Secession and libertarianism – Ukraine Edition

The most basic rule of schoolyard behavior is this: Don’t challenge the school bully if your knees are buckling under you. Mr Obama keeps ignoring the rule, with predictable results: One tyrant, one despot after another receives his confirmation that the USA is no dangerous, no matter what you do. Thinking the US in not dangerous is very dangerous for the world. I keep challenging the ones and the others, including mainstream libertarians, to say what will, or should replace the pax americana that has given us relative peace since 1945. No one cares to answer.

This introduction, not by way of beginning to argue that the US should have gone to war over Crimea. I don’t believe it should have; I don’t even think the US should have risked war ever so little because of Crimea. I think rather that Mr Obama should have been absent, with a pass for the nurse’s office, for example. Neither am I being pathetically “realistic,” here. Mine is a principled position. Let me explain.

Anyone who has any libertarian fiber but who maintains his criticality should be instinctively in favor of secessions. Two reasons.

First if being governed is an assault on individual liberty, being governed by those who are unlike you in some fundamental way is a doubly liberticide. Fundamental differences include, but are not limited to, language. That’s because your language largely determines the way you see the world and your sensitivities, what’s important to you as a person. Governors who have different beliefs, who operate on the basis of different assumptions, who nurture different dislikes than you are bound to commit slow rape on you every day of your life. That’s true even if they harbor zero hostile intention toward you. And that’s unless you volunteer, of course, as many immigrants like me – do.

I wish good luck to the Catalan independentists and to the Scottish autonomists. I would even if you proved to me beyond the shadow of a doubt that powerful economic interests undergirth their efforts. It’s true that Catalonia is more prosperous than the rest of Spain. It does not prevent Catalans from feelings how they do. They probably would, if they were less prosperous. I don’t know if the Scots would like to split from the UK absent North Sea oil but, if they do, they do, and that’s it. I believe, of course, that the Tibetans have had a solid claim for secession for all the time they have been under Chinese rule. (And, yes, it may well be that the objective quality of their lives has improved under Chinese Communist Party dictatorship.)

Am I saying that it’s better to be oppressed by those you think of as your kin?


The Crimean population overwhelmingly wanted secession from Ukraine. Without the presence of Russian guns, the referendum would have been, maybe, 76 % in favor rather than 96%. The final result would have been the same. It’s not difficult to entertain this double thought: Putin is a gangster and the Crimeans would rather be Russian citizens.

Speaking of Putin: The fact that he used exactly the same arguments as Hitler in 1939 does not logically imply that he did something like dismantling and gobbling up independent Czechoslovakia. The Czechs and the Slovaks, were not volunteers the way most Crimeans are. The annexation of Crimea by Russia changes little to all this. (See below.) Crimeans did not feel Ukrainian, overall and they were tired of being very poor under the Ukraine. They would rather be moderately poor as Russians. It’s not hard to believe either.

The second reason for libertarians to favor secession instinctively is that rational people cannot treat the boundaries of nation-states as if they were sacred, the way most governments pretend to do. At best, one could argue that that fiction contributes to world stability. (I doubt it but it’s not a stupid position.) Rather, the borders of existing nation-states are often the result of centuries of sometimes successful wars (France), or of recent shameless robbery of one’s neighbors (the US), or of colonial bureaucratic insouciance (Iraq). In some cases, the tracing of boundaries looks like a joke: Take for example the long penis-like extension of Afghanistan into China in the eastern part of the former country. The mapmaker, probably a junior English officer must have chuckled with relief in his loneliness.

National boundaries may be useful or even indispensable (to control entry, of undesirables, for example) that makes them a necessity, or a necessary evil. Nothing confers on them a status above critical thinking: Sometimes, the violation of existing borders should not be countenanced; sometimes, such violation deserves only a shrug.

Note with respect to the present annexation of Crimea by Russia following this secession, I am saying nothing about the ensuing strengthening of the Russian kleptocracy. The encouragement of tyrants inherent in the Putin impunity also belongs in another essay.

The fact is that the prevention of secession has always produced tons of mischief, most of it violent, much of it an affront to basic human decency.

Hitler used the existence of a sizable German minority in a strategically important part of Czechoslovakia, of smaller Hungarians-speaking and of Ukrainian-speaking smaller minorities elsewhere to start World War II. It’s possible, even likely that Hitler would have used another excuse absent this one. But linguistic minority aspirations gave a cover of semi-legitimacy to his aggressive action. Without such legitimacy, it is quite conceivable that British and French public opinions would have demanded that Hitler be stopped while it was still possible. (The whole sorry story of Western passivity and vacillation in 1938-39 is recounted in minute, hour-by hour detail in William Shirer’ s classic: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.)

