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Secession: The Morality of Political Divorce from Fort Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec

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This important study, the first book-length treatment of an increasingly crucial topic, treats the moral issues of secession at two levels. At the practical level, Professor Buchanan develops a coherent theory of the conditions under which secession is morally justifiable. He then applies it to historical and contemporary examples, including the U.S. Civil War and more rec This important study, the first book-length treatment of an increasingly crucial topic, treats the moral issues of secession at two levels. At the practical level, Professor Buchanan develops a coherent theory of the conditions under which secession is morally justifiable. He then applies it to historical and contemporary examples, including the U.S. Civil War and more recent events in Bangladesh, Katanga, and Biafra, the Baltic states, South Africa, and Quebec. This is the first systematic account of the conditions and terms that justify secession from a political union.But Buchanan also locates this account of the right to secede in the broader context of contemporary political thought, introducing readers to influential accounts of political society such as contractarianism and communitarianism, and showing how the possibility of secession fits into a more complete understanding of political community and political obligation.At both levels this is an important book. It will interest not just political and social theorists but any reader concerned with one of the most momentous issues of our day: the future of troubled political federations and other states under conditions of ethnic and cultural pluralism.


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This important study, the first book-length treatment of an increasingly crucial topic, treats the moral issues of secession at two levels. At the practical level, Professor Buchanan develops a coherent theory of the conditions under which secession is morally justifiable. He then applies it to historical and contemporary examples, including the U.S. Civil War and more rec This important study, the first book-length treatment of an increasingly crucial topic, treats the moral issues of secession at two levels. At the practical level, Professor Buchanan develops a coherent theory of the conditions under which secession is morally justifiable. He then applies it to historical and contemporary examples, including the U.S. Civil War and more recent events in Bangladesh, Katanga, and Biafra, the Baltic states, South Africa, and Quebec. This is the first systematic account of the conditions and terms that justify secession from a political union.But Buchanan also locates this account of the right to secede in the broader context of contemporary political thought, introducing readers to influential accounts of political society such as contractarianism and communitarianism, and showing how the possibility of secession fits into a more complete understanding of political community and political obligation.At both levels this is an important book. It will interest not just political and social theorists but any reader concerned with one of the most momentous issues of our day: the future of troubled political federations and other states under conditions of ethnic and cultural pluralism.

34 review for Secession: The Morality of Political Divorce from Fort Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec

