‘A Theory of Secession’ Chapters 1-3

Christopher Heath Wellman, A Theory of Secession: The Case for Political Self-Determination (Cambridge University Press, 2005)
Christopher Heath Wellman, A Theory of Secession: The Case for Political Self-Determination (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

The aim of Christopher ‘Kit’ Wellman’s text is to outline his arguments for a primary right to unilateral secession on a deontic (moral) basis. The general take from the reviewed chapters (1-3) is that (1) states are necessary political arrangements insofar as they are only possible constructs for performing the necessary functions for its citizens, and that (2) the arguments for recognising the value of states (particularly democratic just states) also serve as the basis for recognising the value of self-determination of peoples including their right to secede from existing states as the necessity of states does not extend to states continuing to exist in their present territorial configurations.

Chapter 1: Introduction

“Once one recognizes that political states are valuable because of the functions (e.g., security a just peace) that they are uniquely suited to perform, it becomes apparent that the territorial boundaries of existing states might permissibly be redrawn as long as neither the process now the result of this reconfiguration interrupts the production of the crucial political benefits. In short, there is nothing about insisting upon the importance of states that requires us to preserve existing states in their present forms. […] The bottom line is that, if one values self-determination, then one has good reasons to conclude that people have a right to determine their political boundaries.” (pp 1-2)

Chapter 2: The Case for Statism

In short, Wellman attempts to defend the justified existence of states as territorially-defined monopolies of power on the basis that they provide the best suited construct for the protection of individual rights and interests, and that their coercive power is predicated upon the imposition of uniformity/equality of those citizens located within that territory.

Wellman identifies the conflict between the freedom of association and the insistence of states for their constituents to remain within a political union. He suggests that any advocacy for an unlimited, unilateral right to secede on the basis of this interpretation of the freedom of association is a ‘recipe for political anarchy’ – the stability and continuity of political order would unjustly be under persistent threat from those dissociating at any time. This unilateral secession right would diminish the population and fragment the territory in such a way as to render the remaining institutions’ claim to statehood unmerited.

Wellman rejects the ‘consent theory’ of political legitimacy as a convenient fiction without basis in reality. Specifically, he highlights the fact that citizens (with perhaps the exception of naturalised citizens) are neither explicitly nor tacitly in a position to render consent to be governed. As for the concept of consent by participation, typically envisaged as voter participation, Wellman correctly points out that citizens are never asked the question on ballots whether there should even be a government. Equally, he suggests that a citizen would not be morally bound by consent theory to the outcome of any election as they never consented to the restricted options presented to them.

However, Wellman also considers how the actions of individuals compares to the larger implications of a ‘general level of cooperation’ that the state depends on in order to carry out its functions. This raises the question: if consent theory is an insufficient account for political legitimacy, how might we account for the justification of coercion exerted by states over their population and territory?

To this end, Wellman posits a ‘benefit principle’ (a ‘Samaritan’ account of political legitimacy) that relies on a modification of classical liberal theory. This benefit of political society, he suggests, only where there is equal subjugation to the rules by the citizens in the state’s jurisdiction. Simply, “people cannot enjoy the benefits of political stability without uniformly restricting the political liberty of those around them. […] The reason that I have no moral right to be free from political coercion (i.e., to secede) is that, even if I would rather forego the benefits of political society, my state may permissibly coerce me in order to secure political stability for my fellow citizens.” (pp 16-17) To reach this particular conception, Wellman considers the harm principle as described by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty: that every individual may enjoy the maximum amount of liberty insofar as the exercise of that liberty does not result in the unjustified interference of others’ rights and interests. It is important to note that Wellman highlights the causality requirement – that an act or omission is the proximate cause of a harm – in conjunction with that conduct resulting in others being wrongfully harmed. This is Wellman’s departure point for introducing his ‘benefit principle’ as a corollary to the harm principle under liberal theory.

This benefit principle – conceived as a ‘duty’ to benefit others – is presented thusly: “Just as it is often impermissible to harm another, sometimes it can be equally impermissible to fail to benefit others. When one can prevent substantial harm to others at minimal cost to oneself, then one is not at liberty to do otherwise.” (p 30) Wellman attaches justification under this principle to states by identifying the effects that would be produced in the absence of state coercion. He suggests that, due to a complex series of interrelated reasons, an effective legal system established by a state provides self-interested reasons reinforces moral reasons for respecting others’ rights which would otherwise be ignored if solely dependent on those moral reasons. He notes: “the state appears to be the only effective vehicle to maintain peace and protect rights, because such peace and security requires a territorial monopoly of power that cannot be achieved if everyone’s consent is required.” (p 32)

Wellman concludes by finding that the conflict between statism and unrestricted freedom of association should resolve to the benefit of statism. The implications of this finding carry with it the surrender of the permissibility of secession based on a straightforward appeal to association rights, though this does not in itself negate the possibility of unilateral secession, even from just states.

