The morality of government

The right to bear arms

The morality of war


Who owns land?


The right to independence

American independence

Basque independence

Northern Ireland

Countries by population

The free market


Crime and punishment

The health industry


The right to independence

In considering the morality of government, I came to the conclusion that it's based entirely on the consent of the governed.

If a government loses the consent of the governed in any region, and that region wishes to become independent, it seems to me that the government has no moral basis for continuing to govern those people, and it should recognize their independence as soon as their wishes have been clearly expressed and proved to be the majority opinion in the region.

If all governments obeyed this principle, and gave independence to any region that wanted it, some people argue that all countries would break down into smaller and smaller units, and that this would become ridiculous and unworkable.

My answer is that people who have a right to do something will do it only if they feel it's in their interests. Most regions of most countries have no desire for independence and wouldn't ask for it. There are a few regions of a few countries that would immediately seek independence, given the chance. There are others that would consider it. Regions considering independence would naturally look at other similar regions that had already obtained it, and consider how they had fared. People would learn by experience that independence is workable in some circumstances and not in others. In cases where it turned out to be unworkable, the region could ask to be accepted back into its original country; or it could indeed ask to be accepted into a different country.

It's worth mentioning that the number of countries in the world has already increased considerably during the last century. According to an article in The Economist (3 Jan 1998), at the beginning of the First World War the world contained only 62 independent countries. By now there are about 200 of them, and most of them have populations of less than ten million. Dozens of them have populations of less than one million. Yet they seem to get along all right. Small is not necessarily ridiculous. The ten biggest countries in the world include China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nigeria — all of which are much poorer, per head, than most of the smallest countries in the world.

It's no longer the case that you need a large country to benefit from economies of scale. Industrial economies of scale are no longer as important as they were. Industries in which economies of scale are still important are increasingly dominated by large international companies that can locate their facilities in any country — even in small countries.

The military case for large countries is also weaker than it used to be. The USA, uncontestably the world's greatest military power, spends a lot of money maintaining that power, but is greatly inhibited from using it by its own public opinion; and it also frequently finds itself helpless in the face of terrorism and guerilla warfare. Meanwhile most small countries spend little on their armed forces, and seem no worse off for it.

The American paradox

My emphasis on the consent of the governed is, of course, taken directly from the American Declaration of Independence, written not only to declare but to justify the unilateral seizure of independence by British citizens living in British colonies in America.

It's very odd to see that many modern Americans apparently repudiate the principles of their country's founders. They no longer seem to care about the consent of the governed, instead declaring with passion that their country is indivisible and that no state is legally entitled to leave the union.

Well, I'm neither a lawyer nor an American, so I won't try to explore this legal issue; but I'm not discussing legality, I'm discussing morality.

According to my own morality, it's immoral to govern without the consent of the governed. Naturally, you're free to disagree, though I find it difficult to understand why anyone would want to.

In many countries (perhaps including the USA) it is legal to govern without the consent of the governed. Unfortunately, there's nothing to stop governments from passing immoral laws, unless large numbers of voters have strong feelings about it.

Some Americans appear to misread their own declaration of independence as saying that governments derive their just powers from the consent of a majority of the governed: and therefore the dissent of one region is irrelevant if it's outvoted by the rest.

But the declaration didn't say that, and it had good reason for not saying that. In 1770 the population of the American colonies was about two million, and the population of Britain (not counting Ireland) was at least nine million. It would have been a pretty good tactic on the part of the British government to have given the American colonists the vote. The colonists could have been easily outvoted by the Brits back home on any issue, and furthermore, having the vote, they could have been asked to pay tax at normal British levels.

I quote Niall Ferguson's book Empire:

In 1763 the average Briton paid 26 shillings a year in taxes. The equivalent figure for a Massachusetts taxpayer was just one shilling.