Equality, Individualism, and Tolerance: The Essences of a Free and Open Society

When making perfumes, a maître perfumer has to observe certain rules: At first, he selects base, middle and top notes from the spectrum of essential oils (and oftentimes he uses synthetics as well). Then, he mixes the oils together and lets the blend sit for a couple of days. Before diluting the oils with pure alcohol, he wants to make sure the blend is a perfect match.

The master perfumer is highly aware of the fact that each addition can have a material effect on the other notes. Starting with the most basic notes, such as woody, smoky and resinous oils, he creates the “story” of the perfume. It’s the “base notes” that make up a long-lasting and therefore promising scent. From there, the perfumer introduces the middle and top notes into the fragrance. Singling out those middle and top notes is a very delicate exercise since there exists dozens, if not hundreds, thereof.

“Ethics is a little bit like perfumery.”

Ethics is a little bit like perfumery. First, there is the principle of equality, the most momentous discovery of humanity. Equality is concerned with everything that touches on basic human qualities, such as gender, race, religious belief, and sexual orientation. Although we are – quite obviously – not identical, we are equally human! There is no acceptable way of flouting this basic “axiomatic” assumption about humanity. Thus it can be compared to the base notes of a perfume. As much as the “story” of a scent is composed by those fundamental oils, equality makes up the basic structure of humanity: The Old Testament refers to the unity of God’s creation; it’s the stoic idea that everyone is their own master; and legal equality and the necessity of overcoming social prejudice are eventually central motifs in the Age of Reason and Enlightenment.

Second, there is also the principle of individualism embodying the unlimited upside potential of every human being. It allows everyone to develop their skills and to attenuate their weaknesses. Therefore, individualism entails diversity. However, diversity is a challenge for societies since it requires a huge amount of tolerance towards different outcomes. As regards perfumes, middle and top notes must resonate with the base notes, the basic structure of a blend. In fact, as long as every person respects the basic structure of society, according to which all are equal but also infinitely different, the consequences of individualism are compatible with equality, and even a precondition for it.

Present as well as long gone totalitarian dictatorships have shown contempt for either equality (e.g., Nazism) or individualism (e.g., Communism), and in fact most of the time even for both. Their proponents claim that people have to surrender one to get the other. This is blatant nonsense given the fact that the rule of law and free markets have provided both the framework of equality before the law and a clear vision of enabling individuals to pursue happiness. Under these conditions, public and private spheres have become mutually consistent in a historically unprecedented scale. People can now find meaning in their lives because they are allowed to grow their individuality within a fair public order. In contrast, the absolute belief in the state as the final answer is a tragically flawed notion.

”  …if we follow the right formula and choose the essences wisely, we can indeed create a free and open society.”

The radical idea that we need an everlasting “base note” (equality) as well as “middle” (peaceful individualism in all its facets) and “top notes” (tolerance) to create “the most perfect scent” that there can be (a free and open society) is as much a pressing issue today as it ever was. Fundamentally, if we follow the right formula and choose the essences wisely, we can indeed create a free and open society.

Why Liberals Should Be More Optimistic

Optimists think that the course of events will be positive, for them personally or for society in general. Realists, on the other hand, think that the course of events might turn out to be positive; they concede, however, that they can’t really know since reality consists of complex phenomena. Optimism and realism are sometimes used as contradictory concepts. That doesn’t necessarily follow though.

Liberal thinkers can often be described as optimists with a strong sense of reality. On the one hand, they hope that a particular situation will turn out well; they even provide policy recommendations in order to facilitate the process. On the other hand, liberal thinkers are skeptical of what men, in particular politicians and bureaucrats, are capable of achieving. They have a realistic perception about the nature of humans and their capabilities.

Liberal thinkers can often be described as optimists with a strong sense of reality.

