Secession, Small States, and Decentralization: A Rejoinder to Dr. Ayittey

Dr Ayittey has kindly responded to my rebuttal.

You can’t mix secession with decentralization of power; oranges and apples. Your statements that “Smaller states would be much better for Africa than the large ones in place” and “The more “Little Djiboutis” there are, the better” are ridiculous. At a time when small countries are coming together to form larger economic blocs – EU, AU, ASEAN, Mercosur, etc. – you recommend going in the other direction: The creation of more little states that are not economically viable. Would you recommend the break-up of the US into 50 little states? Check your own history.

The original US Constitution was inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy. Under that Constitution, the South elected to secede, which led to the Civil War (1861-1865). Why didn’t the US allow the South to secede? It would have led to GREATER decentralization of power.

Now, I want to let everybody know that this exchange is happening over Twitter, so be sure to take Dr. Ayittey’s response in stride and in context.

First up are his first and last statements:

You can’t mix secession with decentralization of power; oranges and apples […] Why didn’t the US allow the South to secede? It would have led to GREATER decentralization of power.

I’m setting aside his pertinent question for a little later on, but I do want to point this out: I can’t mix secession with decentralization of power because secession would lead to greater decentralization of power?

I think Ayittey’s larger point is that decentralization of power must happen within a state, whereas secession would result in one or more states. However, if State A gives way to States B and C, then there is a decentralization of power, is there not? Instead of one seat of power, you have two smaller seats of power.

I think his fear is largely in line with those of a great number of people: more states will equal more conflict:

Your statements that “Smaller states would be much better for Africa than the large ones in place” and “The more “Little Djiboutis” there are, the better” are ridiculous.

Ridiculous? How rude! Dr. Ayittey’s rudeness can be clarified, though, once we see that he fails to actually address my argument:

At a time when small countries are coming together to form larger economic [emphasis mine – bc] blocs – EU, AU, ASEAN, Mercosur, etc. – you recommend going in the other direction: The creation of more little states that are not economically viable. Would you recommend the break-up of the US into 50 little states? Check your own history.

Central to my argument for recognizing secessionist movements in the post-colonial world are the two pillars of broad international support and economic integration. Economic integration with neighbors and regional players is a good thing, but if some of them don’t want to play ball with the new kid on the bloc, then the West should step in and offer multilateral or unilateral trade deals with the new state (actually, the West should do this regardless of the new state’s status with its neighbors).

Repeat after me: political decentralization and economic integration is good; political centralization and economic isolation is bad. The “larger economic blocs” Dr. Ayittey is referring to are, of course, made up of smaller and more numerous political units. Instead of just a trading bloc within the state of France between its provinces, you have a trading bloc within most of Europe encompassing many of Europe’s states. Instead of one state trading with itself, you have twenty or thirty or fifty (as is the US case) states trading with each other. More politically fragmented but economically integrated states = more peace and prosperity. The fact that Czechoslovakia broke into two only helped the EU decentralize politically further, while economic integration remained intact. Imagine what would happen if France broke up into three or four separate states and they all remained within the EU.

Now, of course you have to have some political ties in order to integrate economically, but these ties should be of limited scope.

And the US is essentially 50 little states, the great leaps forward in centralized power over the past 100 years notwithstanding. If Washington gets much worse, I would take secession to be a viable option for reform, too. Heck, it’s a viable option today, though not a very lucrative one. The fact that it would not be lucrative for US states to leave the American federation does not weaken the argument for supporting secession in the post-colonial world. The American federation is very well run when compared to the basketcases in the post-colonial world.  What sort of benefits can Bamako offer to Azawad besides the conscription of young men and guaranteed poverty?

As I have repeatedly stated, if the states of the post-colonial world want to federalize, great! They should. Such an option would be much preferable to secession, but if the factions in these states cannot come to an agreement about a federal system, as seems to be the case in a great many countries throughout the post-colonial world, then secession should be seen as a viable option for factions and regions that want to go another route.

The original US Constitution was inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy. Under that Constitution, the South elected to secede, which led to the Civil War (1861-1865). Why didn’t the US allow the South to secede?

