co-opt state power in stifling competition and gaining other forms of regulatory privilege; firms will therefore have to expend greater effort on serving the needs of consumers ahead of serving political priorities.
Having noted these likely benefits, we will focus for the remainder of this essay on how we can actually work towards initiating such decentralisations in the near future. Any such instance is likely to occur only if a majority (or, at least, a significant, vocal minority) of the citizenry of a local territory becomes convinced that remaining a constituent of a centralised, unified state no longer works for them, and that independence is the only way forward. Our problem, therefore, is how to secure this conviction.
Such an endeavour is likely to be most achievable in states which already possess some kind of local or regional allegiance that competes with allegiance to the central state. Large, polyglot states which house a number of different national, ethnic and/or cultural identities are an obvious example, so long as they are reasonably geographically separated. In the UK, for instance, the possibility of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland seceding from the English is already an active possibility. Similarly, continuing political and cultural bifurcation is increasing the likelihood of individual states splitting from the United States.7
Other prime candidates are states which already have some kind of federal structure or an otherwise long history of decentralisation. Again, the United States, which has already fought two secessionary wars in its relatively brief history, is an obvious possibility, but so too are Germany and Italy, whose unifications date only from the nineteenth century. Moreover, such federal structures are likely to be helpful where the regions are less clearly divided by obvious ethnic, linguistic and cultural contours. Australia, for instance, is a federation of eight states and territories, and while its constitution describes it as an “indissoluble union”, it is no stranger to secessionist fervour. In colonial days, both Queensland and Victoria split from New South Wales, while Western Australia even voted to depart from the federation entirely at the height of the Great Depression – the effort being thwarted only by its apparent illegality.8 It remains to be seen whether the fallout from the country’s descent into COVID induced despotism will inflame any nascent ambitions for greater regional independence.
In states which are already culturally, ethnically, linguistically and/or politically divided into relatively separate peoples, it is obvious that further political division of that state along such lines of identity is unlikely to appear as a threat to each group’s social unity. As such, decentralisation is made easier. In fact, such groups may find that their independent identities, social cohesion and regional prosperity are improved by political independence, whereas their continued governance by the distant capital city of a large, unified state (in which they may be an overall minority) is destroying it. Indeed, that is precisely the argument of many Euro-sceptics with regards to the European Union.
Of course, the lack of any obvious geographical contours between different groups is an age old problem in the achievement of political independence. In such circumstances, secessionary efforts may well result in Balkanisation rather than peaceful co-existence. Indeed, such a possible outcome is often cited by proponents of centralisation to kill all secessionist movements, even though there is no reason to conclude a priori that political consolidation will have any more success in keeping the lid on inter-ethnic strife (quite the opposite, in fact).
However, the problem we will focus on here is states which are large (in terms of extent of territory, population density and/or economic power), politically centralised and culturally homogenous, thus presenting no immediately obvious case for political division. As such, decentralisation may be a more difficult aim to accomplish.
A pertinent example is England. Following the departure of the Romans, England’s fragmented, tribal territories were consolidated gradually into the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms before achieving full political unity in the tenth century. Having fallen victim to no successful invasion since the Norman Conquest, and having experienced relatively mild, internal upheaval compared to, say, the French or Russian revolutions, English institutions that persist to this day are often far older than entire countries.9 True enough, of course, individual counties and regions have their own traditions and ethos; much political hay is also made out of the so-called “North/South divide”. However, but for a few notable exceptions such as the Cornish, little of this is perceived as taking precedence over English identity. While there is cultural antagonism between urban liberals and more conservative (small ‘c’) provincials (as illustrated by the falling of the fault lines in the Brexit referendum), the battle is still perceived as being a fight for the whole rather than for partition. Thus, as we noted in Part Six, it is likely to be very difficult to sunder the English state from the social, historical, cultural and linguistic unity of the English people.
Geographically, of course, England is not an especially large country, and so some readers may question the need for whether political division within England is necessary or even desirable. Three factors should be noted, however.