Personally, I’ve always perceived liberalism as a philosophy advocating a realistic optimism. For instance, we can look back to the big controversy about socialist planning in the 1920s (the “socialist calculation debate“). Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. von Hayek and later Murray N. Rothbard argued that a planned economy must inevitably fail at some point because its planners lack the knowledge necessary to determine economic in- and outputs. Mises and Hayek were proven right with their predictions when the Soviet system collapsed economically and politically in the early 1990s. They were pessimistic about the Soviet economy, but both Mises and Hayek felt optimistic about their own policy proposals regarding the market economy.

Many people nowadays think that capitalism and the free enterprise system have failed, given widespread poverty, the waste of resources, corruption, and so on. However, contrary to common belief, figures show that the world has become a fundamentally better place (please click on the picture to increase its size):

Liberals (read libertarians) can (and should) be more optimistic given the continuing overall trend which constantly confirms that people have become healthier, live in freer societies, and are better educated than in the 19th century (let alone earlier periods of mankind).

At the same time, we have been warned that we should remain skeptical towards supposed panaceas and prophecies coming from the ones that think they will change the world single-handedly; the ones that feel confident that they possess the recipes to solve all the ills of mankind; and those claiming that their proposed solutions are without alternative. In his Nobel Prize lecture, Hayek invoked us not to be imprudent or foolish when it comes to people that pretend to know everything (“The Pretence of Knowledge”). His statement emphasizes that we should exercise restraint in our own dealings, but also remain extremely cautious about what politics can actually accomplish for the good of society.

To conclude this short essay, I’d like to quote Karl Popper. He was that kind of optimistic thinker with an insistent sense of reality:

“The future is open. It is not predetermined and thus cannot be predicted – except by accident. The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists’, this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil, but, rather, to fight for a better world.”

Karl Popper, The Myth of the Framework, 1994

Der Suizid im Liberalismus

“Es gibt nur ein wirklich ernstes philosophisches Problem: den Selbstmord. Sich entscheiden, ob das Leben es wert ist, gelebt zu werden oder nicht, heißt auf die Grundfrage der Philosophie antworten. Alles andere – ob die Welt drei Dimensionen und der Geist neun oder zwölf Kategorien hat – kommt später. Das sind Spielereien; erst muss man antworten.”

(Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942, dt. Übersetzung)

Nicht erst seit Albert Camus ist der Suizid ein kontroverses Thema in der Philosophie. Der Liberalimus setzt sich als politische Philosophie lediglich indirekt mit der Thematik auseinander, da er weder Verbote noch Gebote ausspricht, sondern den Suizid als Teil der Menschenwürde auffasst.

Griechische Philosophie und Stoa

Eine grundsätzlich ablehnende Haltung gebenüber dem Suizid finden wir bei Sokrates, der in Platons “Phaidon” die Entscheidung über Leben und Tod den Göttern überlässt. Aristoteles schloss sich dieser Meinung an.

Demgegenüber finden wir insbesondere bei den Stoikern eine positive Haltung gegenüber dem Suizid. Für den Stoiker ist nicht entscheidend, dass man lebt, sondern wie man lebt. Namentlich schrieb Seneca in den Briefen an Lucilius:

„Finden wirst du auch Lehrer der Philosophie, die bestreiten, man dürfe Gewalt antun dem eigenen Leben, und es für Gotteslästerung erklären, selbst sein eigener Mörder zu werden […] Wer das sagt, sieht nicht, dass er den Weg zur Freiheit verschließt. Nichts besseres hat uns das ewige Gesetz geleistet, als dass es uns einen einzigen Eingang in das Leben gegeben, Ausgänge viele. Ich soll warten auf einer Krankheit Grausamkeit oder eines Menschen, obwohl ich in der Lage bin, mitten durch die Qualen ins Freie zu gehen und Widerwärtiges beiseite zu stoßen? Das ist das einzige, weswegen wir über das Leben nicht klagen können: niemanden hält es.“

(Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium 70.14-15).


