This Classic Work was written by Walter Block.
The law of free association is a crucially important implication of the rights of private property (in physical material, and in our own bodies). For if we cannot freely associate with others on a mutually voluntary basis, our property rights are to that extent abrogated.
The most serious denigration of property rights in persons and thus in free association is, of course, murder. No one favors such behavior (killing in self-defense is entirely another matter) so this is not at all controversial. Another grave violation of the libertarian code of non-aggression against non-aggressors and their property is slavery (or kidnapping, which is short-term slavery). This, too, is non-debatable.
There are, however, many institutions, actually favored by “respectable” commentators on political economy, which partake of slavery to a greater or lesser extent. All laws against “discrimination” are violations of free association, because they force two parties, one of which who wishes to have nothing to do with the other, to interact despite these desires. When a store owner is forced to sell to customers against his will, and is not free to snub any of them on whatever racial, sexual, religious etc., basis he chooses, he is to that extent a slave. The difference between such laws and outright slavery is only one of degree: in each case, the essence of the matter is that people are forced to associate with others against their will. Another instance is forced unionism. Our labor legislation forces employers to “bargain fairly” with those they would prefer to avoid entirely.
Perhaps the most important violation of the law of free association, at least on pragmatic grounds, occurs in the political realm. This is crucial, because other infringements, such as affirmative action, union legislation, etc., stem from political sources. If freedom of association in the realm of affirmative action is the right to discriminate, and in the field of labor the right to hire a “scab,” then when it comes to the political realm, it is the right to secession.
Those who are not free to secede are in effect (partial) slaves to a king, or to a tyrannous majority under democracy. Nor is secession to be confused with the mere right to emigrate, even when one is allowed to take one’s property out of the country. Secession means the right to stay put, on one’s own property, and either to shift alliance to another political entity, or to set up shop as a sovereign on one’s own account.
Why should the man who wishes to secede from a government have to vacate his land? For surely, even under the philosophy of statists, it was the people who came first. Government, in the minarchist libertarian view, was only instituted by them in order to achieve certain ends, later, after they had come to own their property. That is to say, the state is a creation of the people, not the people a creation of the state. But if a government was once invited in, to provide certain services, then it can also be uninvited, or invited to leave, or expelled. To deny this is to assert that the government was there first, before there were even any people. But how can this be? Government is not a disembodied entity, composed of creatures other than human (although, perhaps, there may be legitimate doubts about this on the part of some); rather, it is comprised of flesh and blood, albeit for the most part evil, people.
Given, then, that secession is a human right, part and parcel of the right to free association, how can we characterize those who oppose this? Who would use force and violence, of all things, in order to compel unwilling participants to join in, or to remain part of, a political entity they wish to have nothing to do with? Why, as would be slave holders, of a sort. Certainly not as libertarians.
Thus, it is nothing short of amazing to find that there are commentators who actually call themselves libertarians and yet oppose the rights of secession. Were these people to remain consistent with this view, they would be logically forced, also, to give their imprimatur to union and anti-discrimination legislation, surely a reductio ad absurdum.
One of the grounds upon which so called libertarians oppose secession, the right to be left alone politically speaking, is that those who wish to secede might be less than fully perfect in various ways. For example, the Confederate states practiced slavery, and this is certainly incompatible with libertarian law.
Let us assume away the awkward historical fact that this “curious institution” was operational in the north, too. After all, we are making a philosophical point, not a historical one. Let us posit, arguendo, that the north came to its confrontation with the south with totally clean hands as far as slave holding, or, indeed, any other deviation from libertarian law is concerned (e.g., tariffs, high taxes, etc.). That is, the north is a totally libertarian entity, the south a morally evil one. (I know, I know; I’m only talking here for argument’s sake).
Would that premise be a valid rationale for the north to in effect enslave the south, and thus violate its rights of free association? It would not.
If it was proper for the north to hold the south captive against its will, the implication is that India was not warranted in seceding from England in 1948 since the latter practiced suttee; that African countries were not justified in departing from their European colonial masters since they practiced clitorectemy; that it would not have been permissible for the Jews in 1930s Germany to have left the jurisdiction of the Nazis since they, too, were doubtless imperfect in some way or other.
Let us move from the realm of the macro to that of the micro. If groups of imperfect people are not justified in seceding from groups of perfect people, what about individuals? If we rigorously apply the principle on the basis of which confederate secession was opposed to the individual level, again we run into all sorts of counterintuitive results.
For example, divorce. Under this “logic” no spouse could leave another if the departing one were less than perfect.
In the words of Clyde Wilson: “If the right of secession of one part of a political community is subject to the moral approval of another, then there really is no right of secession.” Either you have the right of free association and secession, or you do not.
If secession is always and everywhere justified, what, then, is the proper libertarian response to the existence of suttee, slavery, clitorectomy, etc., in other countries (e.g., in seceding territories)?
Under libertarian free market anarchism, it would be permissible for a private defense agency to invade private property if a crime is occurring there (if a mistake is made in this regard, libertarian punishment theory, the topic for another day, kicks into gear; in this type of society, even the police are not above the law). If A is about to murder B in A’s house, A may not properly object when the police kick in his door to forestall this dastardly act. Thus, free market competing defense agencies could have gone into the south to free the slaves, but once this was done, given that there were no other crimes occurring, and that due punishment was meted out to the evil-doers, that would be the end of the matter. There would be no further interaction. The south (or India in the case of suttee) would then be allowed to go its own way.
Under limited government libertarianism, the government of the north would take no steps to rid the sovereign Confederacy of its slavery (or India of its suttee). The purpose of the state in this philosophy is to protect its own citizens. Period. And, on the (historically accurate) assumption that the Confederacy showed no indication of invading the north, but merely wanted to be left alone to its own devices, that would be the end of the matter as far as the northern government was concerned.
However, even under these assumptions individual abolitionists would be perfectly free, and, indeed, justified, in going in to the Confederacy, guns in hand, with the intention of ridding the south of this evil institution of slavery. But if things went poorly for them, they could not then scurry back to the north, tails between their legs, hiding behind their mama’s skirts, because that would necessarily bring in the northern government into the fray. It would violate the non-invasion (except in self-defense) provision of limited government libertarianism, or minarchism.
There would be no “reconstruction.” There would be no “indivisible” U.S.A. Rather, there would now be two totally separate countries. The U.S.A. and the Confederacy. Again, once slavery was ended, given that there were no other crimes occurring, and that due punishment was meted out to the evil-doers, that would be the end of the matter. On the (historically accurate) assumption that the Confederacy showed no indication of invading the north, but merely wanted to be left alone to its own devices, that would be the end of the matter as far as the northern government was concerned.