Mises Daily

Home | Library | The Right to Walk Away

The Right to Walk Away

March 19, 2003

Click HERE to view the online video version of this lecture in WMV format.

Human interactions can be located on an axis running between two polar ideas, persuasion and aggression. I am not contending that this is the only way we can evaluate human action, only that it is a useful way.

What do I mean by persuasion? Basically, this: When engaging in persuasion, I attempt to convince you that your situation will be better, in your own eyes, if we do interact than if we do not. (Now, just to clearly differentiate what I am talking about from fraud, I will note that I am using the word "persuasion" here to mean honest persuasion.)

For example, suppose that you and I each live on our own isolated island, with the other person's island the only land within sight. Further, we will imagine that neither of us can get to the other's island due to the shark-infested waters in the area. It is quite possible that each of us might go about his business undisturbed by the existence of the other person.

However, we happen to meet one day when each of us is at the shore. While we chat across the waves, I mention to you that there are many coconut trees on my island, but that I'm getting sick of eating coconuts. You respond that on your island there are many mango trees, and that you are fed up with eating mangoes. After further discussion, we agree that every day, around the same time, we will meet at the same place. I'll bring a few coconuts and you will bring some mangoes. We will trade by tossing them to each other across the water. It seems obvious that each of us prefers interacting with the other to not doing so, since it is trivially easy for either of us completely to avoid the other. I am perfectly willing to leave you alone if you are uninterested in what I can offer you, and vice versa.

By contrast, if I am engaged in aggression, I will attempt to force interaction on you without your consent. Often, I will try to convince you that I have the power and will to make your life worse if you refuse to interact with me on the terms I propose. Again, imagine our island meeting. But now, when I discover you have mangoes on your island, I demand that you throw me five per day. If you do not, I tell you, I will lay in wait and kill you the next time I see you, perhaps by running you through with a spear.

There certainly is an element of persuasion in such a threat: I must persuade you that I really intend to kill you if you don't acquiesce, and that I have the ability to act on that intention. Yet the difference between our two examples is immense. In the case of the mango-coconut exchange, I am quite willing to leave you alone to go about your business as if we had never met, should my argument for exchange fail to persuade you. In the mangoes or death case, I am demanding that we interact. If you will not do so on the terms I set, I intend to interact with you by making your situation significantly worse than if you had never laid eyes on me. I don't try to convince you that you would be better off than you are now if you give me mangoes, but rather that if you don't give me mangoes, I can make you much worse off than you are now.

More relevant to the world in which most of us actually live, where we are not isolated on our own island, consider two approaches I might take when trying to get my neighbor to come hear my next talk. On the one hand, I may attempt to persuade her that she would like it. I can try to convince her that I have her interests at heart, that the talk will be scintillating, or that she will learn to understand economics better if she comes. (Of course, if I tell her these things but I know they are false, I am engaged in fraud.)

As long as I am willing to leave her alone when she says, "buzz off, loser," I am engaged in persuasion. I don't intend to make her life worse if she ignores me, but to make it better if she goes along with my suggestion.

On the other hand, I could tell her that if she doesn't come, I will have her killed. Then I am not suggesting to her that her life will be better if she interacts with me; I am saying that she has no choice but to interact with me, and that coming to the talk will be the least unpleasant interaction she can choose.

What could be clearer than the enormous difference between these two ways of relating to others? Persuasion and aggression imply fundamentally different conceptions of other people: When I engage in persuasion I regard the other person as a free, intelligent actor, much as I regard myself. When employing aggression I regard the other as merely a means I might manipulate in order to achieve my ends, much as I would regard a stick or a rock.

I conceive of three basic forms of aggression, although I admit that, as aggressive as I am, I may not have thought of them all: aggression by stealth, aggression by fraud, and aggression by committing or threatening violence.

