Breaking Away: The Case for Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities
by Ryan McMaken
Mises Institute, 2022, 230 pp.
Those of us who think that there should be no state at all, or at most a very limited one, must view all existing states with dissatisfaction, though some are better than others. In assessing how good or bad a state is, does the extent of the territory it controls matter? Offhand, you might think it doesn’t. Isn’t the only relevant dimension by which to judge states the nature and degree of control they have over their people? The United States in the nineteenth century was far better than Cambodia under Pol Pot, though vastly larger. In his superb new book, the gifted historian Ryan McMaken argues that the size of a state does indeed matter, and he makes a powerful case for secession from existing states and for decentralization within them.
It’s much harder, he says, to establish totalitarian rule in a small state than in a large one, because it is easier for people to leave.
Because of their physical size, large states are able to exercise more state-like power than geographically smaller states—and thus exercise a greater deal of control over residents. This is in part because larger states benefit from higher barriers to emigration than smaller states. Large states can therefore better avoid one of the most significant barriers to expanding state power: the ability of residents to move away. (p. 27, emphasis in original)
McMaken cites the eminent political philosopher Hannah Arendt in support: “In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt examines a number of nontotalitarian dictatorships that sprang up in Europe before the Second World War…In many of these cases, Arendt contends the regimes attempted to turn themselves into totalitarian regimes, but failed. This was largely due to their lack of size” (p. 49, emphasis in original).
On the other side, though, don’t a large number of small states make trade barriers more likely? McMaken does not think so, and in responding to this contention he uses an argument parallel to the one about totalitarianism. Because small states have little control over the world’s economy, it is difficult for them to insulate themselves from international commerce: “After all, an autarkic small country that lacks a diverse economy or a large agricultural sector will quickly find itself running out of food, skilled labor, and raw materials. Moreover, a small country without close economic ties to other nations will also soon find itself in a very dangerous geopolitical position” (p. 91). In this connection, it’s interesting to note that the oft-repeated claim of American centralizers that a strong central government was needed to cope with trade barriers under the Articles of Confederation has no basis, as Merrill Jensen and Murray Rothbard, following him, have pointed out.
McMaken is alert to the objection that however desirable small states may be, they cannot in practice defend themselves against large states that wish to take them over. Not so, he says: small states can band together to repel invasion, and in any case, conquest of an obdurate population is no easy task, as Russia found out to its cost in Afghanistan and earlier in Finland. Further, “pundits and scholars who comment on international relations have too long relied on crude aggregate measures which suggest far higher levels of relative military power than is likely in cases like Russia or China … it is not the case that large, populous states hold all the cards. Economic development—which, we know, tends to be more developed in smaller and more decentralized states—is likely a more critical factor.”(p.122)
But wouldn’t a large number of small states make nuclear proliferation more likely? Perhaps it would, but McMaken maintains that this may make war less frequent. He cites in this regard a famous contention of the political scientist Kenneth Waltz. “The first influential theorist to express doubts about the established non-proliferation narrative was Kenneth Waltz,” who, “as George Perkovich put it … ‘has been the most illustrious proponent’ of the view that ‘The major benefit of nuclear proliferation conceivably would be to create deterrence relationships that lower or eliminate the risk of war between a certain set of adversaries’” (pp. 124–25).
The author tells us that “this book is not primarily theoretical in nature” but it does have a “philosophical component” (p. 12), and this is a strong one. Large states often contain within them disaffected minority groups, subjected to ill treatment by the dominant majority. Democratic voting offers no adequate remedy for this sad state of affairs, since minority votes will usually be swamped.