First, England’s relatively high level of productivity per capita furnishes it with the wherewithal to endow its state apparatus with considerable economic power, a factor which, incidentally, has always allowed Britain to punch above its apparent weight – the pinnacle of which was its conquest of a quarter of the globe. Robbing any single state authority of the ability to leech off of this wealth and prosperity would be a boon for liberty.
Second, England’s political authority is ridiculously centralised when compared not to some libertarian ideal but to most similar countries today. Only 5% of tax revenue in Britain as a whole is raised at the local level – the lowest amongst the G7 – while, in 2011, Westminster heaped more than 1,300 statutory duties upon local government, rendering the latter more subservient to the national government than to their regional populations. Thus, any proposal for greater decentralisation is unlikely to be the radical preserve of zealous libertarians yearning for an anarchist nirvana; it should be quite possible to find allies from across the political spectrum who agree that wresting at least some power away from Westminster is either possible or desirable, even if it falls short of any complete secession.
And third, the crucial element of the competition between states that we mentioned earlier is likely to be more successful as a check upon state power if small, neighbouring jurisdictions are culturally homogenous. To illustrate, imagine, for the sake of argument, that political power in England was to be decentralised into an arrangement along the lines of the old, Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. If, under this configuration, Wessex was to become too onerous in its taxes or regulations then it would be easier for the residents of Wessex to hop over the border to, say, English speaking Sussex or Mercia so as to make a new life there than it would be for them to, say, emigrate to either France or Germany. Clearly, therefore, Wessex, and all of the other English states, would be under much greater pressure to reduce their predations on their citizenry than if they were bordering jurisdictions that were culturally foreign. Moreover, such an arrangement can help to foster the kinds of divided allegiance that we mentioned earlier – that people may, indeed, have a strong affinity for their local region and the government it fosters, but they may also have an historical, cultural and linguistic commitment to the English people who, as a whole, are bigger than the importance of any one independent jurisdiction.10
One way of overcoming any reluctance towards decentralisation is to persuade people that most of the problems with their healthcare, their education, their policing etc. are the result of too much control from Westminster, and that improvement to these areas can be made by greater local accountability and locally sourced revenue. Such a desire is only likely to grow in intensity as Western welfare states lurch towards bankruptcy and fail to live up to their expectations. Moreover, we have already reached the point at which voters in at least some parts of the country would prefer for their hard earned taxes to be spent on fewer NHS diversity and inclusion managers and on more hospital beds. Greater local control and sensitivity to local priorities could help to facilitate this. Indeed, one benefit of a political strategy centred on decentralisation is that we can avoid having to confront the most controversial issues head on. While few things are likely to delight any libertarian more than the complete abolition of the NHS, everyone else is likely to greet even the slightest hint of “privatisation” of medical care with the utmost hostility, at least for the foreseeable future. Instead, the broader message that people should have greater, local control over their state run industries is likely to receive a much warmer welcome while still – through their smaller size and the competition between states – achieving a significant reduction in state power.
However, the likely benefits of such a tactic notwithstanding, disarming any apparent threat to perceived social unity that could be caused by political decentralisation is likely to be the biggest hurdle. It is, however, not an insurmountable one, and clearing it will become easier if dissatisfaction with Westminster and the political process in general continues to grow. For what we will argue here is that not only is the state unnecessary for social unity, but that the state is actually the cause of the deterioration and disintegration of social ties, even in a country as relatively culturally, linguistically and ethnically homogenous as England.
The key to realising this lies in overcoming two significant errors that have nested themselves in both the political and popular psyche.
