Ryan McMaken – February 6, 2020
Earlier this month [January, 2020], West Virginia state senator Charles Trump introduced a senate resolution requesting that the citizens of Frederick County consider joining West Virginia. That is, the West Virginia Senate invited the county to secede from Virginia and join West Virginia. The Senate later adopted the resolution.
Resolutions like these don’t change any laws, but the Senate vote was in part a response to the dissatisfaction voiced by some Virginians over the legislative agenda of the new government in Richmond. As Tho Bishop noted on Monday [January 20] here at Mises.org, many residents of Frederick County, like residents of other counties outside Democrat-controlled areas of the state’s east and northeast, are concerned about mounting efforts by the state government to impose new gun ownership restrictions—among other new regulations—on Virginia residents.
If opponents of the current ideological winds blowing in Virginia find themselves in a permanent minority, it may very well be that the only method of defending the minority position is by leaving the state. But “exit” can theoretically be obtained in more than one way. It can be done on an individual basis, of course, where a single person relocates. Or it can be done through jurisdictional secession.
In the case of Virginia, there would be nothing novel about some parts of the state breaking off from the Richmond-controlled government. The same thing happened during and after the American Civil War. At the time, the mountain South was less inclined to support slavery—and more inclined to be Unionist—than plantation areas. This was true for mountain areas of Virginia as well.
Northern politicians took advantage of this split and promised independence—and thus greater self-determination to the western counties of Virginia—if they would break away from the Virginia government controlled by wealthy planters. Although the process by which this happened was legally sketchy, the US Supreme Court nonetheless put its stamp of approval on West Virginia’s secession in 1871. 1
Some Practical Considerations
There are practical obstacles to secession, to be sure. Businesses would be subject to different regulations, and the criminal code would be slightly different for county residents as the county switched to a new state. State budgets would have to be changed to reflect the new borders.
Federal law, of course, would remain unchanged in all areas, and matters of global diplomacy would be virtually unaffected. Congress’s involvement need not extend much beyond the apportioning of members of Congress once the next decennial census comes along.
Unfortunately, status quo bias would cause many to emotionally reject any change. The way things have “always” been done will be trotted out as justification for keeping things the way they are, essentially forever.
Secession: A Moral Imperative
But is there a moral argument against secession from Virginia? Not if we take ideas of self-determination and human rights seriously.
If minority groups find themselves perennially in the minority, what recourse do they have if boundaries are also permanently fixed? Some might suggest these people can move across state lines. But since state lines could be hundreds of miles away in a large state like Virginia, a forced diaspora would likely require minority populations to disband their communities. Some suggests members of the minority ought to trust the court system to protect their rights. But American history is littered with Supreme Court decisions in which the courts either refused to take action, or explicitly sided with governments against the rights of citizens. 2
Even if court decisions go the minority’s way in the short term, there’s no fighting the majority in the long term. After all, judges are not immune from the currents of ideological change as imposed by majority groups—and the law schools they control. Thus, as economist and social theorist Ludwig von Mises noted in his 1927 book Liberalism:
[W]hen [a member of the minority] appears before a magistrate or any administrative official as a party to a suit or petition, he stands before men whose political thought is foreign to him because it developed under different ideological influences.…At every turn the member of a national minority is made to feel that he lives among strangers and that he is, even if the letter of the law denies it, a second-class citizen.
Writing in the decades following the First World War—when national boundaries were being redrawn along ethnic lines—Mises was acutely aware of the problems that presented minority communities who found themselves in larger jurisdictions controlled by groups who differed in their backgrounds and ideologies.
When it came to protecting their rights, minority groups could not simply place their trust in the next election, or in the hands of government judges, and hope for the best. Often, the most peaceful and reliable strategy was to redraw borders so that minority communities might ally with other sympathetic groups. Mises continues:
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. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.
Mises recognized that over time, populations and ideologies change in various times and places. People migrate and culture changes. Majorities can be turned into minorities, and vice versa. This, Mises recognized, nonetheless does not render the legal and property rights of the minority groups null and void. Communities are still entitled to the right of self-determination, even when in the minority. Strategies must therefore be adopted to protect these minority groups. One of the most practical strategies, Mises undestood, was changing borders of political jurisdictions to fit the realities of the populations within those borders.
As Mises noted, to force members of conflicting groups to live side by side within a single jurisdiction is problematic to say the least. It only encourages each side to become ever more fanatical in its drive to gain control of the machinery of government so as to oppress the other side. This is why Mises presented his plan as a means of avoiding violence: increasingly intense competition over centralized institutions of political power tends to lead to violence in the long term. The answer lies in decentralization and secession. Conversely, the potential for violence is minimzed by minimizing the state’s power. In the presence of a mostly laissez-faire government, neither side has much reason to worry about who controls the state. But the stakes climb ever higher as the state gains more power over people’s lives.
But “minimizing state power” certainly isn’t what is going on in Virginia right now. If anything, the state is moving very much in the opposite direction. In a prudent and flexible political system, those parts of the state dominated by the now out-of-power groups would be permitted to join themselves to regimes more in line with their cultures and ideological views. But we do not live in a prudent and flexible political system. We live in a system where the dictates of “democracy” are such that whichever group finds itself in the minority must submit to the elected ruling regime. “Or else.” No other option is permitted. This is a road that often leads to violence, either by private parties, or by the regime against the people.
Originally published at Mises.org. Ryan McMaken is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.
Image source: Getty
- There is no particular reason why Virginia secessionists would need to join West Virginia, of course. It could make just as much sense to join Virginia counties to North Carolina, Tennessee, or Kentucky instead. Moreover, it is not even necessary that these seceding counties be contiguous with neighboring states. They could function perfectly fine as exclaves.
- Examples are numerous. US courts, for example, endorsed the internment of US citizens of Japanese descent. Federal courts failed to intervene to preserve the property rights of Mexican-Americans in accordance with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Federal courts failed to intervene when California law banned the ownership of property by Japanese-Americans. Federal courts have approved obviously unconstituional provisions of the USA Patriot act. Federal courts failed to uphold the provisions of US treaties with Indian tribes when the US government illegally and unilaterally obrogated those treated. Courts, of course, also reverse themselves on major issues. Courts abandoned the idea that governments can’t void private contracts with the end of the Lochner era. Courts made up the idea that a right to “privacy” means the matter of abortion, considered to be a state and local matter for 190 years, was suddenly to be regulated by federal law. Placing trust in the courts is a fanciful idea at best.