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Peaceful Disunion in Europe

Tags Free MarketsU.S. History

02/04/2013Donald W. Livingston

[Part 4 of "The Secession Tradition in America," a paper presented at the 1995 Mises Institute conference, "Secession, State, and Economy." Click here for Part 3, "The American Genius for Self-Government".]


The sort of consolidationism which the British had sought to impose on their North American possessions had been going on in Europe for centuries and is still going on. Of the thousands of independent territorial units that existed in Europe at the dawn of the modern era, only a few dozen remain, and there is an attempt to consolidate most of these into a European Union. The ideologies that have sought to legitimate these consolidations have usually been in the name of the individual. Liberals favor consolidation of power to secure the liberty of the individual, and Marxists have favored it in order to secure the equality of the individual and to build an egalitarian society. But both of these forms of consolidationism have been at the expense of substantial moral communities and traditional forms of life. Indeed, Enlightenment Liberalism and Marxism, in their different ways, have been the most destructive forces in history in respect to traditional moral communities. Some of this change has brought benefits with it and has been accepted, but much of it has been oppressive. In that case, a constitutional right of secession of one of the recognized political units in the union would provide a check against oppression, and an exit should the check fail. Although intimated in early American experience and strongly implied in the Constitution of 1787, the first constitution in history to recognize both the advantages of large political unions and to provide a remedy for their abuse in secession was the Constitution of the Confederate States of America.

With the collapse of European imperialism and the revival in the United Nations of the Wilsonian doctrine of the self-determination of peoples (which is itself merely a later expression of the secessionist doctrine of the Declaration of Independence), the consolidated leviathans of the modern world no longer have the legitimacy they once had. Secession movements are strong where identifiable political units remain, such as Quebec in Canada, the Scots in Britain, and the Basques in Spain. Experience has shown that secession does not lead to anarchy, as Lincoln insisted it would. Norway peacefully seceded from Sweden (1905), as did Singapore from Malaysia (1965). Likewise, the secession of Quebec from Canada should not lead to chaos or war.

Secession can no longer be dismissed a priori as proponents of the modern state have done. And it certainly cannot be dismissed out of hand in the case of federal unions such as Canada, the U.S., Britain, Brazil, and Germany, all of which have political units with the administrative machinery and skills for self-government. The recognition of a legal right of such units to secede, established at the formation of a union of vast scale (such as the Confederate Constitution recognized), would tend to preserve distinct cultures and ways of life, make the operation of such unions more just, and, if necessary, their dissolution more orderly and humane.

The debate over the European Union today resembles the debate of 1787–89 between the Federalists and Antifederalists, the latter of which feared that the Constitution would end in a consolidated nationalism, and the former who assured them that such could never happen. One hopes that this will not degenerate into something like the shouting match between southerners who claimed that the Constitution was not a consolidated regime and northern unionists who declared that it was and always had been. But it could. One already hears from the left the claim that the European Union is an instrument for achieving human rights and that the powers surrendered to the Union cannot be recalled. This was exactly Lincoln’s doctrine. Unless the right of secession is thought through and faced squarely, one can imagine Europe re-enacting the melancholy history of the United States with a minority of states seeking to secede from a Union that has become oppressive in a way they could not have imagined, and a powerful majority prepared to coerce them back into the Union in the name of the “last best hope on earth” for protecting human rights.


Contact Donald W. Livingston

Donald Livingston is a professor of philosophy at Emory University with an "expertise in the writings of David Hume." Livingston received his doctorate at Washington University in 1965. He has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow and is on the editorial board of Hume Studies and Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. Livingston is a constitutional scholar and an expositor of the compact nature of the Union, with its concomitant doctrines of corporate resistance, nullification, and secession. The doctrine coincides with federalism, states' rights, the principle of subsidiarity. His political philosophy embodies the decentralizing themes echoed by Europeans such as Althusius, David Hume, and Lord Acton and Americans such as Thomas Jefferson, Spencer Roane, Abel Parker Upshur, Robert Hayne and John Calhoun, which holds the community and family as the elemental units of political society. As Livingston affirms, the compact nature of the Union is opposed to the innovative nationalist theory of Joseph Story, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln which contends for an indivisible sovereignty, an inviolable aggregate people, and that the American Union created the States following the American War for Independence. This theory as articulated by Lincoln has been characterized by Livingston as "Lincoln's Spectacular Lie."