The case of Elián Gonzálas began as a human interest story on a slow news day. But it has emerged as a test case in civil disobedience and even political secession. Just how far can one group, united in politics and national identity, go in defying the demands of the central state? Already, residents of Little Havana, Florida, say they are willing to secede to prevent Janet Reno from sending Elián back to his father.
On one hand, the Cuban community in Miami is wrong on the issue. The boy belongs with his father in Cuba, not distant relatives in a foreign country. The fact that Cuba is not free and democratic has nothing to do with it. Hong Kong has a freer economy than the US, yet its residents do not have the right to harbor an American child against his father's wishes. The Cubans in America originally said that the father would have to pick up the child if he wanted him back; now they say they won't let him go no matter what.
On the other hand, Janet Reno of Washington, DC, has no business intervening in a custody dispute more than 1,000 miles from her office. Moreover, she lacks moral credibility as a reliable custodian of any child's rights, as Cubans in America intuitively understand. It was she who ordered the assault on Waco that ended in the deaths of many children in the name of stopping child abuse. Cuban Americans are right to resent her intrusion. As for jurisdiction, in the early American republic this issue would have been settled by the states, which were in charge of immigration issues.
But the case is mainly interesting because of its implications over the future of DC's ability to maintain its sovereign control over a country far too big to be managed from the center. In Little Havana, the language spoken is Spanish and the flag flown is Cuban. The national identity of the people is not American but Cuban. Right now, resentment is high against the US government for refusing their demand to keep the boy. Reporters are quoting residents saying that if they were black, for example, they would be getting better treatment from the INS.
The family caring for the child has sent mixed messages on whether they will let the child go if the INS arrives to demand him. But regardless of how the case is resolved, the reality of a separate political identity and distinct political aspirations will not go away. If the community wants to secede peacefully-and if a vote were taken today, that would certainly be the result-what's the harm? The economic prospects of the city would not only not be damaged (there would still be trade) but improved (they could stop paying tribute to a government they don't support).
This isn't just idle speculation. One-hundred fifty years ago, the Southern states seceded to protect their political independence and economic interests. And they were within their constitutional rights to have done so. (If you still believe the Civil War was about freeing slaves, you must read Charles Adams's great book, When in the Course of Human Events, which marshals all new evidence that it was really about taxes.)
More recently, secessionist strains have been pulling at many multiethnic cities in the US, where, typically, the suburbs seek political independence from the city government so they won't have to keep paying high taxes for bad services and bad schools. The case of Miami is slightly different and much more radical: here you have secessionist aspirations directed not against a city but the national government.
But isn't all this talk of ethnic solidarity and the right to group identity leading to illiberal results? A few weeks ago, political philosopher David Conway of Middlesex University gave a lecture at the Austrian Scholars Conference in which he explained that national aspirations of groups united by ethnicity and race can be compatible with classical liberalism. To strive for independence can also mean resisting encroachments by distant political elites to exercise arbitrary control over a sovereign territory.
Professor Conway discussed the case of England and its relations with the government of Europe in Brussels. Opposition to wholesale political unification and cultural integration is high and exacerbated by the perception that Brussels will be in a position to dictate policies to the UK. The same is true with regard to the position of the US vis-a-vis Nafta or the New World Order generally. Increasingly, people of many countries are standing up and saying: we will not be submerged.
The same national sentiments can inspire political revolt inside countries that have been artificially constructed along geographic lines irrespective of differences in local demographic features. Not only Miami but many other parts of the country have groups that are demanding secession from an outdated and oppressive system of centralized control.
Secession.net says that "At least 5,000 ethnic, linguistic and racial groups are lumped together into only 189 nation states. Most of the world's violent conflicts are related to struggles for dominance within or independence from some large, multi-national nation state. A large portion of the world's people would choose to secede from their respective nation states if given the opportunity."
But wouldn't the world collapse into chaos if the number of states multiplied by 26 times the present number? By no means, because each territory would be more dependent on trade with its neighbors and have a greater incentive to maintain peace. More political competition would create downward pressure on taxes and regulations because people could vote with their feet to migrate to the freest states.
No country would be in a position to starve another country, as the US has attempted to do with countries like Iraq and Cuba. Miami would be free to boycott Cuba. But the rest of the US would be free from the political influence of the Cubans in America who are the reason the ridiculous boycott continues at all. And free trade would force Castro to relax his grip on power, thereby achieving what the Cubans in America, claim they are trying to achieve.
In fact, a world without superpowers, but rather 5,000 free and independent states, is a beautiful vision that fits nicely with the classical liberalism of Thomas Jefferson or Ludwig von Mises (both supporters of secessionist aspirations), as is thoroughly spelled out in David Gordon's spectacular volume Secession, State, and Liberty. Yes, there would be wars, and there might even be child custody disputes, but they would be limited to the city-states that are party to the conflict.
Regardless of how the case of Elián is settled, the issue is not going away. The left-liberal dream, repeated like a mantra by Clinton, that "diversity is our strength" is not true so long as radically different groups are governed by a single, centrally imposed policy regime. In fact, the opposite is true: secession is the path to peace and strength. This is the direction that history is headed, and not toward the New World Order dreamed up by would-be totalitarians in days gone by.