Diese klaren Worte wurden jedoch von der Kirche abgelehnt. Im ersten Buch seines Werks “De Civitate Dei” (Gottesstaat) betonte der Kirchenvater Augustinus im 5. Jahrhundert n. Chr., dass der Dekalog (zehn Gebote) nicht nur die Fremdtötung sondern auch den Suizid mitumfasse:

“Allerdings nämlich ist, wenn es nicht einmal gestattet ist, aus eigener Vollmacht einen Übeltäter zu töten, es sei denn, daß ein Gesetz die Befugnis gibt, ihn zu töten, natürlich auch der Selbstmörder ein Mörder, und er lädt durch den Selbstmord umso größere Schuld auf sich, je weniger er schuld ist an der Ursache, die ihn zum Selbstmord treibt.”

(Buch 1, 17)

Anders als bei Seneca soll es für den gläubigen Christen keinen eigenständigen Ausweg aus dem Leben geben dürfen. Das Leben erhält damit einen Eigenwert, über den nur Gott bestimmen kann. Er gibt Leben, und er alleine entscheidet, wann er es zurück nimmt.

Im Unterschied zu den fernöstlichen Weltanschauungen (Hinduismus, Konfuzianismus und teils Buddhismus) folgen alle grossen abrahamitischen Religionen dieser Prämisse.

Humanismus und Aufklärung

Der Liberalismus findet nicht nur in den griechischen und römischen Ideen seine Vorläufer, sondern insbesondere auch bei den Denkern des Humanismus. Michel de Montaigne hat sich fast wortwörtlich der Meinung Senecas angeschlossen, als er in seinen Essais (1580) schrieb:

„[…] man sagt, […] das gnädigste Geschenk der Natur, das uns jeden Grund zur Klage über unser Los nehme, bestehe darin, dass sie uns den Schlüssel zum Weg ins Freie überlassen habe. Sie hat nur einen Eingang ins Leben vorgesehen, aber hunderttausend Ausgänge.“

(Essais 2,3)

In Weiterentwicklung der antiken Tradition (insb. der “humanitas” in Ciceros Werk) betonte der Humanismus die Würde des Individuums aufgrund seiner Natur und Vernunft.

Die Entscheidungsfreiheit wurde sodann als wesentlicher Bestandteil der Menschenwürde betrachtet. In den Worten Samuel von Pufendorfs (1672):

„Der Mensch ist von höchster Würde, weil er eine Seele hat, die ausgezeichnet ist durch das Licht des Verstandes, durch die Fähigkeit, die Dinge zu beurteilen und sich frei zu entscheiden, und die sich in vielen Künsten auskennt.“

(De iure naturae et gentium, 2. Buch, 1. Kapitel, § 5)

Ferner beschäftigte sich David Hume in seiner Schrift “Of suicide” (1777) ausführlich mit der Thematik. Dabei kam Hume zum Schluss, dass moralische Verurteilungen fehl am Platz seien. Der Suizid sei weder moralisch noch unmoralisch, sondern ein tröstender Notausgang für den Einzelnen, “[which] would effectually free him from all danger of misery”.

Dem entgegnete Immanuel Kant, dass der Suizid dem Grundgesetz der praktischen Vernunft widerspreche, wonach der Mensch durch sein Handeln sich selbst zu bestätigen habe. Der Mensch sei eben Zweck, und niemals Mittel. Indem der Suizident den Suizid wähle, stelle er im Widerspruch zu seiner Vernunft sein Menschsein in Frage. Für Kant ist die “Selbstentleibung” darum ein Verbrechen, ja Mord (Die Metaphysik der Sitten, § 6, 1797). Weil bei Kant das Prinzip der Selbsterhaltung bereits in der Prämisse steckt, ist die Entscheidungsfreiheit im Suizid lediglich eine vermeintliche.

