Government and Institutions

Debate: Should classical liberals support secession?

Mark Littlewood:

Questions around the secessions of countries or provinces pose difficult, possibly intractable, problems for economists and classical liberals. Attempts to calculate the potential losses of departing from the prevailing constitutional arrangements are not necessarily fruitless, but they are bound to be partial. Such analyses are likely to fall into a sort of inverse Bastiat trap – losses are relatively visible, gains are typically intangible. This does not, however, preclude the former substantially out-trumping the latter.

The anticipated losses tend to fall into three categories – almost irrespective of whether the topic at hand is the UK’s exit from the EU, Scotland’s possible departure from the UK, or Catalonia’s possible secession from Spain.

The first is the added friction pertaining to trade with one’s immediate neighbours. These are real and cannot simply be waved away by secessionists. If the purpose of exiting a particular trading framework is to diverge in regulatory approach, tariff and non-tariff barriers are likely to increase. One can argue about the scale, but not the concept.

The second revolves around the question of what type of political leadership is likely to emerge in a new independent province. If this is judged to be more interventionist, insular and inward-looking, classical liberals can argue that the status quo is preferable. Anecdotally, I have heard this case made by free-market Italians who support continuing membership of the EU and liberals in Scotland who fear that if their country were to become independent, it would also become more socialist. The Epicenter research paper makes similar predictions about the likely government of an independent Catalonia. These observations may be accurate, but they are by necessity a snapshot.

Thirdly, a theoretical case is posited that being part of a larger bloc brings economies of scale on the geopolitical stage. Striking significant trade deals, wielding soft power on the international stage and repelling security threats are – it is assumed – better handled by being a relatively small part of a greater constitutional and institutional settlement, assuming interests are broadly aligned. There is a prima face attraction to this proposition, but it necessarily skirts over a swathe of small – often very small – independent countries and territories which have succeeded in terms of both peace and prosperity – from Liechtenstein to Singapore.

The classical liberal case to show sympathy for independence movements – including Catalonia – hinges in part on a belief that these three cases against secession are often overstated. Enhanced trade friction may be real and unwelcome, but often not enormous in GDP terms. Prevailing political inclinations are subject to rapid change. Large blocs can make catastrophic strategic decisions and lack the fleetness of foot to change direction.

However, there are other liberal reasons to take a positive view of independence movements. The first is confidence in the discovery process. Of course, bad policy making can often withstand contact with reality for some considerable time. But course correction should be easier in smaller political units. If an independent Catalonia initially took a socialist path, there are surely reasons to believe that this could be a short-term phenomenon. This is not a guarantee, it is an assumption. Ursula von der Leyen’s comment about the UK being a speedboat and the EU being a tanker may not be a perfect analogy, but it has merit.

Second, liberals may take a more nuanced view of citizens’ necessary consent than pure democrats. The Epicenter paper points out that disruption in Catalonia over its moves towards possible independence was detrimental to the tourism trade. This may well be true, but it is not particularly helpful or prescriptive. This division and disruption cannot simply be wished away. Once a substantial minority is strongly supportive of major constitutional change, a rigid attachment to the status quo is unlikely to lead to a settled outcome – even if such a status quo arrangement is able to scrape a bare majority in a referendum. This is not to say that secessionist movements should be allowed to unequivocally prevail if they can only muster, say, 40% support. But at some point – and at below 50% of the vote – a tipping point is reached where some form of new constitutional settlement becomes inevitable. This is likely the case in Catalonia now. It is probably the case in Scotland. Had the UK voted very narrowly to remain in the EU in 2016, it is highly questionable that this would have paved the way for Britain’s settled long-term membership. This does not mean arguments for the status quo are invalid, just that they might miss the point.

There are risks and costs of breaking up established political and constitutional units. But there are potential upsides too – not least the challenge it poses to concentrated and monopolised political power. Liberals have good reasons to be sceptical about numerous elements of nationalist and regionalist uprisings, but this is not a reason for outright hostility.


Juan A. Soto:

To address the issue of independence, one must examine the conditions and legitimacy of the claims for secessionism or self-determination through the lens of political authority. Indeed, the scholarly literature distinguishes between two main tendencies: the Primary Right theory and the Remedial Right one. While the former tendency defends the right of self-determination and/or secession to any group under all circumstances, the latter presents such right as only legitimate under unjust government treatment.

A philosophical anarchist and libertarian perspective would favour the Primary Right theory. However, my stance follows the Remedial Right theorists: there is no primary right for a group to secede from a just state. In the absence of fundamental rights infringement by the state, no group or individual has the legitimacy to break any political bond. Another element justifying the restriction on group or individual self-determination is political (and therefore societal) stability.

These two elements, justice and stability, are in my view the basic elements that could restrain an otherwise legitimate claim. Moreover, these elements must be considered in that strict order: first justice, and second stability, as authoritarian regimes could be perfectly stable yet unjust political systems.

