Personal secession and the spontaneous ordering of political jurisdictions


Citizens, as consumers of political goods, face a cost-benefit calculus associated with the decision to stay in a particular jurisdiction—a state, whether a nation-state or a regional state—or whether to exit to one with a better ratio of benefits to costs. In this way, political decentralisation and citizen mobility promotes an efficient allocation of policies and people over jurisdictions.

But at a deeper level this model highlights a basic symmetry between the redrawing of political maps—whether by war and conquest, by negotiation and purchase, or by secession or integration—and the movement of people. If people can move, states don’t have to.

From this insights, it would seem that there are two limitations of the territorial political sorting model: (1) the map of jurisdictions is given and arbitrary, and (2) the resulting constellation of citizens emerges from choice of public goods and not groups of citizens. States sometimes do move (or rather, their borders do), and citizens do seek to agglomerate with specific other citizens and choose groups as much as they choose local public goods.

It’s my claim that the jurisdictional shape of states can be understood as a spontaneous order outcome of this process at the level of personal secession and group formation. Moreover, in non-territorial solutions to political problems people seek out each other to form club-like associations and furnish public goods among themselves… states move so people don’t have to.

Already there are three established theories of more-or-less consciously planned or spontaneous orders in politics. Gus diZerega makes a similar distinction between ‘state’ and ‘democracy’ to that of F.A. Hayek between ‘economy’ and ‘catallaxy.’ He argues that democracy, properly understood, is a spontaneous order that cultivates a civil society freely pursuing diverse and disparate goals.

David Andersson extends the analysis to a polycentric setting (i.e., local government, economic clubs, federalism, international migration, etc.) and argues that democracy in fact comprises of two spontaneous orders; the lower-level order that diZerega describes and the higher-level order in which citizens signal dissatisfaction (or assent) of political conditions by relocating between jurisdictions.

Finally, Richard E. Wagner argues that states are orders and not organisations (contra diZerega), and even monocentric states are in fact polycentric orders in and of themselves (contra Andersson). That is, the state is an arena of interaction—not an organisation but an arena hosting many distinct organisations—like market activity, state activity emerges out of entrepreneurial action (i.e., say between political factions, special interests, etc.), and is therefore spontaneously ordered and not planned.

I would like to propose a new theory of spontaneous political order by combining the approaches of diZerega, Andersson and Wagner and extending them. My focus here, however, is not on policy or citizen mobility, but boundary mobility. That is, there are two means of jurisdictional change via exit in polycentric democracies: (1) citizen mobility and (2) boundary mobility. This means that there are two means of spontaneous ordering a political jurisdictions too. Instead of policy and jurisdictional change being linked solely to citizen mobility across pre-existing boundaries, the spontaneous order is also stimulated by boundary mobility: external and internal rebordering, and secession and integration. Together citizen and boundary mobility contribute to the jurisdictional order, and under certain conditions, form a higher-level spontaneous order of polycentric democracy.

Jurisdictional change (to move borders or secede) typically requires collective action and cannot be achieved unilaterally or without some sort of collective legitimation, such as citizen (demos) assent; it therefore often falls into the domain of democratic decision-making. In other cases, boundary change has been the result of political machinations within and between state actors, and falls into the domain of elite competition within a polycentric state organisation. In addition, there is a third theory of how boundary change processes operate: increasingly the catalyst for such change is spontaneously arisen, networked individuals.

So for the citizen mobility side of jurisdictional change, we have the options: (1) the elite can plan and execute population transfers; (2) the demos can decide on population transfers; or (3) individual citizens can personally move. similarly for boundary mobility: (1) the political elite can instantiate the change (i.e., as consciously planned or emergent/spontaneous order); (2) the citizenry-at-large can use democratic means (i.e., referenda, elections); or (3) individual citizens can personally secede (at least conceptually).

Let me suggest that we can position each mode of jurisdictional ordering along a spectrum from consciously planned to spontaneous. As a cursory reading, we suggest that from (1) to (3) jurisdictional change becomes ‘more spontaneous’ and that this applies for both citizen mobility and boundary mobility (see FIGURE 1 below).


Jurisdictional change emanating from the state is closest to the rational constructivist end of the spectrum, depending on the conditions of political entrepreneurial competition within the state organisation. Consider an internal rebordering between multiple ethno-linguistic regions in a multinational state: contrast a strong unitary power that deigns the specifics of the boundary change to the uncertainty, conflict, and bargaining over a negotiated outcome between affected communities. Next, jurisdictional change emanating from civil society or democratic assent is likely further along the spectrum towards spontaneous jurisdictional order. Potentially the entirety of all affected communities could be included in the decision making process (i.e., a referendum), which is certainly ‘more spontaneous’ than competitive machinations between political representatives within the arena of the state.

Finally, I submit that the ‘most spontaneous’ of the modes of jurisdictional ordering is when individual citizens personally move between or secede from jurisdictions. The easier it is for citizens to move between jurisdictions, the more spontaneously ordered is the resulting jurisdictional order. Consequently, boundary mobility should have the same effect as citizen mobility: the easier it is to reborder or secede from jurisdictions, the more spontaneously ordered is the resulting jurisdictional order.

As you move along the spectrum from left to right personal exit becomes easier, and jurisdictional ordering becomes more fluid. It’s easier to exit if you don’t have to move; and ease of exit correlates to the quality of the signals that agents look for in a polycentric democracy. Personal secession would therefore appear to outperform personal mobility on both of these scores: citizens are able to move to a new jurisdiction without having to move location. For this reason I would tentatively suggest that personal secession is the ‘most spontaneous’ of spontaneous jurisdictional orders.


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