Rothbard and Mises vs. Calhoun on the Natural Right to Secede

  • December 20, 2023
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There are many reasons to support the breaking up states into smaller pieces. This is done via secession, and acts of secession produce smaller states. All else being equal, smaller states tend to be richer and they tend to have lower taxes. They tend to exercise less power over the resident population—because it’s easier for people to escape smaller states than larger ones. Moreover, setting these tangible and practical considerations aside, secession may also be desirable simply as a matter of freeing minority populations from the control of a larger dominating majority. For much of the world in the 1990s, the benefits of secession were self-evident as more than a dozen new states seceded from the Soviet Union when it collapsed. 

But do human beings have a right to secede? Classical liberals—i.e., also known simply as liberals or as libertarians—have generally maintained that yes, such a right does exist. Even the earliest liberals, however, identified what they saw as a potential problem with this formulation. If secession is allowed for some minority groups within a larger polity, must secession be also allowed for any or every minority group? For example, if we grant a right to the minority Fredonians to secede from their Ruritanian overlords, could not a minority group within Fredonia itself then legitimately exercise a right to secede from Fredonian oppressors?

This question has prompted many liberals like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson to affirm the right to secession while also avoiding the full implications of the idea, or creating limits on when these rights can be exercised. On the other hand, some radical liberals, like Murray Rothbard, sought to define the right of secession far more broadly. 

We can contrast these more radical liberals with nationalists and conservatives who supported secession for themselves, but denied there was any general right to secession. In practice, these non-liberal secessionists—for example, Hungarian Lajos Kossuth and American John C. Calhoun—opposed secession for all but a few specific groups. 

Indeed, it is only among classical liberals where we see a sustained support for a natural right to secession and self-determination, broadly and consistently applied. This sets the liberals apart from other secessionists who have supported secession based on nationalistic, legal, or historical claims. 

The Liberal Right to Secession and Self-Determination 

To find liberal support for a general right to secession, we need look no further than Thomas Jefferson. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson specifically invoked natural rights—rights endowed by “the Creator”—when he wrote that “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish” their governments or to “dissolve the political bands which have connected [one people] with another.” 

In the Declaration, Jefferson was drawing heavily on the thought of John Locke who himself recognized a right to secession, although not as explicitly as Jefferson. Locke—undoubtedly the most influential early liberal—according to political scientist Lee Ward, “had a highly developed right of revolution analogous to a remedial right of secession.” based, in part, on “property rights of a conquered people.”1 Locke, for example, recognized that that Greeks within the Ottoman empire possessed a right to secede to defend themselves and their property against their Turkish overlords. 

Ward notes, however, that Locke saw early on where this logic was leading if applied consistently. Thus, Locke fashioned a makeshift solution. Ward writes: “By restricting a secession right to organized and institutionalized social units whether unified around religion, language, culture, or ethnicity, Locke avoids the anarchic implications of extreme individualism.”2

Locke suggested that only groups with size, institutions, and cohesion substantial enough to form their own legislatures could exercise a right to secession. Even here, however, Locke is not overly rigid. That is, there remains within Locke’s formulation the potential for a wide variety of communities to assert independence and self-determination. Ward notes that in Locke’s thinking “[t]he claim that legislative power can never revert to individuals does not preclude the possibility that one community within a larger society can assume legislative power.”3 From this power then flows a right to secession and self-determination. 

Jefferson, not unexpectedly, takes a more radical view, and does not define under what conditions secession can occur. He simply suggests that “the people” have a right to secede. Jefferson adopts a more flexible attitude than Locke, and assumed that new secession movements in America would arise in the future. Jefferson explained that it would be fine with him if the territories of the Louisiana Purchase eventually seceded to form their own independent polity in the future. Jefferson supported efforts that would mitigate the need for secession, such as his stated preference for a new constitutional convention every nineteen years. Moreover, Jefferson suspected practical realities were likely to suppress the proliferation of secession movements. In a pre-industrial, sparsely populated America, it is easy to see how Jefferson might conclude that practical matters and the need for safety in numbers could override the perceived need for secession. 

