Last month, a group of activists in Weld County, Colorado began floating the idea that the county should leave Colorado and be annexed by the state of Wyoming.
Weld county borders Wyoming on the north and runs southward to the northern part of the metro Denver area. It is the ninth largest county in Colorado by population, containing more than 252,000 residents. Were it to join Wyoming, it would become the largest Wyoming county—by far—in terms of population. With a population of only 580,000, Wyoming’s overall population would increase by 43 percent were the state to annex Weld County.
The Weld County secessionists are now pushing a ballot measure that would instruct Weld County commissioners to explore the annexation with Wyoming. Even with the success of a very weak ballot measure like this, the county would still be still be a long, long way from an effective secession and annexation. Nonetheless, the governor of Wyoming, Mark Gordon, has already expressed jumped on the bandwagon, telling a Denver-based radio station that he supports the idea.
The response from opponents has been a predictable mixture of mockery and hostility. The Colorado governor, Jared Polis, told Gordon to keep his “hands off Weld County.” One local resident called the effort “ridiculous.” But hostilities between county residents and the state government are sure to remain. One pro-secession activist contended the state government “is at war with three major economic drivers for Weld County: small businesses, agriculture, and oil and gas.”
These comments stem from fights between county residents and the state government over stay-at-home orders, water, and resource extraction.
During the stay-at-home order imposed by the governor last spring, Weld County was among the few counties that refused to enforce state mandates on business closures. Governor Polis responded by threatening to withhold emergency funds from the county. The county quickly brushed off his threat and noted it had already received its emergency funds and wasn’t planning to request any more. The county has also declared it will not enforce state orders regarding the wearing of masks indoors.
On top of this, the administration has clashed with county officials and residents over matters of water use and environmental regulation related to oil and gas extraction, which comprise a major part of the county’s economy and employment.
What Is the Moral Argument Against Secession?
Legally, a region of a state must jump through many hoops to leave one state and join another. Indeed, the US government and state government have built up quite a legal edifice to ensure this sort of thing doesn’t happen. The consensus appears to be that such a move requires approval from all states directly affected, plus, approval from Congress. Clearly, unless the US is thrown into political disarray by a major destabilizing event—like a serious depression, a precipitous decline in the regime’s perceived legitimacy, or a sovereign debt crisis—efforts at redrawing state lines are unlikely to succeed.
Nonetheless, until at least one of these major crises occur—which is, of course, virtually guaranteed with a longe enough time horizon—it is helpful to ask: what is the moral case, if any, against secession?
Opponents tend to scoff at the idea because they know that in the short term the political and legal obstacles are many.
But because of this, they tend to ignore the problems that come with their position.
One problem arises from the fact that opposing secession on principle requires the negation of the idea of self-determination. Naturally, counties, regions, and districts do not in themselves have rights to “self determination.” These rights are only enjoyed by individuals. However, in order for self-determination to exist on a practical level, individuals must be free to assert self-governance through local institutions in opposition to the powers of a central government. Mises was careful to make this distinction in his 1927 book Liberalism:
To call this right of self-determination the “right of self-determination of nations” is to misunderstand it. It is not the right of self-determination of a delimited national unit, but the right of the inhabitants of every territory to decide on the state to which they wish to belong. … [T]he right of self-determination of which we speak 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.
Mises imagined this could be accomplished through plebiscites at the level of a “single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts.”
In other words, in order to provide opportunities for persons to exercise their rights to political self-determination, it is necessary to allow them to join political jurisdictions that reflect their own needs and personal views.
Those who oppose secession, however, in effect insist that it is necessary that a person move himself and his property—possibly hundreds of miles—to another jurisdiction if he is not pleased with the status quo.
But how does this make sense in a region where the overwhelming majority of residents seek to exit from a particular state? Should not these people be allowed to live under a state and local government that reflects their values?
What About the Minority that Prefers the Status Quo?
This brings us to a common objection among anti-secessionists: what about those people who are against secession and support the status quo?
This is a common strategy employed to disparage secession, such as with the Catalonian secession in Spain, or the notion of Californian secession. The Loyalists of American history, of course opposed the American secession from the British Empire. The argument goes like this: the secessionist regions must never be allowed to leave. This is because the anti-secessionist minority populations will be deprived of their right to self-determination.
Note the inherent contradiction in the anti-secessionist position, however. Anti-secessionists are apparently only concerned with minority rights when it helps their political position. In our example, if 70 percent of the county seek secession, that means 30 percent of the Weld County population wishes to remain part of Colorado. anti-secessionists naturally tell us we’re supposed to be deeply concerned about that. But at the same time, the anti-secessionists look the other way when its a minority group that seeks secession. In other words, if a minority of Coloradans concentrated in a particular area wish to break off from Colorado, we’ll that’s just tough luck. In this way of thinking, the anti-secessionist regional minority always trumps the secessionist statewide minority.
Secessionists, on the other hand—if they are ideologically consistent—do not have this problem. A consistent secessionist will not object if one portion of the proposed secessionist district votes to remain part of the old jurisdiction. In our Weld County scenario, a secessionist would not object if the county were partitioned to make it easier for anti-secessionists to remain part of Colorado.
This doesn’t give everyone exactly what they want, of course. But it goes a long way toward expanding self-determination without forcing residents to relocate to a distant community. That is, under the status quo, a secessionist denied self-determination would be forced to completely relocate outside the community. But if the secessionist district is partitioned, then those who wish to retain the status quo, are likely to find themselves needed to relocate only a few miles, or even just down the street.
Democracy Doesn’t Solve These Problems
A third big mistake made by the secessionists is their thinking that “democracy” somehow solves all these problems. The claim goes something like this: “If people in Weld County are unhappy with policies in Colorado, they should contact their elected representatives and run legislation to change things!” This is the old “vote harder” claim—the idea that a group that’s hopelessly outnumbered by another group could possibly prevail in a democratic setting by voting.
It requires a high degree of naivete to think that just running legislation, voting, or calling one’s political representatives is enough to get a fair shake through a statewide political process where minority groups are generally powerless. After all, people in Weld County are likely to have very different ideological views, different economic needs, and different cultural backgrounds that people in other parts of the state. Often, differing views and needs will be mutually exclusive or even in direct conflict with each other. If most residents of Weld County favor widespread gun ownership—but a majority in the rest of the state is against it—Weld County residents can’t hope for any political victories in this regard no matter how many bills they run or how many calls they make to the governor’s office.
Unfortunately, these problems are likely to persis in the short and medium term because Americans have grown accustomed to regarding state and national boundaries as immovable and very nearly sacrosact. In practice, however, a state’s borders should change over time to reflect demographic and ideological realities. By denying this, political leaders are effectively saying that the rights of minority populations don’t matter.