In any case, democracy offers no solution in addressing profound cultural differences among the residents of a single political jurisdiction. When populations with sharply differing world views must exist under a single regime, voting resolves nothing, and one side will ultimately impose its preferred policies on the other side. Noncompliance will bring down the full weight of the law, the police, and all the coercive institutions the state frequently employs. (p. 133)
In these circumstances, secession is clearly indicated, and this is something Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard fully recognized. As McMaken points out, Mises said that “the right of self-determination … is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done” (p. 66). Rothbard “went the extra mile” and favored secession at the individual level. “Rothbard pushed secession for two main reasons. First, he regarded it as a useful tactic in moving toward his ideal of individual freedom. Second, even when this ideal is not achieved, decentralization is valuable because smaller states are less able to exercise monopoly power than large states” (p. 66, emphasis in original).
I have been able to discuss only a few of the many areas McMaken covers. Breaking Away is indispensable for understanding the political realities of the present day and a discerning guide to the past.
This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is republished with permission.
“I must follow the journalistic instinct of being skeptical of everything until I personally have proved it true.”- Irwin Fletcher
In the post-Watergate world, fiction was full of lone wolf reporters, the courageous typewriter and camera that pointed where it was unwelcome. When author Gregory McDonald wrote his first “Fletch” novel in 1974 about reporter and former marine Iriwn M. Fletcher (AKA “Fletch” or “Jane Doe”), it would develop into a series of books, two movies starring Chevy Chase, and a remake to be released this year.
In the first book and movie, a world of police corruption is unravelled after a man approaches Fletch, requesting that the undercover reporter murder him so that he can claim insurance for his family. The man alleges to be dying of bone cancer. This request stirs a curiosity in Fletch which unravels a plot of double cross, fraud, and a police supplied drug epidemic.
Written in a time when even the highest office was no longer above investigation and condemnation, Fletch followed his instincts, writing on what he discovered while undercover risking reputation, income, and his life. Though for a time it was celebrated, when Daniel Ellsberg endured similar risk when he turned over the Pentagon Papers. The New York Times then published the information, revealing the hubris and depth of deception that the U.S. government possessed in its war on South East Asia. The editorial staff of the Times could have sat on the information and participated with the government, and perhaps in the twenty-first century they may very well have done so. Actions like Ellsberg’s, once celebrated, landed Julian Assange of Wikileaks in prison awaiting extradition.
Do not confuse courage and integrity for truth with moral character. The book version of Fletch is not a good man. In the first novel he uses a fifteen-year old addict, including having sex with her. His empathy for her was related to what information she could provide. She was not a human being, only a source. When she dies, he loses the information that she carried with her. The singular pursuit of revealing information can easily be romanced and seem noble. It can also come at a cost to human dignity and the human ability to compromise to the greater good. One teenage junkie can be sacrificial beneath a greater story. Fletch even takes the money and runs after exposing the corruption, only to return where he almost began in the subsequent novels. Fletch is cynical and written from the purgatory of distrust and numbness. Maybe that is where we are now.
The 1980s would celebrate the tradition of the rogue reporter, romancing them with an adventurer’s avatar who dodges bullets, suffers torture, and conducts espionage like James Bond in order to find the facts and reveal evil. They were champions of the innocent, heroic untouchables who were incorruptible and fearless. Whether it was James Woods in Salvador or Nick Nolte in Under Fire, these were individuals of courage. The media did not have to be a propaganda mouth piece for the regime of rules or advertising copy announcers. The relationship between the suffering and the general public required a conduit of reporters to weaken the powerful, shame them, and even over throw them. It was the aftermath of Bernstein and Woodward, names of now journalistic fame thanks to their efforts in breaking the Watergate scandal.
The massacre of innocent civilians in My Lai, Vietnam was a sobering reality for those who were able to read about it. The rape and murder of women and children by U.S. soldiers could have been another event of unmarked graves if it was not for the investigative curiosity of journalist Seymour Hersh. The U.S. government had been keeping details of the massacre concealed when Hersh heard rumors about the court martial of Lieutenant William Calley for his role in the murders. Once Hersh had interviewed and investigated, he reported on a dangerous event that undermined the U.S. government’s policy in Vietnam. Sparking criticism and reactions all the way up the White House, the courageous pen of a reporter challenged the highest authority again and reported the truth.