The first is the fact that the right of “self-determination” has usually been made in the context of freeing different linguistic, national and/or ethnic groups from a unitary governmental authority. Such, for instance, is the frame of reference in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which placed self-determination on the agenda for the post-World War One political order. Similarly, in his explanation of the difficulties of maintaining a single government over a multinational territory, John Stuart Mill said that:
Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a primâ facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart. This is merely saying that the question of government ought to be decided by the governed.11
Such a statement implies that the only relevant unit of “the governed” is the nation, united as one but separate from others. It is no surprise that such thinking would become amplified in an era given to approaching political and social questions only in collectivist terms. The result, however, is that less attention has been given to the possibility of political divisions within a national group. Ludwig von Mises, as ever, was alert to this question, stressing that the independence of national groups was an achievement of self-determination but not, in and of itself, a logical stopping point:
The right of self-determination […] 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 that the right of self-determination be restricted to the will of the majority of the inhabitants of areas large enough to count as territorial units in the administration of the country.
So far as the right of self-determination was given effect at all, and wherever it would have been permitted to take effect, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it led or would have led to the formation of states composed of a single nationality (i.e., people speaking the same language) and to the dissolution of states composed of several nationalities, but only as a consequence of the free choice of those entitled to participate in the plebiscite. The formation of states comprising all the members of a national group was the result of the exercise of the right of self-determination, not its purpose. If some members of a nation feel happier politically independent than as a part of a state composed of all the members of the same linguistic group, one may, of course, attempt to change their political ideas by persuasion in order to win them over to the principle of nationality, according to which all members of the same linguistic group should form a single, independent state. If, however, one seeks to determine their political fate against their will by appealing to an alleged higher right of the nation, one violates the right of self-determination no less effectively than by practicing any other form of oppression.12
The second error is the notion that the state is synonymous with society – and, by extension, the notion that a particular state is synonymous with a particular people.
Needless to say, politicians are fully bought in to this misconception so as to manufacture demand for their services, a demand which, as well shall see, is usually justified by the practical matter of achieving order. Occasionally, however, it reaches the kind of abstract level expressed by Bill Clinton when he preached that “you can’t say you love your country and hate your government” – government, of course, including himself. Taken to this extreme, the effect of such conceit is to render the country and the state as metaphysical equivalents. Thus, in the case of England, the English people are the English state, while one could love neither these green and pleasant lands nor her people without simultaneously loving the English government. By extension, this means also that a political leader is not only a governor of practical affairs, but a spiritual and cultural guardian of the nation (although, in England’s case, the Queen is supposed to fulfil this latter role ahead of any elected politician).
This misconception, and its concomitant absurdity, is described with characteristic clarity by Murray N Rothbard:
The State is almost universally considered an institution of social service. Some theorists venerate the State as the apotheosis of society; others regard it as an amiable, though often inefficient, organization for achieving social ends; but almost all regard it as a necessary means for achieving the goals of mankind, a means to be ranged against the “private sector” and often winning in this competition of resources. With the rise of democracy, the identification of the State with society has been redoubled, until it is common to hear sentiments expressed which violate virtually every tenet of reason and common sense such as, “we are the government.” The useful collective term “we” has enabled an ideological camouflage to be thrown over the reality of political life. If “we are the government,” then anything a government does to an individual is not only just and untyrannical, but also “voluntary” on the part of the individual concerned. If the government has incurred a huge public debt which must be paid by taxing one group for the benefit of another, this reality of burden is obscured by saying that “we owe it to ourselves”; if the government conscripts a man, or throws him into jail for dissident opinion, then he is “doing it to himself” and, therefore, nothing untoward has occurred. Under this reasoning, any Jews murdered by the Nazi government were not murdered; instead, they must have “committed suicide,” since they were the government (which was democratically chosen), and, therefore, anything the government did to them was voluntary on their part. One would not think it necessary to belabor this point, and yet the overwhelming bulk of the people hold this fallacy to a greater or lesser degree.13
While democracy has, indeed, exacerbated the problem, its entrenchment actually runs far deeper, for its ultimate cause is the conviction that the state (democratic or otherwise) is indispensable for social co-operation and for peaceful social relations. Such thinking, in turn, is derived from the myth of the Hobbesian state of nature – the so-called “war of all against all” – which utterly precludes the emergence of civil society. In Hobbes’ famous words:
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.14
Such a situation, so the argument goes, is resolved only by the people entering a “social contract”, through which they agree to divest some of their liberty in favour of a sovereign who will, in return, guarantee protection from invasion. Should a person accept this line of reasoning, he is confronted by the choice of yielding to state power on the one hand or, on the other, the total disintegration of society and social relations, suffering persistent struggle against each and every neighbour for even the most basic of goods. Hence, to him, the equation of the state with society seems obvious. Moreover, it is clear from this that liberty is the product of order, and so the contrary libertarian notion – of order arising out of liberty – must be rejected for its impossibility.
