Independence movements are necessarily decentralist in character, premised on ideas of self-determination, autonomy, and healthy skepticism toward foreign rule. And libertarians are necessarily decentralists to the extent that the principle of individual liberty is served by the practice of decentralism, in which both separate governments and branches within them counter each other, preventing any one force from amassing overweening power.
Secession and federalism are two distinct but related expressions of the decentralist idea, both of which are an important part of the history of the United States. Our country was born through an act of secession, the Declaration disaffiliating the colonies from the yoke of the crown. That document formally set forth the reasons why the American people—British subjects all—chose to “dissolve the political bands which [had] connected them” to the motherland of their forebears.
As a concept in political theory, secession has unfortunately been tarnished by the historical particularities of its association with the Civil War, with the abominable fact of slavery in the Confederacy. But this need not be the case. The right to secede is, in fact, an important natural right and an essential protection against tyrannical government.
Libertarians believe that the individual, too, ought to have the right to secede: that relationships between individuals should be voluntary—like contracts, based on reciprocal promises and obligations. Political power is different: there is no mutual assent as in a true contract.
The relationship between the individual and the state is predicated on a denial of the Declaration’s affirmation “that all men are created equal.” That’s because governments, unique among all human institutions, claim a prerogative that no individual can rightfully possess and no group can create for itself: the right to control another person, to dominate his will through the use of force. No one is or could be obligated to remain in this kind of association. When one finds himself in such an abusive, non-consensual relationship, the Declaration tells us, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,” departing for greener pastures. …
The right to secede is thus a necessary condition of all worthwhile human bonds, whether professional or personal, be they between individuals or groups. Smaller units maximize the opportunity for and potential impact of this kind of secession. For freedom to prevail, governments must remain both small and close to those whom they govern, accountable and responsive rather than distant and opaque. Decisions that affect the citizen ought to be made in close proximity to the citizen; within reach, as it were.
This principle is, it turns out, enshrined in Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union, which offers us an important lesson on the practice of politics. Confronted with the strength and majesty of ink on paper, power seems to be everywhere unimpressed, and perfectly able to find a saving construction that clears its path.
The Constitution has been similarly powerless to stem the rising tide of imperious, despotic power, powerless to fulfill the promises and high principles of the Declaration. Independence Day, though, reminds us of the revolutionary remedies set forth in the Declaration. Secession and outright abolition remain available to us according to a law that cannot be abrogated by kings, legislatures, or any other government body—according, that is, to natural law. …
Carried to its conclusion, this right to secede—to divide and devolve political power ever further—can extend not only to nations and regions, but to still smaller political units like counties and cities, culminating finally in the ability of each individual to live as a self-governing sovereign. As Murray Rothbard wrote:
“[O]nce one concedes that a single world government is not necessary, then where does one logically stop at the permissibility of separate states? If Canada and the United States can be separate nations without being denounced as being in a state of impermissible “anarchy,” why may not the South secede from the United States? New York State from the Union? New York City from the state? Why may not Manhattan secede? Each neighborhood? Each block? Each house? Each person? But, of course, if each person may secede from government, we have virtually arrived at the purely free society, where defense is supplied along with all other services by the free market and where the invasive State has ceased to exist.”