Simple Liberty  



Secession, The Morality of Political Divorce from Fort Sumter to Lithuania to Quebec

by Allen Buchanan

1991, Westview Press

Written by Darrell Anderson.

Ever since the American War Among the States, political secession has been a volatile topic. Secession has become a hot topic again with the collapse of the Soviet Empire, and remains an important issue as conflicts increase across the globe. In his book Secession, The Morality of Political Divorce from Fort Sumter to Lithuania to Quebec, Allen Buchanan evaluates many arguments both for and against the idea of political secession.

Buchanan recognizes a right to secede, but he focuses on various discussions that might be used to “domesticate” [p. 104] the process. His focus is on how secession can be peacefully employed. Thus, he concludes that secession is possible but only under qualified conditions.

The book is informational but frustrating. Not because Buchanan is lacking details, but because of his presumptions.

Buchanan’s entire discussion revolves around the idea of seceding from a nation-state only to create a new nation-state. Although Buchanan acknowledges that people form nation-states through conquest and coercive behavior [p. 68], he presumes throughout his book that the concept of statism is valid. For example, he offers an argument that (the collection of people known as) a state might possess a valid title to a territory [p. 153]. Such a presumption is acceptable to many political theorists, but to anti-statists that presumption is problematic because statism is a philosophy of conquest.

Buchanan can be partially excused from this restricted view of secession because the nation-state has been the dominant form of political society for several hundred years. He also can be partially excused because for thousands of years human social systems have been tied directly to land and Buchanan sees secession as a claim to a specific geographical territory [p. 11]. Thus, humans tend to be planar in their idea about where one community ends and another begins. However, as other authors have shown (for example, The Sovereign Individual, Davidson and Rees-Mogg), the concepts of contract and virtual communities bypass the traditional geographical boundaries created in the past. As the world economy continues to become more homogenized, the idea of fiat political borders becomes less meaningful.

Of course, Buchanan could claim that by “state” he meant only a geographical area and voluntary social process of government, and not the typical coercive political nation-state that exists today. However, he never affirmatively established any such distinction.

Buchanan recognizes the theory of individual secession, but he purposely limits his discussion to group secession [pp. 13–14, pp. 102–104]. That is frustrating because in some respects secession is nothing more than a fancy word describing the right to not associate. Any theorist who accepts the right to associate also must accept the right to not associate (for example, see The Structure of Liberty, Randy E. Barnett, p. 66.). Secession is a logical conclusion of the right to not associate.

Interestingly, of all the reasons Buchanan discusses that might support the idea of secession, he rejects the foundation of consent [pp. 70–73]. Buchanan recognizes consent theory, but rejects that theory with respect to justifying secession. Yet, the right to associate or not associate depends upon a theory of consent.

If secession is merely a logical conclusion to the right to not associate, then consent theory must play a role in any theory of secession. Second, if Buchanan disfavors any consent theory, then he must argue that humans do not function upon the principles of free association and voluntary exchange, but conquest. Of course, if a reader accepts Buchanan’s presumptions that 1) statism is legitimate, 2) people can be coerced into involuntary relationships, 3) people secede from one political nation-state only to form another nation-state, and 4) those people who administer the nation-state political system possess legitimacy with respect to territorial “sovereignty,” then one must accept that any consent theory is limited in nature and is ultimately defined by those who exercise power under the pretense of administering the nation-state.

The German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer called voluntary exchange the economic means of satisfying needs and wants, and forced exchange as the political means.[1] The former method implies persuasion and cooperation to obtain title to resources, the latter implies force and coercion — and often violence or the threat of violence. The former method implies moral power, the latter political power.[2]

The French Liberals of the early nineteenth century also recognized the distinction between voluntary and involuntary exchange, articulating that difference as a class struggle between warriors (bandits) and the industrious class (producers).[3] This struggle can be expressed in many ways: power vs. liberty, takers vs. producers, administrators vs. producers, force and coercion vs. persuasion and cooperation, idlers vs. laborers, predators vs. creators, moneyed elite vs. workers, exploiters vs. creators, status vs. contract, or rulers vs. the ruled. The political means is merely a way to sustain energy flows with minimal effort — the desire of getting something for nothing.

The economic means of satisfying needs and wants fully recognizes consent theory and the political means recognizes consent only in a limited manner.

Because of these underlying presumptions, Buchanan additionally presumes that the process of government is the same as the philosophy of statism. The two ideas are not the same.

The process of government is a natural and normal outgrowth of people forming groups and societies. The process of government is a desire of peaceably regulating human interaction. The philosophy of statism is an outgrowth of conquest and legal plunder. Statism is a process of violently enforcing the political means of exchange. In the 19th century Gustave de Molinari and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and in the 20th century Albert Jay Nock, recognized the distinction between the process of government and the philosophy of statism, but unfortunately many modern theorists have failed to maintain this distinction.