I could aggress against you using stealth, for example, by sneaking into your house while you were sleeping and stealing your food. Rather than persuading you to interact with me, I rely on hiding the fact that we did interact in planning my escapade. You will not be able to employ your intelligence in deciding whether or not to interact with me, because if I have my way you never will know that we did interact.

This is different from the case where we interact in some sense, but so slightly that you don't notice it. For example, if I barbecue in my yard, a few molecules of smoke might blow into your yard and be inhaled by you, without your ever being aware of it happening. In the case of theft, you certainly will notice, and object to, what I've done: you will find that your food is missing! You just won't know whom to "thank."

I fraudulently aggress against you if I hide my real intention while persuading you to interact with me. This type of aggression is why I qualified my use of 'persuasion' as meaning 'honest persuasion.' Fraud certainly does involve persuasion! But rather than persuading you that A will be to your benefit, then delivering A, I persuade you that you'd like A while secretly planning to deliver B.

For example, in the island scenario we have been examining, I might propose that we exchange coconuts and mangoes. However, rather than tossing whole coconuts across to you, I tie back together the shells of coconuts from which I already have eaten the meat and drunk the milk. I persuade you to exchange coconuts for mangoes, but what we actually exchange is coconut shells for mangoes. The problem here is that I don't allow you to employ your intelligence in choosing how to relate to me, because I have deceived you about my plans.

Finally, I might aggress against you by employing violence or the threat of violence. We already have seen examples of that form of aggression, such as my threatening to skewer you if you don't bring me mangoes.

What Use Are These Concepts?

I believe that the view of persuasion and aggression adopted here can be helpful in clarifying disputes over what types of action are inherently aggressive. For example, socialist anarchists, who like libertarians claim to be against aggression, often contend that the ownership of capital goods and the payment of a wage for labor are inherently aggressive.

But let us consider again the scenario of you and me as island castaways. Imagine, now, that you have built a boat that you use to go fishing. You employed your own labor and whatever materials you found on your island–something I could just as well have done on mine. Upon discovering this, I demand that you bring me some of your catch each day. You refuse, instead suggesting that if I bring you coconuts, you will be happy to trade fish for them, or let me use the boat for a while.

In response, I protest that you are aggressing against me, using the "power" you have as an owner of a capital good (your boat) to "exploit" the labor I have expended in picking coconuts. If the view of persuasion and aggression I'm proposing is sensible, then such a claim is absurd. You are perfectly willing to leave me alone and allow me to continue my life as though we had never met. After all, if not for your existence, then there would be no boat. You don't demand that I use your boat, or attempt to force me to labor to supply you with coconuts. You only require that if we are to interact, then it must be on terms with which we both agree.

Furthermore, if you do agree to my terms for exchanging coconuts for fish, then it is clear that you must think you are better off engaging in exchange with me than not doing so. After all, I left open to you the opportunity to ignore my existence. If you traded with me nevertheless, you must have believed your situation was improved by doing so.

Justifying Crusoe Analysis

When the above line of reasoning was posted to an anarcho-socialist bulletin board, a commentator said that I was ignoring the complexities of real societies in my artificial, Crusoe-like analysis. However, if we want to arrive at the essence of social arrangements, we have no choice but to reduce them to their simplest forms, for only then can their essential character be seen clearly.

In every actual social situation we will find a myriad of complex historical circumstances. Without having first derived various principles concerning social interaction by mentally isolating "pure" instances of ideal types, we will find ourselves adrift in the vast sea of history without compass or rudder. I believe that if we ever wish to come to shore we must heed Carl Menger's advice from Principles of Economics:

"In what follows I have endeavored to reduce the complex phenomena of human economic activity to the simplest elements that can still be subjected to accurate observation… [and] to investigate the manner in which the more complex phenomena evolve from their elements according to definite principles."

Of course we can think of cases in which the ownership of capital goods and the employment of wage labor are entangled with aggression. For instance, we might discover that the traditional hunting grounds of an Indian tribe had been taken from them by force and handed over to some industrialist, who then began mining there. The Indians, bereft of their traditional livelihood and stripped of their main asset, might find themselves with little choice but to work in the mines of the industrialist.