Men like Robert Fisk lived this life, though he would die at a time when reporters like him became a rarer species. He was a man not seduced by becoming embedded with “friendly forces” or those loyal to a particular side in a war.
We are fortunate to have many who still continue this legacy, risking themselves for the pursuit of truth. In the case of Shireen Abu Aqleh who was likely assassinated by the Israeli military while she was covering an IDF raid in occupied Palestine, or the brutal murder-torture of Jamal Shashoggi by the Saudi government, not to mention the many reporters murdered in horrific manners and numbers by cartels in Mexico, terrorists, criminals, and governments alike often target journalists and reporters for the words that they write. Failing that as a threat, censorship and professional practices within media organisations act as another deterrent to ensure a bias and loyal media towards the government or a particular regime.
Modern technology and access to the internet has given many of us the ability to seek out those who report the truth for us. They exist (if one is willing to look for them). They may specialize in certain subjects or they may be broad with a curiosity for information. They may focus on corporate corruption and misconduct, or to the crimes of specific national governments. As the reader and distant voyeur we have the ability to hear and read them, to witness from afar the horrible things being done by those who are powerful and have so much control against the lives on others. Many of them are independent and rely upon the private donations and support of their readership, free of the editorial interests of corporate or government regulations.
So as the new Fletch movie comes out, perhaps we can celebrate the tradition of the past by championing Julian Assange, who in decades past would have been considered a hero. He is a champion for free information and truth, no matter how hideous or dangerous it may be. But with more access to media and information the mainstream culture has turned away from a desire to be informed from as many sources as possible. Instead, it prefers generating a digital realm of bias and comfort input. It’s undesirable to be challenged, to read or hear the truth even (especially) when it goes against the grain. Instead such a media culture keeps men like Jimmy Saville protected until his death and a man like Julian Assange behind bars because he published the facts about war crimes and corruption. A good journalist puts a mirror to the face of power, evil, and society itself. How we react to that reflection says more about us than those who hold up the mirror.
“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets…”- Napoleon Bonaparte
The “Rape of Nanking” is a high watermark of imperial savagery, even in the context of the violent and brutal Japanese Empire. This frenzy of rape and genocide was committed against a Chinese populace after their government abandoned the city and the international community watched in impotent horror as a proud Japanese military conducted itself with dishonor. But courageous individuals defied gangs of Japanese soldiers, exhibiting bravery and moral dignity. In her book The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang concentrates on the eight weeks of terror which in 1937 took the lives of hundreds of thousands.
Iris Chang faced both academic criticism and hate mail when The Rape of Nanking was published in 1997. The aggressive critics did not offer credible refutation to her conclusions and what she presented in her book. It was widely known that the Japanese government had committed atrocities during its imperial phase, including the months of misery that it spent terrorizing civilians and prisoners of war in Nanking. But the true extent and details of the atrocity had never been properly recorded until the publication of Chang’s book. Japanese nationalists immediately and shamelessly attacked the author, desperate to protect the legacy of an ugly empire.
Many of the sources in the book came from eye witness accounts including those who had survived rape and maiming, not to mention a series of confessions from Japanese soldiers who expressed regret after the ejaculation of defeat had allowed remorse to sober their minds. Contemporary news pieces also contributed to her research along with evidence in the many unmarked graves.
It was a crime scene of such a magnitude that only a government could commit, so terrible that it required thousands of willing participants, each using the uniform they wore as a shield from any moral culpability. A crime where Japanese soldiers used their penis and bayonet with such painful and deadly ferocity against babies to the elderly while boasting a Bushido code of honor. It was one of the many crimes against humanity that twentieth century governments inflicted on the world and its innocent. And Chang successfully compiled the evidence against the criminals of Nanking.
Outside of Japan many know that the Japanese Empire was terrible. It was marked with savagery and acts of cowardly violence against the unarmed and innocent. But today many Japanese barely know the details of the savagery their government committed. They understand that they were defeated and see the fire bombing and atomic devastation of cities as punishment for such.
