Secession, Ignorance, and Stupidity:
A recent Zogby/Middlebury Institute poll shows that 22% of Americans believe that "any state or region has the right to peaceably secede and become an independent republic." Belief in states' and regions right to secede was especially common among blacks (40%), Hispanics (43%) and people aged 18-24 (40%). Interestingly, political liberals (32%) were more likely to believe in a right to secession than conservatives (17%). 18% of respondents say they would support a secession movement in their own state, including 24% of southerners.
Constitutional law professor Ann Althouse claims that these poll results show that "all these people [who believe in a right to secession] have the law wrong and don't seem to know the basics of the history of the Civil War." She concludes that the pro-secession survey respondents are "fascinatingly stupid."
I certainly agree with Ann that much of the public is shockingly ignorant about American history and constitutional law. This is one aspect of the more general widespread political ignorance that I have often written about on this blog and elsewhere (e.g. here and here). At the same time, I don't think that ignorance is necessarily a sign of stupidity.
I. Secession and the Constitution.
More importantly, I don't think that belief in a right of secession by itself demonstrates ignorance about either law or American history. The Constitution is famously silent on the issue of secession. It doesn't explicitly guarantee states a right to secede, but also doesn't explicitly forbid secession. Interestingly, the Articles of Confederation explicitly stated that the union is "perpetual" (which seems to foreclose secession), but the Constitution which superseded the Articles does not include any such language. This silence has led to ongoing debate over the constitutional status of secession. Prior to the Civil War, many respected scholars and political leaders claimed that secession was permitted by the Constitution. Many were apologists for slavery, but by no means all. For example, political leaders from several northern free states asserted that they had a right to secede at the 1814 Hartford Convention. In light of this history and the ambiguity of the constitutional text, I don't think that belief in a right to secession is at all unreasonable, much less a sign of obvious ignorance or stupidity.
II. Secession and the Civil War.
Many people, of course, believe that the issue of secession was definitively resolved by the Civil War; Ann may be alluding to this when she writes that the survey respondents she criticizes "don't seem to know the basics of the history of the Civil War." There is no question that the federal government defeated the south's attempt to secede. However, superior military might doesn't prove superior constitutional right. There are many instances in American history where federal and state governments managed to get away with violating the Constitution by applying superior force. The imposition of Jim Crow segregation on blacks in the South is the most notorious example.
To avoid confusion, I should emphasize that I think that the federal government was right to suppress the Confederates' efforts to secede. But not because secession is always illegal and impermissible. Rather, the Union was right in that instance because the southern states sought to secede for the indefensible purpose of protecting and extending the evil institution of slavery. Moreover, none of the southerners' constitutional rights had been infringed by the federal government. Things would look very different if a state sought to secede for the purpose of defending fundamental human or constitutional rights rather than continuing to violate them; if, for example, the feds were trying to force slavery on unwilling free states.
During the Civil War, even some defenders of the Union admitted that secession might be justified in some instances. For instance, in his First Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln stated his view that the Union is "perpetual," but also that "If by the mere force of numbers a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might in a moral point of view justify revolution; certainly would if such right were a vital one." Lincoln (correctly) denied that any such thing had happened in the case of the South in 1861, but left open the possibility that secession might be permissible in a situation where the federal government really had deprived a minority of a " vital" constitutional right.
Secession can be used to advance evil ends, such as the protection of slavery. But it can also be used to pursue good ones. After all, the United States was established by means of secession from the British Empire. More recently, the secession of the Baltic States from the Soviet Union, and the secession of Slovakia from Czechoslovakia have caused far more good than harm.
In sum, the text of the Constitution is ambiguous about secession, and nothing in our later history definitively forecloses the possibility that secession might be permissible in some situations. The Zogby poll respondents might be ignorant in so far as they may believe that the federal government will allow states to secede at will. But they are not necessarily ignorant or stupid to believe that states have a right do so - irrespective of whether the federal government is likely to honor that right. Even as a matter of practical political reality, the federal government's reaction to a serious modern secession movement is likely to be dictated more by the immediate circumstances than by the long-ago precedent of the Civil War. Without knowing the background of the future dispute in question, it's hard to predict whether the feds would use force to prevent secession or not.
