Creative ambiguity, Scottish independence, and sudden death

Many political unions subsist on creative ambiguity.  That is, if the right question were posed, and the citizenry forced to answer it definitely, political order might spin out of control.

Canada, Belgium, and indeed the entire European Union seem to be organized on this basis.  It’s not quite that everyone thinks they are getting their way, but rather explicit concessions are not demanded for each loss of control embodied in the broader system.  Certain rights are held in reserve, with the expectation that they probably will not be exercised, but they can nonetheless influence the final bargaining equilibrium.

Most international treaties rely on some degree of creative ambiguity, as do most central banks, with their semi-promises of bailouts but “not too much not too certain you know” as the default.  You might like the mandated outcome (or not), but I doubt if it would improve political discourse in the United States to have an explicit thumbs up vs. thumbs down referendum on abortion.

Many partnerships and marriages rely on creative ambiguity too.  Should the Beatles have forced Lennon and McCartney to specify who had the final say over each cut?  That probably would have led to a split in 1968 and there would be no Abbey Road.  Must parties to a marriage specify the entire division of chores and responsibilities in advance?

We find the same in many academic departments.  Things can be going along just fine, but once the department has to write out an explicit plan for future growth and the allocation of slots across different fields or methods, all hell breaks loose.

Question posers and agenda setters have great power.

All praises of democracy must be embedded in a broader understanding that a) formal questions can be destructive, and b) we cannot be allowed to pose questions without limit, at least not questions which require explicit, publicly verifiable, and commonly observed answers.

Once a question is posed very explicitly, and in a manner which requires a clear answer, it is hard to take it off the table.  There is thus an option value to holding these questions in reserve, which means that the expected return from the question has to be pretty high to justify changing the agenda in a hard-to-revoke manner.

I am thus not impressed by claims that a “yes” vote for Scottish independence would represent “the democratic will of the people.”  It might just be a question which should not be asked in such a blatant form.

This article, by the way, argues quite well that the current independence referendum is not really democratic at all.  Who gets to vote, and who not, is quite arbitrary.  Maybe they first should have held a referendum on that?


Here's my take on the referendum:

... Still, it’s worth noting that both France and Britain are authoritative states that evolved to do battle effectively with each other through extreme centralization of power in their capitals.

By American standards, they are strikingly lacking in checks and balances. For example, it’s absurd that Prime Minister Cameron could unilaterally grant Scotland a secession referendum predicated on a simple majority of Scottish votes and without the voters of the rest of the United Kingdom having any say. (In contrast, a majority in the San Fernando Valley voted to secede from Los Angeles in 2002, but the remainder of the city voted to keep their tax cow, so secession was blocked.) But Britain has no written constitution, so Prime Ministers, even of a minority government like Cameron’s, have arbitrary powers resembling those of the captain of a pirate ship.

The leaders of Her Majesty’s Government have rights over local authorities that Presidents would envy. For example, Blair redrew ancient county lines willy-nilly, and Mrs. Thatcher, displeased by the politics of the Mayor of London, simply abolished his job. This British insensitivity to local prerogatives is one reason why Americans like Jefferson rebelled in 1776.

SS SS - you must be kidding, or it's a typo when you write in your screed: "We live in an era when the reasonably powerful pretend to be oppressed African-Americans circa the era of Martin Luther King ".

You *do* understand the meaning of "circa"? Or don't you? Surely you jest. But as a fellow occasional troll I understand...

SS's e-zine publisher: "Publisher Taki Theodoracopulos", and his sister is co-editor. All in the family, hehe, trying to ape HuffPo's Arianna Huffington. It's all good...but a day late and a dollar short.


Taki predates Arianna by decades.

"Circa" is synonymous with "around" - and "era" is synonymous with "time of" - as in "around the time of MLK..." So what's the problem?

The problem is: "reasonably powerful pretend to be oppressed African-Americans circa the era of Martin Luther King " - implies the Blacks during the era of M.L. King were pretending to be oppressed, which is wrong, as they were in fact oppressed.

Most certainly does not imply that! How could you possibly parse that sentence to read that way?

What's really delicious about this is Steve's leading role in the "reasonably powerful pretend to be oppressed white community of today."

Mr. Lopez,

I did not read it that way at all. Instead, I believe Mr. Sailer was saying that those who are reasonably powerful today like to style themselves as an oppressed underclass suffering in a manner proportionate to the suffering experienced by African-Americans during the Civil Rights Era.

Folks like Al Sharpton and Lena Dunham make me struggle to disagree.

Good job, Ray: your reading comprehension is only off 180 degrees.

"What’s really delicious about this is Steve’s leading role in the “reasonably powerful pretend to be oppressed white community of today.”"

You really are a despicable turd, you know that?

Look at universities. Do you see them say that "Straight White Males" are poor and victims? No they point them as oppressors who deserve hatred no matter what they actually do. People repeatedly whine about how Hollywood is run by "white males" when it's actually Jews (you know that poor, powerless, oppressed group).

You truly are noxious maggot. Drop dead.

Hey ho,

I am aware that 21st century American culture is shaping up to be a doozy and sometimes Sailer provides interesting perspectives on the carnival, I just think "white guy victimology" is lame, maybe even a bit lamer than all the other victimologies we hear about incessantly nowadays.

To be a white male American in the 21st century is not close to the worst lot with which one may have been saddled in this vale of tears.

Yeah, Jefferson.

In contrast, a majority in the San Fernando Valley voted to secede from Los Angeles in 2002, but the remainder of the city voted to keep their tax cow, so secession was blocked.)