Suizid im Nationalsozialismus

In einer Gesellschaft, in welcher das öffentliche Interesse mit Zwang vor das Eigeninteresse gestellt wird, kann der sebstbestimmte Tod zu einem politischen Akt werden: Wenigstens die Entscheidung über ihren Tod wollten viele Juden und Personen verfolgter Minderheiten nicht den Nationalsozialisten überlassen. So waren ihre Handlungen Ausdruck des Widestands gegen eine Ordnung, welche das Leben ganz grundsätzlich nicht wertschätzte.

Es ist darum nicht erstaunlich, dass auch Deutsche, die den Suizid wählten, als minderwertige Menschen angesehen wurden. Eine solche Handlung wurde zudem als Pflichtverletzung gegenüber dem Staat betrachtet. Ironischerweise wählte letztendlich auch Adolf Hitler angesichts der Ausweglosigkeit des Krieges den Freitod. Für seine Anhänger wurde sein Suizid zum hochstilisierten Beweis des Märtyrertums.

Straffreiheit und Toleranz in der modernen liberalen Ordnung

Mit der Anerkennung der Glaubensfreiheit in den demokratischen Verfassungen des Westens wurde der Suizid von seiner metaphysischen Ballast befreit: Nunmehr bestimmte der Staat über die dessen Legalität. Relativ bald etablierte sich die Einsicht, dass der Suizid grundsätzlich straffrei sein sollte (in Preussen bspw. 1851), wobei sich die Diskussionen allerdings in vielen Staaten bis heute um das zulässige Mass der Beihilfe zum Suizid drehen.

Der Liberalismus als politische Philosophie kann grundsätzlich nichts über das Psychologische und Seelische aussagen. In Ludwig von Mises’ Worten (1927):

“Nicht aus Geringschätzung der seelischen Güter richtet der Liberalismus sein Augenmerk ausschliesslich auf das Materielle, sondern weil er der Überzeugung ist, daß das Höchste und Tiefste im Menschen durch äussere Regelung nicht berührt werden können. Er sucht nur äusseren Wohlstand zu schaffen, weil er weiß, daß der innere, der seelische Reichtum dem Menschen nicht von außen kommen kann, sondern nur aus der eigenen Brust. Er will nichts anderes schaffen als die äußeren Vorbedingungen für die Entfaltung des inneren Lebens.”

(Liberalismus, 4)

Der klassische Liberalismus fordert indes Toleranz. Er fordert Toleranz gegenüber Andersdenkenden und Andershandelnden. Die liberale Haltung besteht also im respektvollen Umgang mit einem zumeist psychologischen Phänomen, das in der Regel für Aussenstehende nur schwer oder gar nicht fassbar ist.

Der Suizid soll als Realisierung des letzten Willens offenstehen. Wo auch immer ein Mensch nach reiflicher Überlegung zur Überzeugung gelangt, dass er diesen Weg wählen möchte, soll ihm dieses natürliche Recht nicht verwehrt werden können – weder von einer religiösen Gruppierung noch vom Staat. Der Mensch – in Anlehnung an Hume – schuldet der Gemeinschaft nichts; sein freier Wille soll nicht durch Nützlichkeitserwägungen eingeschränkt werden können.

Für einen Liberalen muss sich eine solche Haltung bereits aus der Verfügungshoheit über den eigenen Körper ergeben. Ein Verbot würde nämlich immer auch die (freilich rein hypothetische) vollständige Fremdkontrolle des eigenen Körpers bedeuten.

Anders als Kant meinte, stellt der Suizid auch keine moralische Selbstverneinung dar, sondern die Verwirklichung des freien letzten Willens. Nur wenn dieser freie Wille eingeschränkt ist, im Sinne Ludwig Wittgensteins eine „Überrumpelung“ (Kontrollverlust) vorliegt, kann nicht von einer „reiflich überlegten“ Entscheidung gesprochen werden.