Clearly, the Indians were wronged and the industrialist was an aggressor. Furthermore, it is no doubt true that many current claims on property are tainted by just such past acts of aggression. To the extent that guilt on the part of the current owner can be proven clearly, most libertarians would approve of rectifying such situations. 

However, the example of the boat demonstrates that there is no inherent aggression in the ownership of capital goods or the employment of wage labor. If someone should want to claim that some particular instance of some capitalist employing some laborers is an act of aggression, then it is incumbent upon that person to show what actual acts of aggression occurred. It is not enough merely to shout, "Wage labor is slavery," and then rest one's case.

Is Libertarian Socialism Possible?

Now, this may shock some people, but, despite the fact that many socialists hold such erroneous views, I believe that it is possible to be a socialist, of a certain sort, and a libertarian. I offer as an example Keith Preston, who recently summarized his vision of a libertarian world as follows:

"As many readers are no doubt aware, I am an anarcho-socialist myself. I… generally favor an economic order of small businesses and self-employed persons, cooperatives, worker owned/managed industries, Proudhonian banks and other similar institutions operating within the context of a laissez-faire, stateless, free market."

Prestonian socialism relies on persuasion, not aggression. He hopes to persuade others that they would prefer to live in the sorts of social arrangements he favors, rather than in more traditionally "capitalist" structures. Preston is perfectly willing to allow those not persuaded by his arguments to start traditional, hierarchical companies, to work for wages, to rent apartments, and so on.

I'd like to detour from my main point for a moment, to point out that Preston's vision of "socialism" avoids the Misesian calculation problem. His small businesses, cooperatives, worker-owned industries, and so forth deal with each other in an overarching market system in which genuine market prices can arise. People still will be able to engage in economic calculation in his ideal world. Preston's local, "socialistic" organizations occupy the place of the firm in standard economic theory, although they are firms with unusual (and to Preston preferable) internal structures.

The Problem with Most "Local Socialism"

Other socialist anarchists have attempted to answer Mises's critique of socialism through local institutions as well, recognizing that in a group where each member can comprehend the activities of most of the other members, economic calculation is not necessary. That is why, for instance, a deli employing five people does not need to perform cost accounting for each worker as though they were all separate divisions of General Motors.

What many anarcho-socialists do not realize is that if they do not allow market prices in the interactions between such small groups, the result will be the elimination of the global division of labor, and, indeed, of any division of labor more extensive than can exist within such groups themselves.

"Great!" they might contend, "Who needs trade? Local self-sufficiency is where it's at." However, without the global division of labor, the earth could support only a small fraction of its current population. If the program of anarcho-socialists entails billions perishing so that those left alive can have what they judge to be a more satisfying life, then they should be explicit about it. (To be fair, some radical environmentalists have been explicit about desiring such a result: They want the earth's human population reduced to the level it was at when all humans were hunter-gatherers. They have not garnered much popular support for such a program.)

Is it possible for there to exist an overarching framework for liberty that allows the liberty desired by free-market libertarians, that sought by anarcho-socialists such as Preston, and other visions of liberty as well? I believe that it is, and that is the road I want to recommend tonight.

To avoid the Hobbesian "war of all against all," humans form civil associations. A civil association is a group of people united in recognizing the authority of a body of law over all the individuals who comprise the group. And "recognizing the authority of a body of law" implies the free use of one's own intelligence in choosing to recognize it. In other words, one must be persuaded, not coerced, into that recognition.

I believe that for civilized society to exist, the rule of law is essential. But I would like to suggest, as a start down the road to liberty, a single modification to the prevailing view of civil associations, one implied by their nature. It is to recognize the right of every adult person to freely form, join, and leave such associations. (And here I would like to acknowledge the inspiration provided by Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, which has been crucial to my adopting this view.)

