Breaking Away: The Case for Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities
by Ryan McMaken
Mises Institute, 2022, 230 pp.
Those of us who think that there should be no state at all, or at most a very limited one, must view all existing states with dissatisfaction, though some are better than others. In assessing how good or bad a state is, does the extent of the territory it controls matter? Offhand, you might think it doesn’t. Isn’t the only relevant dimension by which to judge states the nature and degree of control they have over their people? The United States in the nineteenth century was far better than Cambodia under Pol Pot, though vastly larger. In his superb new book, the gifted historian Ryan McMaken argues that the size of a state does indeed matter, and he makes a powerful case for secession from existing states and for decentralization within them.
It’s much harder, he says, to establish totalitarian rule in a small state than in a large one, because it is easier for people to leave.
Because of their physical size, large states are able to exercise more state-like power than geographically smaller states—and thus exercise a greater deal of control over residents. This is in part because larger states benefit from higher barriers to emigration than smaller states. Large states can therefore better avoid one of the most significant barriers to expanding state power: the ability of residents to move away. (p. 27, emphasis in original)
McMaken cites the eminent political philosopher Hannah Arendt in support: “In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt examines a number of nontotalitarian dictatorships that sprang up in Europe before the Second World War…. In many of these cases, Arendt contends the regimes attempted to turn themselves into totalitarian regimes, but failed. This was largely due to their lack of size” (p. 49, emphasis in original).
On the other side, though, don’t a large number of small states make trade barriers more likely? McMaken does not think so, and in responding to this contention he uses an argument parallel to the one about totalitarianism. Because small states have little control over the world’s economy, it is difficult for them to insulate themselves from international commerce: “After all, an autarkic small country that lacks a diverse economy or a large agricultural sector will quickly find itself running out of food, skilled labor, and raw materials. Moreover, a small country without close economic ties to other nations will also soon find itself in a very dangerous geopolitical position” (p. 91). In this connection, it’s interesting to note that the oft-repeated claim of American centralizers that a strong central government was needed to cope with trade barriers under the Articles of Confederation has no basis, as Merrill Jensen and Murray Rothbard, following him, have pointed out.
McMaken is alert to the objection that however desirable small states may be, they cannot in practice defend themselves against large states that wish to take them over. Not so, he says: small states can band together to repel invasion, and in any case, conquest of an obdurate population is no easy task, as Russia found out to its cost in Afghanistan and earlier in Finland. Further, “pundits and scholars who comment on international relations have too long relied on crude aggregate measures which suggest far higher levels of relative military power than is likely in cases like Russia or China … it is not the case that large, populous states hold all the cards. Economic development—which, we know, tends to be more developed in smaller and more decentralized states—is likely a more critical factor.”(p.122)
But wouldn’t a large number of small states make nuclear proliferation more likely? Perhaps it would, but McMaken maintains that this may make war less frequent. He cites in this regard a famous contention of the political scientist Kenneth Waltz. “The first influential theorist to express doubts about the established non-proliferation narrative was Kenneth Waltz,” who, “as George Perkovich put it … ‘has been the most illustrious proponent’ of the view that ‘The major benefit of nuclear proliferation conceivably would be to create deterrence relationships that lower or eliminate the risk of war between a certain set of adversaries’” (pp. 124–25).
The author tells us that “this book is not primarily theoretical in nature” but it does have a “philosophical component” (p. 12), and this is a strong one. Large states often contain within them disaffected minority groups, subjected to ill treatment by the dominant majority. Democratic voting offers no adequate remedy for this sad state of affairs, since minority votes will usually be swamped.
In any case, democracy offers no solution in addressing profound cultural differences among the residents of a single political jurisdiction. When populations with sharply differing world views must exist under a single regime, voting resolves nothing, and one side will ultimately impose its preferred policies on the other side. Noncompliance will bring down the full weight of the law, the police, and all the coercive institutions the state frequently employs. (p. 133)
In these circumstances, secession is clearly indicated, and this is something Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard fully recognized. As McMaken points out, Mises said that “the right of self-determination … is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done” (p. 66). Rothbard “went the extra mile” and favored secession at the individual level. “Rothbard pushed secession for two main reasons. First, he regarded it as a useful tactic in moving toward his ideal of individual freedom. Second, even when this ideal is not achieved, decentralization is valuable because smaller states are less able to exercise monopoly power than large states” (p. 66, emphasis in original).
I have been able to discuss only a few of the many areas McMaken covers. Breaking Away is indispensable for understanding the political realities of the present day and a discerning guide to the past.