In my last post on this topic, I argued for a right of unilateral secession on the grounds that: 1) legalizing secession would reduce the risk of violence on net, and 2) codifying a plebiscitary, unilateral right to secede would reduce uncertainty without any compensating disadvantages. In this post, I consider some common objections in the literature to a liberal right to secede and show why they do not overturn the case for a legal right of unilateral secession to be accomplished through democratic plebiscite.
1. Rights-Violating Secessionists
Counting heads is probably not the best way to determine the relative legitimacies of governments. If a region gets 51% of the voters to approve secession, but then the 51% decide to persecute the 49% minority, then secession would cause a net loss in freedom or human rights. Under these conditions, secession should be restricted.
In the abstract, the case for restraining rights-violating secessions is plausible, but it is unworkable institutionally. A legal provision allowing the central government to veto secession if the secessionists are likely to violate rights would suffer from the “biased referee” problem. Central governments will be tempted to use the provision as an excuse to ban all secessions. Similarly, secessionists will always claim to be liberal if they are required to do so, but that does not mean practices will not change once they achieve independence.
Some scholars have argued that the potential for rights violations by secessionists justifies a higher threshold in the referendum on independence (say, 55% rather than 50%+1). There are two problems with this argument: 1) the correlation between secessionists’ likelihood of violating rights and ability to get widespread support in a referendum is probably weak, and 2) this suggestion assumes that secessionists are more likely to violate rights than governments. If governments are more likely to violate rights, then a higher threshold will tend to prevent more morally desirable secessions than the morally objectionable ones it prevents.
In cases such as the U.S. Civil War, in which the central government is sincerely persuaded that a particular secession would be morally disastrous despite, let’s assume, a constitutional provision permitting it, then the government may be morally justified in acting extraconstitutionally to prevent the secession.
2. Nationalist Objections