The US Constitution was inspired by the German and Dutch republics, as well as the Swiss cantons. While I agree that the Iroquois confederacy played a role in the framing of the constitution, it was as an example of what not to do. Madison and others actually thought that the Iroquois had too much liberty (the savage variety, of course), and as such decided that a constitution modeled on the Iroquois confederacy would be a bad idea. This is not to discount the Iroquois model, though. I think that the US benefited from a great deal of diffusion that took place between the two cultures, and had a great impact on shaping and influencing what liberty meant (side note: here is a link to a fascinating article on Native American political systems in the Freeman).

As for the US Civil War, the South attacked the North, so it wasn’t as if the North had set out to conquer and impose its will on the South after secession. If the South hadn’t attacked the North, would there have been a conflict? What if the South had held off on attacking Fort Sumter and instead opted to secure recognition of sovereignty from European powers first?

I see Dr. Ayittey’s general point about the US Civil War, though: secession can lead to violence. However, the American case happened well over 100 years ago, and since that time we have a number of other, successful models of secession to look at and learn from.

The two key components to successful secession have been (everybody repeat with me now): international cooperation and free trade. The best form of government, as we have seen time and again, is one where political power is decentralized and economic integration is maximized. Without these in place, we get skewed (screwed?) societies.

Most of the post-colonial states of the world are skewed. They have been trying to hammer federal systems into place for half a century now, to no avail. Additionally, there have been numerous wars in the post-colonial world either aiming to establish control over the center or leaving the control of the center. The US Civil War is a good example of how not to handle secessionist movements. 600,000 people died. In Africa and Asia, the number is well over one million.

If we want to stop the bleeding in the post-colonial world, without firing any more shots into the region ourselves, it would be best to throw in the towel on the pseudo-states of Africa and Asia and recognize the independence of regions that want it. Independence would confer a prestige upon the new states; a prestige not granted to regions that can’t get international recognition. With prestige comes pride, and with pride, a new hope. With international recognition comes international cooperation, and with international cooperation comes international trade.

I don’t see how recognizing secessionist movements would be a bad thing for the post-colonial world. In fact, I think secession would be great for the post-colonial world. There would more states and more centers of governance, which would weaken power and enhance liberty. Switzerland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Austria, Ireland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states, and Denmark are all small in size. Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE are all small states. Singapore, South Korea, and Brunei are small states. They seem to have done quite well for themselves, and more than a few of them can trace their prosperity back to secessionist movements.

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13 thoughts on “Secession, Small States, and Decentralization: A Rejoinder to Dr. Ayittey

  1. It strikes me , Brandon, that one of the impediments here, there may be others, I’m no expert, is that the nascent US was composed mostly of literate folks with a (at least somewhat) common outlook that specified above all honesty and a “government of laws, not men”. I would also state that this is a good bit of our problem now.

    • neenergyobserver,

      Great observation. An anthropologist by the name of Maya Mikdashi recently wrote a paper on the effects of market-based reforms in the Middle East. She essentially argued that the market-based reforms assume that only a certain type of individual can successfully participate in the market economy (stay with me here): the rational, autonomous, freedom-seeking, and legally-protected-as-an-individual type. Over the past two decades, as more states have moved towards a market-based economy, we have seen the institutional and cultural rewards being reaped from this process. Instead of people who have known only poverty and want, the market-based economy has pushed individuals to seek to become more rational, autonomous, freedom-seeking, and legally protected as an individual.

      Now, stay with me. The market-based economy, capitalism, has four broad institutional pillars that it needs to thrive: private property, individualism, the rule of law, and an internationalist spirit. From these pillars come the fountains of progress that the West has come to enjoy over the past 300 years. While I doubt she realizes it, Mikdashi is simply echoing the writings of the great classical liberal theorists of the past 200 years: institutions matter, and they matter a lot. A big point both Dr. Ayittey and myself have been trying to make is that the institutions necessary for progress and capitalism are already in place in the post-colonial world; when I was in Ghana doing research one of the things I always asked farmers is where they got their property titles and they answered “the chief”. I asked them why they didn’t go through more official routes to obtain their property titles (ie through the state), and I’m sure you can finish the Ghanaian farmer’s answer for him.

      The fact that most, if not all, citizens of the new republic desired the rule of law is one that cannot be stressed enough, and it is definitely one of the reasons why we have grown so prosperous, and answers why we are in trouble today. However: Africans don’t desire the rule of law? Great stuff neenergyobserver!