Maybe you should be allowed to secede if the rest of the metropolis can wall you in and not allow you to travel elsewhere in the city without paying a toll.

Gee I'm sure no interested reader could have found that if you hadn't blogspamed it here.

Hey, Mr. Sailer is a loyal reader of this web site - of course he is welcome to post links to his work.

This is a web site dedicated to the free exchange of information - well, the free exchange of some types of information, if the past is any guide.

It's funny how on most websites the commenters with full names and links to a web site are the best posters, but on this website they are the worst.

Are youtrying to imply that Steve isn't a fantastic journalist?


So what? As long as it is relevant.

For a second I thought you meant 'blasphemed' and made a lot of typos.

I am thus not impressed by claims that a “yes” vote for Scottish independence would represent “the democratic will of the people.” It might just be a question which should not be asked in such a blatant form. - See more at:

Self-determination and all that...a natural right.

"I am thus not impressed by claims that a 'yes' vote for Scottish independence would represent 'the democratic will of the people.' It might just be a question which should not be asked in such a blatant form."

I'm not a supporter of Scottish independence or the referendum in its current form, but I'm not at all impressed by this argument. Apart from some definition of what questions "should be asked" democratically, this is a baseless and even dangerous argument. The same line of reasoning could be applied to suppress any democratic expression of the people's will. Indeed, it is a common claim of tyrants that they can't allow democracy for the sake of stability. How is that different from the argument Tyler makes here?

This is not to say that it is clear that Scotland should have a vote on this. I don't believe any part of a nation that wants to succeed should automatically get that right. But this vague (creatively ambiguous?) argument does nothing to answer that question.

Or perhaps secession should require a supermajority of Scots and a majority of all Brits?

For example, as a proud resident of the San Fernando Valley, I voted with the majority of Valley Girls and Guys in 2002 to secede from the city of Los Angeles. But, in direct contrast to the Scottish election, our majority for secession was ignored because the rest of Los Angeles voted overwhelmingly to continue to milk The Valley tax cow.

If the right question is asked, and the citizenry forced to answer it definitely, political order might spin out of control. I am thus not impressed by claims that a “yes” vote for some other guy would represent “the democratic will of the people.” It might just be a question which should not be asked in such a blatant form. Therefore, I declare myself emperor for life. Spasiba, Cowen!

I agree. It seems more like 'whinge' to me, than 'argument'.

If there is more to it than "I like the UK; don't mess it up!", I don't see it.

I suspect Tyler is right that for almost any political entity, there are questions which will undermine that political entity if they become big political questions. One good solution to this that many nations have worked out is to put some questions entirely off the table.

The US has a lot of different religions, so it would be really destructive to have a major political battle about which religion should become the official state religion, or the religion that all people are required to at least pretend to believe in. Fortunately, we have set things up so that this question is off the table.

Secession seems like a special case, though, because the whole point is to break up the country. It's not that there is some issue which, if it ever comes to the surface, will divide the country--the issue is *explicitly* whether we should part ways.

The way Tyler phrases his question seems like it puts existing political arrangements in a special position--so that there's something wrong about raising issues which call them into question. I don't really see why that is. I don't know whether it's better for Scotland to secede from the UK, or Catalonia to secede from Spain, but I don't see these as illegitimate questions. The current way the lines on the map are drawn is the result of previous human decisions, and there's no obvious reason to think it's anywhere close to optimal.

This is the argument between a republic and a democracy. The will of the people is the expression of a mob fomented by some ingenious rabble rouser. Let's round up all the Japanese who live here and scare us. Representative government puts a layer between the mob and the exercise of power.

The US system was designed so that the will of the people would stop the exercise of power rather than the other way around. Parliamentary systems typically have a minority with power unchecked. Both depend on a number of cultural and social norms that are unwritten, especially parliamentary systems. The will of the people is expressed by electing representatives.

"This is the argument between a republic and a democracy."

I am sympathetic to such an argument, and I certainly don't believe that Scotland should be able to vote for independence by simple majority.

However, that is not the argument Tyler makes here. Republican government has nothing to do with preserving ambiguity. Ambiguity is not a desirable feature of strong republican institutions. Nor does it put certain questions off the table--it sets a high bar for making major changes, rather than prohibiting them.

It's a pretty Burkean argument Tyler's making. Institutions are the product of a sort of Darwinian evolutionary process. Subjecting all of them to strict tests of rationality is probably not a great idea.


Have some integrity and stop paying lip service to democracy if you don't believe in it. The people's will is the basis of a democracy. How do you determine what the will of the people is? You ask them. Purposefully evading, obfuscating, or couching the relevant questions in terms intended to evoke the response you want is anti-democratic. A child is able to see that truth. Apparently, it takes a long and diligent education to enable one to forget it and contort the picture in every way possible to obscure it.


The real problem here is London clinging on to too much power for far too long. It's not rocket science to get that Ireland, Scotland and even Wales to some extent have wanted more and more autonomy for their government and people over the decades.

Instead of recognizing that and facilitating this over time with more of a federal system, Westminster buried its head in the sand and ignored the real world.
And now this is happening. Mostly because of England's unwillingness to ever bring any real compromise into their dealings. Just bureaucracy and delays.

With any luck, a federal system will evolve a few decades down the line as all end up seeing the benefits but no-one is doing the dictating.
Make no mistake though, London's patronizing attitude towards everyone else politically has as much (if not more) to do with this than anything else.

