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Secession Week: Friday – Non-territorial Secession

July 3, 2009

Welcome to our penultimate Secession Week post, in celebration of Independence Day tomorrow.  Today’s concept is non-territorial secession, or seceding without moving.  For those who are totally unfamiliar with the concept, I offer a brief introduction.


This is not a new concept, and has been proposed by many names and in many flavors, such as:

  • Polycentric Law: “a legal structure in which providers of legal systems compete or overlap in a given jurisdiction, as opposed to monopolistic statutory law according to which there is a sole provider of law for each jurisdiction.”
  • Market Anarchism: a “philosophy in which monopoly of force held by government would be replaced by a competitive market of private institutions offering security, justice, and other defense services – “the private allocation of force, without central control”. A market would exist where providers of security and law compete for voluntarily paying customers that wish to receive the services rather than individuals being taxed without their consent and assigned a monopoly provider of force.”
  • FOCJ: Functional, Overlapping, and Competing Jurisdictions – A reinvention of these 150-year old ideas by Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Reiner Eichenberger in the 1990s, in articles like FOCJ: Competitive Governments For Europe.
  • Panarchy: “a conceptual term first coined by the Belgian botanist and economist Paul Emile de Puydt in 1860, referring to a specific form of governance (-archy) that would encompass (pan-) all others …In his 1860 article “Panarchy” de Puydt…applied the concept to the individual’s right to choose any form of government without being forced to move from their current locale. This is sometimes described as “extra-territorial” (or “exterritorial”) since governments often would serve non-contiguous parcels of land.”

Arnold Kling contributes a post about the idea, which he calls Virtual Secession:

The problem with physical secession is that it is very difficult to achieve critical mass. There is probably not much overlap between the people you want to live with and the people who want to choose your particular form of government. The vast majority of us put up with government we dislike in order to live in proximity to people with whom we want to work and play.

With virtual secession, you could still live in San Francisco or Manhattan or Silver Spring while seceding from much of the government at the city, state, and Federal level. You and your next-door neighbor might belong to very different governmental units.

Arnold also has a paper on Competitive Government which covers a number of different models, some much like non-territorial secession, with great references.  (A post of mine about how seasteading relates).

Historical Cases

Book CoverBook CoverHistorical context is very important when it comes to questioning the current method of governing.  If a system has worked in the past, it is much more likely to be able to work in the future.  I have two favorite references for historical methods of providing today’s government services privately on a person-by-person basis.  The first is The Voluntary City: Choice, Community, and Civil Society, edited by David Beito, Peter Gordon, and Alexander Tabarrok.  Its essays contain a wide range of examples of past methods of providing today’s monopoly services on a voluntary basis.  The second is The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without The State, by Bruce Benson.  In addition to offering theoretical discussions of virtual secession, the author covers the history of law enforcement in England over the last millennia.  This history gives the lie to today’s automatic assumption that courts and police must be public monopolies.  Systems very different from what we are used to can function, and function well – sometimes even better than our own.  This book influenced me strongly, by giving historical reality behind a set of ideas that I had thought might only work in theory.

There are other interesting examples of societies where laws enforcement was provided in a non-territorial fashion, such as David Friedman’s work on Iceland and the Xeer law in Somalia.  Peter Leeson’s Cato Unbound essay Self-Governance Works More Often Than You Think contains numerous historical examples as well.

Polycentric Law

This article by law professor Tom Bell is a good introduction from a legal perspective, and Randy Barnett wrote an entire book, The Structure of Liberty, exploring the idea of a polycentric constitutional order.   Bruce Benson, whose book will be discussed below, has a good article about Polycentric Governance:

Let me say that my own preferred terminology here is “customary law communities” (bottom-up development of rules and institutions as opposed to top-down imposition of rules and institutions under “authoritarian law”). These communities do not just rely on self-enforcement in the sense of unilateral (morality-driven) or bilateral (e.g. tit-for-tat) actions. They often establish third party dispute resolution mechanisms (arbitration, mediation) backed by ostracism threats, and other institutions.

The first point I want to make is that while these communities may be based on geographic proximity, they also may be based on kinship, functional proximity as in a trade association or the “business community,” religion, or any of a number of factors that create repeated dealings and/or reputation effects).