In more recent times, we witnessed violent and massive ethnic cleansing in Kosovo , the three-year long siege of a large city one hour flight from Rome, Sarajevo, and the starvation and daily bombing of its civilian population, and the massacre of thousands of men and boys, also in Bosnia. Most of these horrors could have been avoided by finely wrought enough secessions, even at county level if necessary.

A contrario examples abound of the healthful, virtuous nature of secession as a solution to intercommunal tensions. Some come from the most unlikely places.

The dissolution of Czechoslovakia – a radical form of secession – in 1993 was so peaceful that it went almost unperceived . The resulting Czech and Slovak Republics have since continued separately on their fairly prosperous paths. They maintain sound relationships as good neighbors (as very good neighbors, more or less like the US and Canada).

Paradoxically, today’s Iraq offers a striking example of the virtuousness of secession. The world follows with a tired eye Iraqi Arabs eviscerating each other along communal lines. That is, the Sunni Muslim Arabs there and the Shiite Muslim Arabs there are slaughtering each other every day, same as when the presence of Americans was said to cause all the murderous civil strife. Many Sunnis and many Shiites consider themselves members of existentially different groups. They do so for reasons that are probably difficult for Westerners to understand (except those who remember the Wars of Religion in Europe, of course, between 1520 and 1648.) It matters not; as far as they are concerned, those are reasons worth killing and dying for. Keeping them bottled up together, forced co-habitation, is not likely to attenuate these sentiments. (Think of ill-matched college roommates.)

In the meantime, you hardly ever hear of the Northern third of the same country, bloodied Iraq. I refer to “Kurdistan,” still formally a part of the Iraqi republic. Kurdistan, which does not exist officially, is people mostly by Kurds, a group with a distinctive language unrelated to Arabic. They comprise both Sunnis and Shiites. As far as the facts on the ground are concerned, Iraqi “Kurdistan” has achieved secession from its bloodied mother country. No shot was fired in spite of the quick-trigger violence of the Middle-East. The Kurdish area is so prosperous and so peaceful that others go there on vacation. The vacationers are first of all, Arabs from other parts of Iraq seeking relief from incessant violence in their part of the country. Second, Turks are crossing their southern border in increasing numbers for the same purpose . (May of those Turkish tourists are probably themselves ethnic Kurds.)

And we should not lose track of the fact that the 25 years of Saddam tyranny over all of Iraq, accompanied by internal massacres and two wars he started deliberately found what legitimacy it possessed in the supposedly sacred duty to keep Iraq unified. (Keep in mind that the Saddamite regime utterly lacked traditional legitimacy and religious legitimacy, or the political legitimacy that comes from winning fair elections, or any other source of legitimacy.)

Had Iraq broken up earlier into a Kurdish north, a Sunni center and a Shiite south, the world and, especially, the martyred Iraqi people, would have been spared enormous misery. It’s not too late to achieve this end.

I am speculating that many people’s unexamined attachment to the general concept of national border harks back to an earlier time, a time when they were coterminous with economic boundaries and with information boundaries. Not long ago, French citizens ate almost only French food, they wore only French-made clothing (there was even a lively traffic in illegal, smuggled blue jeans), and heard and read only news originating in France in French. All was produced almost entirely with French capital. National boundaries were then the very containers of our existence defined in the most concrete ways. None of this is true anymore for most countries. Borders are porous to most things including words (if not yet to people). Many people are thus ready to fight for a reality that disappeared quite a while ago.

A major more or less unintended effect of this pursuit of ghosts is that it easily turns to bloodshed, domestic and international. So, many Spaniard are resisting the threatened secession of Catalonia as if it would become a catastrophe of sorts for them. There is still little realization that nations that perceived themselves as homogeneous (for whatever reason) are spared major conflicts, including civil conflict. Homogeneous Denmark, with a similar level of development, is more peaceful than bi-community (linguistic communities) Belgium. Either a Walloon or a Flemish secession there would improve the lives of both Walloon and Fleming.

Secession is usually a good thing overall, for peace, and for individual liberties. Let them go and they will lose the ability to stab you in your own kitchen with your own kitchen knife. They may even become your friends, after a while.

N.B. I still have not heard anyone, or heard of anyone saying that he regretted voting for Obama. Amazing!

16 thoughts on “Secession and libertarianism – Ukraine Edition

  1. “N.B. I still have not heard anyone, or heard of anyone saying that he regretted voting for Obama. Amazing!”

    I regret voting for Obama in 2012, not 2008. I wouldn’t have voted for that plutocratic tool Romney, but I could’ve wasted my vote on a 3rd party candidate like Gary Johnson.

