September 20, 2014 3 Comments
My Facebook feed is full of disappointment in Scottish voters’ recent rejection of independence from Great Britain. For a while there, we were all wearing the white and blue Saint Andrew’s cross, at least in spirit. Why do we feel so let down?
Our brief Scottish fever and subsequent despondency over the No vote must have seemed especially puzzling to those who knew the immediate goals of the separatists. As libertarian scholar Robert Higgs writes, “the contest was essentially between the establishment plutocrats, on the one hand, and the welfare drones, on the other. It’s tough to root for the ‘good guys’ when one cannot identify any good dogs in the fight.”
Many libertarians have been fans of secession for a while, so much so that we have become uncomfortably associated with one of modern history’s most illiberal institutions: Southern slavery. If our ideological opponents want to paint us as apologists for the rich and powerful and enemies of the little guy, they don’t need to reach much farther than our retrospective support for the “wrong side” in the American Civil War.
And no matter how many times we defend ourselves by pointing out that the issues of secession and slavery are distinct — and that the War between the States was not fought for emancipation but for taxes, tariffs, and political centralization — we will always be on the losing side of that conflict in the popular imagination.
Scotland offered us a chance to root for the secessionists without rooting for the slavers.
But was it any better to be rooting for the socialists?
One comrade put it to me this way: if the dominant political culture of the Green Mountain State wanted to withdraw from the Union so it could form the People’s Republic of Vermont, should local libertarians side with their socialist neighbors in secession? Do the classical liberal principles of independence and self-determination trump the protection of the Bill of Rights, or might a Vermont libertarian support political centralization in good conscience?
I, for one, would lock elbows with the Green Mountain State reds and march for separation. And I trust that many Vermont libertarians would join me. Because libertarians know the dirty little secret of democracy: who’s in charge and what they believe doesn’t matter nearly as much as the institutions and incentives that will outlive any current administration. We also know that the smallest political units will inflict the least long-term damage.
Our focus on economic education is not just about helping potential voters to understand the damage done by price fixing, protection, and other interventions into the market economy; it’s also about understanding the nature of collective decision making, when and why special interests win out over the general welfare, and how even well-meaning people will usually make things much worse through the coercive mechanisms of government.
What economics has taught us is that the bigger the collective making the decisions, the easier it is for a political class to feed its cronies to everyone else’s detriment. The smaller the polity, the harder it is for an elite to externalize its costs, and the easier it is for the public to be informed on the cause and effect of political policies.
Small nation-states (or even better: city-states) can’t afford to erect significant trade barriers. They can’t afford to impose heavy regulations on local businesses or burdensome restrictions on the freedoms of individuals, because in a small state both businesses and individuals have the power of easy exit. If an independent Scotland had tried to build a giant welfare state, how would they have funded it? What would keep the biggest taxpayers from fleeing the tax-consumers, crossing a nearby border into the welcoming arms of less intrusive political masters?
No matter what political ideology drives an independence movement, real independence for a small political territory requires smaller government to survive. Perhaps the Yes voters were seeking a more generous dole from a new Scottish welfare state, but what economic principles teach us is that the citizens of an independent Scotland would instead have discovered greater prosperity, freedom, and flourishing.