A Critique of Independence Movements

by Benjamin Studebaker

Lately I’ve been thinking about national independence movements, like those in Catalonia, Scotland, Kurdistan, and other such places. I’ve also been hearing about separatist movements in some US states—in these cases, subsets of individual US state populations are petitioning the government for the right to carve out smaller states out of the currently existent bigger ones, in order to move their state governments’ policies to the right. These US state petitions will go nowhere, however, because federal law requires that separatist states get approval from the states they are seeking to leave in order to become independent. This got me thinking.

What’s the difference between a portion of a US state, like say, rural Michigan, attempting to declare independence from Michigan and a portion of a country, like say, Catalonia, attempting to declare independence from its national state (in that case, Spain)? Should not the same political principles apply in the American case as apply in the Catalonian case? I think they should. So either it is wrong for the United States to deny subsets of its population self-determination by requiring that state governments approve their own breakups, or it is wrong for the Catalans to gain independence over the objection of the wider Spanish population. Which is it? I argue the latter.

Why? Consider the argument for the right of these subsets to secede—it rests on the principle of self-determination. Self-determination is easily reducible to a series of absurdities, because it requires that we only take into account the opinions of the subgroups. Under self-determination, it is the exclusive right of the Catalans to decide whether or not they wish to remain part of Spain. The opinions of the non-Catalonian Spaniards are deemed irrelevant. Why is this so? It’s certainly not because Catalonian statehood is exclusively a matter that affects the Catalans—Catalonia is one of the wealthiest regions of Spain, and its loss would be devastating to the wider Spanish economy. Non-Catalonian Spaniards would indeed be adversely affected were Catalonia to become an independent state. No, the prioritization of the interests of the subgroup over the interests of the wider group rests on there being something special and important about being Catalonian rather than non-Catalonian Spanish. It requires that the interests of Catalans be thought of as more important or more valuable than the interests of non-Catalans.

Is there any basis for arguing that Catalans are more important than non-Catalonian Spaniards that isn’t monstrously racist? Yes, but only from the point of view of Catalonia’s regional government. The Catalonian government is funded exclusively by Catalans and exists to serve their needs, not the needs of the Spanish people as a whole. However, the decision as to whether or not Catalonia ought to become independent does not rest with the Catalonian regional government—it rests with Spain’s national government. The national government has no special duties to Catalans; it must take seriously the equality of the interests of all Spanish citizens, Catalonian or not.  Even if all Catalonian citizens desire independence from Spain without exception, the Spanish population is still, on the whole, better off with Catalonia as a part of Spain. Since the national government’s duty is to the Spanish people as a whole, it has a duty not to permit Catalonia to secede. The popularity of secession within Catalonia is irrelevant.

By the same token, the Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi governments are acting in accordance with the interests of their people when they oppose Kurdish independence, and the British government has a duty to keep Scotland part of the United Kingdom. When the British government decided to allow Scotland to hold a referendum on independence that non-Scottish British citizens were excluded from participating in, it violated the interests of the people it exists to serve—the British people as a whole, not merely the Scottish people.

To argue otherwise has absurd consequences. If minorities are allowed to self-determine their status, any and all minorities, no matter how small, would be within their rights to demand independence, and national governments would be required to oblige them, regardless of the affect this has on the majority of the population. What’s to stop individual cities and towns from demanding independence? Many smaller political units are quite different culturally from their surrounding territories and are far wealthier than their mother countries are on average. Take New York City—New York is culturally and politically very different from upstate New York, or from Utah or Alabama. It also has a much higher economic output per unit of population than these other regions. New York is also ethnically and racially different from America on the average, and there were times historically when New York was even more different in those areas than it presently is. Might the citizens of New York make the same claims that the citizens of Catalonia make? They could just as easily claim that they don’t fit in with the rest of the country and tired of sharing their wealth with poorer regions.

Within New York City, there are yet smaller minorities that could make the very same argument. Manhattan is culturally very different from the other boroughs of New York and it has much higher economic output per unit of population than the other boroughs. It could make the very same argument in relation to the wider city that the city could make in relation to the state or the country. If we follow this thread all the way down the rabbit hole, individual super-rich citizens could claim on the basis of self-determination that they have the right to declare their residential properties independent from their governments. Imagine say, Bill Gates (who has a net worth larger than the size of some countries’ economies) buying up a lot of land and then declaring that territory independent and consequently tax exempt. Gates could move “immigrants” onto this land who would then gain tax exempt status (or perhaps they would pay taxes to Gates). If the United States were morally prohibited from stopping Gates from exercising his right of self-determination, all Gates would need to do to be analogous to Catalonia would be to be much wealthier than most surrounding people and to somehow be culturally distinct from them. He’s already got the first down, and he could finish off the second merely by creating some kind of strange religious cult.

This is all manifestly madcap. I do not get to decide that all the territory I own is no longer part of the United States merely because I think I’m different from other people and don’t want to share my economic output. The Scots, Catalans, and Kurds are merely large clubs of people thinking along these lines, hoping that, by strength of numbers and appeal to poor quality argument, they can guilt their national governments into cutting them loose. The national governments should listen to none of it, and remain prepared to put down secessionists by force if necessary. Imagine if Abraham Lincoln had thought as these minority groups demand their national governments do, by holding a vote on confederate independence that only Southerners were permitted to vote in. Being culturally eccentric and/or rich does not endow any person or group of people with the right to break-up the state apparatuses that benefit so many of their fellow citizens. The appeal for independence on the basis of self-determination is deeply defective.