Der Liberalismus setzt dem selbstgewählten Tod allerdings dort eine Schranke, wo andere Menschen zu Schaden kommen könnten. Keine Toleranz erhält darum der Selbstmordattentäter, der sich aufgrund seiner intoleranten Ideologie tötet. Problematisch (aber verständlich) ist die Frage, ob das Vorliegen einer Verantwortung des Suizidenten für andere Menschen, wie etwa seine Kinder, die Suizidhandlung als verwerflich erscheinen lässt.

Die Toleranz gegenüber der Entscheidungsfreiheit und damit der Würde des Menschen ist die Stärke des Liberalismus. Diese Toleranz ist nicht bedingt oder abhängig vom Willen einer Autorität, und sie macht insbesondere vor dem Tod nicht halt.



The Right to Be Let Alone in a World of Cultural Diversity

The right to be let alone, as Justice Louis Brandeis famously put it in “Olmstead v. United States”, is commonly associated with the right to privacy in the Fourth Amendment. The constitutional “[…] right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures […]” critically separates the spheres of life and wards off many dangers from the government. However, in a society so culturally diverse as ours, the right to be let alone takes on much greater significance than just separating the spheres between the individual and the state.

Bridges are not built overnight

A recent poll shows that Americans are divided on the role of culture in their society. Coming from Europe, the U.S. is undoubtedly a much more culturally diverse nation than most European countries, if not all. Unlike Switzerland, for example, Americans cannot rely on ethnic kinship for a shared identity. The U.S. is truly a nation of immigrants. The more surprising are the results of that poll showing that conservative and social-democratic opinions diverge in terms of fundamental cultural values.

If we accept the fact that culture matters, we also have to concede that foreign culture should have a place in our society.

Culture is a delicate issue. F.A. Hayek argued that culture matters and that it shouldn’t be denied in the political processes of a constitutional democracy, unless one wants to question the stability of a society. However, culture isn’t a rigid phenomenon either. The basic values of a society can change, and quite obviously, have done so significantly. Slavery, for example, once a shared value among many Americans and Europeans, was abolished in a justified fight against unjust values.

If we accept the fact that culture matters, we also have to concede that foreign culture should have a place in our society. This doesn’t mean, though, that people native to a country have to give up on their own values. Quite naturally, the burden of responsibility must rest on those who immigrate to a foreign culture. However, we shouldn’t expect that everyone is willing to assimilate entirely. And this is where the crux begins.

The “great society”, not government is the solution

Many bureaucrats think that seamless integration is simply a question of the right laws and forceful state mediation between two cultures. They assume that by designing sophisticated programs immigrants will necessarily start feeling as members of society. This is wrong, though. Hayek made clear that culture doesn’t work that way:

“[…] the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection – the comparative increase of population and wealth – of those groups that happened to follow them.”

(F. A. Hayek, in: W. W. Bartley, III (ed.), The Fatal Conceit, Vol. 1 of The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Chicago 1988, 6)

To put it in a nutshell, culture is omnipresent, it possesses a formative role in life like no other informal social institution. Cultural values are deeply embedded in social relations, parenting, education, and so forth, which is why we should never expect perfect assimilation from top-down integration programs, as sophisticated as they may be.

However, the market, unlike any other institution, has the power to create peaceful cooperation among people of different cultures. It creates opportunities for those who are willing to integrate and to accept the traditions of the local population. Even more importantly, the market discourages people from thinking in entitlements. The culture of dependency, created by the welfare state, has not only made millions of individuals depending but has also evoked antipathy for foreigners and their diverse values with which they arrive at our borders. As Donald Trump’s presidential campaign platform impressively showed, once the state has created the feeling of being left behind, politics quickly becomes an outlet for racial slurs and cultural defamation.

A government siding with one group of its population is highly problematic. In doing so, it does not only sow a lot of mistrust and resentment among those people with conflicting opinions but also conveys the belief that government is able to solve the problem, if necessary using force.

What remains for us to do then?