      • Thanks, Brandon. Like I said, I don’t know very much at all about Africa, right now I’m looking a bit more at the British in Egypt/Sudan.
        But currently I know mostly what I read and I suspect you know what I see, so I’m not about to argue with you on it.

        Given what you know, I see really good things ahead for them. And that is very good, both for them and us. Somebody once said that prosperous folks try to avoid wars because its hard on the china. I know, it’s simplistic but, its also true.

        I get the impression, and I could easily be wrong here, that it might have been better for everyone if the Empires had lasted a few more decades, it looks to me like the people learned the lessons but not the mechanics of creating the institutions.

      • Somebody once said that prosperous folks try to avoid wars because its hard on the china. I know, it’s simplistic but, its also true.

        I couldn’t have said it any better myself!

        Now, the colonial empires were bad for just about everybody (the factions that were able to capture the rent generated by imperial policies were excepted, of course). While European imperialism did open up the markets in Africa and Asia to their mercantile spheres of influence, these policies did not open up the markets to genuine world trade. This has had several ramifications for individual liberty in the post-colonial world.

        In order to open up the economies of Africa and Asia to their mercantile systems, the Europeans created a great legal code for the mercantile systems. These legal codes helped reduce transaction costs and protected the private property of European citizens abroad, which helped to foster more trade within the mercantile systems. Unfortunately, the legal codes of both the British and the Dutch (I can’t speak for the Latin states, but judging by the state of affairs that these regions are now in, I assume that such policies were just as bad, if not worse) created a two-tiered system of justice: Europeans and a small number of local elites were able to count on the legal system to protect their private property, but everybody else was relegated to a second-class citizenship. This two-tiered system was not good for the populations of Africa and Asia, nor were they good for European citizens.

        It goes without saying that the colonial apparatuses did not have to do much work in regards to grafting the indigenous legal and political systems of the African and Asian polities onto the mercantile system. Most of the African and Asian polities that the Europeans subdued were already protectionist and despotic, so colonial policy became a careful matter of picking the right factions to ally with. It is important to note that the policies of the polities in Africa and Asia were responsible for their weakened state, not any sort of cultural attributes. Up until the Napoleonic Wars, Europe was still pretty much on par with the rest of the world as far as living standards went. With the advent of peace on the continent, and new legal codes that extended private property rights (including rights to freer trade in the world) to a larger segment of its citizens, Europe became far too powerful for everybody else.

        We could argue, of course, that certain cultural attributes of Europeans at that time contributed to successful implementation of such policies (and we would be right), but culture is always changing. It is our task to ensure that we continue to contribute to a culture that values individual liberty above all else.

        Again, this is not say that African and Asian peoples have never known liberty. Private property has been around for a long time. The arrival of European states (not merchants) into these regions of the world created a burgeoning market for all things war, and as hostilities increased, so too did the health of these states.

  2. Brandon, how do you respond to the geopolitical and macro-economic arguments in favor of strong federalism rather than small-state nationalism? The experience of Central Europe after the First World War seems to offer a telling example of what happens when you break-up multi-national states along ethnic lines. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created a power vacuum which Hitler and Stalin were only too glad to fill. All of the thriving national states you have named exist under the implied or real security guarantee of the US.

    Secondly, whatever the attraction of economic integration without political integration seems to be coming apart at the seams with the example of the European Union as we speak.

    Breaking up Africa’s multi-ethnic states- unless they were replaced with a robust form of federalism- would, thus, seem to condemn that continent to perpetual interference by the big powers, and economic weakness.

    • Rick,

      Thanks for chiming in. Your question and comments are very good ones.

      how do you respond to the geopolitical and macro-economic arguments in favor of strong federalism rather than small-state nationalism?

      As far as strong federalism goes, it is actually my preferred system of governance for the withering away of the state. Unfortunately, strong federal republics are few and far between in history. There are very hard to maintain and even harder to govern effectively. The best way to achieve a strong federal state is to start small and work your way up to a confederation, and if all sides want more political integration, then it would be wise to start putting together a federal state.

      As far as small-state nationalism goes, I don’t want that. At all. What I am in favor of is smaller states without the nationalism. Remember, of all the small states I’ve listed most are fairly multi-ethnic. Denmark isn’t (I blame the crappy weather), but is still very open to immigration and international firms, while South Korea is currently trying to push an immigration reform bill through its parliament. Small states are good, nationalism is bad. More on this just below, but first:

      The experience of Central Europe after the First World War seems to offer a telling example of what happens when you break-up multi-national states along ethnic lines. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created a power vacuum which Hitler and Stalin were only too glad to fill.

