Many people in Catalonia wish to secede from Spain and form their own country, but the Spanish government has used force to block them from doing so. What should libertarians think of this conflict? In trying to answer this question, it is useful to seek guidance from Mises and Rothbard. Not that these two thinkers are always right, but it is a safe bet that these two giants of twentieth-century social science will have something illuminating to say.
Mises addresses the issue directly. In Omnipotent Government, he criticizes the eminent Spanish liberal Salvador de Madariaga for his opposition to Catalonian independence. “If some peoples pretend that history or geography gives them the right to subjugate other races, nations, or peoples, there can be no peace. It is unbelievable how deep-rooted these vicious ideas of hegemony, domination, and oppression are even among the most distinguished contemporaries. Señor Salvador de Madariaga condemns the demands of the Catalans and the Basques for independence, and advocates Castilian hegemony for racial, historical, geographical, linguistic, religious, and economic considerations.” (pp. 15–16) (Madariaga served variously as Professor of Spanish at Oxford and Spanish Ambassador to the League of Nations. He and Mises were friends, until this dispute drove them apart.)
Attempts to suppress the autonomy of a distinct linguistic group, Mises thought, would tend to lead to war. Peace requires that groups be allowed to choose their own destiny. “It is futile to advance historical or geographical reasons in support of political ambitions which cannot stand the criticism of democratic principles. Democratic government can safeguard peace and international cooperation because it does not aim at the oppression of other peoples.” (p. 15)
Mises extended the right of secession very far: any group wishing to fend for itself should be free to do so. “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. … If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done.” (Liberalism, pp. 109–10)
For Mises, then, preserving peace holds primary importance. Groups should not be forced to remain in a country against their will. Mises does not make it a requirement for secession that the seceding group accept libertarian, or as he would say liberal, principles. It is not even a requirement that the seceding group favor institutions more libertarian than those of the country they wish to escape. Mises would have little sympathy for the view, held by some libertarians today, that Catalonian independence should be opposed because the Spanish government is at present less socialist than the Catalonian provincial authorities.
Rothbard held very similar views, although for him individual rights rather than avoiding conflict lay at the heart of the secession issue. “National boundaries are only just insofar as they are based on voluntary consent and the property rights of their members or citizens. Just national boundaries are, then, at best derivative and not primary. How much more is this true of existing state boundaries which are, in greater or lesser degree, based on coercive expropriation of private property, or on a mixture of that with voluntary consent! In practice, the way to have such national boundaries as just as possible is to preserve and cherish the right of secession, the right of different regions, groups, or ethnic nationalities to get the blazes out of the larger entity, to set up their own independent nation. Only by boldly asserting the right of secession can the concept of national self-determination be anything more than a sham and a hoax.” (“The Nationalities Question”)
Rothbard had little use for the notion, held by some libertarians, that because only individuals exist, nations have no significance. “We must not fall into a nihilist trap. While only individuals exist individuals do not exist as isolated and hermetically sealed atoms. Statists traditionally charge libertarians and individualists with being ‘atomistic individualists,’ and the charge, one hopes, has always been incorrect and misconceived. Individuals may be the only reality, but they influence each other, past and present, and all individuals grow up in a common culture and language.” Like Mises, Rothbard does not require a seceding group to be classical liberal in orientation in order to secede. If it is not, that is unfortunate; but the members of the group do not lose their right to form a new political association.
One might object to Mises and Rothbard along these lines: Can we not imagine situations where secession would have very bad consequences? Must we support secession, come what may? The views of neither thinker require this. Too often libertarians seek a geometric politics, in which absolute principles follow rigidly from the non-aggression principle. Such deductions are not to be had, and Mises and Rothbard both deemed it essential to apply libertarian principles to particular circumstances with the requisite practical judgment. In doing so, they argued, support for secession is almost always the preferred course.
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