For an opposing viewpoint, people can check out It can be really over-done at times, but at least it gives an insight into what half or more of Scotland actually feels and thinks (those are the half you've not been hearing about, in case anyone needs reminding).

I think some of the conspiracy is based on what people can see. It is common to find that you have a lot in common with people around you, so you believe that what you see locally, and at demonstrations you attend, is representative of the whole. In practice that tends not to be the case.

As an outsider I see lots of odd language around the referendum. Reading the BBC on the chances of Scotland joining the EU whilst keeping the pound, they've attributed the "not without a change to the EU constitution" to a Spanish politician rather than just linking to online documents which state requirements for joining the EU. They seem to be paralyzed and unable to make comment on any of the lies being pedalled by both sides in the 'debate'.

What a shame that such an important decision is being debated with lies and absolutes rather than truth and uncertainty.

Tony - how does "London clinging onto power for far too long" square with the last Government of UK being led by a Scot, with disproportionate numbers of Scots in the Cabinet? Also that most public services in Scotland are either administered by local authorities or by the Scottish parliament? I am a mild supporter of Scottish independence, but I think it is pretty ridiculous to argue that Scotland is an oppressed nation under the thumb of the English or London. If that is the reason you are voting yes, then you are going to be very disappointed should you win, as London will continue to dominate the cultural landscape in the British isles, RUK economic policy will dominate the British Isles economic outlook and now Scots will have no say whatsoever in the set up of that economy.

I'm not Scottish and live in England (though once did in Scotland too), so I don't have a vote.
Basically, I agree with you and Chris above though. More moderation is needed and I'm also only slightly in favor of independence for Scotland.
My post was mainly made to highlight the other (also aggressive) side of the story in order to provide some balance and so that people could look at both views and draw their own conclusions. I think we can agree to disagree about Scots living and working in Westminster and how that impacts those in Scotland, but either way I think we're pretty much on the same page.
I'd add to your criticisms that there's a strand of the Yes debate that is just based on 'hope and change' and the results of that have been mixed in the US, so that too needs to be kept in perspective by Scots voting for independence.
However, I also think the Scots can probably look after themselves pretty well and this whole thing might actually work out relatively positively for everyone once those who are inclined to cry about this things have their tears dry up.
My bias is towards a strong Edinburgh and even Cardiff too. I think the UK needs more checks on power like the US has with New York, Washington and Silicon Valley all having strong bases.
That's not to say there's no overlap over there, but I think people are less inclined towards dependence if they don't have much everyday (or even annual) contact with you because they live in a different city. Powerful groups should have distance between themselves in my view. I see that as a good thing for countries and societies.
Also, I'd bring up ASEAN as a good example of how peoples can be strongly independent but still united. Why not the same for Scotland and the rest of the UK?
Finally, even though I agree with you guys... this thing seems to be turning to satire in parts too.
For example, how does Alistair Darling so closely resemble Captain Darling of Blackadder ( in his mannerisms and overall persona.
Then of course, there's this non-satirical but absolutely delightful smackdown that Alex Salmond delivered to Nick Robinson just the other day on the RBS question(
If nothing else, all of this sure is entertaining as a bit of highly-strung political theatre. Best TV I've seen in some time...

Give Tyler some credit for understanding that the only thing worse than a fake.democracy, would be a real one.

Take it all back for his inability to come out and say this.

Heh. Indeed.

So you think that in California gay marriage should not exist as expressed by the democratic voice of the people in a referendum?

Democracy isn't an end in itself and too much of it can be dangerous. Consider why the US Constitution doesn't provide for any role for referendums. The majority can be tyrannous.

The "tyranny of the majority" is a valid point and a good argument against the referendum. However, that is quite different from saying "some questions shouldn't be asked". The U.S. constitution does contain mechanisms for answering any question based on the will of the people--it just requires a very high bar for very big changes--the constitutional amendment process.

the best nations on earth are highly democratic. Switzerland, austria, denmark, the small white nations of western europe are highly democratic.

Their parliamentarian governmental structure also increases their democracy. In parliamentarian governments, the power of the government is placed more in the hands of politicians elected to the lower house. These are smaller districts. Smaller districts have fewer factions and thus more unity. More unity == more control for the people and less for the corporations.

We need some democracy here in the USA. Break up the federal union and allow democracy to spring up at the state level.

The corporations are in control in the USA and to a lesser degree in the UK. The corporations are in control here in the USA because the voting districts are too large and therefore contain too many factions, making it harder for the people to have any degree of unity. When these enlarged voting districts of the USA are so faction-ridden because of their size, the people cannot discover their common interests and unite against the corporations. Hence, a lack of democracy here in the USA. It's called the divide et impera strategy. Divide by combining. More size==more factions == less unity ==less power for the people and more power for the corporations that fund the corporate media (the same corporate media that fawn upon Mr Cowen and his rationalizations in support of corporate interests).

The same situation exists to a lesser degree in the UK. By going independent, scotland will increase democracy by decreasing voter district size. Smaller means more unity, and the people will have more power and the corporations less. That is the theory.

What is the evidence? The best nations on earth for the citizens are these: denmark, switzerland, sweden, norway, finland, ireland, netherlands, austria, et al. Small, parliamentarian and relatively homogeneous.

Now you have theory and evidence.

Let's not go overboard with this democracy thing.

"The best nations on earth for the citizens are these"

What makes these the "best nations on earth"? In Oslo a .4 liter glass of beer can cost $14 US. Many Norwegians fly to London to shop.