I believe that the recognition of such a right would provide a framework for achieving the maximum liberty compatible with human civilization. Therefore, let me explain what I mean by this right.

The Right of Freely Chosen Civil Association

First of all, a person's right to join a civil association only extends to civil associations that welcome that person. You could not legitimately force your way into a group, by violence, fraud, or stealth. On the other hand, no third party, such as a group with which you were previously associated, can prevent you from joining a new group. Only the people already in a civil association and the person seeking to join it can decide the issue.

Next, I will point out that if we recognize the right to withdraw from civil associations at will we have acknowledged a right to secession. The word "secession" can be a bit frightening, as it conjures up images of hundreds of thousands of casualties in the U.S. Civil War, or Chechen rebels blowing up apartment buildings. Now, I believe that violent secession is almost always counter-productive to the advancement of liberty. What I am suggesting is not that people try to violently shed their current government, but rather that people should come to demand that governments will allow people to exit, just the way that most people today expect that governments will allow free speech.

I will also note that seceding to escape punishment for a crime already committed is not what I mean by a right of secession. In other words, I can't kill someone and then announce, "Oh, and by the way, I secede, so don't try to prosecute me." Presumably, "secession to dodge criminal proceedings" would be forbidden in the entry agreement for most civil associations.

The Right to Exit in Place

The sharpest contrast to our current world in what I suggest is that people should be able to leave a civil association without leaving a geographical location. Unless they have explicitly agreed to remain part of some civil association in the purchase or rental agreement for their residence–as, for instance, people often do when purchasing a condo or a home in a planned community–they should have the right to withdraw both themselves and their land from the authority of their current civil association. Having done so, a person might attempt to join another existing civil association, might try to persuade others to form a new civil association, or might remain outside of any civil association whatsoever.

To deny people the right to secession employs aggression rather than persuasion in attempting to constitute a civil association. It violates the essential nature of civil association, which requires a voluntary recognition of the authority of a body of law.

It is true that most people today have at least some possibility of leaving the state in which they live. But to do so they must leave their friends, their families, their jobs, their house, and perhaps even their language behind.

They are further hampered by numerous immigration restrictions in other states. Of course, the civil associations I envision are likely to have membership restrictions. But with a vastly greater number of such associations, it is likely that at least a few would accept any particular would-be member.

Moreover, the possibility of choosing a truly different form of civil association is slowly being eliminated by the dawning worldwide state system, where the United States and its allies are imposing, by economic pressure, the lure of foreign aid and loans, military force, and so forth, the social democratic model of state corporatism combined with extensive social benefits and high tax rates upon the entire world. Many neoconservative and neoliberal pundits have been quite explicit in declaring the modern social democratic welfare state to be the "end of history" and a universal model that must be imposed everywhere, by military force if necessary.

The United States and its G-8 allies may object to countries, such as Iraq, that allow too little freedom, but they also strongly discourage countries from allowing "too much" freedom. Countries with tax rates "too low" are labeled as suspicious "tax havens." Those with "too much" banking privacy are marked as possible supporters of terrorism. The U.S. government is telling Canada not to relax its marijuana laws. The IMF forbids member nations from adopting the gold standard as a monetary regime. Prudence Bushnell, the US ambassador to Guatemala, actually used her position to campaign against a university there, because it was promoting the "radical libertarian" ideas of Mises and Hayek, and was questioning the need for an income tax, welfare, and public schooling.

We don't need to posit any sort of global Masonic conspiracy to explain such facts–although, of course, that doesn't mean there isn't one! Government officials are clever enough to realize that states offering people more freedom than their own are a threat to them, since more libertarian states will tend to draw bright, ambitious, and wealthy people from the more restrictive states. Pure self-interest will lead a state to attempt to prevent other states from being significantly less intrusive than it is.

In the world-spanning social democracy we will see Hayek's insight, that the worst rise to the top, played out on a global scale. The unprecedented concentration of power that would exist would place an enormous prize before the most vicious power addicts. Therefore, the idea of a right to choose one's own form of governance, at any geographic scale, is perhaps more important than ever, as a counterweight to "the new world order."

