Secession, Family Law, and Political Science

Discussions of secession in the U.S. are weighed down with the baggage of the Civil War. This legacy may not just burden American’s view of secession as a domestic issue, but also the general concept. The U.S. has opposed secessionist tendencies abroad, even when they were obviously salutary, such as the break-up of the USSR and Yugoslavia, and continues to oppose the break-up of Iraq and other unhappy unions.

Important recent work in political science has helped us better understand the economics of state size. At the same time, secessionist movements have gained broad followings in major Western European democracies, even at a time that nationalism in Europe is thought to be at a nadir. These developments (and not the various U.S. petitions, about which Eugene recently wrote) motivate this post.

Secession seems a good idea on libertarian grounds in that heterogenous preferences can be better accommodated on a smaller scale. Alesina and Spolaore famously theorize optimal state size as optimizing between economies of scale and heterogenous preferences of nationals: the former is increasing on size, the latter decreasing. For optimality to be maintained, there must be some process shaping the size of state other than accretion. Otherwise, one would expect that all countries in equilibrium would be too big.

Usually, secessionist movements start in the wealthier area of country (or an area that would be wealthy if it could completely control local fuel resources) – Northern Italy, Slovenia, Catalonia, Flanders, Biafra, Puntland, Somaliland. This seems especially true of non-violent secession movements — those not formed against the backdrop of massive intergroup violence.

The European Union changes this dynamic somewhat by lowering the cost of secession. EU membership confers significant benefits on the new country (assuming it gets to join the Union) and this is thought to explain the rise in Scottish independence (an atypical breakaway effort by the poorer section). When Rhode Island remained aloof from Constitution, it was threatened with having foreign-nation tariff status.

If Scotland leaves the UK but not the EU, the border with England remains open. Just as declining trade barriers reduce scale economies, so does technology. Large armies are relatively less important for a nation’s defense, for example. The amicable split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia demonstrate how low the costs of splitting can be, especially in Europe.

I’ve analogized secession to divorce: costly, destructive, and yet sometimes preferable to the status quo. Indeed, as with divorce, secession problems usually focus not on the decision to split itself, but on who gets what: the division of common property, payments for prior detrimental reliance or a history of cross-state subsidization (ie, compensation to the spouse who put the other one through medical school, children and visitation (new rules of border access, who is a citizen where). Scotland and England are already prophylactically squabbling about these issues.

There is some notion that secession should be reserved for cases of particular abuse, “extreme cruelty.” But today regions in Western countries seek out due to what to outsiders mights be seen as minor ethnic or cultural vanities: more of a no-fault, irreconcilable differences approach.

Divorce lawyers tell squabbling couples that they will have a lower standard of living after the split, if for no other reason than the elimination of scale economies. That doesn’t keep people from getting divorced. The costs of divorce are clearly visible – litigation, dislocation, and disruption. The costs of a no divorce-regime are less visible, but equally real: the unhappiness of a people whose preferences are no longer satisfied by their union.

There is a certain kind of couple where at least one member gets quite worked up on hearing of divorces among their friends and peers; they want to avoid such people, shun and condemn them – lest anyone get any ideas. But these are usually not happily married couples; those do not feel threatened by their friends’ divorces.

A few final words on the role of law. International law recognizes no general right of secession, though it has numerous useful rules on presumptive borders and obligations if a break-up does occur. Most national constitutions don’t speak to it either (though some permit it, including, amazingly, the former Soviet Constitution). Of course it makes most sense to address dissolution directly in the founding document – a kind of national prenup.