Austria is hardly a poster child for "democracy". The political system is entirely corrupt and is essentially a spoils system where the major political parties dole out favors and access to capital to their patrons, both nationally and regionally. It works fairly well because Austria is well integrated into the German economy and foreign policy, and because the political parties, like Italy in the "good old days" before the 1990s, are fairly balanced, providing most citizens with some access to the trough.

Isn't the USA a great example of the long-run superiority of clear rules, checks and balances versus fragile ambiguity? Aren't the agenda-setters in the latter case always the majority? So this is merely another argument that only makes sense if you start from a position of British or English nationalism in the first place.

Yes, this was my thought as well. Is there any case of ambiguity itself actually being preferable? The ambiguity of the EU seems to be a huge source of its problems. The ambiguous relationships between the devolved governments and the UK government also are quite problematic in my view. If one is in favor of the United Kingdom, then surely an unambiguous union would be optimal.

Sometimes an ambiguous arrangement is better than the realistic alternatives, but this doesn't make the ambiguity itself good. It just reflects the uninteresting reality that sometimes compromise is better.

Also, ambiguous relationships may be inherently unstable and lead to their own dissolution. How confident is anyone that the EU in its current form will exist in 100 years or even 10 years? Wasn't it the ambiguity of devolution that led to the referendum? This didn't happen when government was unambiguously centralized in Westminster.

This makes a good pairing -

'but rather explicit concessions are not demanded for each loss of control embodied in the broader system'


'The ambiguity of the EU seems to be a huge source of its problems.'

The problem when talking about the EU is what one means by it. For example, the Schengen Agreement has done something quite unimaginable in 1970 - it has made free travel within the parts of Europe that were NATO members, unaligned/neutral nations, and most of the former Warsaw Pact not only possible, but utterly and boringly routine (and yes, the UK is one of the more striking exceptions to this observation).

The various flaws with the Schengen Area are unsurprising, but not a huge source of problems. And yet, is the Schengen Agreement part of the EU? Run by Brussels? Something that nations were forced to accede to, as compared to voluntarily joining? How about the Schengen Convention?

Ambiguity is easy - especially when one is using the wrong lens. Particularly when looks at things over a decades long time span -

'Prior to 1999, the Schengen treaties and the rules adopted under them operated independently from the European Union; however, the Amsterdam Treaty incorporated them into European Union law, while providing opt-outs for the only two EU member states which had remained outside the Area: Ireland and the United Kingdom. Schengen is now a core part of EU law and all EU member states without an opt-out who have not already joined the Schengen Area are legally obliged to do so when technical requirements have been met. Several non-EU countries are also included in the area.'

If an independent Scotland were to join the EU, it would essentially be required to join the Schengen Area. One can imagine the resulting Daily Mail articles already.

Should have read all the way through - 'How confident is anyone that the EU in its current form will exist in 100 years or even 10 years? '

I'm extremely confident that the EU does not itself expect to be the same in ten years, as the EU remains an explicit work in progress, both with goals that may or may not be achievable, and in terms of responding to the challenges of creating a political arrangement that seems new, and certainly new within a European context dominated by millenia of warfare.

As for a hundred years? Look at the Europe of 100 years ago, and see if you can make accurate predictions (I remember a joke concerning some man in 1900 describing Germany's future - rising world empire, crushing defeat, failed economy, resurgent military and economic power leading to the almost total conquest of Europe under a genocidal dictatorship slaughtering millions, followed by an even more crushing defeat with its cities burned to the ground, leading to Germany being shrunk and partitioned, followed by Germany being reunited while regaining the heights of industrial power. The punchline being that the listeners in 1900 decided to put him in an asylum, as such visions were obviously insane.)

They don't call it a "living constitution" for nothing.

I am not convinced. Note that Switzerland, with its tradition of asking questions all the time, is much more stable than all the other multi-ethnic states of Europe, and there is no serious secession movement there.

By suppressing local grievances you actually add fuel to the nationalist cause.

Switzerland emerged organically as a voluntary confederation within the Holy Roman Empire. Also, geomorphology had implications for agrarian systems. Altitude was negatively correlated with open field villages, hereditary subjection, certain sorts of land tenures. See the Vorarlberg region of Austria, wherein hereditary subjection was abolished in the 15th century IIRC (thought it persisted until 1848 in the other Hapsburg lands).

I am very well aware of the history of Switzerland, but I do find it remarkable how an originally medieval "bund" adapted and survived through the last 250 years, with all the continent-wide wars, sudden growth of populations and spread of noxious ideologies. It obviously has a high degree of resilience against corrosive movements within.

I would say that this is not explainable by the medieval origins of the state. They are forgotten by the current population, except as a side note in history textbook.

I'm suggesting that there were commonalities which bound Swiss communities to each other and created a shared sense of belonging which persists due to long history together and perhaps also due to the country's unusual physical features. The country's political institutions may contribute to those bonds or not. In other loci, a sense of nation-hood developed within a territorial monarchy populated by people who spoke local dialects with varying degrees of mutual intelligibility. Developing a self-understanding as a nation was co-incident with adopting a linguistic standard and relegating local dialects to domestic conversation, as well as a sense of loyalties which were not derived either from personal fealty or palpable human relations. Switzerland was unusual in that this happened without a focus of fealty and did not incorporate linguistic standardization. (If I understand correctly, Germanophone Swiss often shift seamlessly between standard German and dialect so localized that people from Bavaria can hardly make sense of it and that news broadcasts in Switzerland are sometimes in the vernacular and include subtitles).

