Says Daniel McCarthy of The American Conservative.
The magazine actually seems remarkable. I'm in awe that there still exist "conservatives" who are not genocidal maniacs. Hat tip to Anthony Gregory who linked to this article, praising it and its author, a "living, thinking paleocon." Normally, conservatives are not living (they are fossils) nor thinking (in fact, they would like to freeze society so that no one can think anything, especially anything new). But McCarthy is an exception that tests the rule.
On to the article's claims. Let B secede from A. McCarthy is right that in practice, secession is a democratic not a libertarian movement. The minority who vote against secession are harmed. But overall, "general happiness" increases, because at least the majority get their way. The people in A have no business with how B decides and should be neutral as to the results. In the end, on the whole, society is better off.
McCarthy goes on that "The abstract claim that every minority within the newly formed states should then be allowed to secede doesn't translate into anyone's policy: instead, formerly united states that are now distinct security competitors tend to consider the residual minorities who belong to the other bloc to be internal security threats." It is probably true that secession is rarely recursive, leading to further secessions. But perhaps it should. McCarthy himself distinguishes between the "real world" and the political principle of secession. Perhaps if the great majority of people embraced secession as a convenient path toward "free-market anarchism," then free-market anarchism would be swiftly established. That they do not speaks only of their failure to be libertarians, not of any inherent defect in the serviceableness of secessionism as a means to liberty.
It may well be true that the secessionists want to separate for a bad reason. In the case of Scotland, I've read some opinions that the Scots wanted a more thorough socialism than the GB had. Nevertheless, it hardly follows that the Scottish people needed to be saved from themselves.
Another libertarian point McCarthy evaluates is that "suppressing secession may require coercion"; he is unimpressed by it, because "What gives the people in seceding territory X the right to shoot at people from integrated territory X+Y?" Well, the territory of X is owned by the private property owners living on X. It is true that the same territory is lorded over by the government of X + Y. But many libertarians would consider such dominion to be illegitimate. If the people of X want to separate from X + Y, then they are simply affirming their justly acquired property titles. If the government of X + Y overrules the Xies and invades their properties, then it is rather obviously coercing them.
It may be true that the Xies want to form their own state, but that is a second and separate action from the first and original secession. Firth, there is formal separation. Second, the property owners of X form a new government. That the second action is from the libertarian point of view highly unwise does not make the first action illegitimate.
Mises championed a pragmatic reason for allowing secessions, viz., to prevent civil wars and revolutions. If everyone is committed at least to the procedure of a secession, then "ballots," i.e., a peaceful process of voting, can replace bullets.
But there is a reason to think that McCarthy is wrong in a more fundamental sense. He considers the argument that "smaller states tend to be freer and more prosperous," disposing of it for reason that small states tend to free ride on the security provided by large states.
McCarthy misses the point. It's not that smaller states tend to be freer and more prosperous in and of themselves. It's that a secession creates at least one more state, thereby increasing the political competition between different polities. To see how such competition is conducive to liberty, compare your local vs. your federal tax rate.
David Friedman understood well the civilizing effects of the ability to emigrate: "Consider our world as it would be if the cost of moving from one country to another were zero. Everyone lives in a housetrailer and speaks the same language. One day, the president of France announces that because of troubles with neighboring countries, new military taxes are being levied and conscription will begin shortly. The next morning the president of France finds himself ruling a peaceful but empty landscape, the population having been reduced to himself, three generals, and twenty-seven war correspondents."
It's the ability to "vote with your feet" that makes such a potent incentive to local governments to behave themselves. Again, compare the costs of moving from one town to another neighboring one to the costs of moving from one large country to another.
So, secession as a principle, when taken seriously and used consistently, might dissolve the 100 or so large states covering the world into 10,000 independent localities. It is not their size alone that helps to ensure that these mini-states are freer and more prosperous but also their sheer number. Size matters, too, though: a city is easily destroyed by bad economic policy, unlike a huge nation that can flout economic laws with much greater impunity. A few bad decisions by the city council, and a formerly thriving community becomes a ghost town, yet another incentive to the townsfolk to keep on the straight and narrow.
Secession is a principle of liberty, insofar as it is capable, at least in theory, of decentralizing the world into a vast number and kinds of political systems, all the way down to town / county and perhaps even lower than those (such as a gated community). The increased competition between those for citizens and businesses will turn the arrogant and corrupting "My country, love it or leave it" into the far more appropriate "Please love my country, I hope you'll stay."