While it’s acknowledged that bad things were done by some people in the Empire, the details and scale are often omitted. This is the pretense of all governments, especially from cultures steeped in pride. Iris Chang’s book is cold water down the spine of Japanese nationalists who cling to the romantic delusions of a better time. A better time for their ancestors perhaps, but not for their victims.
Chang captures the many human stories of courage. An unlikely savior, humanitarian Nazi John Rabe, used his status and position to protect and shelter Chinese civilians from the savage clutches of the Japanese soldiers. At times he risked his own life as he stood between armed Japanese soldiers and the innocent prey that they were seeking to defile and murder. In general the Westerners who bore witness to the savagery reported upon it and did their best to save as many lives that they could. In all approximately twenty foreigners managed to rescue as many as 200,000 Chinese from the Japanese military.
The book covers the military incompetence of the Chinese army that led to the sacrifice of the city, with soldiers dressing as civilians in the hopes of fleeing as refugees. Japanese soldiers showed no mercy to the Chinese army once captured, murdering them in such a large scale that the nearby Yangtze river was full of corpses. With a perverse fetish for murder the Japanese soldiers ran a competition between officers to see who could behead the most Chinese prisoners while others were used for bayonet practice.
The photos inside the book reveal frozen moments of horror, a morbid memento of vulgar savagery as young women lay splayed naked, having been raped and then mutilated to death by the soldiers of Japan. One photo shows a bayonet still deeply embedded inside a dead victim’s vagina along with an image of many severed heads. Another photo is of Chinese civilians bound and coiled in fear as Japanese soldiers, under the guise of training, plunge bayonets into them with sadistic malice. Others of children who had their heads doused in gasoline and then set alight. Chang no doubt came across scores of other photos (many taken by official Japanese government photographers), though the ones contained in the book only add a sickening weight to the written accounts, a frozen reminder of what men are capable of.
Acts of individual courage were exhibited by those like Li Xuuyin, a pregnant eighteen-year-old who fought off several Japanese soldiers with her bare hands. Determined not to be raped, she suffered thirty-seven bayonet wounds before she was left for dead by her tormentors. It would take several months for Li to recover but she would go on to live a long life as a grandmother. And Dr. Robert Wilson, the lone surgeon in the city at the time, fought tirelessly to save lives with his volunteers and minimal resources.
The book includes the comptemporary Japanese critics of the atrocity, including from official photojournalists reporting what they witnessed with revulsion and numbness, unable to stop events only to record them with cold honesty.
Japanese General Iwane Matsui was the initial commander in the operations around Nanking, and once reports of murder, rape, and looting had reached him did his best to scold those involved. He would then go on to tell anyone that would listen about the ill-disciplined atrocities of the soldiers in his charge. “My men have done something very wrong and extremely regrettable,” Matsui said in a dinner toast to a Japanese diplomat. Retiring from the army in 1938, he would go on to be tried and executed for war crimes by the Allies.
To curb the rape frenzy and prevent venereal diseases, the military hierarchy created the “comfort women” system whereby females, most against their will, were recruited to serve as pleasure slaves for the soldiers of empire. So as a means of reward and to control the deadly lust of its men, the Japanese government provided them with girls and women to rape.
As a book it is well written and edited, not just a compilation of statistics and facts, but a narrative that gives the reader space to digest information. Chang is a talented researcher and interviewer whose work gives a degree of intimate revelation to the lives of the victims which only makes the subject matter harder to swallow. You do not read this book to enjoy it or to be entertained but to pay respect to those who suffered and to learn about the shared history of the world.
The Rape of Nanking is a reminder that even when humanity can be terrible and cruel there are individuals who will stand up with courage and risk everything to help strangers. In her own way Iris Chang did that herself, a young woman undertaking the task to tell the many stories of a horrible history. Facing scorn and death threats, along with the brutal reality of the subject matter, Chang slipped into depression and took her own life in 2004. Her book is a testament to her willingness to tell the truth, to champion the lost victims of history, and to put faces on the forgotten many who remain lost and decomposed in unmarked graves.