Among classical liberals, support for secession as a natural right endured in the nineteenth century among French radical liberals Gustave de Molinari and Charles Dunoyer. Indeed, it is with Molinari that we see what is perhaps the first explicit endorsement of more or less top-to-bottom secession. David Hart summarizes Molinari’s position this way:

Molinari argues [in 1887] that [the inhabitants of any region] should have this right [to secession] and that this right is a double edged sword, that it is “un double droit de sécession” (double right of secession) where the commune can secede from the province, and the province can secede from the central state. This double threat of secession he believes would be a powerful force to keep the costs of government down to a minimum as each level of government would be most reluctant to lose too many of its taxpayers, and it would force each one to provide better services by contracting out to private companies … to attract more people to its locality.

In other words, the right of secession is not limited merely to large ethnic groups or specific administrative units (i.e., the American state governments). Rather, Molinari applied the right of secession more consistently than most of his liberal forebears, noting that the right extends from the national level at least as far down as local municipalities. 

In the 1920s, radical liberal economist Ludwig von Mises took a similar view, stating 

The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with.

In his economics, Mises writes strictly as a utilitarian, but note there that here he speaks of rights, and specifically a right to self-determination that exists outside state prerogatives to object. Moreover, Mises is careful to note that the right of self-determination is a right exercised by individuals within their respective polities: 

[T]he right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done. This is impracticable only because of compelling technical considerations, which make it necessary that a region be governed as a single administrative unit and that the right of self-determination be restricted to the will of the majority of the inhabitants of areas large enough to count as territorial units in the administration of the country.

With this, Mises grants that the individual right to self-determination (gained through secession) if unlimited in theory, and limited in practice only by practical and logistical considerations. 

Murray Rothbard, a disciple of both Mises and Molinari, unsurprisingly adopted a similar view on secession. As early as 1969, Rothbard defends the right to secession as universal and he considered secession an indispensable component of liberalism, writing:

Secession is a crucial part of the libertarian philosophy: that every state be allowed to secede from the nation, every sub-state from the state, every neighborhood from the city, and, logically, every individual or group from the neighborhood.

In 1977, we see shades of Molinari’s views applied by Rothbard to the prospect of Quebecois secession in Canada: 

There are two positive reasons for the libertarian to cheer at the imminent achievement of Quebec Independence. In the first place, secession—the breaking up of a State from within—is a great good in itself for any libertarian … it means greater competition between governments of different geographical areas, enabling people of one State to zip across the border to relatively greater freedom more easily; and it exalts the mighty libertarian principle of secession…

The fact that liberals ought to be natural secessionists does not mean that all secessionists are necessary liberals. History, of course, is filled with secessionist movements, some of what are more liberal than others. Indeed, these movements help us to understand what sets liberal secessionists apart. 

Two non-liberal secession movements of note come from the nationalist Hungarian secession movement of 1848, and from the secessionists of the antebellum American South. In both of these cases, we see how secession can be applied to protect or preserve a certain group’s status while that group denies that a right to secession should be applied broadly. 

Hungarian Nationalism: Secession for Me, but Not for Thee 

Consider, for example, the Hungarian nationalist Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth was a die-hard supporter of separatism in the service of protecting Hungarian culture and identity from Austrian cultural and political domination within the Austrian Empire. 

There was, of course, nothing wrong with Kossuth’s separatism in itself. But in the 1840s, Kossuth also took a dim view of autonomy and separatism for non-Hungarian ethnic groups within an independent Hungarian state. We see this, for instance, among the Hungarian ethnic nationalists of 1848 who sought independence for themselves but denied self-determination to other ethnic groups within the Austrian Empire. This “nationalities question” over whether or not non-Hungarians ought to be allowed to secede stemmed from the fact that the Hungarian half of the Austrian Empire included sizable populations of Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Slovaks, and others. 

