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Decentralization, Freedom, and Peace Are the Pillars of a Free Society

[This article is the foreword to Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Decentralization, and Smaller Polities, by Ryan McMaken, available in PDF, at the Mises store, and on Amazon.

Classical liberal tradition defends the right of secession on many grounds. One of the main reasons is that the territorial dispersion of power limits political domination much more than formal constitutions do. Small states cannot easily adopt protectionist policies and their political classes are closely controlled by the citizens; in addition, redistribution is more difficult and rulers have more direct information about their own reality. Besides that, nationalism is a nonsense in a tiny jurisdiction of only 30,000 people (as in the case of Liechtenstein). Therefore, if we want to protect our fundamental rights, we need competing small states and the best way to enlarge the market is to multiply the jurisdictions.

In Breaking Away, Ryan McMaken takes up and elaborates on a number of libertarian arguments supporting self-government and he draws attention to an issue that is not always examined: that of defense and peace.

In the most glorious times of Dutch history, at the entrance to the port of Amsterdam there was this motto: Commercium et pax (trade and peace). Free market, social cooperation, and cultural dialogue always go hand in hand. That is why it is not surprising that in so many protagonists of classical liberal thought—from Montesquieu to Constant, from Cobden to Bastiat—free trade is associated with peace. By consequence, a libertarian defense of local self-government can be supported by a strong emphasis on the idea that processes of political disintegration would make a less conflictual world possible.

Yet for five centuries, the state has derived its legitimacy from the claim to guarantee order and avoid chaos. This thesis, in particular, is central to the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. Similarly, any process of unification always implies that the territorial dispersion of power would be accompanied by tensions, whereas unifications would guarantee harmony between peoples. For many people, talk of political division would already imply some disharmony and enmity.

On the contrary, against this Kantian idea of a global federation leading to the disappearance of borders, McMaken repeatedly focuses on the link between a peaceful international order and the diffusion of local self-government.

The analysis of sovereignty, territoriality or any other aspect of the modern state could take a lifetime, without achieving an understanding of which of these elements most characterizes this institution. However, it is clear that one must look at the state as a machine aimed at centralizing all decision-making power.

As McMaken points out, the state tends to enlarge: “mega-states are the ideal state.” After all, in the early modern age the model of statehood (France) emerged at the end of a process of enlargement that wiped out autonomy and diversity, laying the foundations for a growing homogenization of what had previously been a very linguistically, historically, and culturally articulated and inhomogeneous area.

Today one of the most used arguments in support of unification processes (against any hypothesis of secession of individual American states, against any skepticism toward European unification, and so on) is that only by building very large political entities is it possible to ensure effective defense: against China, Russia or any other state power.

The first objection is that if wars are waged by states, then it is necessary to overcome state logic in order to arrive at a more peaceful world. The more the number of states increases, the less they can really be ascribed to the state model. As Hegel pointed out, in some situations quantity can become quality.

However, the question remains as to how a collection of small entities that are much more respectful of individual rights can counteract large imperialist powers.

Basically many people think that large states are more militarily powerful. Obviously, this is not totally false, but we should compare a large armed state and an alliance of small jurisdictions emerging from the dissolution of big institutions. McMaken’s thesis is that the freedom provided by local self-government confers more economic dynamism, better technology, and greater attachment to one’s local reality. Moreover, it is not altogether surprising that during the last century great military powers have been in trouble when they have tried to occupy small localities where citizens were prepared to become soldiers to defend their families and homes.

After all, even if historians are still very uncertain about various aspects of those events, the Greek-Persian wars cannot be remembered as an undisputed triumph on the part of the most compact and unitary conglomerate.

In the end, in this contrast between those who believe that one must accept (even reluctantly) to be part of a large state in order to avoid a conquest and those, instead, who believe that even in such a case it is important to understand the advantages of the dispersion of power, we find ourselves faced with that misunderstood trade-off between freedom and security. And so it is always worth remembering the lesson of Benjamin Franklin, who was convinced that “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

The problem is that, as the history of large states shows very well, choosing security without freedom leads to losing both rights and peace.

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