[This article is the Introduction to Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities.]
The world is now, and has always been, politically decentralized. At no time in history has all of humankind been ruled by a single political regime. Although the Roman Empire claimed to be universal, the Romans never even conquered all of Europe, let alone the whole inhabited world. Roman power never extended to India, China, Sub-Saharan Africa, or the Americas. In other words, political power was never wielded from any single place by any single state.
Today, we see decentralization at work in the fact that there are more than two hundred separate sovereign states in the world. Nearly all of them enjoy a sizable amount of political power over their own citizens: imposing taxes, regulating daily life, and exercising police powers. Many of these states command enough military power to compete with other states and exercise true de facto independence even in the international sphere.
In other words, political power in the world is spread across dozens of independent political regimes and national power centers, most of which jealously guard their own powers and prerogatives from other regimes—and from domestic challengers to each state’s power.
The decentralization doesn’t end there. States themselves are often internally politically decentralized, most obviously in states that employ a federal political structure, such as Switzerland or the United States. Historically, we also find enormous variation in these arrangements. The Holy Roman Empire, for instance, contained more than 1,800 nearly-sovereign subdivisions within its borders during the eighteenth century. In Austria-Hungary in the nineteenth century, political power was divided among a number of internal ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups. Th e Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century was a confederation of seven self-governing provinces. It was also the most prosperous state of its time.
In these cases of internal decentralization, political power is divided among numerous jurisdictions and sub-national units. Some of these sub-units enjoy a high degree of autonomy. Some do not. But in these cases, political powers are never entirely reserved only to a single national power center.
Thus, we find that the norm in human affairs and in human history is a political system that is globally decentralized. It is the norm because most people recognize on an instinctual level that it is impractical—and likely impossible—to fashion a single global polity and regime that can direct all political institutions from a single political center. History suggests that this cannot be done without provoking an endless series of rebellions attempting to implement more local autonomy. Were all of Asia ruled from Tokyo, for example, this regime would be incessantly consumed with the challenges of imposing the regime’s will on a culturally and linguistically diverse population spread across millions of square miles. Thus, throughout, human history, the number and size of states in the world frequently changes adjusting to the ability of local interests to achieve autonomy from centers of power, and often to reflect cultural differences from place to place. Th is reality has not disappeared in our own time, and in many ways it has even accelerated. In fact, since the end of the Second World War, the number of independent states in the world has nearly tripled.1
Secession as a Type of Decentralization
This breaking up of human societies into a number of independent polities and countries is a type of decentralization, and secession is a key tool in this process.
Sometimes states get bigger through state-building processes. But sometimes the opposite happens. When states are broken down into a larger number of relatively smaller states, this is accomplished through secession—the act through which a portion of a state breaks off to create a new state. It’s easy to fi nd examples. When the American revolutionaries successfully broke away from the British Empire in the eighteenth century, new states were created, and the borders of the empire were profoundly changed. The Dutch Republic was formed following its secession from the Spanish Empire.
Similarly, as the European colonial powers abandoned—or were forced to abandon—their empires in the nineteenth and twentieth century, new independent states were created. Borders changed and maps were re-drawn.
The same thing happened when the Soviet Union collapsed in the late twentieth century.
So, while the political power in the world is already decentralized to a degree, it could still be decentralized to a far greater extent. Th e question of further decentralizing political power remains very much a timely topic and an ongoing question.
In 2016, for example, a majority of British voters elected to leave the European Union in favor of maintaining a fully independent and separate British state. In other words, British voters elected to reverse the political centralization that had been growing in the EU’s European Commission in Brussels. Two years earlier, in 2014,
Scottish voters went to the polls to vote yes or no on this question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” At the time, a majority of Scottish voters voted “no” to the proposed separation. The matter is not resolved, however, and the question of Scottish independence continues to be debated both in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom. Catalonian secessionists in Spain continue to press for a split from Madrid as well.
Political Centralization and the Question of Human Rights
Given the ubiquitous nature of decentralization and secession throughout history, we are faced with an important question: what is the ideal size of a state, and how much of a state’s power should reside in the central government? Is it a good thing when a state is broken up into smaller autonomous provinces and regions? Should states be broken up into independent smaller states?