What then are the ideal conditions for the peaceful coexistence of people of a different cultural background? The German classical liberal economist and philosopher, Roland Baader, once said that there exists only one human right, the right to be let alone (“Das einzig wahre Menschenrecht ist das Recht, in Ruhe gelassen zu werden […]”). This is in fact how every human tribe started off before becoming part of a more involved society. Well, some groups, like the Amish people in the U.S. and Canada, believe in the fulfilled existence of remaining unaffected by unfamiliar values till this day.

Oftentimes, however, foregoing the opportunities of cooperation will cost those people dear. In his book “Living Economics”, Peter Boettke shows that there exist myriad institutions that allow people to engage actively with each other, while living peacefully side by side. It is these “organic” institutions of self-governance that have proven themselves valuable throughout the world and that have supported people in coming together and starting exchanging not only goods but eventually ideas and their cultural heritage.

However, to concede that culture matters, that of immigrants as much as ours, is the first step to recognize that peaceful community relies on everyone’s right to be let alone if he or she wishes to do so.

In a very biological sense, the right to be let alone gives us the time needed to prepare ourselves for the world outside of our “cultural backyard”. It is true that we will always have to accept that some people are not willing to become part of a more heterogenous society. As I said, this is their very right. And sometimes, we’ll even have to defend the principles of an open society against violent aggressors. However, to concede that culture matters, that of immigrants as much as ours, is the first step to recognize that peaceful community relies on everyone’s right to be let alone if he or she wishes to do so.

Published by The Libertarian Institute

Why Freedom Is Favored by Secession and Subsidiarity

Majority voting inevitably alienates large parts of a population. As a Swiss citizen, I am all too aware of that fact, since we go to the polls as often as six times a year. This may be the necessary price of our more direct form of representative democracy. But in Switzerland, it has also led to a degree of emotional turmoil due to conflicting visions for society.

Of course, the US has a similar problem. The election of Donald Trump has not only raised discussions about the workings of the electoral college but also about a possible exit of California from the union. Since a considerable 61.5%-majority of Californians voted for Hillary Clinton, some of them have deemed a separation to be a necessary response to a Trump presidency. Such a devolution of power is actually quite worthy of support.

Subsidiarity and the Right of Secession

For centuries, legal scholars have acknowledged the importance of the right of secession based on natural law. The German Calvinist Johannes Althusius argued in his Politica (1603) that citizens have a right to forswear allegiance to the king in the case of an abuse of power. He considered this right to be derived from the general right of resistance. To Althusius, secession was a vertical check on the power of the early European absolutist states, but also a recourse that should not be undertaken on a whim. To Althusius and others, secession remained ultima ratio, i.e., a last resort. First and foremost, the state should be organized from the bottom in accordance with the broader “principle of subsidiarity,” of which secession is a part.

Subsidiarity is a principle of social, political and economic organization. It comes from the Latin subsidium and means “support” or “reserve.” Subsidiarity holds that society is primarily based on self-determination and the individual responsibility of each person, his or her family, and private associations of individuals (cooperatives).

Subsidiarity is a principle of social, political and economic organization.

According to this principle, local government should be involved in solving problems only if private organizations are unable to resolve them on their own. If government at the local level is unable to do so, the regional government takes over or assists the local government. And finally, the central government or the king steps in if the federated states struggle to resolve it amongst themselves.

Any higher level of societal organization is subordinate to any lower level. The main advantage of a multi-level order is that individuals make decisions that most affect their lives. Delegated decisions are made as closely to the citizens as possible so they can oversee the process more easily.

Subsidiarity better facilitates a process of “trial and error” in which regulation and governance “compete” with each other in a liberal framework. As Hayek said in The Constitution of Liberty,

“It is this flexibility of voluntary rules which in the field of morals makes gradual evolution and spontaneous growth possible, which allows further experience to lead to modifications and improvements.”