  1. 4 out of 5

    Lord_Humungus

    Review in English (not my mother tongue). This book was, as far as I know, the first monograph on political secession, a subject of vital importance in the modern world. There are processes of secession and fragmentation of states underway throughout the world, and Buchanan published in 1991 this first serious philosophical analysis on the issue, on which there was an academic vacuum. He began humbly, very aware of the enormous difficulties of the problem, but in a very thorough and orderly way. Review in English (not my mother tongue). This book was, as far as I know, the first monograph on political secession, a subject of vital importance in the modern world. There are processes of secession and fragmentation of states underway throughout the world, and Buchanan published in 1991 this first serious philosophical analysis on the issue, on which there was an academic vacuum. He began humbly, very aware of the enormous difficulties of the problem, but in a very thorough and orderly way. It is a good compendium of the moral reasons that can be given for and against the secession of a human group with respect to the state that houses it. The book is not a historical or sociological analysis, but a set of considerations of moral philosophy. The question is: under what conditions does a group have a moral right to secession, and when does it not? At the end there is a small chapter on how to implement moral theories in the constitutions of states, but the bulk of the book is chapters 2 and 3, which examine the arguments that are usually advanced for and against secession. Pro-secession: A. Protecting liberty B. Furthering diversity C. Preserving liberal purity D. The limited goals of Political Association E. Making entry easier F. Escaping discriminatory redistribution G. Enhancing efficiency H. The pure self-determination or Nationalist Argument I. Preserving cultures J. Self-defense K. Rectifying past injustices L. Consent Anti-secession: I. Protecting legitimate expectations II. Self-defense III.Protecting majority rule IV. Minimization of strategic bargaining V. Soft paternalism VI. The threat of anarchy VII. Preventing wrongful taking VIII. Distributive justice He also dwells on alternatives to secession: -group veto (a minority can veto legislation of the whole country) -right of nullification (a minority can nullify legislation only in its territory) The question of secession is very thorny because, as Buchanan says, a moral theory about secession can not be developed without first elaborating a whole theory of political philosophy, a theory on the moral basis for state authority. And that is something so difficult, so full of paradoxes, that I have no problem admitting that the question leaves me totally puzzled. What is a right, exactly? Can groups have rights qua groups, or only individuals have rights? If we say that a people within a state has the right to secede, how do we define who belongs to "the people"? And if there are discrepancies about the definition, who decides? However, in spite of its difficulty, the subject interests me so much, and the need for a moral theory about secession seems so pressing, that it makes me want to write another book of philosophy myself, to tell Buchanan in detail what I think of his, and refute all his arguments that seem to me debatable. Here I will only say a few things to give a sample of the difficulty of the matter. Buchanan often makes an analogy to divorce. But, as David Deutsch would say, all arguments by analogy are fallacies. There are very important differences between secession and divorce. The first is that divorce is a previously regulated contract. When you get married, you know what your marital rights and duties are. And there are impartial laws and authorities to determine what happens when the contract is dissolved. This is not the case in the case of secession. There is no clear third person to appeal to when there is a disagreement and the union is to be dissolved, nor a law that regulates it. The international community tends to wash their hands. The second difference is that in divorce, two individuals are separated, whereas in secession two groups are separated, which are never homogeneous in their opinion. In the group which secedes there will always be non-secessionists who disagree with secession. The third and probably most important difference is that marriage is a voluntary union, whereas the relationship between individuals and the State is a special relationship, an obligatory relationship. I never decided to be Spanish, and nevertheless, the Spanish laws already applied to me since I was a fetus. I did not vote the Spanish Constitution, and yet I am bound by it and by all the laws that emanate from it. The same thing happens to everyone. There must be some territorially defined group to which one belongs by obligation, with laws that apply to all, even if against the will of some, because if not, people could kill or rape their neighbors with impunity. It is moral to dissolve a marriage unilaterally, among other things because it is a voluntary union. But the union of the individual with the state can not be dissolved only because the individual wants to. That is exactly what the phrase "obligatory relationship" means. On the same line, and still more difficult: my favorite argument against secession is the danger of anarchy, the VI of Buchanan. The most important Spanish intellectual alive, Fernando Savater, long ago wrote that "the right of secession equals anarchy." Can any human group, such as a neighborhood within a city, be cut off, as in the novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill by Chesterton? Indeed, if a minority within a democratic state has the right to secede, why not a minority within the minority? And why not a minority within the minority within the minority? And so until we reach the individual citizen, the "minority of one." That is to say, if we took the right of secession seriously, we would arrive by reductio ab absurdum to possible "states of one", to anarchy. By the way, there are some madmen in the USA who occasionally manifest their desire to "secede individually" from the state, in this way. This argument has its reverse in the pro-secession argument of the pure nationalist, the "right to self-determination of peoples." Buchanan rejects this argument by arguing that potentially "too many" new states could be created and that extreme political fragmentation would have unaffordable moral costs. But, I ask, how many are "too many"? Can regions be seceded within a state? Provinces? Counties? Buchanan does not say it. He does not continue the reasoning till the end, to the complete counterargument to avoid anarchy, although for me basically the two arguments, the antisecessionist argument to avoid anarchy and the pure nationalist argument, speak of the same thing from two points of view, and obviously the antisecessionist is the one that is true. However, Buchanan says that the argument of anarchy is invalid because it does a trick of hands: it assumes that the right of secession must be unlimited, a right of anyone to secede for any reason. And it is not so: not all groups have the right to secede just because they want to. There must be a prior injustice, or some other reason (the book compiles the possible motives). But in my opinion it is he who does a trick of hands, or is confused. I do not know if the right to independence should be "limited" or "unlimited", but I do believe it should be for everyone. I think Buchanan confuses the boundaries of a right with the subjects of the right. For example, no one in his right mind believes that the right to free speech is unlimited. There is not protection, for example, for fraud; slander and libel; the revealing of private or sensitive data; and open incitement to crime. But even if the right is not unlimited, it is a right of anyone. Moral rights are rights for all or if not, they do not exist. If I have the right to free speech, with whatever limits, then a black man, a woman, a gay man, or a Kylie Minogue fan also have it. Therefore, if a minority has a group right to independence, whether limited (autonomy) or unlimited (secession), then any other minority must also have it, including minorities of minorities or the individual himself. And the difficulty in determining exactly who is the subject of the right always exists, because Buchanan's right to secede is not an