Even without acknowledging the dearth of anthropological evidence to suggest that the state ever emerged in this contractual manner, the ridiculousness of the theory is clear. For a start, any extensive degree of mutual plunder must presuppose the existence of a stock of goods that are worth taking – a stock which can be produced only by at least some pre-existing adherence to private property ownership and social co-operation under the division of labour. Second, if a state of mutual antagonism seemingly prevents all possible forms of extensive social co-operation from coming into existence, why does this not preclude also the social contract? Why are people willing to suspend hostilities for this form of social co-operation but not for any other? One could just about understand the dissolution of distrust and suspicion if it was for a minor or trivial matter. But to posit the social contract is to leapfrog over lesser forms of co-operation all the way ahead to an extraordinary form of agreement – the endowment of the state not merely with a few minor functions but with the unilateral right to impose force. How is this possible when such an entity must always consist of not of angels but of other savage, warring humans? And finally, from where did the commonly spoken language needed to negotiate such a contract (or, at least, to comprehend the edicts of the sovereign) arise if not from some prior form of social co-operation? Did people invent the ability to speak so as to create the state?15
Thus, the social contract is entirely question begging, as it must presuppose the end of the very kinds of hostility that the social contract is supposed to overcome. Of course, the correct view is that social co-operation, together with the recognition of its benefits, pre-dated any extensive form of governance. The latter was instituted amongst those in a pre-existing state of trust and mutual dependence so as to better resolve conflicts amongst themselves, and to defend themselves against specific others who opted for criminality. The state, on the other hand – the monopolisation of the use of violence and the dispensation of justice – arose out of conquest or some other form of subjugation, and is an institution of exploitation, not mutual benefit.16
Unfortunately, however absurd the incorrect view may be, we cannot deny that it has had the powerful effect of always measuring peace, harmony and societal progress in political terms or according to the health of political institutions. This is one of the reasons why so many cosmopolitan liberals were aghast at the possibility of Britain leaving the EU. For in the same way that, within the state of nature, each individual was supposed to have been at war against everyone else, individual states are themselves in a state of nature vis-à-vis each other at the geopolitical level. After all, anyone can open a history book so as to see how often and how catastrophically states have invaded, bombed and slaughtered each other’s citizens in this persistent of state of anarchical relations. Surely, therefore, the key to achieving global peace is to expand the “social contract” from the citizens of states to states themselves, centralising and consolidating their political authority into, eventually, a worldwide government? And surely anything that reverses this process, reinstating political deconsolidation and fragmentation, must amount to a descent back into the state of nature, igniting endless hatred, distrust and conflict?17
But as people have already perceived somewhat with regards to Brexit, it is not merely the case that greater political centralisation is unnecessary for peaceful, social co-operation – it is, in fact, the cause of strife and mutual antagonism. Ultimately, what keeps the peace is voluntary relations between private individuals and entities. An Englishman can already form bonds of trade, exchange, respect, trust and friendship with a Frenchman, a German, a Spaniard, an Australian, or anyone in the world without the need for any kind of political unity. The incentive towards any kind of conflict is reduced because the bonds are mutually beneficial. Multiply this by many thousands of times for all of the individuals, families, companies and corporations that engage in cross-border relations between each other, and you have the makings of peaceful co-existence between peoples. Through similar relations, so too is the peace is kept within England between different households, villages, towns, cities, counties and regions.