Since the historical roots behind Catalonia’s claim for independence have been vastly disproven, the claim has long ceased to be about the immutable right to self-determination. On the contrary, this crusade mainly relies on the presupposed injustice and unfairness from the Kingdom of Spain. It would thus be intellectually dishonest to address Catalonia’s claim for independence per se, as Catalan separatists themselves distance themselves from such broad-brush claims – preferring to cite specific grievances and injustices as justifications.

The first main argument for Catalan separatism is the authoritarian nature of the Spanish political regime. However, no serious empirical evidence supports that, and it is widely recognised that the constitutional rights of the separatist Catalans have never been infringed. The second recurrent argument is the presupposed unfair treatment of Catalonia by the central government, especially through fiscal policy. Not only is there no evidence of discriminatory or unjust redistribution of state resources, but also Madrid would hold the better claim on that front, as it is the largest net contributor to the Treasury by every indicator.

Should the aforementioned accusations be true, the Catalan grievances could be sufficient to justify the secessionist claim. But the stability issue would remain. A hypothetical Catalan republic will hardly be stable since only half of the population supports independence – and this percentage keeps declining. Additionally, the latest EPICENTER & Civismo report confirms the astonishingly high costs of creating an independent Catalonia, not only in monetary and fiscal terms, but also in terms of investment, job creation, and institutional quality. While some are willing to pay such a price, the means to reach independence and its consequences require a moral evaluation.

However, I recognise that the Remedial Right to secession does not automatically exclude a group’s right to self-determination or desire for more control inside a larger state. That ‘less radical’ measure can —and perhaps should— be taken, so that there is more self-government within the larger polity. I nonetheless reject the stance that Catalonia suffers from the unjust “continuous refusal to negotiate an adequate form of intra-state self-government”. Catalonia enjoys a degree of self-government greater than any other Spanish region, or even than any US state or German Land. Furthermore, stability would remain a challenge both under a new political arrangement of Catalonia within Spain or outside of Spain.

The 50-50 popular divide implies that fulfilling the demands of one side will be detrimental to the rights of the other side. It thus becomes hard to distinguish the victims from the perpetrators; should priority be given to the Catalans claiming that Spain has been unjust towards them or to the other half of the Catalan population whose treatment by the Catalan government has been unfair over the past decades?

I believe that there is no theoretical or practical political arrangement today that could satisfy all claims. Until such arrangement is devised, making the least significant changes to both the Spanish and Catalan governments is perhaps the wisest course of action and the one more aligned with personal freedom. It finally reminds us that we should not neglect the often-forgotten positive perspective of freedom, the one that makes us – classical liberals – tolerate political authority.


This debate was originally published on the Epicenter blog.


Mark Littlewood is the Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Juan A. Soto is the Director of Civismo.  

3 thoughts on “Debate: Should classical liberals support secession?”

  1. Posted 10/03/2021 at 12:07 | Permalink

    Classic liberals do not run large blocs. Are they in charge of the EU? No, they are lucky to occasionally have a little influence. Ditto Spain and the UK. Bureaucratic empire-builders are in charge.

  2. Posted 12/03/2021 at 23:03 | Permalink

    That is what a “classical liberal” like Alberto Alesina thought about the EU (and more generally about the relationship between economic integration and political separatism) in 1997:

    [Some of the comment’s original text has been removed by the moderator]

    “European monetary union is a gamble. In fact, I am more pessimistic than Maurice Obstfeld: in my opinion, it is a gamble that should not be taken.
    One can think of the equilibrium size of a country as the result of a trade-off. On the one hand, small countries have the benefits of a low degree of conflict and relative convergence of preferences. On the other hand, large countries have several advantages, including economies of scale in the provision of public goods, insurance against shocks, and market size. However, as world trade becomes more open, one of the main benefits of a large country becomes much less important. A country does not have to be big to be open. Thus the tendency toward a reduction in average country size is perfectly understandable in an environment of trade liberalization. Why would a country want to lock itself in a political union when it could be small, enjoy freedom of political choice, and trade peacefully with the rest of the world? There
    is no need for political integration when there is economic integration.
    Indeed, as I argue elsewhere with Enrico Spolaore and Romain Wacziarg, economic integration should go hand in hand with political separatism. Europe is going in exactly the opposite direction.”

    Source: Alesina, Alberto. 1997. “Comments on ‘Europe’s Gamble’ by M. Obstfeld.” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 28: 301-304.

  3. Posted 15/03/2021 at 12:09 | Permalink

    One thing that seems to be overlooked when discussing long-term political changes is demographics. Another generation or two will probably have an entirely different political viewpoint. This is readily apparent in the US when polling the under-25s about socialism. Technology etc is bringing about changes in political/social dispositions that cannot be readily anticipated.

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