Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Kosovo and Secession

Tibor R. Machan

Reportedly the Russian government opposes Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, as expected, because it fears the move would fuel Chechnya’s similar goals vis-à-vis Russia. Is Kosovo’s secessionist endeavor perhaps even similar to what those in the American South had attempted and over which some claim the Civil War had been fought?

Actually, there is only a little resemblance. Southerners who wanted to secede made a serious mistake, one that rendered their secessionist design unacceptable. They wanted to secede without freeing the slaves they held. In effect, they wanted to secede while kidnapping millions of people. This may not have been the reason their secession was opposed and why the war broke out--although clearly in contributed to it--but in point of fact it made their secession morally and mostly likely legally impossible to tolerate.

The population of Kosovo has no slaves and so the secession there isn’t plagued by such serious moral problems. Of course, when a region has had a diverse population, there isn’t likely to be universal consent to any kind of secession. Even if the majority agrees, there is likely to be many others who will be forced to go along with something they do not desire. Which suggests that the entire issue of secession could use some serious reflection.

Exactly what does legitimate secession involve? Unlike when individuals resign from a club or divorce, where a clean break is possible--although not all that simple, especially where children are involved--when large groups of people who hold property in a region wish to discontinue political association with others the dynamics can be expected to be very complicated. The complications may actually point to some basic problems with the entire notion of “a nation.”

Whenever nations are viewed analogously to clubs or corporations, the problem of making decisions for all those involved arises. Clubs and corporations are not very difficult to leave--the exit option, as economists refer to it, is or ought to be open (unless binding long term commitments have been forged). Clubs, corporations, churches, and similar human associations are usually freely, voluntarily joined, at least in regions where classical liberalism has been influential.

Nations are different since people are simply born into them and rarely make explicitly, nor even implicit decisions to be part of them. This despite the classical liberal idea of the consent of the governed. (Some would, of course, construe that idea in strictly individualist terms but, arguably, others who see it more along democratic lines, even as the American Founders understood it, have a case, too.)

So when nations are broken up by their citizens, matters can get very problematic. Much of a nation’s history, its institutions, buildings, monuments, ruins, relics, etc., are deemed to belong to all of the population. Tearing these apart is going to be upsetting, notably for people who think in collective, especially tribal terms. And millions of people do just that--they often see themselves as literally a part of some collective group rather than as individuals, along lines that ants are parts of an ant colony or a bee of a bee hive.

There has been some serious thought about all this in political theoretical circles but not enough and not recently, I believe, to have produced workable insights. Even in America, too many see themselves primarily as citizens of cities, counties, states and the nation instead of freely choosing, independent individuals. The history of thinking about one’s membership in political associations has tended to be collectivist--people too readily speak about what China did or does, what Kentucky has decided, what are England’s intentions, and so forth, even though strictly speaking China, Kentucky, or England isn’t some conscious entity doing, deciding, or intending anything at all. Some people in these places do, decide, or intend, and others are commonly simply swept along.

Kosovo is a region of the world where this topic is now a very live one but there are many others--Sri Lanka, Spain, Russia, are just a few among them. A sober exploration and dialogue of what is and should be involved in secession would be very desirable.

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