Is Secession a Good Idea?

I’m not talking about secession in the United States, where the issue is linked to the ugliness of slavery (though at least Walter Williams can write about the issue without the risk of being accused of closet racism).

But what about Europe? I have a hard time understanding why nations on the other side of the Atlantic should not be allowed to split up if there are fundamental differences between regions. Who can be against the concept of self-determination?

Heck, tiny Liechtenstein explicitly gives villages the right to secede if two-thirds of voters agree. Shouldn’t people in other nations have the same freedom?

This is not just a hypothetical issue. Secession has become hot in several countries, with Catalonia threatening to leave Spain and Scotland threatening to leave the United Kingdom.

But because of recent election results, Belgium may be the country where an internal divorce is most likely. Here are some excerpts from a report in the UK-based Financial Times.

Flemish nationalists made sweeping gains across northern Belgium in local elections on Sunday, a success that will bolster separatists’ hopes for a break-up of the country. Bart De Wever, leader of the New Flemish Alliance (NVA), is set to become mayor of the northern city of Antwerp, Belgium’s economic heartland, after his party emerged as the largest one, ending about 90 years of socialist rule. …The strong result recorded by the Flemish nationalist is likely to have an impact across Europe, where the sovereign debt crisis, which has seen rich countries bail out poor ones, has revived separatist sentiment throughout the continent. Flanders, which is the most economically prosperous region of Belgium, has long resented financing the ailing economy of French-speaking Wallonia, and Sunday’s victory will strengthen its demand for self-rule. Lieven De Winter, a political scientist at Université Catholique de Louvain, said that Mr De Wever’s victory was a clear step forward for separatists who had long been campaigning for secession from the southern part of the country.

Purely as a matter of political drama, this is an interesting development. We saw the peaceful split of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia about 20 years ago. But we also saw a very painful breakup of Yugoslavia shortly thereafter.

Belgium’s divorce, if it happened, would be tranquil. But it would still be remarkable, particularly since it might encourage peaceful separatist movements in other regions of other nations.

I think this would be a welcome development for reasons I wrote about last month. Simply stated, the cause of liberty is best advanced by having a a large number of competing jurisdictions.

I’ve opined about this issue many times, usually from a fiscal policy perspective, explaining that governments are less likely to be oppressive when they know that people (or their money) can cross national borders.

Belgium definitely could use a big dose of economic liberalization. The burden of government spending is enormous, consuming 53.5 percent of economic output - worse than all other European nations besides Denmark, France, and Finland. The top tax rate on personal income is a crippling 53.7 percent, second only the Sweden. And with a 34 percent rate, the corporate tax rate is very uncompetitive, behind only France.

Sadly, there’s little chance of reform under the status quo since the people in Wallonia view high tax rates as a tool for extracting money from their neighbors in Flanders. But if Belgium split up, it’s quite likely that both new nations would adopt better policy as a signal to international investors and entrepreneurs. Or maybe the new nations would implement better policy as part of a friendly rivalry with each other.

So three cheers for peaceful secession and divorce in Belgium. At least we know things can’t get worse.

P.S. Brussels is the capital of Belgium, but it is also the capital of the European Union. Don’t be surprised if it becomes some sort of independent federal city if Flanders and Wallonia become independent. Sort of like Washington, but worse. Why worse? Because even though Washington is akin to a city of parasites feasting off the productive energy of the rest of America, Brussels and the European Union are an even more odious cesspool of harmonization, bureaucratization, and centralization, richly deserving of attacks from right, left, and center.