The fundamental idea behind the concept of secession is withdrawal — the desire to terminate relationships and to disassociate. Although Buchanan recognizes secession as a process of divorce, and discusses the topics of self-determination [pp. 48–52] and preserving cultures [pp. 52–64], he does not adopt the idea that divorce is another way of declaring “I don’t like you anymore — go away and leave me alone.”

In addition to relegating individual secession as impractical, possibly part of the reason Buchanan never addresses secession at the fundamental level of exercising the right to disassociate is because Buchanan embraces the idea of group rights. The idea of group rights makes sense, but only from within two perspectives: 1) a theory of consent and 2) statism. Buchanan dismisses consent theory as grounds for secession; thus, he is left with defending statism. Within that narrow focus, and because statism is a philosophy embracing the political means of satisfying needs and wants, one must acknowledge that politics is basically a process of forcibly redistributing wealth from one class of people to another. From within that context, the idea of group rights makes sense because factions and special interests always will use the political process to attack certain unique groups of people.

However, eliminate that narrow focus of statism and reject a theory of consent and the idea of group rights is then clouded. If group rights is meant to be nothing more than the idea that a group of people sharing similar beliefs can coordinate their efforts to concurrently claim the same rights, then the concept of group rights is valid. Yet, such a foundation requires a theory of consent. However, most discussions about group rights tend to focus only on the idea of native cultures and ethnicity. Nobody can deny the historical tragedies that various cultural and ethnic groups have suffered, but those tragedies are a result of people presuming statism and conquest is legitimate. Statism is a political theory justifying conquest — the political means of satisfying needs and wants. If humans depended upon free association and voluntary exchange, cultural and ethnic tragedies arguably would diminish. Thus, Buchanan fails to acknowledge a root cause for various cultural and ethnic problems and instead leans on a fragile theory of group rights.

Buchanan discusses the challenges of the “haves” seceding from the “have-nots” [pp. 16–17, pp. 114–124] and discusses discriminatory redistribution [pp. 38–45]. He recognizes that much of the unbalanced distribution of wealth might have been created through the political means of satisfying needs and wants [p. 120] and argues against the “haves” seceding if they have obtained their wealth in that manner. Yet, the simple historical observation is that all political systems enable the select group of people to accumulate wealth through force and coercion and the threat of violence. Thus, the discussion is largely academic.

Buchanan devotes an entire chapter discussing how to formulate a constitutional provision for seceding. Although such a discussion is theoretically applicable to a common covenant within private contractual communities, Buchanan’s discussion is based upon that same presumption of a constitution regulating the administrators of a nation-state. What is again missing, because of the presumption of statism, is that if people are allowed to form relationships and interact based upon free association and voluntary exchange, much of the tensions witnessed in the world would not arise and parchment barriers would be unnecessary.

Much of human tensions and conflict are a result of the philosophy of statism — an ideology of conquest, colonialism, imperialism, and the political means of satisfying needs and wants. In other words, conflict arises because people revolt against theft under the color of law. Thus, all objections against secession are based either directly or indirectly upon the various methods of coerced wealth redistribution. Those who oppose secession do so because they are beneficiaries of coerced redistribution. Thus, all objections to secession are arguments to maintain the political means of satisfying needs and wants.

Many people recognize that the political means of satisfying needs and wants is theft, and that is the only argument necessary to justify withdrawal through secession.

Within the context of his presumptions, Buchanan articulated well the many challenges and nuances of secession. As long as his presumptions are accepted, his discussion is packed with information to help readers understand those challenges. Although detailed in many respects, accepting the premise of statism and ignoring that people use that ideology to steal under the color of law leaves the book feeling frustrating and empty. By presuming that societal order is possible only through the political theory of statism limits Buchanan’s otherwise insightful effort.

More than likely, the final solution is not group secession. As Buchanan aptly demonstrates, group secession is filled with practical challenges. The better long-term transitional solution to resolving the many current human conflicts is to dramatically eliminate the mechanisms of statism. Fundamental property rights, free association, and voluntary exchange must guide human interaction.

Thus, the very topic Buchanan purposely ignored is the most likely path for resolution — a movement of continual individual secession where people bypass much of the legal plunder that statists support. Statists lose their grasp when individuals learn to effectively bypass and avoid the mechanisms used to coercively redistribute wealth. This is essentially what Herbert Spencer articulated as “The Right to Ignore the State.” From that point on, statism will drift away, and the nuances of secession no longer will be important. Although Buchanan provides an interesting discussion about a critical topic, he might have better served audiences had he addressed a root cause of human conflict — the willingness to usurp property boundaries and to justify those thefts under the color of law. From that starting point the topic of secession becomes clearer.


Terms of Use


[1] Oppenheimer, The State, Chapter 1, Theories of the State.

[2] Ballou, Adin, “The Superiority of Moral Power Over Political Power,” Dissenting Electorate, pp. 7–10.

[3] Weinburg, Mark, “The Social Analysis of Three Early 19th Century French Liberals: Say, Comte, and Dunoyer,” The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 50–56.