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Social Conflict, Self-Determination, and the Boundaries of the State

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For the advocate of classical or market liberalism, the depoliticization of economic life is considered the primary avenue for the diminishment of social and cultural tensions in society. The removal of the state from all involvement in market activities, other than as protector of life and property and legal arbiter of interpersonal disputes, means that political power may not be used to benefit any in the society at the expense of others.

In the free-market society, all human relationships are based on voluntary agreement and mutual benefit. Individuals can be neither compelled to nor prohibited from trading with any others in the society. Every citizen in the classical-liberal society may freely compete in any line of endeavor in which he chooses to try his hand; his success or failure will depend upon whether those to whom he offers his product or service view what he has for sale as being more attractive than what they might acquire from his rivals. The free man in a classical-liberal world may live wherever he desires, restrained by neither emigration prohibitions nor immigration barriers; all he need do is to pay the price demanded on the market to those offering transportation services to the desired destination, and then to purchase or rent accommodations from those who own property in the location in which he wants to take up either temporary or permanent residence.

In the community of free men, no man may be forced to speak a particular language, practice any specific customs or traditions, or contribute to any cause or charity that he does not personally wish to assist with either his time or money. But at the same time, he cannot force any others to speak his language, practice his customs or traditions, or contribute to the causes and charities that he considers worthy of support. Out of either conviction, preference, or practical convenience, every man in the free society chooses to speak one or more languages, adheres to one or several sets of customs or traditions, and participates, to one extent or another, in the cultural and social activities of the subgroups of the wider community he voluntarily decides to be a part of.

The free society spontaneously generates various integrated and segregated social relationships. For some, it will not matter with whom they rub shoulders when they patronize a restaurant for a meal or a drink. For others, it will be “intolerable” to have to sit next to people of a particular social or racial background if one is to enjoy an evening out. In the free society, some people will thrive on cultural diversity, while others may only want to predominantly interact with “their own kind.” But even these distinctions will be blurred to various degrees, because even the most tolerant of human souls will have discriminatory standards and preferences for some personal relationships, while even the most bigoted individual will find it useful to go beyond his own narrow circle for certain transactions and associations for his individual betterment.

But regardless of how depoliticized and open the free society, the fact remains that in any given country, there will sometimes be one or more minorities that feel put upon by the majority. This may occur not because the state has or uses its power to coercively discriminate against a particular group, but simply because some larger group uses another language, practices other customs and traditions, and shares a different historical memory. The signs in the stores and the laws passed by the legislature are in a different language than that of those in the minority. The customs and holidays observed by the majority are different from theirs. Even in the freest and most tolerant country, a minority speaking a different language and having different traditions and cultural mores may feel excluded. The minority feels separate and apart.

In the world as it is today, these inevitable feelings of apartness that a member of a linguistic or ethnic minority may experience are amplified precisely because the state has and uses its political authority to discriminate against and persecute various groups in numerous ways in countries around the globe. One of the answers to this problem that was developed in the 19th and 20th centuries is the idea of the right of secession, or the right to self-determination through the method of a plebiscite.

What such a policy of self-determination should mean from a classical-liberal perspective has been explained by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises in his book Liberalism (1927):

The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish to either form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars. . . .

The 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. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done. This is impracticable only because of compelling technical considerations, which make it necessary that a region be governed as a single administrative unit and that the right of self-determination be restricted to the will of the majority of the inhabitants of areas large enough to count as territorial units in the administration of the country.

For more than two years, tensions have been growing between Russia and Ukraine over a number of political and economic issues, but one of the most heated has been the political status of the Crimean Peninsula along the Black Sea. Famous as the site of the Yalta Conference during World War II, Crimea has a population of 2.7 million people, of which about 70 percent are ethnic Russians. Another 20 percent are Ukrainian (though most of them speak Russian), with an additional 200,000 people being Crimean Tartars. The Crimea was conquered by Imperial Russia from the Turkish Empire in the 18th century, and was the site of “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” made famous in Lord Tennyson’s poem about the Crimean War between Russia and Britain and France in the middle of the 19th century. Under Soviet rule, the Crimea was a part of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic. In 1944, Stalin deported practically the entire indigenous Tartar population to Soviet Central Asia, accusing them of having collaborated with the Nazis during the war. In 1954, Nikita Khrushchev gave the Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as a “gift.”