  2. It seems very simple to my mind. If the bulk of the Crimeans (regardless of the exact %) wish to become part of Russia and the Russians wish for the Crimeans to become part of their country, especially given that it was at one point along the way, then who has the right to step in and stop them? In their shoes I would definitely be choosing to be Russian and I would not take at all kindly to some nosy busy bodies inside or outside of my current country telling me it was not my choice, but theirs and borders are much, much more important than human rights and free choice…Not that I’m pro-Russian or anything…ohhhh noooooo…lol…me?…As if!…. 😉 Not in the least…not even the slightest bit… lol 😀

  3. @europasicewolf
    When will the secession plebiscites be held in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Karelia? No-one has the right to step in and keep them from leaving the new Russian Empire do they? Certainly no nosy busybodies inside the country. The human rights and free choice of the Chechens, Dagestanis, and Karelians are much more important than Russian borders…right?

    • f course, I can only be in favor of secession for the parts of the Russian Federation Terry mentions, and any other. Incidentally, I did not know the Karelians were agitating for independence. The things you learn!

      PS Karelia is adjacent to Finland.

  4. “(Unless it relates to Jacques)” What the Editor means is that you should feel free to call me names on this blog. I don’t believe hes has come around to allowing the use of qualifiers in connection with very powerful people such as the President of the US.

    • I think Brandon’s civility exception should be empirically tested.

      Jacques is a Gaullist.

      I’d point out that Jacques used to be French but surely such a canard would get me banned, so I won’t say it.

  5. The link above does not lead to an essay I find convincing. At the end, the author misrepresents the Anchluss, I believe. (I will check and come back here if my memory is wrong.) Of course, I had the same reaction as dd….slik about the 96%. Former Soviet people don’t know where to stop, I think. (The habits formed under despotism die hard.) It’s remarkable that none of the Western governments – to my knowledge – condemned the results of the referendum as completely fraudulent. It seems to me that if they could have, they would have. Instead, they condemned it as illegal, I believe . This leaves me almost cold, of course with one exception: The reference to the claim that Russia guaranteed the Ukraine’s borders when that country relinquished its nuclear weapons. That’s a recent international treaty that should have force of law for Russia.

    Btu we already knew that Russia is run by gangsters.

    I don’t know anything of the Ukrainian institute of reference in the linked article and of the polls it took showing that only a minority of Crimeans wanted to join Russia, even recently. I believe there are many sinful polls about, many more than virtuous polls. Its polls could be irreproachable; I don’t know. I will take instruction on this if it’s offered.

    Given that Crimea has an easy majority of Russian speakers and that Crimeans have a considerably lower standard of living than Russians, given that Crimea was until recently Russian (and also ill-used, it’s true), it’s not difficult to believe that a properly organized referendum, without Russian troops, would also have resulted in secession. Here again, I only ask to be instructed. I don’t have a dog in this fight (and I don’t want one).

    My essay is about the right to secession, an important component of liberty, in general. I could be convinced that Crimea is a very bad illustration of what I mean. It does not look like it today. Maybe it will tomorrow. Incidentally, I too believe that a simple majority should not be enough. For one thing, we don’t want to live in a different country suddenly because the two potential voters who would have prevented the secessionist majority from arising had a cold and stayed home that day. I don’t know what the magic number is but, surely, I would consider with skepticism anything beneath 60%.

    • KIIS is the Kiev International Institute of Sociology. I think it’s more well known for marketing research than political polling and seems competent. On the other hand sociologists are always suspect.

      I’m sympathetic to your general arguments about secession. I think you’re absolutely right about the Ukraine; an honest vote would definitely give a majority and probably close to or even above 60%. As a side note the same would be true in Karelia, the Finns were deported and the region(s) repopulated with Russians. As a resident of Canada I’m even sympathetic with the secession of Quebec

  6. Terry: There would be nothing shameful about being or having been a Gaullist. He was a temporary general (really a colonel) and a very short term Assistant-Under Secretary of Defense who said, “Let’s go on fighting” in 1940 while the French National Assembly was voting by a large majority to relinquish its power and to give it to a very old retired right-wing Marshal. The Marshal immediately set out to create French Fascist state. His government quickly condemned General De Gaulle to death for… fighting the Nazis.

    I am not and never was a Gaullist. I might be tempted if I were living in France, in preference to the lamentable, pathetic Socialist Party.

    Terry: You keep darting out of your building and shooting poorly aimed B-Bs at those you think mistakenly are important people and then, running back into the building.

    • “Terry: You keep darting out of your building and shooting poorly aimed B-Bs at those you think mistakenly are important people and then, running back into the building.”

      How else can I battle the author of a popular blog, radio show host, and well known man-about-town?

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