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Secession and the Collective Will

There is one objection to secession that I want to take a moment to disagree with. In class, a student suggested that secession was not legitimate for individual states, because they had decided to join together as one decision-making unit. Individual states no longer had individual decision-making power.

Parsing votes for some sort of collective will is futile. I certainly never agreed to merge my sovereignty with the collective. I doubt many people have. If all the people of Massachusetts decide tomorrow that they don’t want to be part of our “decision making unit”, we certainly can’t say that they have decided to be part of the United States. If the rest of the United States voted against their secession, most people would say that “we” have decided against secession. I would say that there is no such thing as “we” that has a unified desire of its own. There would just be 49 states voting one way, and one state voting the other.

What do the numbers matter? If the United States voted to annex Iraq, would that be legitimate? Our population can certainly outvote theirs. What if China voted to annex the United States? No one would argue that this is legitimate.

If people never agreed to merge with the collective will, and there is no inherent legitimacy in numbers, the argument must be that within a democracy you can’t secede unless a majority agrees: that’s just how democracy works. Perhaps – but it isn’t necessarily how secession works. It is not obvious that a movement to break away from a government should be bound by the internal logic of that government.

Of course, I’m hardly an advocate of democratic legitimacy, and most people’s moral intuitions are not in sync with mine on this issue.

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