Bonds formed by political unity, however, are entirely different. Such bonds are imposed, not agreed; the institutions which secure them can benefit only one individual or group at the expense of another – taxes can be paid to Paul only if they have been taken from Peter, while rules and regulations must hamper some people while privileging others. Moreover, such a zero-sum game can thrive only by creating a culture of alienation and distrust – of “us and them” – that makes heaping the costs of one’s political benefits onto others more ethically palatable. For instance, taxes are perfectly fine when “we”, the poor, are taking from “them”, the rich; there is nothing wrong with regulations when they are imposed on “them”, the “corporations”, for “us”, the customers; minimum wages should be welcomed for “us”, the employees, when they are paid for by “them”, the bosses.18 Such antagonism is likely, of course, to be worse in multi-ethnic or polyglot political structures with little cultural homogeneity such as the EU, in which the culture of “us” and the “them” scarcely needs manufacturing. So too are such divisions likely to be exploited in interstate, political tensions between different countries. But it is no less true of the internal relations within a culturally homogenous state such as England.
To visualise this, try to imagine the street on which you live, or some other community of which you are a member. For the most part, you probably find that people living in the same street are able to get along with each other, in spite (or because) of the fact that they manage their own finances, choose their own groceries, purchase their own cars, and make their own decisions independently of any other household. This is especially so if the street is culturally homogenous – consisting, say, of families of a similar income level and social status – which is likely to channel people’s desires into roughly the same kind of lifestyle. No community, of course, is devoid of tension. Inter-neighbour strife over matters such as noise, boundaries, unsightly extensions etc. are always possible, and such tensions will undoubtedly be more likely in a street or apartment building whose residents have clashing tastes and values. But it is fair to say that the vast majority of people are able to rub along and, indeed, prosper together in their community. No one has to tell them to do this, nor do they have to be “ordered” into a state of harmony.
Consider what would happen, however, if the residents of the street decided to form a political union – or, more realistically, that a majority of the more powerful and persuasive residents decided to impose a political union upon the remaining minority of households. Now, instead of each household deciding for itself how to spend its money, which groceries it should buy, how the interior of each house should be furnished, etc., all such decisions become the preserve of a residents’ committee headed by one or two of the most prominent households, to which all of the other households must pay tribute. Moreover, the committee is empowered to distribute money from this tribute either to help residents in their “time of need”, or to fund special projects that “benefit” the street. Through regular bulletins issued by the committee, the residents are told that the co-ordinating decisions of the committee bring peaceful relations and harmony, making it essential to the sustenance of community life.
However, with important household and community decisions now made and enforced centrally rather than independently, it is obvious that the relationships between the residents would change.
For a start, because decisions can now be made centrally and applied to everybody, each resident would seek to enforce his own preferences on everyone else by lobbying the committee to make decisions in his favour. Perhaps you fancy a juicy chicken breast or a tender cut of steak for dinner? If so, it’s tough luck if the committee has been persuaded by the vegetarian family at number 32 that eating meat is unethical. Would you prefer to have cream coloured walls in your living room? That’s too bad if the committee decides everyone should have yellow. Are you hoping to spend some time this evening watching the TV? Not if the health zealots living round the corner demand you participate in a communal exercise session.
Second, each household would attempt to reduce its own personal expenditure on its lifestyle choices, projects and hobbies, hoping instead to offload their cost onto the centrally collected tribute. In order to achieve this, everyone would seek to ingratiate himself as much as possible with members of the committee. As holders of the purse strings, we can further expect the properties of the committee members and those closest to them to be lavished with new cars, redecorations, extensions, plush gardens and so on – all for the common good, of course – while everyone else’s falls into relative dilapidation. Thus, the street would soon be divided into distinct classes of the favoured and the disfavoured.