Hungarian historian Zoltán I. Tóth writes that “The Hungarians believed that by granting individual civil rights they were bringing liberty to the peoples, but at the same time, denied the nationalities the right of self-government.”4 Tóth notes that, as the Hungarian nationalists saw it, “the freedom of Europe was at stake” and thus Kossuth, among others “clearly understood – the interests of the individual peoples, be they Hungarian or non- Hungarian, had, temporarily, to be subordinated to it.”5

It’s not clear just how “temporary” this forced union would be. In the 1840s, Kossuth was an “intransigent exponent of the national Magyar cause” and favored a policy of Hungarian ethnic dominance complete with mandatory “Magyarization” laws such as requiring the use of the Hungarian language.6 Kossuth tended to ignore rights of local self-determination in favor of his activist program of abolishing feudalism and pushing his vision for a modern, ostensibly liberal national state. Kossuth accepted some concessions toward Croatia in this period, but most of the so-called “nationalities” were expected by Kossuth to unite with the Hungarian ruling class in the service of fighting the Austrians. Kossuth’s hard line, however, ended up driving many of the minority ethnic groups back into the arms of Vienna. Kossuth’s critics, such as Count Ladislas Teleki, preferred a more decentralist approach that could attract non-Hungarians to the Hungarian cause via consensus rather than rule from the center. It was only after the Hungarians were defeated by Austrian forces that Kossuth turned to a more conciliatory stance with the non-Hungarian groups. 

It is revealing that as Kossuth spoke in the most radical terms in favor of secession and independence for Hungary, he was full of reasons as to why neither secession—or even a decentralized confederation—could be tolerated. As later Slovak historians put it, some of these minority groups were subjected to the “diseased nature of Magyar nationalism which refused to even acknowledge Slovak existence.” 

Calhoun on Secession: It’s Only for American States 

A second example of non-liberal arguments in favor of secession and self-determination can be found in the work of American John C. Calhoun. 

Calhoun is known largely today for his theory of “concurrent majorities,” an exceptionally creative and insightful theory on how political confederations can maintain both political stability and local control. Calhoun’s work is geared largely toward avoiding secession, as he was writing in a context of a United States that faced sizable regional conflict over tariffs, banking, and slavery. Calhoun favored the continued existence of the United States in the mid nineteenth century, but he nonetheless proffered the use of secession as a las resort. In this theory, however, we find nothing we might describe as a theory of secession or even decentralization that can be applied in a way liberals like Molinari or Mises would recognize as liberalism. 

Murray Rothbard sums up a central problem behind Calhoun’s thinking: 

The solution [to the growing power of the national state] advanced by Calhoun (and seconded, in this century, by such writers as [ J. Allen] Smith) was, of course, the famous doctrine of the “concurrent majority.” If any substantial minority interest in the country, specifically a state government, believed that the Federal Government was exceeding its powers and encroaching on that minority, the minority would have the right to veto this exercise of power as unconstitutional. Applied to state governments, this theory implied the right of “nullification” of a Federal law or ruling within a state’s jurisdiction.

In theory, the ensuing constitutional system would assure that the Federal Government check any state invasion of individual rights, while the states would check excessive Federal power over the individual. And yet, while limitations would undoubtedly be more effective than at present, there are many difficulties and problems in the Calhoun solution. If, indeed, a subordinate interest should rightfully have a veto over matters concerning it, then why stop with the states? Why not place veto power in counties, cities, wards? Furthermore, interests are not only sectional, they are also occupational, social, etc. What of bakers or taxi drivers or any other occupation? Should they not be permitted a veto power over their own lives? This brings us to the important point that the nullification theory confines its checks to agencies of government itself. Let us not forget that federal and state governments, and their respective branches, are still states, are still guided by their own state interests rather than by the interests of the private citizens. … In short, Calhoun does not push his pathbreaking theory on concurrence far enough…

The same problem applies to Calhoun’s theory of secession. In this way of thinking, secession is a “right” reserved only to state governments and is not granted to any minority groups within the states themselves. These limits on permissible secession for Calhoun stem largely from the fact that in Calhoun’s view the right of secession did not rely on a broad view of self-determination as we find in Rothbard or Mises. Rather, secession in the Calhoun view is based on the legal nature of the United States as a contract between state government and the federal government. This “compact” view of the US constitution implies that the parties which created the contract have the right to dissolve it. 