      Ah, great example Rick. Just to be clear: I don’t want to go around breaking states up. That would be both pompous and disastrous. Playing god is something only Leftists do! All I am saying is this: if a region within a state wants to secede from another state, then the international community should recognize this secession. There are a couple of caveats, of course. Doing this in China or Russia’s backyard would be a bad idea, but in the post-colonial world I think this is something that we should be looking at as a policy option to stunt the violence and poverty in these areas.

      Recognizing the legitimacy of the secession would have three effects that would stop the violence for a time: 1) it would require that the new states prove their worth in the international community in the form of not persecuting minorities in their new state, 2) it would deter the state that just lost the region to secession from attacking another sovereign state for fear of reprisals and 3) the recognition of independence would inevitably lead to talks by both sides. Perhaps they could figure out a way to re-federate a few years on down the line, or perhaps they could come to some sort of agreement on trade. Whatever they do, they would at least be talking instead of fighting.

      Failure to build an international consensus to recognize the independence of regions seeking independence will lead to more of the wars we have seen in much of the post-colonial world, as well as in the Caucasus and the Balkans.

      Back to the nationalism you brought up earlier. A lot of states that try to secede are actually very multi-ethnic. Azawad, in Mali, for example, is a good example of a multi-ethnic region trying to break free from Bamako’s inept rule. With the advent of the market economy throughout the world (see my reply to neenergyobserver above), nationalism will continue to decline in prominence, and the areas of the world where nationalism is prevalent will be the hottest ones on the planet. States that thrive on nationalism are going to have to struggle to assert their authority over their people, and where there is nationalist promotion in government, there we will see most of the violence. I am thinking of China, Russia, Israel, Palestine, North Korea, and India-Pakistan.

      In other cases, secession has taken place within a state that is largely homogenous ethnically. Somaliland, a democratic, relatively prosperous, but unrecognized state in the north of Somalia is a case in point. They want out of Somalia until all the violence and competition for the center of power dies down. They are open to re-federating, but in the meantime…

      All of the thriving national states you have named exist under the implied or real security guarantee of the US.

      Yes, but isn’t this in itself a form of confederation, or loose federalism? I’m all for more integration between the US and other societies, by the way. If we could get these states to integrate further economically, and could make our political borders largely irrelevant within the confederation: then security costs would largely be paid for. My co-blogger Jacques Delacroix has actually written one of the most stimulating papers on the subject of integration between states: If Mexicans and Americans Could Cross the Border Freely. I highly recommend it. Remember, one of the pillars of individualism is internationalism. Hayek, among others, lamented that we had lost this fight to the Marxists in the 19th and 20th centuries.

      Secondly, whatever the attraction of economic integration without political integration seems to be coming apart at the seams with the example of the European Union as we speak.

      Ah, but the problems of the EU don’t stem from economic integration, they stem from more political integration. The European Central Bank – a political creation if I’ve ever seen one – and proposed measures for a European parliament with more delegated powers is what has caused the strife in the Eurozone, not the ability of Greeks to work and vote in France, and vice versa.

      Breaking up Africa’s multi-ethnic states- unless they were replaced with a robust form of federalism- would, thus, seem to condemn that continent to perpetual interference by the big powers, and economic weakness.

      Agreed! But again, I don’t want to go around breaking up states. One big hole I see in my support for secession theory so far is the question of what if: what if the new state’s neighbors don’t play ball economically? Won’t that new state be isolated? Co-blogger Fred Foldvary actually wrote an article on this subject using Turkey’s rejection from the EU as an example: Let Turkey Join NAFTA. Another highly recommended piece!

      Whew. Thanks again for contributing to the conversation, Rick, and don’t be bashful in throwing more fastballs my way. It helps me learn and clarify my thoughts!

      • Interesting thinking , Brandon. Our treaties and interests do form sort of a loose federation. I was conversing a bit today on defense policy with someone and my point was that I have a lot of trouble with continental defense (I don’t like to use the ‘I word’ in civil discussion) but that we need to to proactively defend ourselves and our allies. This would seem to tie in with your thinking quite well.

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