The rape of Nanking is a crime committed by the Japanese government and the individuals who were responsible for the atrocities. But what occurred isn’t unique to the Japanese, and applies to all of humanity.
The top seller on Amazon for books devoted to war and peace as of this writing, Scott Horton’s newest offering, Hotter than the Sun: Time to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, is a timely must read. As Washington barrels heedlessly along into Cold War II, the American public badly needs educating on the current risks, past close calls, and the utter insanity of an entire for-profit industry built on the flawed concept of thousands of thermonuclear bombs as “weapons” that keep us safe.
With major papers like the Wall Street Journal and New York Times now regularly running pieces arguing everything from the need to show the Russians we aren’t afraid to fight a nuclear war—that we can even “win” one—to the idea that a “small” nuclear war can help mitigate climate change, Scott’s book is a vital weapon in the hands of the sane, convincingly making the case that it really is time to get rid of the thousands of nuclear and thermonuclear bombs in existence.
Because the truth about thousands of nuclear and thermonuclear bombs, the overwhelming majority of which are possessed by the United States and Russia, is immutable. Just as Ronald Reagan said forty years ago, a nuclear war cannot be won and can never be fought.
And forget even about launching a life-ending nuclear exchange on purpose, as Hotter than the Sun notes there have been plenty of accidents that could have resulted in exactly the same outcome. From the Air Force accidentally dropping a nuke over North Carolina to absent-minded technicians dropping wrenches down armed missile silos, careless scientists playing with plutonium rods to the Norwegians launching a satellite, the game theoretical strategic calculations that form the basis of US and Russian nuclear postures mean that an apparent threat or actual detonation on their soil would mean an almost immediate escalation to a full-on nuclear exchange.
Apart from documenting such accidents that nearly resulted in the deaths of potentially millions or billions of people, if not every single one of us, over the course of the ensuing nuclear winter, the book revisits past insanities. From the decision to test the first bomb, despite its creators’ real concerns that it would immediately ignite atmosphere and oceans, instantly killing everyone on earth, to only deciding to drop the first bombs on Japan in order to justify their expense, ensure continued funding for making more, and intimidating the Soviets, Scott’s book takes the reader right up to the present day, where Washington, having started an unnecessary new arms race by unilaterally ripping up important arms control agreements in the name of pursuing a first-strike capability and enriching Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman execs, is now in full panic mode because it is apparently losing.
But it is important to note, as Scott does, that “losing” in Washington’s mind is not being able to potentially threaten with virtual impunity anyone it wants: that is hardly a concern most American voters express, if any.
Important as the topic of nuclear arms is, the over fifteen thousand nuclear and thermonuclear bombs in existence being the number one short-term threat to humanity’s continued existence, Scott’s title frankly sells the book’s contents rather short. At over four hundred pages, consisting of several dozen interviews conducted over a period of nearly two decades, Hotter than the Sun is a critical primer on everything from diplomatic history to U.S. Middle East policy to the military-industrial complex, corporate lobbying, and a range of other issues.
From corporate lobbying for North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion to Israeli misinformation about the fake Iranian nuclear threat to how the decision to invade Iraq was made to why any random Pakistani colonel on the border with India could end all life on earth, Scott and his guests never fail to inform, surprise, disgust, and alarm, with Washington’s misguided, corporatist, imperialist, or just plain idiotic policies usually at or near the root of virtually every serious problem facing humanity today.
Featuring interviews with Daniel Ellsberg, Seymour Hersh, Gar Alperovitz, Chas Freeman, Ray McGovern, Doug Bandow, and many others, Hotter than the Sun is a book worthy of your time and money. And this at a moment when any trip to your local bookstore or Barnes and Noble outlet is sure to leave you much poorer and much more badly informed about the world than you otherwise would have been had you not bought anything to read at all.
This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is republished with permission.