The right I am proposing even leaves those who chafe at any constraints on their behavior, other than their own vision of justice, with a way out: they may withdraw completely from civil life and become an "outlaw." Such people would probably withdraw to remote wilderness areas–northern Canada, Siberia, high mountains, thick jungles. They would be living without the protection of any body of law. But so long as they left the members of existing civil associations alone, there is no reason to suppose they would be pursued or bothered, except perhaps by other outlaws. But the ability to "make one's own law" in dealing with others by whom one feels wronged is probably the most important motivation such a person has for leaving civil association behind.

Relations Between Members of Different Civil Associations

Since members of different civil associations will still interact with each other in the world I am envisioning, the question arises as to how conflicts between them can be resolved. In many cases, I believe, civil associations will negotiate agreements with each other for arbitrating disputes between their members.

Furthermore, the ability of individuals to agree to a system of law without a central authority to impose one recently has been shown to be much greater than political theory has traditionally imagined it to be. Ed Stringham of San Jose State University has demonstrated that the trading of derivatives on the 17th-century Amsterdam stock market proceeded peacefully and without a great deal of fraud, despite the fact that the Dutch government refused to enforce derivative contracts. Similarly, Peter Leeson of George Mason has cited the law merchant code of the High Middle Ages and Renaissance as another example of voluntary law operating successfully.

The widespread recognition of a right to secession certainly does not make war between civil associations impossible. But I believe it renders it significantly less likely, since any civil association promoting a war that is even mildly unpopular will immediately be faced with a wave of secession.

Under such a system, states like those we find today are less likely to exist. Many civil associations will have features of current states to which libertarians might object, such as welfare programs, drug laws, draft laws, and so on. But if the members have had the opportunity to exit but have not done so, then it is clear that they are persuaded that they should live under such laws. If they are in a civil association voluntarily, I detect no aggression being committed against them by, for example, drug prohibition. And if a right to exit is recognized, it will be much more difficult for a state to engage in the systematic exploitation of one segment of its populace for the benefit of another.

Of course, my idea does not guarantee that no oppressive state will ever emerge. But I don't believe it is reasonable to expect guarantees in life. The widespread acceptance of the belief that human slavery is immoral has not prevented some people from occasionally capturing other people and enslaving them. But one must admit the practice is somewhat less prevalent today than it was in 1750. Similarly, if a right to secession gains widespread moral approval, then it seems likely that it will be much more difficult to organize an oppressive state.

Are Geographically Intermingled Civil Associations Practical?

My friend Paul Birch expressed a possible problem with my idea. He doubts the practicality of geographically intermingled civil associations. As he puts it, "unless civil associations, of which persons are voluntarily members, are territorially distinct and not too small, people cannot avoid being subject to laws to which they have not acceded, because disputes will commonly arise between members of different associations, who have different laws."

I believe that deriving authoritative law for interactions between members of different civil associations through negotiation between the groups goes some way toward handling his objection, as do the cases of voluntary law I've mentioned. As one piece of evidence suggesting that civil associations need not be geographically contiguous, I will point to a work of fiction: Neal Stephenson's brilliant novel The Diamond Age.

Stephenson describes a future world that is without states as we know them. People have formed geographically intermingled groups based on the code of ethics to which they subscribe. There is, for instance, a group called the "Vickies" who adhere to a Victorian ethic in their public life. People join or leave these groups by their own choice, and the groups commercially interact with each other on a daily basis.

Now, I admit that a fictional world is not nearly as convincing a bit of evidence for the feasibility of a political idea as a real society based on the idea. Nevertheless, the fact that Stephenson can create a coherent, plausible world of geographically intermingled civil associations at least suggests that such arrangements are not impossible.