"commonalities which bound Swiss communities to each other"

The cheese? The chocolate? The watches? Passion for anonymous banking? A common desire to combine as many different hand tools into one pocket-sized, folding contraption?

And the penultimate link seriously suggests that any Briton with Mc in her surname should get a vote.

From the linked article:

"If you celebrate the sound of Scotland's freedom to choose its own future, consider for a moment the leaden silence of what it feels like -- the anxiety, the anonymity, the anger -- to be a British citizen outside Scotland, trapped between accepting the justice of the claim that Scotland should have the referendum and, by that very acceptance, the injustice of having no voice in the future of your own country."

Apparently, to people who permit themselves to think this way, someone's right to self determination is about on equal moral grounds as another's right to shackle that same person to them for their own interests. And this was linked to, with a thoughtful nod and a stroke of the chin by some who calls himself a "libertarian".

The article can't be dismissed that easily. Only anarchists believe in self-determination down to the level of the individual. Those who accept the premise of government (including libertarians) believe in self-determination of groups of people. The whole group has to abide by what is democratically decided; a portion can't just unilaterally leave if they don't like it.
This is a compromise of freedom but a necessary one to having any kind of stable government.

So: at what level should this self-determination exist? If one believes it is at the UK level, then it is perfectly logical to have the whole UK vote on whether Scotland can leave.

So: at what level should this self-determination exist? If one believes it is at the UK level, then it is perfectly logical to have the whole UK vote on whether Scotland can leave.

And why should one believe it is at the UK level? Because some Brits might "feel" badly about it not going their way, or not having a voice (boo hoo!)? Once you start bringing "stability" into it, you can justify just about any status quo. The libertarian position, as I understand it, is to maximize freedom, all else being equal. If even Obama (a damned socialist if some of the leading libertarians are to be believed) is advocating independence, for example, for the Syrian people from the tyranny of their oppressor at the cost of hundreds of thousands of deaths (stability points?), logic would dictate that the libertarian position would be even more gung-ho. And if we can support self-determination at that cost, it only follows that we would support it in the much more orderly and less costly case of Scotland.

"If the right question is asked, and the citizenry forced to answer it definitely, political order might spin out of control. I am thus not impressed by claims that a “yes” vote for some other guy would represent “the democratic will of the people."

By the way, this an interesting paragraph in that the second assertion doesn't follow from the first unless you accept the implicit assumption that the "democratic will of the people" must not only be the majority opinion, but must also conserve the political order.

"Why should one believe it is at the UK level?"

Scotland has been part of a united Britain for over 300 years, and it has been a stable, successful, peaceful arrangement. Furthermore, Scots have fair democratic representation within the UK. This last point counters the "stability could justify anything" argument, in my opinion.

I am not saying this is my argument, but I think it is a strong argument that needs to be answered.

Let's assume the weakest case: that the Scots have no good justification and are seceding on a whim. To maintain the status quo they would have to be coerced by force to remain in the union. At what point would you consider that justified? What consequences would you be convinced must be avoided that the union must be held together by force? That's really the position a libertarian is in on this question and the fact is that most of the purported consequences are speculations or outright fear mongering.

All else being equal, freedom shall be maximized - that's the libertarian position, so for a libertarian, the burden of proof is on one opposed to the secession to bring evidence to bear against it. That's what makes Cowen's position so interesting: he calls himself a libertarian, but actually his inclination on this issue is to oppose it, even though he can't seem to bring very strong arguments against it.

What is freedom-maximizing? A situation where any subgroup can leave on a whim enables minorities to hold the entire nation hostage, undermining the rule of law and a functional representative government. Liberty is dependent on a stable underlying agreed contract between the people in a nation.

I find it interesting that Abraham Lincoln is considered a great American thinker on the subject of freedom, and yet he was largely responsible for the American civil war. And that war, horrible as it was, seems to have laid the foundation for a truly lasting representative federalist government in America.

I'm not saying I would advocate the same for Scotland (or even would choose the same as Lincoln were I in his shoes). War is a horrible thing. However, I don't think the answer to your hypothetical situation is as clear as you think it. We don't yet know the endgame of the modern attitude of being unwilling to fight for such principles.

I agree with the notion of "self-determination at group level" but the outcome of the determination is very much a function of the contents of the group. A loose analogy would be gerrymandering and why such a thing exists in the first place.

Therefore drawing the group boundaries should always be outside the "social contract" itself, and actually somewhat is. This is why people can emigrate for example; if they don't like the social contracts of the country they were born in, they could seek a better group for them to abide their social contract. In that sense, a collective exit like in the question of Scottish independence should be perfectly fine too.

That said, at least in theory, self-determination would also bring the accompanying responsibilities, including being able to protect the piece of land that is claimed. It would be absurd for UK to try to annex Scotland back by force of course, but it would be consistent with the framework of self determination as described.

During the last referendum in Quebec there were two events that determined the results. First was when Lucien Bouchard started campaigning after an almost fatal case of the flesh eating bacterial infection, leaving him with (iirc) an amputation. In any case he gamely traveled the province with his cane making the case. He was a rather striking figure and changed the moribund campaign into a force to be reckoned with. The Federal side had been content to sit and watch up till then, and things started moving quickly in the direction of separation. The second event was the reaction of people outside of Quebec. A large number showed up in Montreal and elsewhere, buses full of vocal supporters of Canada. The momentum in the campaign changed, and it came down to a very very close vote.