Moreover, now that a greater number of needs can be funded for free from a central pot, we can expect the residents to afflict themselves with an abundance of deficiencies and delinquencies mirrored by a corresponding decrease in their private earnings and productivity. Anyone with any remaining, privately sourced wealth will be denigrated as merchants of greed failing to pay their “fair share” to contribute to the upkeep of the community. Such laziness and class conflict would also beget a gradual cultural degradation and fragmentation of the community. No longer will people be united by generally common lifestyles and behavioural choices; instead, they will disintegrate into a cacophony of individual licentiousness, debauchery and hedonism, the consequences of which, each resident will claim, should be covered by the central fund. Further, this, quite clearly, will exacerbate tensions mentioned in the first point – a greater array of different lifestyles and choices will produce greater conflict in attempting to force their practice or observance on everyone else.
Is it not obvious that such an arrangement would cause a once peaceful and charming neighbourhood to descend into a living hell? Is it not the case that, by adopting a political union, the street would, in fact, create the very opposite of a society? Indeed, isn’t it likely that the constant scrambling for favourable decisions and free cash from the central stash will revert this once peaceful and co-operating community into something more akin to the Hobbesian state of nature instead of ascending out of it?19
Such a state of affairs would have exactly the same effect on the much less intimate relationships that govern a larger political union such as England. As philosopher David Conway summarises:
The greatest threat facing classical-liberal ideals and values is not a hostile foreign power threatening those nation-states in which these ideals first emerged and in which, to date, they have been most fully realised institutionally. Rather, it comes from within these states, where it assumes the form of powerful political coalitions determined to undermine and ultimately destroy the citizens’ sense of common nationality by replacing it with a heightened sense of their particularity and diversity vis-à-vis each other and which, unless checked, will lead to the disintegration of these nations into a mass of contending minorities.20
Such disintegration is evident in the economic and cultural disparities within England. The very reason why there is a “North/South divide”, and why the more Bohemian character of cities such as London contrasts with the more traditional nature of the provinces, is because political centralisation in Westminster has led, concomitantly, to a concentration of the nation’s financial and cultural assets in the capital city. If, say, Yorkshire or Lancashire wishes to increase its level of prosperity, it is ultimately dependent on the say so of Westminster. Neither county, unilaterally, can lower its tax rates or regulatory burden so as to attract entrepreneurs and businesses, nor can they tap into their natural resources (such as fossil fuel deposits) without seeking the approval of London whose priorities may be entirely different (e.g. environmental ahead of productivity). This lack of ability to unilaterally generate regional wealth creation leads, in turn, to a relative dearth of cultural richness in the provinces with, once again, the nation’s most prestigious theatres, concert halls, art galleries and museums being located within the M25.21 And even though football clubs far from any London borough, such as Manchester United and Liverpool, are dominant in the sport, ten of the fifty or so clubs that have played in the Premier League since its inception are based in London (eleven if you include Watford).22 All of this is exacerbated by London’s status as a global financial centre, a fact which sometimes leads one to conclude that London is the economic powerhouse of the UK. Actually, the reserve status of the pound sterling has allowed the UK to run a more or less permanent trade deficit since the “Big Bang” of the 1980s. Consumption goods have increasingly been purchased from abroad, while domestic manufacturing – once the backbone of England’s industrial provinces – has been run down in favour of a consumer driven, service-based economy, with London-based institutions being privileged the most by the proximity to the source of newly created money and political influence. In contrast, anything that seems to come the way of the regions – such as the much discussed but little implemented “northern powerhouse” – feels like crumbs thrown from the master’s table, or at least seem to be of a lower priority. Further, if immigration policies are determined by their buddies in the cabinet, the thirst of corporate executives for cheap, foreign labour is likely to have more of an impact than the importance of local, social cohesion.
Thus, like our hypothetical street which ruined itself through political union, the English people would, in fact, become more prosperous and more harmonious if the regions were permitted greater political independence from the English state. Therefore, the aim of English libertarians in achieving greater decentralisation should be to sunder English identity from political identity – that a man’s status as an Englishman should not depend not on the issuer of his passport or driving licence, but on the economic, cultural, linguistic and historic unity he shares with the English people, a unity that exists independently of any particular political arrangement. Further, this separate, distinct entity of the English state must be shown to be the cause of, rather than the solution to, any national disunity amongst the English people rather than the unifying factor, and that more local and regional governance is likely to result in greater economic and cultural prosperity amongst the English people.