Don't Try to Change Everything at Once

An important feature of the "road to liberty" I'm suggesting is that the possibility of the real world coming to resemble the vision depends almost exclusively on the widespread acceptance of the idea that membership in a civil association should be voluntary.

Such an idea is already held, albeit incoherently and inconsistently, by many people today. We can hear it expressed in calls for "self-governance" and "democracy." Rather than attempt to convince a majority of people to adopt an entirely new ethical or political system, we only need to draw their attention to the fact that there is a conflict within their current one: While most people believe in the right to self-government, their failure to recognize a universal right to secede from a civil association significantly vitiates that right.

Even today, the idea of secession itself can win popular support if presented properly. For example, last year a Michigan family successfully seceded from the town in which they had been living. As Adam Young described it:

"On Tuesday, December 17, 2002, Arenac Township and Omer City, Michigan held a joint referendum brought about by the actions of one woman, Cheryl Perry. The Perrys simply no longer wished to be looted by the Omer municipal government [for sewer services they were not receiving], even if it was only $41.62 a year….

"After the polls closed Cheryl Perry got the outcome she wanted. Out of a total vote tally of 140, with 82 votes Yes and 58 miserable voters voting No, the Perrys had successfully seceded from Omer and Omer's taxman."

Although there were a fair number of "no" votes, a significant majority of voters recognized the right of the Perrys to live under the government of their choice. This should not be too surprising, since the national government of these people was itself formed by an act of secession.

An Historical Precedent

The idea of a right to secession is, I believe, a concrete proposal that can alleviate the discouragement that many would-be libertarians feel at the prospects for a free society. There are many people today who do value liberty but find it "impractical." They might even think a libertarian world would work, but believe that we have no hope of getting there. "It's not on the menu," they may say. "The state pervades modern life and statist attitudes are rampant among the public. The 'man-in-the-street' is so far from holding libertarian views that the only viable approach is to try and roll back the state a bit at a time. The libertarian vision," these folks will tell us, "may not be achievable for many centuries."

Fortunately for us, there were brave pioneers who provided an example of how to eliminate a pervasive but unjust institution, in only a few generations. They were the abolitionists, and the institution was slavery.

As Stephen Carson wrote:

Several hundred years ago, the notion that the slave trade could be ended and then chattel slavery itself abolished certainly seemed utopian. But British evangelical Christians began to make the moral case against it and, within a century or two, slavery was abolished throughout the wider European world. 

The abolitionists were faced with a choice. They could have tried to convince a majority of people of the correctness of a particular religious view, part of which was that slavery is wrong. But to make the whole world Congregationalist, Methodist, or Baptist might take thousands of years. In the meantime, if they cooperated with others who shared their opinion of slavery, they could achieve a great good in the nearer future: the end of human bondage. 

Achieving their "short-term" goal did not mean compromising fundamental beliefs. Someone could still argue that Methodism was the true path, while cooperating with a Quaker to abolish slavery.

We often adopt that approach in our day-to-day lives. For example, Bob Murphy is a good friend of mine. Nevertheless, we sometimes have fierce disputes over theoretical issues. Well, so what? We are still friends, and we are still able to collaborate in areas where we agree.

If we were basketball players, I would say that while we may at times have different ideas about how to play basketball, we are still on the same team. Our differences of opinion should not distract us from trying to defeat the other fellows.

The embracing of diverse ethical bases for libertarianism might lead some people to accuse me of moral relativism. The suggestion is slanderous. I don't for a minute contend that all philosophies are created equal, or that there is no best worldview. There certainly is a best worldview… and of course it is the one that I hold.

But I do realize that not all of you agree with me on everything, at least not at present. (Many of you will come to see the light. I'm certain of it.) However, when I go to my butcher to get a roast, I don't worry about whether he agrees with me about metaphysical dualism. Similarly, when I look for allies in the fight for liberty, their opinion on the doctrine of transubstantiation is of minor importance to me. (This is not to belittle the importance of such topics. They are just not important to the task at hand, be it buying beef or realizing liberty.)