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Crimean peninsula remained a part of independent Ukraine. In February and March of 1994, elections were held for a president and for deputies of the regional Crimean parliament. Russians voted overwhelmingly for candidates advocating either greater autonomy or independence for the Crimea, or its reunification with Russia. The Tartar minority predominantly voted for candidates supporting Ukrainian control, since many of them were fearful of renewed persecution if they came under Russian authority.

In May 1994, the Crimean parliament voted to establish the Crimea as an autonomous political entity relatively free of Ukrainian control. The Ukrainian government in Kiev responded that this threatened the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state and would not be tolerated. Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned Kiev: “No forcible actions against Crimea should be undertaken. Crimea is an independent republic within Ukraine. It has the right to its own political stand, to make its own decisions.” The Russian military daily newspaper Red Star stated that “if a conflict flares up, it will eclipse in its scale everything we have encountered before.” And Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev said: “The Yugoslav drama should not be repeated in Crimea. There the [war] started with demands of sovereignty and ultimatums to back up state integrity.”

How should the matter be settled? The classical-liberal solution, as outlined by Professor Mises, would suggest that each village and town in the Crimea should have a plebiscite, in which the residents would decide between independence, reunification with Russia, or continuing political ties with Ukraine. Portions of the Crimea, on a new political map, might look like a colored checkerboard, with some villages where the majority of the occupants are Tartar being the same color as Ukraine. Other portions of the Crimea, perhaps most of the peninsula, would be the same color as Russia on the map. And possibly some areas would be a color different from either Ukraine or Russia, being those districts or towns in which the majority had opted to form a separate Crimean government.

Would this prevent the continuing discomfort of some ethnic or linguistic minorities who might still find themselves surrounded by a majority of people who speak a different language or practice different customs in the village or town in which they reside, or would it prevent political discrimination and favoritism against them by the majority if state power was used in this way? Unfortunately, no. But it would tend to minimize the number of people who might find themselves in the situation of being an ethnic or linguistic minority within a political entity.

And equally unfortunate, this in no way assures that the political entities created and reshaped by means of political self-determination through the mechanism of the plebiscite will follow classical-liberal policies within their new borders. Indeed, in the present ideological environment that envelops the world today, it is highly unlikely. Faith in the state as the great god who cares for all of man’s needs is still too strong an element in people’s minds. But while a policy of political self-determination would not guarantee domestic liberty in the political entities created through means of local plebiscites, it would minimize one of the causes of civil war and international conflict.

State borders and political frontiers would no longer be determined by blood and conquest, but by the local choices of the people themselves who reside in each and every corner of the world. And they could be open to revision and change periodically as demographics and people’s preferences changed. A plebiscite might be held once every ten years, as a formality. Or it could be held whenever, for example, two-thirds of the population in an area petitioned for the holding of a plebiscite. Such a system for the defining of the boundaries of political entities does not necessarily imply an exclusionist nationalism. The people of some regions, towns, and districts might wish to form separate states that are consciously multiethnic, multilinguistic and culturally diverse precisely because of the societal advantages of such pluralistic communities (see “National Conflicts, Market Liberalism and Social Peace,” Freedom Daily, May 1994).

While the principle of political self-determination neither establishes nor guarantees a regime of liberty within the states created through the method of local plebiscites, it does offer a classical-liberal alternative to the linguistic, ethnic, and racial wars of the type that have been pulling apart the former Yugoslavia, South Africa, Rwanda, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and which threaten a growing number of other countries around the world. And by reducing international tensions and domestic civil conflicts, political self-determination might help foster a social climate more conducive to the establishment of the self-determination of individual liberty within nations over time, as well.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).