individual right, but a group right, and groups are not as well defined as individuals. For example, a pro-secessionist argument that does impress me is the K, to rectify past injustices. If the USSR invades Latvia, then the Latvians have a moral right to secession. This seems intuitively clear enough (this book was published in 1991, before the break-up of the Soviet Union; shortly after its publication, Latvia gained independence from the USSR, not without violent confrontations, but we will ignore it and imagine that we are in 1990). Suppose Latvians really have the right to secession. Who exactly are the "Latvians"? Those currently living in Latvia? Those who were born there? Their descendants too? Groups are never homogeneous. In Latvia, in addition to the "pure Latvians", live many "Russians" too, who immigrated to Latvia after the invasion, partly responding to a deliberate policy of colonization by the USSR. Could the Latvian "Russians" also vote in a referendum on secession? Because maybe russians are now the majority and manage to overthrow the majority will of the "pure Latvians"... Can the children of a Latvian and a Russian vote? Here Buchanan borders the sinister, even with the best intention: Deciding who is a "true" Latvian and who is a Russian Latvian may, however, turn out to be difficult. Genotyping from blood samples would enable the distinction to be made in a relatively accurate and objective way - if it is correct to assume that Latvians are a distinct biologically related group and if those administering the tests or reporting their results could be trusted. That is, in the end we would have to do a genetic analysis to people to see if they can vote (!). Buchanan probably has no idea how difficult and arbitrary that would be. It is only an example to see the unsolvableness of the question and the problems that can arise if we take the arguments of the philosophers too seriously. And it is not the only difficulty with this notion of resolving historical injustices. Although it seems easy to conclude that a group that has been conquered has the right to secede, what is the temporal limit? What if the USSR invaded Latvia 200 years ago? Most of the present states have acquired territory in the past immorally or violently. What temporal limit must be set to rectify the injustices of history? Who decides the limit? Buchanan does not avoid the question: he is well aware of the difficulty and, as he is an honest author, does not conceal his own perplexity. Apart from blood tests to distinguish true Latvians, another place where Buchanan ends up touching the sinister is in the pro-secession argument "C", preserving liberal purity. He goes on to say that if within a democratic state there is a minority that does not like democracy, in certain cases the minority should be able to secede, which is also useful for the majority, since it frees itself from having non-liberal people in its territory. The only condition is that individuals should be able to freely leave and enter the new country. Accordingly, within the United States, new Islamist states could be created, if there were enough people who wanted it and were territorially grouped, as long as one could freely enter or go out from the new states. Does not it occur to Buchanan that being able to get in and out is not the only relevant freedom? Does it not occur to him that children would be educated in fanaticism, and maybe as adults would not want to leave, and that educating them that way would also be a violation of the rights of children, who are not guilty of anything? Another difficulty that I think is nuclear, the most important one, is the notion of collective rights, that is, group rights. Buchanan believes that liberal ethics do not have to be limited to individual rights, but also take into account collective rights. I just do not understand the idea of ​​collective rights, and that is one of my problems. For example, another pro-secession argument is the "Preserve cultures" argument, which can not be understood if one does not think, like Buchanan, that there may be collective rights, not just individual rights. One very strong argument for according certain special group rights to minorities in certain circumstances is that their having these rights may be necessary if the group is to be able to preserve its distinctive culture, the way of life with which its members identify and which gives meaning to their pursuits and projects. Among these special minority group rights are language rights and special collective property rights If to preserve a culture there is no solution other than secession, then there is the right to secede, according to Buchanan. In any case, groups have special rights to preserve their culture. But what exactly does it mean to "preserve its distinctive culture" or "give meaning to its projects"? Does it mean that, for example, children will not be able to study in English even though this language is widespread in the region, as many in Quebec have to suffer, in order to make the French language "remain forever"? And what exactly is the reason why the French language should "remain" in Quebec if an important part of the population does not care? Would not it be better to have the greatest linguistic freedom possible, to make life easier for people, and if tongues "die," then let them die? (In reality they never die at all, if they are well documented, they simply go on to enrich the virtual cultural heritage of humanity, such as Latin.) Is there any objective reason to force the whole population to preserve a language, or any other arbitrary cultural factor? Should we compel everyone to learn Catholic religion so that the religion "remains"? Must the Indians of the reservations in the USA have different rights and obligations from other citizens (not being able to sell lands to whites, for example, to preserve land for Indians) because they are a "different group", descendants of conquered peoples ? What rights do you have exactly if only one of your four grandparents was "Indian"? See where I'm going? I don't think this mental frame of Buchanan leads to anything good ... And in fact, legislators have not paid much attention to this book. Two decades and a half after its publication, there is no constitution of the world that allows the secession of one of its territories. At most there will be one or two eccentric states, but I think there are none. However, Buchanan's arguments are often quite impressive to me. If a state redistributes the money discriminating against a minority (which is what the nationalists say happens in Catalonia, though they seldom offer any proof), or if a region has been recently conquered, the moral intuition that there is a right to secession seems quite unescapable. Buchanan must be right somewhere. That's why my brains burn when I read this book. I note that I may be on the verge of a radical rethinking of my deepest political views, and the feeling is one of great uneasiness. In short, Buchanan concludes that there is a moral right to secession, but it is a limited, conditional right, like the right to revolution: it can not be invoked in any case, but only with a well-founded reason. The prose in English is quite clear. The text is well ordered, and at the end there is a good index. Although I do not agree with Buchanan on many things, I would not want the reader to take a deformed view of the contents of the book. A Spanish intellectual, Felix Ovejero Lucas, made a completely biased characterization of the book in an article in El País, and I do not want to fall into the same thing. Secession is an honest book, which deals with an impossible topic, and that is why it is difficult to agree with everything. However, I do not remember many books that have made me think so much. I'm not totally sure that I am right, and maybe even "collective rights" may exist. Are Amazonian tribes "in voluntary isolation" entitled to a special legality that does not require them to enroll their children in schools? Well, I have my doubts ... I have a lot of natural interest in the subject of secession, for both intellectual and personal reasons (I am a Catalan who writes in October 2017, in the middle of the attempt of secession of Catalonia), and I know that I will read and reread Buchanan, fighting a moral problem that, as all moral problems when analyzed sufficiently, may not have a satisfactory answer.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Albright