Frankly, I am more interested in ethical behavior than in ethical systems. As I see it, an ethical system supports, not determines, ethical behavior. I applaud any ethical system that steers its followers away from using aggression to achieve their ends.

Disputing the merits of various ethical systems is hardly pointless. But I don't think that attempting to resolve that debate is how we will advance on our road. In order to progress toward liberty, we must convince "the Average Joe" that liberty is important to him. I've met the Average Joe, and believe me, he has little interest in issues such as whether human rights are grounded on natural law, utilitarian calculus, cultural traditions, or something else altogether.

What will influence the average person are straightforward examples of concrete behavior that illuminate the real nature of various state activities. I don't think we should try to convince him to overthrow his entire worldview and adopt ours. We should alert him to the fact that his existing worldview indicates that various things he previously has tolerated are, in fact, wrong.

Falsifying Language

One way to do this is to clarify the way he talks about things. Here, I think Guido Hülsmann has done us a great service, by pointing out the state-generated fog swirling through our language. Theft is called "asset forfeiture," the murder of Randy Weaver's wife is called "law enforcement," budget increases are called "cuts in spending." The mist is necessary to prevent everyone–including those generating the mist!–from seeing what is really occurring. Our job, as I see it, is to burn off the fog.

Hülsmann shows that this fog obscures the immoral nature of the domineering state. It creates the illusion that the state stands apart from ordinary human values and judgments. The state somehow represents the mystical "will of the people," or our "voluntary, collective choices." If we can make it clear that we should not tolerate behavior from our government that we would not tolerate from our friend, we will have made a great step forward.

For example, I was talking with a friend of mine some time ago. He had been intensely interested in politics, but less so in political theory. When he asked me about libertarianism, I told him the following tale:

Imagine that you, Dick, Mark, and I go camping. While climbing a mountain to the campsite, you, Dick, and I decide to build a lean-to, so that we have a sheltered spot to rest in on the way down.

"Come help us, Mark," we shout to him.

"No thanks, I'll go on ahead and set up the camp site," he replies.

"No you won't, Mark."

"What do you mean, no I won't?" he asks us.

"What we mean is, you have to help us. We're the majority. We've voted, and we've decided that everyone must contribute to our project. And, you see, we're prepared to kill you if you don't."

"Kill me?"

"Yes, kill you, if we have to. Please, it's not that we want to kill you. At first, if you resist, we'll just rough you up a bit. But if you continue to be obstinate, eventually we will have to kill you. You'd be defying the will of the people."

"Now," I asked my friend, "how is this essentially different than the Social Democratic State, supposedly the epitome of just and fair governance?"

He pondered my story for a minute. Then he said, "Yeah, it really isn't different, is it?" At that moment, he later told me, he became convinced of the essential soundness of libertarian political theory.

Most people already know that the action of our hypothetical campers is wrong. (And we'll never convince the few who don't with any system.) We don't have to change their whole worldview. We just have to show them the fog that has kept them from seeing that when the government does such things it is acting unjustly, judged from within their current ethical system.

No Need to Agree on the "Best" Laws

Another reason I think a right to secession is the right road is that it does not require widespread agreement on what the specific laws of any particular civil association ought to be. On the contrary, the recognition of a right to secession peacefully accommodates the widest possible divergence of opinion about what laws are just, by enabling a multitude of legal systems to co-exist without intrinsic conflict between them.

This principle alleviates the conflict that has divided libertarianism for several decades, between anarcho-capitalists, who believe that no state can be just, and minarchists, who hold that society needs a minimal state to enforce basic laws and provide defense. If each group recognizes the right of the other to attempt to realize the form of social organization that it favors, then there is no longer any inherent conflict between them.

Nor does the acceptance of a right to secession commit one to any particular form of organization for defense and law enforcement. Civil associations might employ traditional police and defense forces, hire private defense agencies, as proposed by Murray Rothbard and David Friedman, form mutual defense agencies, as recommended by Paul Birch, establish the sort of insurance system proposed by Hans Hoppe and Bob Murphy, or employ some yet undreamed of form of defense and law enforcement.