Paths taken that turn out to be successful can thus be adopted by any other territorial entity or authority. Only this type of “political fragmentation” can preserve cultural diversity in the long run and lead to institutions, such as the competition of ideas, which ultimately serve individual freedom.

Althusius’s main insight was that the higher institutions should be required to rely on the consent of the more local levels and voluntary associations. Because the powers of the higher levels are derived from the consent of the people, the people must retain the ability to revoke that power whenever necessary.

Althusius’s views on political subsidiarity were quite radical for his time. Located in Emden, a German town at the crossroads of political and religious activity at that time, Althusius’s ideas should be interpreted in the light of the Calvinist Dutch Revolt against the Catholic King Philip II of Spain, which effectively ended in 1609 and resulted in the “Dutch Miracle,” a century-long period of economic, scientific, and cultural growth that helped lay the foundation for the rise of classical liberalism.

Two centuries later, these ideas found fertile ground on the North American continent with the revolt of the thirteen colonies against the British Crown. In 1848, Switzerland established a new constitution that also embodied the principle of subsidiarity, which remains in force to this day.

Unfortunately, the same people who are now in strong support of “CalExit” would probably think differently, if, say, Hillary was elected back in November. It also seems unlikely that they would be receptive to a declaration of secession by Northern California (which leans more Republican), or the city of Los Angeles. The irony in their opposition to such actions would likely escape them.

Human affairs should be entirely private. If government is going to be involved, autonomy at the local and state level should be as high as possible, meaning that all functions, excepting at most military defense, the supreme court and trade policy, should be pursued by local or state representatives.

Moreover, the tax system should be fully and exclusively devolved to the local and state level. Therefore, each state would be solely responsible for its revenues and expenditures. Only then would citizens have a reliable picture of the government’s service quality, and only then would they systemically be able to monitor the politicians in a sensible way.

Moreover, the tax system should be fully and exclusively devolved to the local and state level.

Whenever someone disagrees with a policy or the advocated values a political system implies, they can vote with their feet by leaving their present domicile. Regulatory and tax competition would ensure an attractive environment for each and everyone. To provide a last resort, and to circumvent any undue burden set on people willing to move away, the constitution should formally grant the right to secede from the union and/or the respective state.

Independence Throughout Europe

The great wave of nation-building in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries is being reversed. Separatist movements are so common that we would easily run out of space if we attempted to describe all of them.

Consider the case of Spain. The “Reino de España” has seventeen autonomous regions. Each has ambitions to leave the Kingdom.

Many believe that secession is only practical for economically powerful regions. For example, California’s economic output has even surpassed that of France. Smaller territories can, however, successfully break away if the right policies are put in place. Indeed, a breakaway region’s lack of economic self-sufficiency is actually a benefit, because it would make a policy of free trade absolutely vital.

Such would be the case if, for example, Murcia, an autonomous region in southeast Spain, succeeded in separating from the Kingdom. The Murcians have many differences with the population in the rest of the country (not only from the Madrilenians in the capital city). For example, they have developed a dialect, much of which is derived from the Aragonese, the Catalan, and the Arabic language. Murcia is a comparatively poor region with an unemployment rate of over 25%. Without the benefit of a large economic hub like Barcelona in the Catalan area, the Murcian economy has lagged behind that of the Catalans.

According to the principle of subsidiarity, the Murcians should be allowed to set their own fiscal policy and respond to the Euro crisis in their own way. However, governments in Brussels and Madrid are the ones attempting to manage the economic recovery of Murcia. There is no guarantee that the arsenal of unorthodox monetary policies being employed by the European Central Bank will end well for the Murcians, even if it were to help other areas.

This is also true for the separatist Sardinians, the independence-seeking Scots, the Flemish Belgians, and the people in Veneto Italy, to name but a few.

Bad Incentives

Many people recoil at the idea of some regions permanently living at the expense of other regions. Economically strong regions have a strong incentive to break their commitments to less wealthy regions by seeking autonomy, and eventually formal secession.