So you believe firmly that gay marriage should be illegal in California because the people expressed it clearly in a referendum?

So you believe firmly that gay marriage should be illegal in California because the people expressed it clearly in a referendum?

Yes, I do, but that's not under discussion, nor does it present puzzling political problems.

The question under discussion is under what circumstances a body of people can determine its own boundaries in contradistinction to conventional boundaries. There are not ready answers to that question.

Democracy is an imperfect system to manage the opposing interests of disparate groups without resorting to violence. Most here calling for direct democracy would be horrified at the result.

I have no opinion about Scotland other than if the initiative is successful it provides impetus for another generation of wasted political effort to appease the unappeasable in Quebec.

Most here calling for direct democracy would be horrified at the result.

Has someone here called for the abolition of representative institution? A great many states have initiative and referendum. You fancy Wisconsin is horrifying?

TC is quite right when he says: "Many political unions subsist on creative ambiguity. That is, if the right question were posed, and the citizenry forced to answer it definitely, political order might spin out of control." - that's one classic explanation for the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire: the constitution, such as it was, was ambiguous and once strongmen started interpreting it against the usual convention, they were within the letter but not the spirit of the constitution and hence destroyed the Republic. Cicero would understand, as would E. Burke.

Clearly the Scots can now join the long lime of oppressors who have stripped majorities of their right to decide their country's future, along with the Algerians, Irish, Vietnamese, and our own dear US. All of whom were considered integral parts of their mother countries and yet unilaterally shattered centuries old unities based on populations that were fractions of the total population of the state.

I say the English are constantly oppressed here, the victims of unjust history, as opposed to the lucky Cornismen. You would think they were the Russians so cruelly treated by history, forced to part with not just the Baltics but places like Kazakhstan and Ukraine with no real independent history.

Truly the injustice of it all cries out to the world. I look forward to seeing the failed world court inditement of Alex Salmond, the undemocratic monster.

There are a lot of arguments that have legitimacy, but this one is laughable. If UK Scots get to vote, then why not commonwealth Scotts, who must surely outnumber then, and what about American Scots, shouldn't they get a say. And what about the non-Scots in Scotland, should they be excluded, that would give some real spice to the next match of the Old Firm. If you just say residents of the UK then the prospect of an overwhelming Yes in Scotland would move from a pipe dream to a real prospect.

'we cannot be allowed to pose questions without limit, at least not questions which require explicit, publicly verifiable, and commonly observed answers'

Of course not - otherwise, we would see who is funding what. Sort of like this - 'Bennett may well have been following the national debate and felt compelled to reach out to fellow conservatives about the Core, but it turns out that he got paid to write the piece. Politico reported that Bennett conceded that DCI Group, a public relations and lobbying firm based in Washington, paid him to write the piece. “I’m compensated for most of the things that I do,” he was quoted as saying.'

So many embarassing answers to questions that at least some people would prefer not asked - but I'm not sure that democracy suffers from people knowing who is a paid shill. (And for those curious in keeping track of their billionaire funding, I'll just go out on a limb and say that a foundation connected to Bill Gates is likely the source of DCI Group's funding - lots of billionaires have lots of opinions, and generally prefer that people not ask where they are putting their money to influence public debate. Some more than others, of course.)

The US is remarkable for the openness of the debate in public. It may be that the clear demarcations in the power structures make it safe to conduct quasi military campaigns against your political opponents because when it comes down to it, on a given day power will change hands. Parliaments in the Westminster tradition don't have fixed election dates, either the prime minister by tradition seeks a mandate to continue, or loses confidence of the chamber. We've seen some extend their terms way past the traditional 4 years, and Chretien won elections by calling them early at his convenience.

I don't think Americans quite realize how their vigorous debates on issues become vicarious debates in other countries who don't dare have the open political warfare that characterizes the US political conversations.

'The US is remarkable for the openness of the debate in public.'

Umm, I used to be paid by people who would laugh at that statement, because the strategies they were following, supported by large amounts of money, included the attempt to make 'openness' a dirty word. Along with the idea that money is speech. And that private speech should be beyond any public scrutiny, most definitely including any political scrutiny.

Here is some background on that -

(As a note - the WSJ is wrong in this sentence - 'It is considered an independent think tank because it's part of George Mason University and gets funding from many sources.' The Mercatus Center is at GMU, but it is most definitely not a part of GMU in any sense of the term involving funding, degree granting, research, or public oversight by the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Virginia.)

Compared to what? Half of what comes out as political debate in the US would be a felony in Canada. I exaggerate. Try saying something like describing the ancient leader of a major religious group as a child rapist in your country and see what happens.

So was that a good debate?

Yes indeed. I particularly despise religious/political projects and effective opposition to them is to state clearly and publicly the contradictions and sometimes evil perpetrated by the members or founders of the religion. It is very very common, every day conversation to hear christian fundamentalists being mocked for their unbelief in evolution. This is good as it has weakened the political religious entities that still have influence in US politics. Same with the abuse by Catholic priests. A substantial portion of the world is run by a political religious project, and the ideas, including efforts to stop any criticism of the prophet are spreading. As I said, try describing him as he was in many jurisdictions and you suffer the consequences.

It's funny how much hyperbole is getting thrown around. Destruction of the UK? Those poor Brits that have no voice in the destruction of their state? It all lays bear the complete insanity of statism as a cultural identity.

If Scotland leaves nothing changes for the average Brit unless they want it to change. Scotland isn't going to rocket off into space, the scots will still be there. The Brits can choose to maintain the exact same relationship of free trade, and financial support.