Chapter 3: Valuing Self-Determination

In this chapter, Wellman links his Samaritan theory of political legitimacy and the issue of whether states are to be preserved as they are presently. Specifically, he states: “territorial states are necessary, but it is important to recognize that there is nothing about the necessity of political society that requires us to retain our current states in their existing configurations.” (p 34) In essence, even though the concept of the effective state is a necessity, it would be incorrect to therefore conclude that any alteration to the state would result in the denigration of the state’s effectiveness. He continues to outline the chapter argument that “anyone who properly values self-determination should defend the right to secede whenever both the separatist group and the remainder state would be able and willing to perform the requisite political functions.” (p 34-35)

Wellman’s argument for the functioning of self-determination to include ‘state breaking’ does so by conditioning such a last resort measure on what effect it will have for the viability of both the parent state and the new state in regards to their political efficacy. The measure of the effectiveness is whether the resulting states are capable of maintaining secure and just political environments. Building on his premise in Chapter 2 (Statism), Wellman reminds us that in order to object to secession by identifying the harm that would result from the loss of territory & population, such objection must show that harm to be wrongful on the basis of a valid claim to the territory. “A secessionist conflict is fundamentally a territorial conflict between a separatist group, which cites its right to self-determination, and its state as a whole, which appeals to its political legitimacy.” (p 37) That such a loss of territory will affect the remainder of a state is undeniable. However, where a separatist group has become politically viable (e.g., capable of carrying out the political functions of a state), the existing state is no longer the only political arrangement for creating a politically secure environment that is feasible, and therefore its exclusive claim over the territory cannot be regarded as uncontested. Bear in mind that Wellman allows for the legitimacy of political coercion, the authority of state, only where it is the sole arrangement that is feasible. (Ch 2, p 14) This is not to say the existing state cannot prima facie restrict a territorially-discrete secession under the guise of a right to territorial unity and popular sovereignty. Rather, the existing state may require the “[secessionist] parties to demonstrate their ability and willingness to govern in a satisfactorily capable and just manner.” (p 38)

Wellman concedes that his overall argument relies on the presupposition of a value of self-determination as well as deontological (moral, philosophical) reasons to respect group autonomy. On the matter of individual dominion over one’s affairs, Wellman applies Mill’s approach that the individual is most knowledgeable, most interested, and best positioned to promote their own welfare. However, in rejecting the consequentialist position, Wellman suggests that individual dominion persists, even if the exercise of autonomy does not necessarily result in the best outcome for an individual. (The moral value is in the individual’s ability to choose for themselves, regardless the outcome.) He affirms his conviction “that agents are entitled to their self-determination, and entitlement is a fundamentally deontological notion that cannot be fully cashed out in consequentialist terms.” (p 40) However, in understanding the moral importance of recognising individual autonomy, it does not translate to the concept of group autonomy.

In deconstructing the value of group autonomy, Wellman considers three theories: value-collectivism, individual autonomy, and individual well-being, before rejecting each as being unsuccessful in creating a defensible account.

Value-collectivism (a direct analogy to individual value), while an attractive proposition for Wellman, is ultimately implausible as “groups themselves (that is, apart from the individuals who comprise them) have no vantage point from which they experience the realization or thwarting of their interests.” (p 44) He notes that the difference between the group experience and the individual is a fundamental moral difference that cannot be considered as the former being equivalent to the latter.