UPDATE: In addition to criticism from people who think that any form of secession is unthinkable, I also expect criticism from those who claim that the South seceded for more admirable reasons than the protection of slavery. Unfortunately for these people, Confederate leaders at the time clearly stated that slavery was the cause of secession. For example, in his famous 1861 "Cornerstone Speech," Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens emphasized that "slavery as it exists amongst us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization . . . was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution." He also avowed that the enslavement of blacks was the "cornerstone" of the new Confederate government and constitution. For most pro-slavery southerners, states' rights were merely a tool for protecting slavery. When slavery could more effectively be promoted through federal power, they were perfectly willing to jettison their states' rights principles, as in the case of their trampling on state prerogratives for the purpose of enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act (as I briefly discussed here).
Fighting Between Russia and Georgia:
Large-scale fighting has broken out between Russia and Georgia. According to news reports, Georgia launched an offensive to suppress secessionist forces in the breakaway region of South Ossetia; the secessionists have long been backed by Russian troops. Russia has responded by launching a counteroffensive and bombing targets throughout Georgia.
At this point, I don't have enough information about the situation to comment in any great detail. For example, it's hard to assess the validity of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's claim that Russian airstrikes have been "specifically targeting [the] civilian population." (though sadly, it would not be a complete surprise if they were, given Russian practices in nearby Chechnya). Moreover, the backstory to this conflict is long and complex, and I doubt I have the knowledge to make more than tentative judgments about it.
That said, I think it's unlikely that Russia's role here is entirely benign, given the longstanding history of Russian imperialism in the region, Russia's recent aggressive policy towards its neighbors under Vladimir Putin, and Georgia's role as a recently democratized state and ally of the US that Russian leaders fear as a potential catalyst for pro-democracy movements within Russia itself. At the same time, it was probably unwise of Saakashvili to launch a large-scale offensive in South Ossetia that he should have realized could lead to war with a much more powerful state - a war that Georgia probably can't win if Russia is willing to commit enough of its forces to overwhelm the Georgians. Both of these points are, of course, tentative and could be invalidated by later revelations.
The conflict also has important implications for the US. Georgia has 2000 troops serving in the US-led coalition in Iraq, which are now likely to be called home. At this point, the Georgian force is the third-largest Coalition contingent in Iraq (after the US and Britain). The fighting could disrupt strategically important oil pipelines passing through the region. The US faces a difficult dilemma in so far as we may have to choose between backing a staunch ally and Bush's effort to improve relations with Russia (whose cooperation he needs on issues like the effort to impose sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program).
UPDATE: Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, an expert on Russian politics and foreign policy, has an excellent op ed on the conflict.
CNN Website Gives Edwards Affair Higher Billing than the Russia-Georgia Fighting:
It's telling that, as of midnight today, the CNN website is giving the Russia-Georgia conflict a lower billing than the latest revelations about John Edwards' extramarital affair. This order of priorities is ludicrous from the standpoint of the real relative importance of these events. But it does fit my theory that most people who follow political news do so primarily to get information they find interesting or entertaining rather than to learn about objectively important issues in order to become better-informed voters. A tawdry affair by a presidential candidate who dropped out of the race a long time ago is insignificant compared to a bloody conflict with major implications for US strategic interests in a crucial part of the world (to say nothing of the loss of life). But the affair may have greater entertainment value, and entertainment is what CNN must provide in order to give the majority of viewers what they want and keep up its ratings.
UPDATE: MSNBC also has the Edwards story as its top headline. But, to its credit, the Fox News site is giving top billing to the Russia-Georgia story - despite Fox's longstanding reputation as the more superficial of the three big news networks.
UPDATE #2: I suppose I should make it clear that I'm not claiming that Fox is generally less superficial than CNN or MSNBC, merely that they chose the right order of priorities in this particular instance.
Zbigniew Brzezinski on Russia and Georgia:
Former Carter National Security Adviser and longtime Russia expert Zbigniew Brzezinski has some interesting comments on Russia's war with Georgia in this interview. I'm not sure that the situation requires as forceful a Western response as Brzezinski argues for. However, he is right to suggest that Russia's offensive - which now apparently includes an effort to overthrow the democratically elected Georgian government - is an ominous sign of the Putin regime's imperialistic ambitions. I also agree with Brzezinski's comment that "This invasion of Georgia by Russia is a very sad commentary on eight years of self-delusion in the White House regarding Putin and his regime." Even George W. Bush probably has to admit that he was wrong to believe that there is any good in the former KGB colonel's "heart and soul," which Bush claimed to have looked into back in 2001.