Or they can escalate because they see this referendum as an "attack" ok their shared cultural history. Whatever that means. Ya they have a history together when union was a good idea, now it's not and that's all that matters.

This article author just sounds like some bitter ex boyfriend. "What about our history? Everything we've been through" "what about my feelings!" "Why don't I get a say in this?"

The Scotland was a member of the UK because the scots wanted it to be a member. As soon as they change their mind they have every right to leave. It's not complicated. It's only complicated for collectivists like TC who have some bizarre fetish for mega states. TC has lost all credibility as a principled libertarian. Liberty when it suits TC but no principled liberty for people he may disagree with.

Separation with bed privileges.

Nice metaphor. I guess that makes Scotland the hysterical bitch?

>The Brits can choose to maintain the exact same relationship of free trade, and financial support.

Can you think of another fitting metaphor for that?

Hard to disagree with you Ian. I wonder how Tyler would react to this statement in person off-the-record...away from his consideration for his public image and his ability to get pay checks for writing articles in the the old grey lady.

If Southern Scotland wishes to dislodge itself from Scotland and join England, should it be allowed to do so? I don't think Alex Salmond would allow it to succeed. What if the Orkney Islands want to join Norway? Can they? Can some counties in Scotland declare themselves a nation state after 51% in each vote yes in a referendum?

Political unions in Europe talk and no mention of wars? Being small & vulnerable was of the reasons to belong to a bigger political union. UK and France were counterparts to Germany, if the UK sinks into oblivion, France is left alone.

The independence desire around Europe regions signals that people is no longer worried about war. No idea if this is good, irrelevant or bad.

Exactly, we don't live in a world anymore where it's very likely any state is going to invade any other state. It just doesn't make any financial sense in our globalized world. The threats we now face are the threats of financial special interest groups that prey on us through the use of these mega states which is why we are likely to see the 21st century as the century where we move towards smaller more independent states that can't be manipulated as easily as the mega states like EU, UK, USA, etc.

You might want to ask the Ukranians if it's really true that we no longer live in a world where any state is going to invade another state.

Yes, Russia is still living in the 20th century. When I say "we" I mean the G7. Scots and Brits can split democratic control while still defending each other from external threats. The reality though is that there are very few (not none) external threats that they face and so a military alliance is less important. The threats are all internal and result from mega states under democracy.

We don't, until we do.

Though I believe that rUK could do militarily just fine.

Britain is not going to sink into oblivion; 92% of its population and productive capacity is not found in Scotland.

Discount the not significant Scotland's 8% from UK and Brazil may come ahead in nominal GDP. Some people care about this.

I look forward to the argument that the whole of the EU gets to vote in the UK's referendum to leave.


The lack of TC's incapacity to broaden his reflections to other cases where he would clearly take the other side is rather absurd.

Other examples of reserved powers that should not be unsheathed are the filibuster pre-2004 when it became a de facto super-majority requirement, the HR debt ceiling stunt, and presidential ignoring of the War Powers Act.

Must be that the election is not going the way someone thought or wanted it to go to have this talk


about how democracy "does not represent the will of the people".

As the post says: "Question posers and agenda setters have great power."

Self-determination =/= freedom.

The fascination with small democracies is very Rousseauian.

I'm surprised so many conservatives embrace this vision.

What's your alternative, a bureaucratic cesspool in Brussels?

"Self-determination =/= freedom."

A nuevo-Orwellian term to describe something that's "very Rousseauian"? Arbeit macht frei.

Jesus people, has anyone even read the Federalist Papers?

You may disagree with the vision of the US founders, but they thought they were serving the cause of freedom, and it's not a half-assed vision, and it's worked ok for 225 years.

And it's not a starry eyed teenage girl vision of "gee, democracy is just swell, isn't it?"

Those guys wore wigs, had buckles on their shoes, kept slaves, branded adulterers and engaged in duels. Which is not to say that they weren't right about many things, dueling for sure. (Wouldn't it be great to see Michelle Bachmann beat Chuckie Schumer over the head with a cane like Preston Brooks did to Charles Sumner back in 1856?) They didn't carry stone tablets down from the top of a mountain engraved with the words we must live by forever. In the years since others have contributed to the philosophy of freedom. Why must we dismiss their ideas because they didn't spring up during the close of the Enlightenment?

I get it. You never heard of Rousseau. The Founders had.

Ecclesiastes 1:9: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

I'd say it has not worked well in the northern United States since about 1958 and was always problematic in the South for other reasons. Right now, the constitutional system in this country is a broken down wreck.

Sandwich boards of various stripes are particularly popular these days.

"they thought they were serving the cause of freedom"

What they were really thinking about was keeping their own money, the fruits of their own labor, instead of having it expropriated to finance never-ending European dynastic brawls. A 16th amendment wouldn't have made it through the Constitutional Convention as number 11 in the bill of rights. Nevertheless, the famous founding fathers were traitors to their country who used violence to achieve an end that could have been accomplished through a democratic process, witness Canada and Australia.

Great story. Compelling and rich.

What they were really thinking about was keeping their own money, the fruits of their own labor, instead of having it expropriated to finance never-ending European dynastic brawls.

No, that's what you're thinking about and imputing to them.

While this is true, it certainly helps. Scotland may be a bit less free after the split, but it provides a great place for warehousing people who don't like economic freedom, and the rest of the UK will be better off. More generally, if each group wanting self determination got its way, movements like the free state project would be viable and we would already have a libertarian homeland. Once we had that, it wouldn't matter all that much what everyone else did.