In order to answer these questions, we must first ask by what standard we can judge regimes and political institutions to be “good” or “bad.”
For those of us who are adherents of the ideology known as liberalism—also known as “classical” liberalism or libertarianism—the preservation and protection of universal human rights is of exceptional importance, and serves as a central standard by which to judge a regime. At the core of these rights—also known as “natural rights”—are basic freedoms such as the freedom to own private property, freedom of speech, and the freedom to practice one’s religion. Only slightly less important in evaluating a regime is the question of ensuring a rising standard of living and preserving conditions for human flourishing.
Why Decentralization Is a Good Thing
The purpose of this book is to illustrate in a variety of ways that decentralization is a good thing and is generally beneficial for the preservation of human rights and economic prosperity. Moreover, it is my position there is not nearly enough decentralization. All too often policymakers accept there are at least some benefits to decentralization or its cognates such as “subsidiarity” and “federalism.” Yet in countless cases, professed respect for principles of decentralization amounts to little more than a token nod in favor of localism. Ultimately, centralized state institutions in these cases end up with the lion’s share of political power.2
This isn’t to say that factors other than the degree of centralization of power are unimportant to matters of human rights and natural rights. For instance, ideology and tradition both play important roles. A population that is ideologically and traditionally inclined toward the protection of universal rights is more likely to live under regimes that respect these rights. This is true regardless of size. All else being equal, however, we will find that more political decentralization leads to more responsive, less abusive political institutions.
The benefits of political decentralization can be primarily found in three areas.
One: Smaller States Allow for More Choice and More Opportunities for Exit
The first benefit of decentralization is that smaller states and decentralized states allow residents to make more choices as to what sort of regime they wish to live under in order to better meet their needs and protect their rights.
Within the United States, for example, businesses and private citizens move from state to state in order to avoid taxes, regulations, or to otherwise change the nature of the government under which they live.
Th is occurs at the international level as well, as can be seen in the phenomenon of migrant workers, refugees, asylum-seekers, and businesses all seeking to improve their situations.
Polities that are physically smaller allow for easier relocation and more choice. For example, were the United States composed of just two or three member states, residents would have far fewer choices of governments under which to live. As it is, residents have dozens of choices, at least in terms of policy areas that are not dominated by the federal government.
Similarly, were Europe or South America composed of just one or two sovereign states, residents would have to travel much farther to escape the regimes under which they live. They would also have fewer choices overall.
A large number of independent polities from which to choose also tends to encourage competition among states. In his essay “What We Mean by Decentralization,” Lew Rockwell notes:
under decentralization, jurisdictions must compete for residents and capital, which provides some incentive for greater degrees of freedom, if only because local despotism is neither popular nor productive. If despots insist on ruling anyway, people and capital will find a way to leave.3
Smaller states are less able to monopolize and control the movement, production, and activities of residents when a number of other choices beckon from across the border.
We can put this another way: In the private sector, an industry with a large number of firms offers more choices, and the individual firms themselves possess less monopoly power. The same is true in the “marketplace” of states. More states mean more variety, more choice, and less monopoly power enjoyed by any single state.
Two: Protecting Minority Rights When Democracy Fails
For centuries, political reformers have sought ways to shape political institutions in ways designed to protect minority groups from being overwhelmed by the majority.
Even in non-democratic political institutions, majority groups tend to exercise far more power than minority groups. This can be magnified in democratic regimes where elections often only serve to solidify policies favored by the majority. Many strategies have been employed to address this problem. Examples include an independent judiciary, and a variety of “checks and balances” designed to allow minority groups a chance to shape policy.
These efforts can often fail if a minority group is unable to win influence in at least some key political institutions. When this happens, minority groups may find themselves as a part of a permanent minority and that means the minority group is locked out of power indefinitely.
When that happens, the only solutions that can be found are in acts outside the realm of institutional political activism. Such acts include boycotts, passive resistance, and armed rebellion. This, of course, can lead to civil war, and it’s why secession and decentralization must be on the table as a means of providing minority groups with a chance at self-determination and self-government.