Brzezinski has recently served as a foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama. It would be interesting to know if his views on Russia reflect those of the Democratic nominee.
South Ossetia and the Morality of Secession:
Russia and its client regime in South Ossetia have been citing the precedent of Kosovo's recent secession from Serbia as a justification for Russia's effort to detach South Ossetia from Georgia. It's unlikely that the "Kosovo precedent" is the true motive for Russia's massive attack on Georgia; after all, the Russians have been supporting secessionist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia since the early 1990s - long before Kosovar independence was on the table. Be that as it may, the Kosovo and South Ossetia cases both raise the issue of the justification of secession. When, if ever, should a region have the right to separate from its central government?
I. The Comparative Approach to Evaluating Secession Movements.
Russia's "Kosovo precedent" argument poses a false dichotomy: either all secessionist movements are justified or none are. In reality, the moral legitimacy of secession varies from case to case. The worse the existing government and the better the new one the secessionists are likely to set up, the stronger the justification for secession. A secessionist movement that seeks to establish a new state in order to engage in repression is very different from one intended to defend its own people against oppression by the central government.
Thus, as I noted in this post, the southern states' attempted secession in 1861 was indefensible because undertaken for the purpose of extending and protecting the horrendous institution of slavery; however, it would have been a different case if free states had seceded in order to prevent a proslavery federal government from forcing them to accept the "peculiar institution" against their will.
The Kosovo case is at the opposite pole from that of the Confederates. The Kosovar Albanians had been victims of mass murder and "ethnic cleansing" at the hands of the Serbian government; although the regime that instituted these policies was no longer in power by the time Kosovo formally declared independence earlier this year, extreme nationalists retain enough influence in Serbian politics that the Kosovar Albanians could not reasonably be expected to accept the return of Serbian rule. Moreover, the 2008 declaration of independence simply ratified a de facto secession that had already been in place for nine years. So the key point at issue is the legitimacy of Kosovo's de facto separation from Serbia back in 1999.
This is not to say that the Kosovo Albanians haven't committed some human rights violations of their own or that their new government is a model regime. However, there is little question that Kosovo's secession after occupation by NATO forces in 1999 prevented a great deal more injustice than it caused.
South Ossetia is an intermediate case between these two. The Ossetian separatists claim that the Georgian government discriminated against ethnic Ossetians in various ways. Even if some of the claims are true, there was nothing remotely comparable to what was done to the Kosovars. Moreover, an independent South Ossetia is likely to come under the control of Russia (as it largely has already). And the Russian government is itself often repressive, and surely cannot be trusted to protect the rights of the ethnic Georgians who live in the area. Thus, at least to this nonexpert, the question of whether South Ossetian secession would reduce ethnic oppression or increase it is a close call. The issue certainly can't be resolved through ritualistic citation of the "Kosovo precedent."
The basic point, however, is that the morality of secession must be considered on a case by case basis. The key variable is the relative quality of the central government as compared to the new regime the secessionists seek to establish.
II. The Case Against a Presumption in Favor of Status Quo Governments.
My approach is at odds with the conventional view that there should be a heavy presumption in favor of the "territorial integrity" of existing states. I don't have time and space for a detailed critique of that position. So I will briefly note three major points against it. First, most existing states were themselves established through coercion, putting down potential opposition by force. I don't think that the results of such processes are entitled to automatic deference. Second, the international law norms that exalt the integrity of status quo governments were, of course, established by status quo governments, which have an obvious conflict of interest here. Existing states - particularly those that oppress large portions of their population - have an obvious interest in establishing a monopoly over their subjects by denying them the opportunity to set up new and potentially better governments through secession. I see little reason to defer to such transparently self-interested "lawmaking." Finally, I am unconvinced by claims that abandoning the presumption against secession would lead to uncontrolled chaos through endlessly proliferating secession movements. Given the substantial transition costs of setting up a new government and breaking ties with the old one, few regions are likely to attempt secession without strong genuine grievances against the previous government. Even a peaceful secession will carry significant costs. It is telling that the "Kosovo precedent" (like the secession of the various former Soviet republics from Russia in the 1990s) has not led to establishment of any new secession movements anywhere in the world. Secession movements are usually driven by local grievances and agendas, not by "precedents" arising from events in other parts of the world.
