Secession and the Right to Self-Ownership – The Lowdown on Liberty


After a long battle for secession, Catalonia – the eastern most region of Spain – officially declared independence this week, sending most of Europe into a political frenzy. Unsurprisingly, the story has many questioning the rationales and legitimacy behind a group wishing to secede, but the conversations and views about secession are more than just political antics, they represent a broader notion of how one views the idea of self-ownership.

Here in the United States, both parties are treading lightly on how they’re responding to this movement. This makes sense if you consider the conditions in which the U.S. was formed. In the U.K., however, they’ve already joined Spain in condemning the secession as “illegal” and “unconstitutional” in nature, and have explicitly stated their refusal to recognize Catalonia’s sovereignty. Their justification comes on the grounds that while the referendum vote did receive 90% in favor of secession, only 43% of the voters participated. What’s left out of that story is that while the polls were open, police beat potential voters in the street in an attempt to suppress the movement for independence, injuring more than 800 people in total. Revealing that almost immediately, governments will resort to the most hypocritical means to maintain their authority, by assaulting potential voters and then using the small turnout to nullify its legitimacy.

This ultimately begs the question, what exactly makes a secession movement “legitimate?” Is it the approval of the mother-state in question, the acceptance of uninvolved third-parties, or perhaps it depends on the intentions of those wishing to secede? One of the objections made by skeptics of the referendum is that Catalonia isn’t fighting for freedom, but rather to employ a socialist framework, which puts them at risk of becoming a totalitarian state. While these questions themselves are legitimate, they all overlook the concept of self-ownership.

Self-ownership implies that decisions regarding the intentions and well-being of an individual ultimately come down to the individual; that you own yourself. While most people don’t have a problem with this concept until difficult moral issues – such as secession – come up, it remains true throughout. After all, why care about self-ownership if it only applies to simple decisions like what to eat for lunch, but not whether or not you may disassociate from an oppressive government? Secession, after all, is simply an outward expression of one’s ability to choose who to associate with. And as long as that association is carried out non-violently, the intentions of those involved and the opinions of those who are not carry no weight regarding its legitimacy.

Secession serves another purpose, too, in that it provides a non-violent means of conflict resolution. Disputes between individuals and parties are inevitable, especially when you’re affected by the other’s decisions. In the micro sense, we’ve devised court systems to allow conflicting parties to resolve issues non-violently. And we recognize that without these means, violence becomes a guarantee. On the macro sense then, what means do conflicting groups have as a non-violent conflict resolution if not secession? After all, we hear over and over again how governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed? But what good is that if the ability to withdraw that consent is reserved to the government itself?

We need to stop basing our decision regarding Catalonia’s call for sovereignty on which parties consider it “legitimate.” We need to stop asking whether we should be the deciding factor in allowing other groups to voluntarily associate with one another. Because the question of self-ownership is one that affects all of us, and if we choose to abandon another’s claim on this underlying principle when conditions become difficult or uncomfortable, we only end up relinquishing our own claim to it down the road. So let’s celebrate Catalonia’s embrace of self-ownership, and advocate for Spain and other countries to recognize their sovereignty, as we hope Catalonians will do for those wishing to remain with Spain.

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Thomas J. Eckert

Thomas J. Eckert is the Managing Editor of Think Liberty and Copy Editor for Being Libertarian. With a passion for politics, he studies economics and history and writes in his spare time on political and economic current events. He is a self-described voluntarist.


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