Group autonomy, as the second of these accounts, sees itself as the extension of the autonomy of the individuals, exercised in concert with others. Using the analogy of a private members club, Wellman sees the group as creating its own ‘terms of membership’ that each individual joining adheres to and accepts. He then considers the effect of an external party forcing a change to terms over the members as a violation of their self-determination, as it is only for those that are subject to the terms to determine as a group how those rules might change. This account, while observing the moral implications, encounters limitations when the group autonomy is a state or territory. (He cites Canada’s right to reject a forced annexation by the USA, as well as Québec’s right to decide and have Canada respect that decision. Both, Wellman claims, are unable to be explained by the group autonomy theory.) Wellman highlights “states are by necessity defined territorially, and thus voluntary compliance is a luxury they can ill afford to extend to those within their geographical boundaries. And, given that states nonconsensually coerce all those over whom they exercise sovereignty, it is not clear how we can, with intellectual integrity, regard their group autonomy as an extension of the individual autonomy of their citizens.” (p 48) He notes the principle as “a group acts as a proxy when an individual autonomously embraces that group as something of a proxy.” (p 49) In this manner, the group autonomy is seen as (yet again) an extension of the individuals, insofar as the group refrains from impermissibly interfering with the individual’s self-determination. However, he finds this position morally lacking as this condition breaks the link between the claimed value of the group and the fundamental moral value of individual autonomy. The group cannot be simply considered as an extension of the individual.

Finally, Wellman derides the theory of collective well-being (the value of a group being derived only to the extent that it promotes the well-being of its constituents) providing a satisfactory account of the moral value of groups. It is noted that this theory is attractive as it accounts for the value of the group’s autonomy without having to engage in the ‘fiction of political consent’. However, in revisiting the parable of the forcible American annexation of Canada, even if such an act could produce a higher level of well-being for Canada, it would be morally indefensible as it could only occur by ignoring the right of Canadians to order their own affairs without interference.

In sum, Wellman states: “Espousing value-collectivism requires us to turn a blind eye to the morally significant difference between groups and individual persons; viewing group autonomy as an extension of individual autonomy leaves us unable to explain the right to self-determination of various groups, including just states; and deriving the value of group autonomy from its contribution to the welfare of the group’s constituents fails to explain the deontological reasons to respect group self-determination.” (p 52)

Having dispensed with these accounts, Wellman reminds us that it is impossible to explain why one must respect a just state’s sovereignty without reference to the deontological value of group autonomy, a position that continues to attribute any valid normative value of democracy predicated upon the existence of a deontological basis for respecting group self-determination. Democracy is not limited in its value to its instrumental operation. Wellman claims “most of us remain committed to the view that one cannot deprive people of democracy without wronging them. […] We cannot consistently cite this problem as a decisive argument against secessionist rights unless we similarly indict the case for democracy.” (p54) Therein lies the crux, as the position best suited to defend the existence of a democratic state is integrally linked to the moral arguments for permitting the external self-determination of groups from within the state.

Wellman continues this point-counterpoint between the moral value of the state and the moral reasons for secession, noting: “legitimate states are owed respect in virtue of their ability and willingness to perform the requisite political functions” (p 57) balanced against the premise that “a group of citizens who are able and willing to perform the requisite political functions have a right to group self-determination.” (p 57) He concludes this section on this point: “The case for the deontological value of group self-determination is ultimately two-pronged. First, there are principles reasons to respect the autonomy of certain group because denying them self-determination thereby disrespects their individual members. Second, even if the value of group self-determination could no be explained in wholly value-individualist terms, the implications that follow from denying the deontological reasons to respect group autonomy are less palatable than those of value-collectivisms.” (p 58)

In the last part of the chapter, Wellman turns his analysis on the concept of who the ‘people’ are in self-determination, and what requirements may be necessary on any referendum or vote on secession. Citing W. Ivor Jennings, “On the surface (self-determination) seems reasonable: let the people decide. It is in fact ridiculous because the people cannot decide until somebody decides who are the people”, countered simply by Charles Beitz’s response “the people should decide who the people are”. (pp 58-59)

As for the voting majority question, Wellman sees the matter in principle contrasted to its implications in practice. He principally see no issues in a simple majority vote being decisive on self-determination matters. (Wellman notes the absurdity that could result otherwise where a tyranny of a minority holds hostage the majority.) However, in practice, he has “no strong objection to designing institutional safeguards to ensure that unilateral secession occurs only when a clear majority demonstrates an informed and enduring preference for political independence.” (pg 62) He continues by expressing preference for this majority vote to persist over a series of elections as opposed to any super-majority structure.

The chapter ends on this succinct summary: “A consistent application of those principles necessary to explain our intuitions about the importance (and limits) of state sovereignty also demonstrate that unilateral rights to secede exist whenever both the separatist group and the remainder state would be able and willing to perform the requisite political functions.” (p 64)

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