I think that people with an enormously wide range of political beliefs can get along peacefully, if they simply recognize each individual's right to form, join, and leave civil associations. No doubt many people will find some of the laws that other people choose to live under bizarre or unjust. However, as long as membership in a civil association is voluntary, and no group tries to impose its vision of just law on any other, I see no reason why such groups should not live in peace with each other.

For instance, to examine an area of fierce dispute among libertarians, consider fractional reserve banking. 


Many libertarians view fractional reserve banking with extreme distaste. I believe they have a perfect right to form civil associations that do not permit the practice. However, one such libertarian wrote to me contending that fractional reserve banking must be banned everywhere. Now, if all he meant was that he hoped to persuade everyone that the practice is pernicious and ought to be banned, then his view is compatible with the world of voluntary civil associations I am recommending tonight. But it was clear to me that he meant more than that: he believed fractional reserve banking must be forcibly stamped out wherever it is practiced. Let us consider the implication of such a view.

We'll imagine two civil associations, Rothbardville and Friedmantown, existing in neighboring villages. (Of course, in the world I am describing members of the two groups might even be geographically intermingled, but that is unimportant for this scenario.) Fractional reserve banking is banned in Rothbardville, but practiced enthusiastically in Friedmantown. To be consistent, my correspondent would have to endorse an invasion of Friedmantown by Rothbardville, in order to force the Friedmanites to give up fractional reserve banking.

However, as long as the Friedmanites were not surreptitiously attempting to pass fractional reserve notes to the Rothbardians, it clearly would be an act of aggression on the part of the Rothbardians to attack them. Should any individual Friedmanite complain to a Rothbardian that he believes his rights are being violated because his deposits were not being held entirely in bank vaults, the correct response from the Rothbardian is: "I completely agree with you. Therefore, you should secede from Friedmantown and become a citizen of Rothbardville."

The two groups can live in peace and even trade with each other, as long as the Friedmanites used gold, or paper money fully backed by gold, for payments to the Rothbardians. The Rothbardians might find the Friedmanites' indulgence in fractional reserve banking to be foolish in the extreme, just as anarcho-socialists might find both the Rothbardian and the Friedmanite toleration of wage labor and the private ownership of capital goods to be similarly foolish. But liberty surely entails the right to be foolish, so long as one doesn't force one's foolishness on others.


I believe the recognition of a right to secession is the single greatest advance toward liberty that is within our grasp. Because many people today acknowledge the right to self-governance, persuading them to acknowledge the right to secession only entails making explicit the logical implication of values that they already hold.

Furthermore, the abolition movement offers us an historical precedent for the approach I suggest. Rather than engage in endless disputes among themselves, the abolitionists united behind a single, simple principle: human slavery is wrong.

Similarly, libertarians, of whatever stripe, today might agree that the bondage of individuals to a state that they had no say in choosing is wrong. Whatever particular laws we advocate, we could unite behind the idea that human freedom is advanced when each person can choose the body of law under which he wishes to live.

Each of us, within whatever tradition of morality we endorse, can bring into relief those elements of that tradition that support the freedom of the individual to choose his own form of governance. Libertarians can divide themselves in debating incremental versus radical reform, anarchy versus minarchy, Rand versus Mises, Rothbard versus Friedman, and so on. Or, we can choose a common road to travel, one that does not deny our differences but still proceeds directly toward eliminating a great evil from the world. I suggest we hit the road.

Gene Callahan is author of Economics for Real People. He delivered this talk as the Henry Hazlitt Memorial Lecture at the Austrian Scholars Conference 9, March 13, 2003 (Click HERE to view the online video version of his lecture). Send him MAIL, and see his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive.

[1] I would like to thank Jan Lester and Paul Birch for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this talk.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

Follow Mises Institute