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Secession Week 2010: Culture and Secession

June 30, 2010

Welcome to the third day of Secession Week 2010! Today’s topic is Culture and Secession.

Today’s Posts

And from elsewhere in the blogosphere:

Since much of secession culture in the US centers around individual states, you may also be interested in last year’s Secession Week topic of American Secession & Independence Movements.

Introduction to Today’s Topic

Here at A Thousand Nations, we tend to understand politics with the tools of economics: we think about the incentives individuals face and the aggregate outcomes which arise from their interaction. While I’d maintain that this is the only proper way to study politics, we need to understand incentives widely enough not to miss anything important. I think there are basically two important factors we risk neglecting by focusing too narrowly on incentives: informal institutions and groups identities.

As our guest author Claudia Williamson explained in her 2009 Public Choice paper “Informal institutions rule: institutional arrangements and economic performance”:

[I]nformal institutions are private constraints stemming from norms, culture, and customs that emerge spontaneously. They are not designed or enforced by government. The key difference between formal and informal is that informal institutions remain in the private realm, whereas formal constraints are centrally designed and enforced.

Many of the rules which facilitate trade and cooperation are implicit and unwritten. These rules tend to be resistant to change and exist in a complex web which no central planner can fully comprehend, much less manipulate. The power of informal institutions makes top-down state-building an impossible and destructive activity. Claudia’s post today highlights that destruction and suggests a simple but radical alternative.

The other factor we need to consider is group identity. Our suspicion of outsiders runs evolutionarily deep, and we should not expect such instincts to disappear any time soon. Personally, I’d quite like to live in a world of rootless cosmopolitans, but that’s not the world in which we live.

As Chandran Kukathas argues, a liberal overarching political order need not consist entirely of liberal communities. In fact, a liberal society consisting entirely of liberal communities is simply impossible. Any attempt to prevent the voluntary formation of illiberal communities is itself illiberal:

The metaphor offered here to supplant those already described [i.e. the ‘body politic’ and ‘ship of state’] is one which pictures political society as an archipelago: an area of sea containing many small islands. The islands in question, here, are different communities or. better still, jurisdictions, operating in a sea of mutual toleration. Political society — and in particular, the good political society — is best understood not as a single body, or an ideal realm of the just, or a ship piloted by a skillful seaman, or even as a single island rightly ordered. It should be understood, instead, as something altogether less clearly bounded, marked by movement within those bounds, and movement across fuzzy boundaries.

The good society, it is argued in this book, is best understood as an archipelago of societies; and because the principles which best describe such a form of human community are the principles of liberalism, the good society is properly described as a liberal archipelago.

The liberal archipelago is a society of societies which is neither the creation nor the object of control of any single authority. It is a society in which authorities function under laws which are themselves beyond the reach of any singular power.

Kukathas uses islands as a metaphor for landlubber communities. Some of us, on the other hand, see a liberal archipelago as a literal possibility worth working towards.

Decentralization – whether through secession, federalism, or competitive government – respects true cultural diversity rather than simply paying lip-service to some weak guidance counselor imitation thereof.

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