Mises Wire

Catalonian Secession and ‘Pure’ Motives


The Catalonian regional government has signaled that it plans to go ahead with a vote on secession from Spain on Sunday, November 9. The Spanish central government insists that the vote is illegal and the Spanish state will not recognize any vote for secession. (Such a blatantly anti-democratic move from a European government will prove to be interesting the next time the Spanish government waxes philosophical about the need to impose democracy in some foreign land.)

It is fitting that the vote be scheduled on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall since that event, of course, began a process that led to the de facto secession of numerous states from what was in practice a Soviet megastate built on a system of client states throughout Eastern Europe. Hungary and Poland, et al were de jure independent states, but we all saw the reality behind that claim in 1956 in Hungary and 1968 in Prague.

I wonder, if today’s politicians in Madrid were sitting in their little velvet chairs in 1989, would they have disapproved of the Polish Solidarity vote, which essentially declared Poland to be free of Soviet rule? Or was that a “legal fraud” as the Madrid government calls the Catalonian vote? Most of the Eastern European moves toward independence were “illegal” as far as the Soviet state was concerned.  And yet, those unruly law breakers went ahead with them anyway. Those troublemakers.

“McMaken, you hack fraud,” some of my readers will say. “Don’t you know that the secessionists of Catalonia are not pure libertarians? Don’t you know many of them are even bigger socialists than the people in Madrid?” Why, yes, I am aware of this, just as I am aware of the fact that precious few of the freedom fighters in Eastern Europe were disciples of Frederic Bastiat. In fact, many of the freedom fighters, including those in Budapest in 1956 and those in Prague in 1968 were socialists in every conceivable way. Many were simply nationalists who wished to be ruled by other Hungarians or Czechs rather than by the Politburo in Moscow.

And so what? Should we therefore condemn the Hungarian Uprising because it was insufficiently pure in its motives? Should the demonstrators of East Berlin who brought down the wall been told by libertarians to get lost because they weren’t Misesians?

This is a terrible position to take and yet it is no different from the position held by some libertarians that any secessionist movement is worthy of condemnation unless the secessionists are all waving the flag of western libertarianism. Yes, I recognize that the Spanish state is quite different from the Soviet state, but this is a difference of magnitude and not of kind.  While it is true that the edicts emanating from the Politburo were generally much worse than the edicts emanating from Madrid, the fact remains that Hungary possessed no veto power over efforts to exploit it. Catalonia is today in the same position, and subject to a majority rule by outsiders that can overrule local prerogatives. The Hungarians in 1956 wished to govern their own affairs without having to conform to the Kremlin’s wishes. The Catalonians wish to escape Madrid in a similar way.

But what if the new independent state turns out to be even more tyrannical than the state left behind? In practice this is very unlikely.  The fact is that smaller independent states, regardless of the ideology of their founders, are far more likely to engage in more free trade, with more open borders, and more freedom in general than a larger state with more ability to plunder a larger domestic population. Moreover, as Murray Rothbard noted, smaller states are less able to promulgate a myth of economic self-sufficiency:

A common response to a world of proliferating nations is to worry about the multitude of trade barriers that might be erected. But, other things being equal, the greater the number of new nations, and the smaller the size of each, the better. For it would be far more difficult to sow the illusion of self-sufficiency if the slogan were “Buy North Dakotan” or even “Buy 56th Street” than it now is to convince the public to “Buy American.” Similarly, “Down with South Dakota,” or a fortiori, “Down with 55th Street,” would be a more difficult sell than spreading fear or hatred of the Japanese. Similarly, the absurdities and the unfortunate consequences of fiat paper money would be far more evident if each province or each neighborhood or street block were to print its own currency. A more decentralized world would be far more likely to turn to sound market commodities, such as gold or silver, for its money.

This arises simply out of necessity. The larger a state, the better its ability to extract more capital for a longer period of time from those who have it. In part, this is because a larger territory brings with it a more complete monopoly over those within its borders. Just as a planet-wide state would have a total monopoly, a tiny state enjoys only a weak and impartial monopoly. Smaller states, therefore, less able to control flight of both persons and capital are far more constrained. The professed ideology of the dissidents is irrelevant to the realities of economic life.

And seriously, does anyone honestly think  that an independent Catalonia will go the way of North Korea or Cuba (the great exceptions to the small-state rule)? Do people who believe such obviously outlandish things simultaneously snicker at anarcho-capitalists for being “unrealistic” and “out of touch?”

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