This seventh part of our series on Fighting for Liberty draws to a close the bulk of our work explaining the considerations necessary for formulating a successful libertarian political strategy. A forthcoming epilogue will address some additional, closing matters while unifying all of the matters we have addressed in the series.
* * * * *
1Frank Chodorov, The Income Tax: Root of all Evil, The Devin Adair Company (1954), 58 [footnotes omitted; emphasis in the original].
2While, as Chodorov points out, outright secession may preclude or, at least, overlook the possibility of divided political allegiance to which he attributes the preservation of freedom (Chodorov, 60), such outright secession should be the preferred goal. Once you endow a body with jurisdiction over a wide territory – whether it’s a federal government or a supranational outfit such as the United Nations or the European Union – you have already laid the first paving stone on the road to greater centralisation. The United States has been a sad illustration of this.
Nothing of course, guarantees that a smaller state will be a cradle of liberty; there are, after all, plenty of relatively small, despotic states around the world. No system, however, can offer such a guarantee, for however good it may be, a state’s constitution or its bill of rights is a mere piece of paper. Liberty, if is to thrive and survive, has to be demanded and nourished by the will of the people. Indeed, while certain constitutional arrangements help to act as self-reinforcing mechanisms that can frustrate the accumulation of power, it is probably more accurate to say that decentralisation is ultimately a product of the will to be free rather than its cause.
3As one former governor of Utah explains in relation to the United States:
The states could go in for any political experiments the folks might want to try out — even socialism […] After all, there were other states nearby, and if a citizen did not like the way one state government was managing its affairs, he could move across the border; that threat of competition would keep each state from going too far in making changes or in intervening in the lives of the citizens.
J Bracken Lee, Foreword to Chodorov, iii.
4Possibly the most penetrating statement on the principle of subsidiarity comes from Thomas Jefferson:
[T]he way to have good and safe government, is not to trust it all to one, but to divide it among the many, distributing to every one exactly the functions he is competent to. Let the national government be entrusted with the defence of the nation, and its foreign and federal relations; the State governments with the civil rights, laws, police, and administration of what concerns the State generally; the counties with the local concerns of the counties, and each ward direct the interests within itself. It is by dividing and subdividing these republics from the great national one down through all its subordinations, until it ends in the administration of every man’s farm by himself; by placing under every one what his own eye may superintend, that all will be done for the best. What has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government which has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and power into one body, no matter whether of the autocrats of Russia or France, or of the aristocrats of a Venetian senate. And I do believe that if the Almighty has not decreed that man shall never be free, (and it is a blasphemy to believe it,) that the secret will be found to be in the making himself the depository of the powers respecting himself, so far as he is competent to them, and delegating only what is beyond his competence by a synthetical process, to higher and higher orders of functionaries, so as to trust fewer and fewer powers in proportion as the trustees become more and more oligarchical.
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, 2 February 1816 quoted in Andrew A Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh (eds.), The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 14, The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association (1905), 421-23.
5None of this should be interpreted as suggesting that unity of opinion in government is a good thing. In fact, the opposite is usually the case, for the more time that politicians spend arguing amongst themselves is less time they can spend on actually plundering everyone else. The point is that, in a smaller state, such unity is likely to be less objectionable to a greater number of people.
6By way of example, parts of Eastern Oregon have expressed a desire to secede and join neighbouring Idaho. If these kinds of possibility become more frequent, not only will political borders become more malleable and difficult to draw with certainty, but it may be quite possible that the territory of a given state is non-contiguous.
7In fact, as commentators such as Steve Turley, Jeff Deist and Jeff Crouere have noted, there is already a degree of “soft secession” taking place as a result of emigration from “blue” states to “red” states, together with a resurgence of localism and the use of state law to either nullify or pre-empt federal edicts.