Calhoun, however, does not make similar arguments for the states themselves. In Calhoun’s view, the state governments are not a result of a compact between counties (or cities) and the state government. Not surprisingly, Calhoun makes no provision for counties or cities to secede from state governments.  Rothbard wasn’t the only one to identify this inconsistency. Political Scientist Daryl Rice notes that 

A classic criticism of Calhoun is that he does not carry through consistently what [Louis] Hartz calls the “minority principle”. Calhoun grants veto power to large minority interests in society but allows the “sense” of each interest to be taken “through its own majority”. Minority groups are to be governed internally by their own majorities. But we can fairly ask about the interests of the minority within the minority, and the minority within that, and so on.7

We could contrast this view with Locke’s views on the matter. While Locke did indeed seek to limit which groups of minorities could legitimately seek to separate, Locke’s standards remained malleable and could be applied to a wide variety of potential separatists. The more radical liberals were even less willing to put definite limits on a right of secession.

It should be obvious why such a liberal scheme for secession would be unacceptable to Calhoun, one of the nation’s most enthusiastic supporters of slavery. Were a right to self-determination and secession applied broadly in the liberal sense, this would entitle local governments with abolitionist sympathies to secede from their respective state governments. Given that Calhoun viewed abolitionism as one of the greatest extant threats to human civilization, he would hardly want to send the message that any local ideological enemies possessed a natural right to govern themselves free of the planter-dominated state governments. Even more obvious should be the implications of a right to self-determination for areas with a heavy slave population. In South Carolina and Mississippi, for example, the slave population outnumbered the free white population. Clearly, granting those populations a plebiscite for self-determination in the Misesian fashion would not be acceptable to Calhoun. 

Moreover, Calhoun’s opposition to a liberal right of self-determination can be seen in his dismissal of Jefferson’s liberalism as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Calhoun opposed the liberal conception of natural law in the sense that all human beings are born fundamentally equal, but made unequal by state power. Calhoun regretted that Jefferson had included a line about all men being “created equal” in the Declaration and denounced this portion of the text as an “utterly false view” and as an idea that spread “poisonous fruits.” The Jeffersonian conception of equality, however, merely objects to the sort of inequality found in state-granted privileges for certain groups in league with the ruling class. Jefferson recognized there is no natural distinction between any of the individuals in these groups. There’s no poisonous fruit to be found here for any actual classical liberals. 

This liberal concept of Jeffersonian equality, of course, is important if we are to argue that self-determination is a universal natural right. If rights are universal then the right cannot be limited to any special interest group.  On the other hand, when one’s political program is founded on preserving the privileges for a certain class of people—as was Calhoun’s program for the planter class—such natural rights are problematic.

The liberal conception of secession is incompatible with Calhoun’s view in one other respect as well. We can note above in the writings of Molinari and Rothbard that a key benefit of radical decentralization and secession is that it increases competition between independent polities via the phenomenon of free emigration. A greater number of polities provides for more options for individuals to pursue greater autonomy when they—in the words of Rothbard—”zip across the border.” Yet, in a polity where a sizable portion of the population is not free to emigrate—i.e., is enslaved—the benefits of decentralization are largely nullified.

Lajos Kossuth in America

Calhoun died in 1850 and did not participate in the final antebellum decade of debate over secession in the United States. Yet, during that time, the topic of secession was further pushed into the public consciousness by none other than Lajos Kossuth. 