Canada, Belgium, and indeed the entire European Union seem to be organized on this basis.

And all three configurations are jerry-rigged arrangements which should be busted up. Other than Bryan Caplan's serial tactlessness, this commentary is as clear an example as you will find that libertarians and professional-managerial types find community control distasteful if they themselves might have to accept decisions favored by people they regard as their inferiors.

Then a "Yes" vote does not show the will of the people then what does it show? A "Yes" indicates to me that Scotland is simply tired (or bored) of being part of the United Kingdom and no longer see a lot of value of the relationship. Isn't that a reality of life? Lennon and McCartney could no longer work together. Divorces happen all the time. Companies let go of workers all the time and even company divisions are sold. (This is a reality free market capitalist love.) At this point, Scotish are willing to risk economic losses for more autonomy.

Judging by the poll history (even with a "No" vote) I say the vote indicates how little England has done nothing to prove the value of the relationship. The "No" vote campaign could go down as one of the worst political campaigns ever run. Prime Minister Cameron speeches have focused on how bad it is for England and little about why the Scotish people should stay in the relationship. At this point, Scotland should vote "Yes" simply because the English sales pitch have been so bad!

It may be in Cameron's interest that Scotland leave when considering the electoral numbers. A large cohort of Labour voters may guarantee right wing governments in Westminster for a long time.

The will of the people indeed.

The problem with secession movements in general is that they directly attack the basis of Democracy itself. If the characteristic feature of a Democracy is that power is held by the majority, then that implies that the minority is ruled by the majority. But if the minority can decide that they don't like the rules set by the majority and wants to secede, then you can't have a rule by the majority and you can't have Democracy. Then the only systems of government that you are left with will be the rule by a powerful minority, most likely using a strong threat (or actual use) of force against the majority.

You're assuming an existing state as a basis. They never are. All states have evolved from some previous form. Why should the inception of the faux democracy be the starting point for every later development? Couldn't it just as well be regarded as simply one more point on a continuum, as it probably will be a millenium hence? The Scots were once tribes where individuals probably had more day to day freedom and lived in a more truly democratic environment then they do today.

Creative ambiguity is the new black swan.

A lot of economists and pundits (not much difference between the two groups, admittedly) who feel personally threatened by the idea of Scottish independence are writing "hedgy" articles these days.

But I hadn't yet seen one go so far as to say that "some questions just should not be asked." This is new territory.

Is this the point where Tyler recognizes his own hypocrisy for what it is and finally admits that he is in fact an amoral authoritarian?

So the two alternatives are direct democracy by referendum, and authoritarianism? I'm astonished by the historical illiteracy and ignorance on display here.

"Both my grandfather's name (Simpson) and my grandmother's maiden name (McDougall) are Scottish. My family can trace some of our Scottish ancestors back to the 19th century, and I take pride in that."

As a white american, this jumped out at me. I've heard the same thing so many times, always associated with an argument against another cultural group's self identification: "There's no White History Month, why do we need a Black History Month?" "I don't call myself a German American, and my family arrived more recently than yours, so why should you call yourself an African American?"

I don't know enough about Scotland, the UK, and all those social and historic dynamics. Some of the things England did to the Scots seem analogous to what the Americans did to Blacks and Indians, but a lot is different. So I don't know if someone calling himself Scottish carries similar cultural weight as someone calling himself African American.

But, when I hear someone say that a couple of their grandparents had Scottish surnames, they are happy about being "British" and therefore Scottish people should be as well... That strikes me as just as juvenile an argument as a white person saying "I'm 1/64th black and I call myself an American, I don't see why black people have to separate themselves out and be called African Americans."

Libertarianism: the belief that you should have the freedom and responsibility to make important decisions for yourself with maximum liberty, except on questions where Tyler knows better than you and on which you should defer to your betters.

Prices should be governed by the supply-demand curve, except the prices for sovereign debt and mortgage-backed securities, which should be determined by central bank and government economists.

This particular strain of libertarianism has a number of unprincipled exceptions. Should The U.S. Deploy Troops To Scotland? And does England already have plans in place to reconquer Scotland, this time with the gloves off?

I must say, a wicked part of me was hoping to see the Scottish Independence argument mutate into involving the Palestinian's situation.

Assuming democracy has value, I think Tyler has actually quite clearly expressed the problem. Basically every question should be phrased as a publically observable question with a clear answer. The limitation isn't that there is value in ambiguity - there isn't - but that each tradeoff requires negotiation (How many abortions should I support in exchange for a particular tax rate) and there is a lot of complexity involved in expressing a solution in the form of a bill with respect to the existing system of laws.

If the Scots vote yes, the UK may not honor the referendum, but it is hard to see a situation where greater autonomy in an area would be bad for any faction.

What if the UK guaranteed Scotland a referendum on independence every five years until and unless Scotland voted yes? It would dial down the urgency of any given vote; encourage the separatists to iterate solutions; and, presumably, lead to the articulation of arrangements which could be dropped fairly easily into place as and when.

Fully agree. Often preserving ambiguity has value. When a president uses his power in a gray area, it can force the courts to set precedents that limit the flexibility of future presidents or courts. Likewise with other branches or the states. Aggression and abuses by foreign governments force us to define how far we'll go to stop them. Clarity undermines compromise, flexibility and responsibility.

It seems to me that small European countries do well, so what is the harm. Short term pain for possible long term gain.

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