This paper argues for the general desirability of secession and in particular that Western Australia should unilaterally secede from the federation. While I broadly agree with the paper’s conclusions, I have a number of issues with it as a piece of academic work. The paper in its current form is a well written polemical essay, but it does not fairly consider the arguments for and against secession in general or WA secession in particular. The paper could be considerably improved by dropping the polemical style and considering other viewpoints more seriously. There are plausible mechanisms through which secession could decrease liberty, and this should be admitted.
First, the use of the Rothbardian individual rights argument is out of place here. I’m not a huge fan of these arguments in academic work at the best of times, but it seems like a simple category error to use Rothbardian language to defend what is essentially a group right. If I am interpreting it correctly, the claim is that since individuals have the right to choose what rules will govern their behaviour, a territorially-defined group of individuals within a state has the right to cut ties with the existing state and set up its own set of rules. I can buy this argument when there is genuine unanimity, but that’s never going to be the case in an area as big as WA. If some WA residents prefer to live under the rules of the federation, wouldn’t their rights be violated just as seriously by secession as are secessionists’ by federation?
I realise that this argument has been made by others such as David Gordon, but that doesn’t make the argument any more correct. Since this seems to be main basis on which the author claims that rights of secession are (deontologically) moral, there are three potential ways of addressing this problem: (1) make the connection between individual and group rights in some other way; (2) explain more fully how the Rothbardian logic applies to groups (I can’t see how the argument is supposed to work, but I may just be missing something; or (3) abandon the attempt to provide a deontological justification for a right to secession. I’d favour the third option, but I’m generally partial to consequentialist arguments in any case.
Secondly, the section on potential objections is extremely cursory and makes no attempt to engage with what various people have had to say against secession. From a libertarian perspective, the most important objection to secession is that the seceding region will sometimes seek to oppress minorities within its borders. This is dismissed in the paper by pointing out that two wrongs don’t make a right: If the national government is violating the rights of the region, the fact that the region is violating the rights of some subregional group is irrelevant to the wrongness of the national government’s oppression. This is based on a misunderstanding of the argument, which has been made with respect to secession (by A. Buchanan and Beran, among others) and also to the power of subnational units in a federal system (Most notably by Madison in Federalist 10 and William Riker in his book on federalism).
The argument is that in a subnational group like WA may contain subregional groups which would be oppressed by a WA government if such a government existed and had the power to do so, but not if the national government had the power to set policy. The concern is that there may be factions (i.e. groups with a common interest in violating the rights of others for material or expressive reasons) which are a minority at a national level but a majority in a certain region. If the region secedes (or the state in a federal is given too much or the wrong sort of power to set policy), the local majority faction will be able to oppress other residents of the jurisdiction. Without secession or with more federal control over policy, such oppression would not take place, since the faction is only a small minority at the local level. The classic example of this is slavery in the US. There were powerful interest groups in the southern states seeking to keep slavery in place as public opinion at the national level was shifting towards abolition. I realise that the common perception that slavery was the reason behind the civil war is not quite right, but the fact remains that preferences and interest group influence was distributed in such a way that more federal control with no possibility of secession would have produced a quicker end to slavery.
I think that argument against secession from a classical liberal perspective is potentially pretty powerful, but the question is how broadly it applies. My prior is that it’s only applicable in a serious way to a few times and places (and even in those instances the benefits of secession could dominate), but it can’t be dismissed as incorrect without argument. It would be much better to admit that this is a potentially relevant factor and ask whether it’s relevant to WA. I don’t know a lot about WA, but my guess would be that it’s not.
Similarly, the economies of scale argument is dismissed by pointing out that Hong Kong and Singapore have performed well economically. The scale argument does not tell us that bigger is always better, but that economies of scale are something to consider. There are undoubtedly economies of scale in the production of various government services and this needs to be admitted – smaller isn’t always best in every respect. Again, it would be more convincing to consider economies of scale as a potential disadvantage of secession, while pointing to possible diseconomies and asking how the argument applies to the WA case. A solid analysis with firm here would have to be rather extensive, but a decent case could probably be made informally.
Some of the comparisons in the paper are also unfair. It is pointed out that federal regulation imposes costs on residents of WA and concludes that WA residents would be better off without federal interference. This will not necessarily be the case, since a WA government is likely to replace federal policies with its own, and these may be better or worse. An argument could be made that policymaking at the local level will be better suited to the needs of residents, but this paper doesn’t make such an argument.
In general, the paper makes an important point but is too shallow in its analysis of the benefits and costs of secession. The argument gives no ground whatsoever on the desirability of secession, and this is generally a good prima facie reason to reject the argument out of hand. Many people apparently oppose secession, while their reasons for doing so may not be compelling all things considered, these reasons normally reflect genuine concerns. The paper could be significantly improved by reframing the paper answering the question “Is secession desirable (and feasible) for WA?” Arguments for and against should be considered on an even basis. Sabhlok is obviously inclined to answer the question one way rather than another (and I’m inclined to agree with him), but it is important that the alternative is given a fair hearing.