This article is part of an entire issue of Cato Unbound, in August 2007, devoted to a discussion of non-territorial governance, although with a rather more provocative title:

Market Anarchism

Book CoverWikipedia states that the main 20th century proponents of this model were Murray Rothbard and David Friedman (who happens to be my dad).  David’s book Machinery of Freedom is an excellent introduction to the subject, focused somewhat on libertarians, and written very accessibly.  This annotated bibliography contains the key Rothbardian references and a number of others.  Bryan Caplan’s FAQ is another great source of information.  The best current work being done in this area, in my opinion, is by Stefan Molyneux at Freedomain Radio.  He has some excellent books available for free online, as well as over a thousand podcasts and many videos, like this introduction to the site:

A glaring hole in most market anarchist works is the lack of any reasonable incremental path to get from current monopolistic governments to ones where unbundled services are provided privately.  Agorism addresses this by proposing a steady process of economic secession to develop private provision of police and courts over time.  I have questioned Agorism on this blog, although a number of Agorists believe I have misunderstood or misanalyzed the approach.  Regardless of the merits of Agorism’s specific incremental strategy, at least they have one.


Reader Adam Knott offers a selection of works to read:

First, the original essay “Panarchy,” published in 1860 by Paul Emile de Puydt.  In this essay, de Puydt lays out his vision of the idea of multiple nonterritorial coexisting governments.  This essay is one of the most wonderful essays in libertarian literature, written entirely without rancor.  In this essay, de Puydt explains that government should be something open to individual choice and something nonterritorial in nature, just as religions are.

Second, a compilation of essays written by living panarchist authors, including John Zube, the oldest living panarchist philosopher.  These are wonderful and original essays that make the case for voluntary choice in governments.  One of the articles, by Gene Callahan, is written specifically on the subject of secessionism.  But all the essays are about the individual’s right to choose his government (his right to exit, join, or form them) and not have it imposed upon him on the basis of geography.

And finally, The Present State of Liberty is an essay I self published in 2007.  In this essay, I argue that libertarianism has failed as a political movement because it is still a movement that thinks in terms of political monopolism and geographic government.  I argue that libertarians generally either support liberalizing a democracy, or they support the utopian vision of a particular author (such as Rand or Rothbard), but neither of these things is true liberty, because neither vision includes the right to opt out or secede and go one’s own way.   Liberty exists when the individual may choose, not only goods and services and his place of domicile, but also the government he lives under.

Here at Let A Thousand Nations Bloom, we couldn’t agree more.  Everyone has a different concept of freedom and utopia, and we seek a world where any group who share a vision can go form a sovereign country, and thus individuals have a myriad array of choices for types of governments to live under.

(Note that there is a Facebook group for Supporters of Libertarian Extraterritorial Secession.)

This post is merely a short overview of some of the flavors of and references for virtual, extraterritorial, or non-territorial secession.  Functional, overlapping, and competing providers of government services is a large area of political thought, with numerous high-quality books, essays, and academic papers.  These references should be a good start.

We hope you’ll take a brief break from your BBQing and fireworks to join us tomorrow for our final day of Secession Week, focused on the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution.
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  1. September 20, 2009 12:23 pm

    Perfect work!
    Gluttony kills more men than the sword.
    Good health is above wealth

  2. Aardvark permalink
    July 4, 2009 9:59 pm

    One form of non-territorial secession I like is to figure out a way to help people hide income and hide assets from the taxman.

  3. July 4, 2009 1:08 am

    The Machinery of Freedom remains one of my favorite books, even though I am no longer an anarchist. It provides a very nice analysis of the economics of government that’s worth studying even if one wants to simply improve upon government.

    I used to be a fan of Rothbard’s writings as well, but as I matured I realized he was delusional and an ass. Any historical analysis of his needs to be triple checked at least. His economics was definitely silly. The idea that people have an ordered set of preferences at all times violates experience and has no explanation for indecision states. To place such a crude theory of human action as TRUTH and to deny empathy as having any truth is silliness in the Hegel range.


    As for incremental change, political options exist that are supported by history. Politicians fail to serve the common weal and serve special interests in part due to the huge transaction costs of changing politicians. This is not entirely inherent to democratic replicanism per se. It is a fact of winner-take-all plurality voting. With pv, a powerful faction which is also able to attract swing voters wins. The supporters of the winner stick with him even if he is suboptimal because the only viable choice is a mostly non-overlapping faction. (Think Jesse Helms vs. John Edwards.) Incumbents thus have both a captive market in their own faction on top of the goodies they can give out to special interests.

    Score voting ( solves this problem. While incumbents can still buy votes, members of their original candidate can safely support reform candidates. Furthermore, consensus candidates can work to promote the least bad solutions for all major factions.

    I say this is a proven technique even though it hasn’t been used much since the ancient Vikings used it. (Banging on shields for degrees of yes and shouting down for degrees of no is a form of score voting.) Score voting is used routinely for Olympic events and other judging situations.


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