Tuesday, September 23, 2014

On the dissolving of political bands and the causes impelling separation

Well, Scottish independence has come and gone, thank God. The list of grievances being cited was pathetic enough to make even the complaints of the American colonists (already laughably overblown) seem like the accounts of survivors from North Korean prison camps.

But one thing this whole debacle really illustrated is the following: very few people these days think in a principled way about secession. When, if ever, do a group of people have a right to secede from a country? Do they even need legitimate grievances? How many of them need to agree, and by what margin?

This is certainly true in America. What are the two historical events that most people in this country agree on? Firstly, that the American revolution was a jolly good thing and entirely appropriate. And secondly, that the civil war was fortunately won by the North, whose cause was ultimately just (this is probably still somewhat disputed in the South today, but I think it's probably broadly agreed on overall).

Ponder, however, the surprising difficulty in reconciling those two positions in a principled manner. For some thoughts on the justification for the Cofederacy, meet Raphael Semmes, a Captain of the Confederate States Navy. Have a read of how an actual member of the Confederacy justifies the South's position. It's all in the first couple of chapters of his book, 'Memoirs of Service Afloat', which Gutenberg has for free here.

If you're too lazy to read the original, his argument is quite simple. Firstly, he argues that the same rights that gave the states the ability to join the union gave them the right to leave - they were separate political entities capable of their own decisions, a status that predated the union. Second, he argues that the people of the North and the people of the South are fundamentally dissimilar in attitude and culture. And finally, that the North had been oppressing the South. over the years, and the South simply wanted out.

Now, you may consider these arguments persuasive or unpersuasive. But before you decide, it is worth comparing them to the arguments that the American Colonists claimed as their justification for seceding from Britain. Semmes' argument, if you boil it down, essentially says that we claim the same right to secede from the Union as the thirteen colonies claimed as their right to secede from Britain.

Perhaps slavery is the trump card, the elimination of which (presuming for a moment that this was the sole rationale for the war from the Northern perspective, a far from obvious point) had such moral force that it overwhelmed all the other arguments. But without this logical Deus Ex Machina, it is quite challenging to come up with a consistent set of principles under which the colonies independence was was justified but the South's was not. It's not impossible, but it's not straightforward either. And when you're done with that, be sure to reconcile it with your thoughts on independence in Kosovo, Catalonia, Chechnya, the Kurds in Turkey, ISIS in northern Iraq and other modern examples.

Or put it this way - hypothetically, had the South agreed to abolish slavery, and then done so in a way that meant reinstating it was impossible, but afterwards still insisted on secession, would their cause have been justified then?

I really don't know what most Americans would say to that one.

I don't think Americans are alone in this unthinking attitude to the question.

You saw this exactly on display in the Scottish fiasco. Most political unions don't contain explicit descriptions of how they can be dissolved. This goes doubly so for countries like Britain, which don't have a formal constitution at all.

What this means is that it's entirely unclear when or which bits of it can break off. Scotland at least had the virtue of being a polity with its own history, own accent, own traditions and so forth. People know who 'The Scots' are, so you don't need to explain why they should be considered their own entity. But what if Glasgow decided that, notwithstanding the opinion of the rest of Scotland, they wanted to secede from the UK themselves. Could they do it? Population-wise, there's as many people living in Glasgow (596,000) as Montenegro (625,000)or Luxembourg (549,000). And if Glasgow, what about Inverness (72,000)?

And not only that, but the lack of formality was on display by the method of deciding the question. A single referendum, with the Scots as the only people being consulted. Moreover, for a decision this momentous, you might assume that you need some kind of supermajority or something. But since we can't specify that kind of thing ahead of time, the default assumption is that a simple majority will do, one time. If 50.01% of Scots want to leave, then out they go. Bad luck for the remaining 49.99%. Bad luck for any Scots yet to come who might have preferred the union. I suspect that if Cameron had thought he might lose, he might have asked for a higher standard. But a) how would he justify that higher number, and b) if he did, would he then be bound by the outcome?

For a lot of major political decisions, the public never gets consulted at all. It's not clear if the British will get a vote on whether to stay in the EU. They did get a referendum in 1975 to decide whether to join the European Economic Community (which later became the EU) but you'd be a bold man to claim that that signing up to the EEC meant a full knowledge of the leviathan that the EU would later become. In November 2012, support for leaving the EU was 56%. Under the one-time, one-vote rule, that could have been enough to get them out. One might say that holding this vote would force exclusion from the EU for future Brits, who might not be able to change their minds. Then again, one could equally say that the vote in 1975 forced inclusion on lots of modern Brits who now also can't change their mind.

I don't pretend there's easy answers to any of these questions. The libertarians would say every individual has the right to secede from any group, which is a consistent, if difficult to implement position.

But the whole Scotland thing has shown is that avoiding thinking about these kinds of questions doesn't make them go away. They're going to come up periodically, and you just get incoherent answers by not having any contingency plans.

Everyone goes into marriages thinking they'll last forever. And yet we still think it prudent to have divorce procedures well known in advance.

Since I'm mostly a fan of formalism, I think countries would benefit from the same arrangements.

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