In the German fiscal equalization system, for example, only four states out of sixteen and less than half of the German population foot the bill for the entire population. The originally unintended consequence of this perverse system of income redistribution is that the politicians in the taker states have no incentive to improve their policies, while the states that pay into the system, such as Bavaria, have little hope of voting against those policies or monitoring the spending process. Politicians can run unprofitable projects at the expense of the contributing states, such as the embarrassing Berlin Brandenburg airport, for which the cost has tripled to 6 billion euros. Unsurprisingly, the Bavarian separatist movement has gained traction in recent years, although it has also suffered setbacks in Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court.

Germany’s faulty system design is probably the main reason why chancellor Merkel has shown skepticism toward a Europe-wide “transfer union” that would benefit Southern European countries the most. Under such a system, citizens cannot expect the careful handling of tax money and incentives to engage in tax and regulatory competition are stifled, especially for those states who have to pay into the “solidarity pot.”

Challenges for Subsidiarity

The European Union has explicitly enshrined the principle of subsidiarity in its main agreement, the Treaty on European Union. Article 5 says:

“The use of Union competences is governed by the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. […] Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.”

However nice the wording, the EU Commission can easily come up with any justification for the use of a non-exclusive competence. And even if they wanted to question the Commission, individuals, municipalities, and regions in member states would have difficulty satisfying the requirements for nullifying an EU law. Moreover, the European Court of Justice, financed and justified by the acts of the European Union, is well-known as the “motor of integration”. There is little to expect from the efficacy of the EU’s principle of subsidiarity, and looking at the numbers, there hasn’t been a single action brought forward by a member state or a private person so far.

Switzerland is hardly better in this respect. According to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court, the constitutional principle of subsidiarity (article 5a, 43a) is not enforceable. It’s only a political guiding principle in favor of strong federalism. However, Switzerland is far smaller in terms of size (less than 16,000 square miles) and population (8.4 million) than most European countries, let alone the supranational EU. Yet, the Swiss Confederation possesses three layers: the federal level, the 26 cantons, and the 2,300 municipalities. This system has developed historically, and given the cultural and linguistic diversity (German, French, Italian, and Romansh), it has served the country well in the past.

However, even Swiss federalism has been in decline. In 2016, the number of municipalities was down to 2,300 from 3,200 in 1848, when the Swiss federal state was founded. It’s mostly for economic reasons, such as cost savings, that municipalities have been merging faster than ever. However, these alleged cost savings are, to use Bastiat’s words, only the seen effects. The unseen effects include the loss of closeness to citizens and the increase in their rational apathy towards political commitment that could increase costs over the long run.

If cultural cohesion changes, we should not only allow communities to secede but also allow individuals to vote with his or her feet.

Unlike many outside observers, I doubt that we should credit the relatively small size of government in Switzerland to the more direct form of democracy alone. (If anything, it has also contributed to the expansion of the federal government lately.) Swiss limited government is, as Dan Mitchell also points out, mainly owed to the consistent implementation of the principle of subsidiarity, which has led to a relatively high degree of decentralization and sensible policies, such as the “debt brake” and cantonal tax competition.

Silver Lining Liechtenstein

The Principality of Liechtenstein is to my knowledge the only country in the world that recognizes a right of secession in its constitution (article 4 II). Prince Alois of Liechtenstein seems to be serious about the principle of subsidiarity:

“The fact that we have a right to secede in our constitution is a strong signal that the government can’t simply do as it pleases.”

The effective enforcement of the principle of subsidiarity is an important safeguard for freedom. Government should be backed by real consensus about the shared values of the community in which it operates. Britain and maybe California appear to be such cases in which the consensus has begun to crumble.

If cultural cohesion changes, we should not only allow communities to secede but also allow individuals to vote with his or her feet. In today’s rapidly changing world, it is more important than ever that people should be as free as possible to choose the rules and rulers governing them.

Published on Fee.org