The comparative framework I advocate in this post doesn't consider the hard question of whether a region should be allowed to secede if the potential new government is likely to be both no worse and no better than the current one. Should such a region have the right to secede anyway if the majority of its people wish to do so? If time permits, I will take up that issue in a later post.
UPDATE: I fully recognize that I haven't define such key concepts as "oppression" in this post. I can't possibly develop a comprehensive theory of political morality here. The post is limited to arguing that the moral legitimacy of secession should be evaluated through a comparative approach. People with differing political philosophies can legitimately disagree over which factors should be weighed in determining which government is better, and how much weight should be assigned to each.
Two Excellent Books on Secession:
For readers interested in the normative arguments for and against a right to secession, I recommend Allen Buchanan's 1991 book Secession: the Morality of Political Divorce, and Christopher Wellman's more recent A Theory of Secession. Unlike me, Buchanan advocates a presumption in favor of maintaining existing states, though a more limited one than under current international law. Wellman, by contrast, defends the view that any group should have the right to secede so long as it meets certain minimal criteria. He contends that a broad right of secession is a logical implication of the right to political self-determination. Both books are outstanding, and well worth your time if you are interested in these issues.
And if you are a Penn or George Mason student, you may be interested to know that I have a unit on the pros and cons of secession in my seminar on Federalism (scroll down for description). I didn't expect the issue to be quite as topical as it has become over the last few days as a result of the tragic events in Georgia.
Slavery as the Motive for Southern Secession in 1861:
Some commenters on my posts on secession (here and here) doubt my claim that the southern states seceded in 1861 for the purpose of preserving slavery. After all, they point out, Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans had promised not to abolish slavery in the states where it existed. This is a common point advanced by those want to claim that slavery was not the main cause of the Civil War. Indeed, it was first advanced by apologists for the Confederate cause in the immediate aftermath of the War in order to paint the Confederacy in a more positive light by demonstrating that it was fighting for "states' rights" rather than slavery. But the claim doesn't withstand scrutiny.
Confederate leaders repeatedly stated in 1861 that the threat Lincoln's election posed to slavery was the main reason for secession. In January 1861, soon-to-be Confederate President Jefferson Davis said that his state had seceded because "She has heard proclaimed the theory that all men are created free and equal, and this made the basis of an attack upon her social institutions; and the sacred Declaration of Independence has been invoked to maintain the position of the equality of the races." Davis was referring to well-known speeches by Lincoln and other Republicans citing the Declaration in criticism of slavery. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens similarly said that "slavery . . . was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution" and that protecting it was the "cornerstone" of the new Confederate government. Many other Confederate leaders made similar statements.
Why did Lincoln's election cause them to fear for the future of slavery? It is true that the Republicans did not plan to abolish slavery in the near future. But white southerners still saw Lincoln's election on an antislavery platform as a serious threat to the "peculiar institution." Whatever their position on slavery where it already existed, the Republicans were firm in their commitment to preventing its spread to the vast new territories acquired by the US in the Mexican War. That, in fact, was the main point of the Republican platform. Slaveowners believed that an end to the expansion of slavery threatened their economic interests. In addition, the creation of numerous new free states without the admission of any new countervailing slave states would erode slaveowners' influence in congressional and presidential elections and potentially pave the way for abolition in the future.
Perhaps even more important, most white southerners didn't trust Lincoln's assurances that he wouldn't move against slavery in the South. After all, this was the same man who had famously said that "this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free," and that "the opponents of slavery" should "arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction." He meant that blocking the expansion of slavery would eventually put pressure on southern states to abolish it "voluntarily." But slaveowners suspected that he and other Republicans would attack the Peculiar Institution directly if they got the chance. Within the Republican Party, Lincoln was a relative moderate. More radical Republicans wanted stronger, more immediate action against slavery. And their influence within the party might grow over time.