One might be tempted to think that in the days before broadcast news, the secessionist cause in Hungary was but a distant issue virtually unknown to Americans. This was not the case. After Kossuth’s military defeat in 1849, he traveled to the United States in an effort to raise funds and political sympathy for the Hungarian nationalist cause. As noted by Steven Vardy, “Kossuth’s brilliant oratorical skills, his human magnetism, and his very presence in the United States was so overpowering that millions of Americans fell under his spell. His name resounded everywhere during the early 1850s, and his cult spread far and wide across the continent.” This is perhaps overstating the matter, but Kossuth did nonetheless raise the profile of secession in the national consciousness in the early 1850s.

It is true that millions of Americans were at least passively supportive of Kossuth. After all, many Americans viewed the Hungarian secessionists as successors to the American revolutionaries. Yet, many Americans differed in their views of how the Hungarian separatists ought to be viewed in the context of 1850s America. Many Americans did what the Hungarians were unwilling to do: apply the cause of self-determination and secession more broadly. For example, Frederick Douglass called on Americans to “help the American Kossuths” who were, in Douglass’s view, the American slaves. Other abolitionists compared the American fugitive slave laws to the Austrian authorities’ efforts to subjugate and harass Hungarian refugees and freedom fighters.8 

Nationwide, however, many Americans were comfortable with a conservative Kossuthian or Calhounian view on the matter: secession was acceptable, but only for very specific groups. Historian Timothy Roberts notes that many American observers sided with the Hungarians in dismissing self-determination for non-Hungarian groups in the conflict. For example, the Southern Literary Messenger—famous for its association with Edgar Allen Poe—sided with the ethnic Magyars melodramatically opining that “the [Hungarians are] fully aware of their dangerous position..,. hated by the [Slavs], isolated among the nations of the earth, they were left alone . . . to resist this conspiracy against them.”9 Both north and south, American supporters of the Hungarian cause denigrated Hungary’s internal non-Hungarian ethnic groups, comparing them to the indigenous tribes of North America, “the fierce savages of our own wilderness.”10 

Clearly, few Americans north or south supported the idea of a natural or general right to secession and self-determination in the manner of Mises, Molinari, or even Locke.  Abraham Lincoln, of course, regarded secession of any kind as a precursor to “anarchy.” A universal natural right to secession remained the domain of a small hearty minority of radical American liberals. These included Lysander Spooner who himself noted that Southern secession—while legally and constitutionally sound—was based on no moral foundation other than a conservative defense of the narrow interests of the planter class. 

Non-liberal secession movements help to illustrate the fundamental differences between liberal defenses of secession—based on natural rights—and other claims. We find that secession can be based on any number of justifications from nationalism, to conservatism, to theories defending a particular socio-economic group. By their very nature, however, these non-liberal secessionists deny the right of secession can be broadly applied. On this, only liberalism provides a foundation for secession based on—to use Murray Rothbard’s phrase—”universal rights, locally enforced.”

1. Lee Ward, “Thomas Hobbes and John Locke on a Liberal Right of Secession,” Political Research Quarterly 70, No. 4 (December 2017): 881, 884

2. Ibid., p. 885.

3. Ibid.

4. Zoltán I. Tóth, “The Nationality Problem in Hungary in 1848-1849”, Acta Historica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 4, No. 1. (September 1955): 244.

5. Ibid., p. 245.

6. Oscar Jászi, “Kossuth and the Treaty of Trianon”, Foreign Affairs 12, No. 1, (October 1933): 87  

7. Daryl H. Rice, “John C. Calhoun,” History of Political Thought 12, No. 2, (Summer 1991): 326.

8. Timothy M. Roberts, “‘Revolutions Have Become the Bloody Toy of the Multitude’: European Revolutions, the South, and the Crisis of 1850”, Journal of the Early Republic 25, No. 2, (Summer, 2005): 272

9. Ibid., p. 271.

10. Ibid., p. 272.