Three: Limiting the Power of Aggressive States
A third benefit of decentralization and secession is that they tend to limit the power of regimes and states overall. When regimes seek to increase their own power through conquest, confiscation of property, or other outrages, their potential for damage is limited by the size and scope of the state itself.
According to Rockwell, “tyranny on the local level minimizes damage to the same extent that macro-tyranny maximizes it.” That is, “If Hitler had ruled only Berlin, [and] Stalin only Moscow” the history of the world may have been considerably less bloody.4 Large states are playgrounds for despots and dictators, while small states provide far fewer opportunities for ambitious politicians to spread their mayhem beyond their local communities.
On the whole, small and decentralized states are less likely to abuse their power, destroy their economies, and disregard basic human rights. Large, centralized states, on the other hand, are more easily able to abuse their residents and deny their rights, leading also to more dysfunctional economies and diminished economic opportunity.
The end goal of all this secession and decentralization is—to use a phrase employed by the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard— “universal rights, locally enforced.” As Rockwell explains, these two concepts—universalism and localism—are frequently in tension. But, he concludes:
if you give up one of the two principles [i.e., universal rights and local control] you risk giving up liberty. Both are important. Neither should prevail over the other. A local government that violates rights is intolerable. A central government that rules in the name of universal rights is similarly intolerable.5
States tend to pursue certain goals regardless of size. Regimes want to protect their own prerogatives and ensure the staying power of the state itself. Thus, both large and small states are willing to abuse their powers in pursuit of these goals—if they can get away with it. Small and decentralized states, however, face more limitations when it comes to expanding power and limiting the freedoms of taxpayers and residents. It is these de facto limitations on political power that lead to the benefits of decentralization that I will discuss throughout the book.
[This article is the Introduction to Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities.]
1. Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore, “What’s Happening to the Number and Size of Nations?” E-International Relations, November 9, 2015, https:// www.e-ir.info/2015/11/09/whats-happening-to-the-number-and-size-of-nations/.
2. Subsidiarity is a term often used in Catholic and European contexts which is largely synonymous in its usage with “local control,” “federalism,” or “local sovereignty” in the American context. I will not use the term extensively here, however, because the term is itself imprecise and its meaning is contested among scholars who study subsidiarity. That is, it is no more precise than similar terms like “decentralization” or “localism.” Policy prescriptions for a political system adhering to principles of subsidiarity can vary wildly because a commonly accepted defi nition of subsidiarity is simply that powers should be allocated to the individual or institution that can best or most appropriately exercise them. This is sometimes interpreted to favor giving more power to lower levels of government hierarchy, but not in many cases. Standards for determining what constitutes the best or most appropriate exercise of this power is quite malleable and even those claiming to desire subsidiarity often support further centralization of power because the central authority is in many cases deemed to be the “appropriate” or “best” institution to exercise the power in question. Other standards used to determine whether subsidiarity should favor local control or central control include economic effi ciency and justice, but opponents of decentralization need only insist that the central government can deliver more efficiency or more just outcomes. Thus, advocating for subsidiarity (or decentralization) broadly understood, doesn’t necessarily advance the position that more decentralization is better. The goal of this book, rather, is to illustrate why greater decentralization is desirable—a position that does not necessarily follow from favoring subsidiarity or decentralization in general terms. For more on why subsidiarity is regarded as “vague” and “slippery” see Markus Jachtenfuchs and Nico Krisch, “Subsidiarity in Global Governance,” Law and Contemporary Problems 79, no. 2 (2016): 5; Andreas Føllesdal, Competing Conceptions of Subsidiarity,” Nomos 55 (2014): 214–30; Michelle Evans, “The Principles of Subsidiarity as a Social and Political Principle in Catholic Social Teaching,” Solidarity: The Journal of Catholic Social Thought and Secular Ethics 3, no. 1 (November 2013): 45–46
3. Lewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., “What We Mean by Decentralization,” Mises Daily, July 21, 2005, https://mises.org/library/what-we-mean-decentralization.