8Such illegality was manifest in the lack of an explicit, constitutional provision accommodating the right for a territory to secede – a complicating factor also in the secession of the southern states of the US prior to the American Civil War. In contrast, a prescribed process of withdrawal from the European Union outlined in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was followed in order for Britain to leave the bloc. Although the EU is a much looser association of independent states – an international “club” held together by treaties rather than a federal state and, as such, a departing state could simply withdraw from the treaties – one can only imagine how much harder “Remainers” could have made Britain’s departure without the provision that provided for it expressly.
9An amusing, but probably apocryphal anecdote once related to me concerned an American visitor to Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Overwhelmed by the splendour of the architecture, the enthusiastic tourist was eager to know whether the building was “pre-War”, to which a nonchalant attendant responded: “Sir, this place is pre-America.”
10Unfortunately, the flip side is that such homogeneity also makes the prospect of re-consolidation or interstate co-operation – both to the detriment of citizens – more feasible.
11John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, The Pennsylvania State University (2004), 197.
12Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition, Third Edition, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2002), 109-110 [emphasis added].
13Murray N Rothbard, The Anatomy of the State, Ch. 3 in Idem, Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, Second Edition, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2000), 55-88 at55-6 [emphasis added].
14Thomas Hobbes, The Leviathan (1660), Chapter XIII.
15John Locke, another great expositor of social contract theory, suggests a version less extreme than that of Hobbes, but the essential leap from a state of basic hostility to one of amicability still remains:
[A]ll being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state [of nature] is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.
John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Book II, Ch. IX, § 123.
16Rothbard, 60. Ironically, the equation of the state with society would make more sense if its proponents accepted the violent nature of the state’s origins. For while conquest and subjugation are, themselves, hostile acts, we can envisage successful conquerors having the foresight to put their subjects to work in order to produce wealth for the victors (“taxes”), thus fostering social co-operation amongst the defeated populace. Statists, however, are precluded from taking this line, as their claim to legitimacy would vanish if they were to acknowledge the state as anything other than mutually beneficial.
17The notion that states are likely to go to war against other states is, of course, not a falsehood. However, it is exacerbated by a number of factors. First, the exercise of state power is a zero-sum game; a bigger slice of pie for one state means a smaller slice for another. Thus, the benefits of co-operation are limited to dividing the pie amicably, leaving violence as the only option for a state eager to secure a much larger slice. This is in contrast to the market system where the resolution of disputes is a fundamental part of protecting a system that makes a bigger pie for everyone, and so amicable solutions are more likely to be reached. Indeed, the power that war can win for a state at the expense of other states (in terms of territory, economic plunder, ideological supremacy etc.) is really the international equivalent of what the state achieves domestically against its own citizenry through the police and the threat of prison. Second, the state can offload the cost of its wars onto its taxpayers; this isn’t true of private individuals who must bear all of the costs of their conflicts themselves and, thus, are more likely to minimise them. And third, the spectre of foreign bogeymen and external threats lends the state the excuse it needs to increase its domestic predations, robbing the citizens of further freedoms. It is not, therefore, the anarchical situation between states per se that is the relevant cause of the extent and devastation of modern, interstate warfare – rather, it’s the fact that, for states, warfare is a much more attractive option than it is for private individuals.
18The fact that the burdens of taxation, regulation and minimum wages tend not to fall on the rich, the corporations and the employers – and, in fact, often cause the most harm to their supposed beneficiaries – is never raised, of course.
19Cf. Morris and Linda Tannehill, The Market for Liberty, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2007), 37-38.
20David Conway, Nationalism and Liberalism: Friends or Foes? Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 16, No. 1 (Winter 2002), 1-22 at 7. It should be noted, however, that the author’s comments refer to multiculturalism rather than political centralisation per se, and he expresses reservations about regional secession. Ibid 21, fn 35. Nevertheless, his words are apt for our purposes here.
21It is no accident that, during the centuries of their decentralisation, Germany, Austria and Italy were of exceptional cultural fertility, producing between them a disproportionate number of the West’s greatest authors, poets, artists, and composers.
22The figure is six out of twenty for the 2020-2021 season.