Last month, a group of activists in Weld County, Colorado, began to argue that the county should leave Colorado and be annexed by the state of Wyoming.
Weld County borders Wyoming to the north and extends south to the northern part of the Denver metro area. It is the ninth largest county in Colorado in terms of population, with over 252,000 residents. If it joined Wyoming, it would become Wyoming’s largest county by far in terms of population. With a population of just 580,000, Wyoming’s overall population would increase by 43% if the state annexed Weld County.
Weld County secessionists are now pushing for a voting measure that would ask Weld County commissioners to explore annexation with Wyoming. Even with the success of a very weak electoral measure like this, the county would still be a long way from effective secession and annexation. Nonetheless, Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon has already expressed his intention to jump on the bandwagon, telling a Denver-based radio station he supports the idea.
The response from opponents has been a predictable mix of mockery and hostility. Colorado Governor Jared Polis told Gordon to keep his “hands away from Weld County.” A local resident called the effort “ridiculous”. But hostilities between the county’s residents and the state government are sure to continue. An activist for the prosecution claimed that the state government “is at war with three main economic engines in County Weld: small business, agriculture, and oil and gas.”
The comments stem from fights between county residents and the state government over stay-at-home orders, water use and resource extraction.
In the governor’s stay-at-home decision last spring, Weld County was among the few counties that refused to implement state mandates on business closings. Governor Polis responded by threatening to withhold county emergency funds. The county quickly dismissed its threat and noted that it had already received its emergency funds and was not planning to ask for more. The county also said it would not enforce state orders regarding wearing masks indoors.
On top of that, the administration clashed with county officials and residents over water use and environmental regulatory issues related to oil and gas extraction, which make up a significant portion of the county’s economy and employment.
What is the moral argument against secession?
Legally, a region of a state must overcome many obstacles to leave one state and join another. Indeed, the US government and state governments have built a whole legal edifice to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen. The consensus seems to be that such a decision requires the approval of all the states directly concerned, plus the approval of Congress. Obviously, unless the United States is plunged into political disarray by a major destabilizing event – such as a severe depression, a precipitous decline in the regime’s perceived legitimacy, or a sovereign debt crisis – efforts to redrawing state lines are unlikely to succeed.
Nonetheless, until at least one of these major crises occurs – which is, of course, practically guaranteed with a sufficiently long time horizon – it is worth asking: what is the moral case, if any. , against secession?
Opponents tend to scoff at the idea because they know that in the short term there are many political and legal obstacles.
But because of this, they tend to ignore issues related to their position.
One problem is that opposing secession on principle requires negating the idea of self-determination. Of course, counties, regions and districts do not in themselves have the right to “self-determination”. These rights are exercised only by individuals. However, for self-determination to exist at the practical level, individuals must be free to assert their autonomy through local institutions as opposed to the powers of a central government. Mises was careful to make this distinction in his 1927 book Liberalism:
To call this right to self-determination the “right to self-determination of nations” is misunderstanding. It is not the right to self-determination of a delimited national unit, but the right of the inhabitants of each territory to decide on the state to which they wish to belong…. [T]The right to self-determination we are talking about is not the right to self-determination of nations, but rather the right to self-determination of the inhabitants of each territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit.
Mises imagined that this could be accomplished through plebiscites at the level of a “single village, an entire district or a series of adjacent districts”.
In other words, in order for people to be able to exercise their rights to political self-determination, it is necessary to enable them to join political jurisdictions which reflect their own personal needs and opinions.
However, those who oppose secession actually insist that it is necessary for a person to move themselves and their belongings – perhaps hundreds of miles away – to another jurisdiction if not. not satisfied with the status quo.
But how does this make sense in a region where the overwhelming majority of residents are seeking to leave a particular state? Shouldn’t these people be allowed to live under state and local government that reflects their values?
What about the minority who prefer the status quo?
This brings us to a common objection among anti-secessionists: what about these people? against secession and support the status quo?
This is a common strategy used to denigrate secession, as with the Catalan secession in Spain or the notion of California secession. Loyalists in American history, of course, opposed American secession from the British Empire. The argument is this: Secessionist regions should never be allowed to leave. This is because anti-secessionist minority populations will be deprived of their right to self-determination.
Note, however, the contradiction inherent in the anti-secessionist position. Anti-secessionists apparently only care about minority rights when they contribute to their political position. In our example, if 70% of the county is seeking secession, that means 30% of the population of Weld County wishes to remain in Colorado. The anti-secessionists naturally tell us that we are supposed to be deeply concerned about this. But at the same time, anti-secessionists look the other way when it is a minority group that seeks secession. In other words, if a minority of Coloradans concentrated in a particular region wishes to part ways with Colorado, it will be just bad luck. In this way of thinking, the regional anti-secessionist minority always trumps the secessionist minority of the whole state.
Secessionists, on the other hand – if they are ideologically consistent – do not have this problem. A consistent secessionist will not object if part of the proposed secessionist district votes to remain in the old jurisdiction. In our Weld County scenario, a secessionist would not object to the county being partitioned to make it easier for anti-secessionists to remain part of Colorado.
It doesn’t give everyone exactly what they want, of course. But it goes a long way towards expanding self-determination without forcing residents to relocate to a remote community. In other words, under the status quo, a secessionist deprived of self-determination would be forced to resettle completely outside the community. But if the secessionist quarter is partitioned, then those who wish to retain the status quo are likely to have to move just a few miles or even just down the road.
Democracy does not solve these problems
A third big mistake made by secessionists is to think that “democracy” somehow solves all these problems. The claim is something like this: “If the people of Weld County are not happy with Colorado’s policies, they should contact their elected officials and pass legislation to change things!” It’s the old ‘stronger vote’ claim – the idea that one group that is hopelessly outnumbered by another group could possibly win in a democratic setting by voting.
It takes a high degree of naivety to think that the mere act of administering legislation, voting or calling on its political representatives is sufficient to elicit a fair response through a statewide political process where minority groups are generally powerless. After all, the people of Weld County are likely to have very different ideological views, different economic needs, and different cultural backgrounds than those in other parts of the state. Often different views and needs are mutually exclusive or even in direct conflict with each other. While most Weld County residents favor widespread gun ownership – but a majority in the rest of the state is against it – Weld County residents cannot hope for political victories in this regard, what regardless of the number of bills they issue or the number of calls they make to the governor’s office.
Unfortunately, these problems are likely to persist in the short to medium term, as Americans have grown accustomed to seeing national and state borders as immovable and almost sacrosanct. In practice, however, the borders of a state should evolve over time to reflect demographic and ideological realities. By denying this, political leaders are effectively saying that the rights of minority populations do not matter.
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