Mises Wire

No, the Civil War Did Not Forever Settle the Matter of Secession

There are many arguments against secession. Some of them are quite prudent, such as those that simply contend that national separation may not be a good idea at this time. 

Many others are premised on the refusal to acknowledge the human right known as self-determination. This argument is wrong and immoral, and is nothing more than the traditional imperialist-colonialist argument repackaged for modern audiences. 

Perhaps the worst "argument" against secession is the use of the phrase "we tried it before and it didn't work." I put "argument" in scare quotes because the statement isn't an argument at all. It's simply a claim that, because a political strategy failed in the past, it can never be tried again. Ever. 

We can see how simplistic this claim is when we imagine explaining it to a child:

Well, Jimmy, 164 years ago some people—who are now long dead—tried to break up the United States into smaller countries. In response, the central government raised an army and killed people. The central government won, and that means no one can never try to break up the country into smaller pieces ever again, until the end of time.  The United States of America will last forever, and no one can try to leave.  How do we know? Because there was a war in the olden days.

The idea that a political question is settled forever because a war occurred 100 or more years ago is disproven by real life political experience in other times and places. As numerous examples demonstrate, the fact that a separatist movement failed in one time and place has little to do with the feasibility of separatist movements pushed by entirely different people in entirely different contexts. 

To illustrate this, let's take the narrative that we told little Jimmy above, and apply it to other historical separatist movements. 

In this case, the year is 1990 in Lithuania, and Jimmy asks if the Lithuanians should ever assert independence from the Soviet Union:

Well, Jimmy, 45 years ago some Lithuanian partisans tried to break up the Soviet Union into smaller countries. In response, the central government killed people. The central government won, and that means no one can never try to break up the Union ever again, until the end of time. After all, the Soviet Union will last forever, and no one can try to leave it. How do we know? Because there was a war about it in the olden days. 

In this case, we are referring to the Lithuanian guerrilla wars that lasted for nearly a decade after the Second World War. The Lithuanians didn't take kindly to political control from Moscow, and they attempted to assert political independence. The Soviets won. By the logic of "we tried it before," the Soviet victory in 1953 meant that the question of Lithuanian independence was settled. Forever. Fortunately, the Lithuanians didn't accept the puerile "we tried it before" tactic that anti-secessionist Americans find so convincing. Instead, the Lithuanians declared independence in March 1990 and seceded from the Soviet Union. 

Here's another example. The year is 1919 in Ireland, and Jimmy asks if the Ireland can ever assert independence from the British Empire: 

Well, Jimmy, you see, since 1801, various Irish guerrilla groups have tried to break up the United Kingdom into smaller pieces no fewer than half a dozen times. In response, the central government killed people. The central government won, and that means no one can never try to break up the country into smaller pieces ever again, until the end of time. After all, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland will last forever, and no one can ever leave. How do we know? Because there was a war about it the olden days.

Fortunately, the Irish didn't give up and refused to believe that the matter was "settled" because the central government won a war. Instead, the Irish rebelled again in 1919 and won independence in 1921. 

At the risk of being repetitive, let's consider a final example. The year is 1905 in Norway, and Jimmy asks if Norway can ever be independent from Sweden: 

Well, Jimmy, 91 years ago, Norway tried to secede from Sweden. In response, the Swedish government sent in the army and the Norwegians surrendered. The Swedish government won, and that means no one can never try to break up the country ever again, until the end of time. After all, the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway will last forever. It can never, ever be broken up. How do we know? Because there was a war about it in the olden days." 

Fortunately, the Norwegians didn't give up and refused to believe that the matter was "settled" by the Swedish-Norwegian War of 1814. Instead, the Norwegians declared independence in 1905 and Norway became a separate country two months later. 

Anti-secessionists surely have some retorts prepared for this demonstration. One objection, perhaps, is that because residents of US states are "represented" in Congress, then Americans are never allowed to leave the Union. There are a few problems with this. For one, the claim that Americans are "represented" by a small club of millionaires in DC—who "represent" more than half a million people in each district—would have been rejected by the people who wrote the constitution that the anti-secessionists claim to love. Secondly, the idea that a republican or representative form of government precludes secession does not address the problem of permanent political minorities. Only political separation can address this. 

Moreover, the Irish were represented in the British parliament. Indeed, there were at least 100 MPs representing Ireland in the United Kingdom's parliament during the period when various Irish groups rebelled against the central state. This fact did not prevent Irish independence—nor should it have. Similarly, the Norwegians had their own parliament and generally enjoyed self-rule. The Norwegians wanted independence anyway. By what standard will the anti-secessionists argue that the Norwegians should have been denied independence? 

Another objection might be that, while the Lithuanians were subject to many severe human rights abuses at the hands of the Soviet state, the Americans do not face rights violation of the same magnitude. Essentially, this claim is that rights violations by states are acceptable unless they meet some minimum standard of "badness." Of course, the anti-secessionists who make this argument never actually provide an exact standard by which we can differentiate between "very bad" or "not bad enough to justify secession." 

The claim that wars of the distant past settle modern political questions is further complicated by the fact that modern political questions are not the same as the political questions of 100 or more years ago. For example, people opposed to modern secession love to talk about slavery. Yet, slavery is not an issue in twenty-first century America, and no secession movement is premised on re-establishing slavery anywhere. People who think that slavery is presently at issue—like Joy Reid—are ridiculous. In general, people who assert that the interest groups, political institutions, and economic realities of today resemble those of 1860 are not paying attention. The world of 1860 is long gone and will never return. A war fought to "settle" a political question from 1860 has no bearing on the realities of 2024. 

Nevertheless, the best many anti-secessionists can manage is dogmatically repeating the phrase "we tried a national divorce before. It didn’t work out." Yet, we can count to numerous historical examples in which central states managed to bludgeon separatists into submission in one time and place, only to fail with other separatists in other times and places. Indeed, the success of secession during the past century—whether in Africa, the British Isles, or the former Soviet Union—provides many such examples. 

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