    My own thoughts on divorce can be quoted from scripture in verses like Malachi 2:16, which says:  "“For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence,” says the Lord of hosts.  “Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”"  The author would have us believe that there is a strong moral power in favor of allowing nations to split up without any cause except that they wanted to be free and independent, with no concern for i My own thoughts on divorce can be quoted from scripture in verses like Malachi 2:16, which says:  "“For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence,” says the Lord of hosts.  “Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”"  The author would have us believe that there is a strong moral power in favor of allowing nations to split up without any cause except that they wanted to be free and independent, with no concern for improper takings, no care for the benefits of union, and nothing to be considered except for the selfish desire of some people to be free.  On top of this the author then manages to admit that there is no constitutional right to secede according to the US Constitution or others and then claims that this right out to be enshrined.  Since the author does not presume that union is in fact desirable, it is difficult for a reader who does have that assumption to fully understand what sort of political divorces the author has in mind.  There are plenty of misguided unions that deserve to be broken up, but even where this is the case (see South Sudan, Bosnia, Georgia) there is often a lack of in those breakaway states, and so the process merely continues on a smaller level. This book is a bit more than 150 pages long and it is divided into five chapters.  After a preface and acknowledgements the author discusses the problems of succession and posits the need for a general theory on divorce (1) as well as a plan for the book and a note on what he means by it.  The author then seeks to stack the deck to make a case for secession with a look at group rights and issues of redistributive justice (2).  The author then gives a straw man case for the moral case against succession that does not include the moral supremacy of union and the moral problem of rebelliousness (3).  After that the author discusses the need for a constitutional right to secede to be recognized (4) before concluding with a discussion of various secession movements and reasons why some would be supported and not others, opining that slavery gets in the way of the Confederacy being recognized as a moral case for secession. The author's goal in this book is to set a standard for secession that views it as a moral option superior to union.  There are certainly some people who feel this way, but I am not one of them.  That said, even if one does not believe in a generic moral right of secession under any and all circumstances, there is still plenty of room to argue that if certain substantive conditions are met that a state no longer has the right to claim authority over its people or territory.  Tyranny and anarchy are states that anyone who has the power to do so has the right to claim, although it should be expected that there would be terms provided on granting such a state (as should be the case) and that plenty of even good cases for partition and secession would and should be opposed.  Most readers, even those as fond of union as I am, will see some cases where a region has a strong case of being free because of the corrupt and hostile behavior of a central government and in providing some separatist regimes (like Somaliland and Taiwan) with all of the help and recognition that are possible.  It is a shame, though, that the author does not manage to make his case as clearly as he wishes to.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Brendan McKee

    The study of secession is a sorely under-researched topic, and this is one of the few texts devoted solely to the topic. It isn't perfect, but it is an extremely important book for anyone looking to learn about secessionism The study of secession is a sorely under-researched topic, and this is one of the few texts devoted solely to the topic. It isn't perfect, but it is an extremely important book for anyone looking to learn about secessionism

  4. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Thompson

  5. 4 out of 5

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  6. 5 out of 5

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  7. 5 out of 5

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  8. 4 out of 5

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  10. 5 out of 5

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  11. 5 out of 5

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  13. 5 out of 5

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  14. 5 out of 5

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  15. 5 out of 5

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  19. 5 out of 5

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  22. 4 out of 5

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  23. 4 out of 5

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  24. 5 out of 5

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  25. 5 out of 5

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  26. 5 out of 5

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  27. 4 out of 5

    Engelhard Family Library

  28. 4 out of 5

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  29. 5 out of 5

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  30. 4 out of 5

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  31. 5 out of 5

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  32. 4 out of 5

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  33. 5 out of 5

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  34. 5 out of 5

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