Finally, slaveowners feared that Lincoln's election would undermine slavery in border states such as Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and even Virginia, which already had many fewer slaves than the Deep South. By using patronage to promote the growth of Republican parties in these states and relaxing enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, a Republican-controlled federal government could eventually force these states to abolish slavery. Without strong federal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, slaves from border states adjacent to slave states could more easily escape to the North and border state slaveowners would have incentives to sell their slaves to the deep south, where slaves couldn't run away as easily; this, of course, would undermine the institution of slavery in the border states. If the Republicans could turn the border states into free states and do the same with all the new states to be established in the West, they could create a large enough majority of free states to enact a constitutional amendment banning slavery throughout the country.
It was to head off these various threats to slavery that the southern states chose to secede in 1861. For documentation of all these points, including quotes from Confederate leaders, see historian William Freehling's excellent book, The South vs. the South.
Ultimately, slavery would probably have lasted longer if the South hadn't seceded in 1861. The Confederates clearly underestimated the North's will to fight (just as northerners underestimated that of the Confederates). Nonetheless, they did have reason to see Lincoln's election as a serious longterm threat to slavery. And that fear underlay the decision to secede.
Southern States' Official 1861 Statements of Reasons for Secession Emphasized Slavery:
Judging by the number of comments, my post on slavery as the Southern states' motive for secession in 1861 has drawn a lot more interest than I expected. Unfortunately, I have less time than usual to study and respond to comments because I am about to move to the University of Pennsylvania for the fall semester. However, those interested in this issue may want to check out the official statements of reasons for secession issued by four of the eleven seceding states in 1861 - Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. All four discuss slavery far more prominently than any other issue, and three of four don't mention any issues unrelated to slavery (Georgia's statement briefly mentions disputes over the tariff, but far less prominently than slavery). Mississippi's statement gives the clearest account of the centrality of slavery to the secession decision:
Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.
Tentative Thoughts on The Russia-Georgia Ceasefire Agreement:
Russia and Georgia have apparently reached a ceasefire agreement mediated by French president Nicolas Sarkozy. According to CNN, the deal provides for:
Russian agreements to conclude all military operations, return Russian armed forces to the line preceding the beginning of operations and not use force again in Georgia.
In return, Georgia would return its armed forces to their normal and permanent locations.
Both sides would provide free access for humanitarian assistance; and international consideration of the issues of South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be undertaken.
If this agreement holds (a big if), it's a better outcome than I would have expected. Georgia's democratic government will remain in place, despite Russia's previous determination to overthrow it. The Russians will not have destroyed Georgia's oil pipeline to Europe (the most important pipeline in the region that doesn't pass through Russian or Iranian territory). And Russia will renounce future use of force against Georgia and reduce its forces in the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to their prewar levels. I am skeptical that the Russians will fully respect the last two commitments. Nonetheless, the outcome could have been far worse.
Why did Russia accept an arrangement that falls so far short of their maximum objectives? There is no way to know for sure. I suspect that part of the reason is the strong resistance put up by the Georgian armed forces, which although much smaller than Russia's are of fairly high quality thanks in part to US training. The quality of the Russian military remains iffy at best, and Vladimir Putin may have reasoned that complete subjugation of Georgia would be a long and costly process. After all, this is the same Russian army that took years to subdue Chechnya (a task still not quite complete), a much weaker and more isolated adversary than Georgia.
Putin may also have been influenced by the apparent unity of the West in opposing the Russian invasion. France and Germany - key European states that opposed the US over the Iraq War - were largely on the same page with us here. This newfound unity might help cub Russian aggression in the future.
Another potentially positive outcome of the war is the strong solidarity among the Eastern European states in opposing Russia. It is striking that the presidents of Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine took the unusual step of appearing together with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili at a rally in Tbilisi just after the ceasefire. Ukraine's support is particularly important, since it is the largest and most powerful of Russia's western neighbors. The Eastern European states are too small to oppose the Russians individually. But, with Western support, they can put up a stronger front by sticking together.
None of the above justifies Saakashvili's foolish gamble in providing a pretext for Russian intervention by trying to retake South Ossetia last week. Nor does it somehow make up for the tragic loss of life and destruction of property that has occurred. Nonetheless, if this ceasefire holds and its terms are even roughly obeyed by both sides, we will end up with a better result than might have been expected a few days ago.
Was the Declaration of Independence an Example of Secession, Revolution, or Both?
Patri Friedman of seasteading fame, has an interesting post reopening an old debate: whether the Declaration of Independence launched a revolution or a secession movement. This was a hotly contested issue in the 19th century, when southern secessionists claimed they were following in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers who seceded from the British Empire, while many northerners responded by drawing a sharp distinction between secession and revolution.
The truth is that the Declaration of Independence was both a revolution and a secession. There is little question that American Patriots sought to secede from the British Empire in the sense that they wanted to break off their part of it and form a separate nation. Certainly, they weren't trying to replace the existing British government with a new one, while keeping the empire intact. On the other hand, the American independence movement was also revolutionary in the sense that it sought to institute a radically new political system. The revolutionaries certainly were not trying to gain independence simply for the purpose of establishing a smaller country with a political system that largely copied Britain's. For example, the rebels sought to create a polity with far stronger protections for individual freedom, no hereditary aristocracy, and a much more democratic political system than existed in 18th century Britain (or any other European state). Historian Gordon Wood discusses these and other radical changes sought by the revolutionaries in his excellent book The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Of course, the new United States did not consistently pursue liberal principles across the board, as witness the continuation of slavery in the South. But it did pursue them to a far greater extent than the British government of the day.
In sum, therefore, the revolution-secession dichotomy fails to capture the true nature of the American independence movement, which was an attempt to use secessionist means for revolutionary ends.
The Declaration of Independence and the Case for Non-Ethnic Secession:
One of the striking differences between the American Revolution and most modern independence movements is that the former was not based on ethnic or nationalistic justifications. Nowhere does the Declaration state that Americans have a right to independence because they are a distinct "people" or culture. They couldn't assert any such claim because the majority of the American population consisted of members of the same ethnic groups (English and Scots) as the majority of Britons.
Rather, the justification for American independence was the need to escape oppression by the British government - the "repeated injuries and usurpations" enumerated in the text - and to establish a government that would more fully protect the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The very same rationale for independence could just as easily have been used to justify secession by, say, the City of London, which was more heavily taxed and politically oppressed than the American colonies were. Indeed, the Declaration suggests that secession or revolution is justified "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends" [emphasis added]. The implication is that the case for independence is entirely distinct from any nationalistic or ethnic considerations.
By contrast, modern international law, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights assigns a right of "self-determination" only to "peoples," usually understood to mean groups with a distinctive common culture and ethnicity. If the American Revolution was justified, the ICCPR's approach is probably wrong. At the very least, secession should also be considered permissible where undertaken to escape repression by the preexisting central government. For example, Taiwan's de facto secession from China in 1949 was surely justified, despite the fact that most of the island's population consists of ethnic Chinese.
The Chinese on Taiwan seceded for the purpose of escaping rule by a communist regime that went on to slaughter millions of its own people. Had it retained control of Taiwan, it would likely have oppressed its population far worse than anything 18th century Americans suffered at the hands of the British. Today's Chinese regime is much less brutal than that of Mao Zedong; but it is still much more repressive than Taiwan's own government. Athough the Taiwanese government continues to affirm that the island is officially a part of China, it is in reality a separate nation in everything but name. Formalizing Taiwan's independence might be pragmatically unwise for any number of reasons. But that in no way undermines the moral case for it.
The case for allowing non-ethnic secession in cases where it is used to escape brutal repression strikes me as overwhelming. More controversial is the case for allowing it in situations where a group seeks to secede merely because they believe they can establish a better government than the status quo, even if the latter is not unusually oppressive. In my view, this type of secession should also be permitted, so long as the secessionists do not plan to engage in oppression of their own, and meet a few other criteria. I will not, however, try to argue for this broader right to secession here; those interested in the relevant argument should check out Christopher Wellman's excellent book on the subject. For now, I will only suggest that the example of the American Revolution and other similar situations provides a strong argument for allowing non-ethnic secession in cases where it is used to escape a repressive central government.