Devolving to freedom? Libertarians and localism

On the whole, in what I consider to be a baffling divergence from best tenets of the ideology, most libertarians I have met support devolution and the right to secede. This fetish for the local mistakes group sovereignty for individual liberty, and can most clearly be seen as an influence on libertarian thinking in the United States, where Ron Paul and others cite states’ rights and independence as their cure to the ‘imperialism of central government’.

I disagree completely with this approach. Local government has to possess coercive powers to force those subject to it to obey its edicts, and in my view no libertarian system of government actually leaves room for local government on any level.

Why should it? A libertarian government is at its core a legal framework for the defence of right and property. It is my belief that libertarians should aspire for all people to possess equal negative liberty, and equal levels of liberty can only be ensured by a centralised libertarian administration. The justification for local government is that it allows government to be different to suit local wishes – but under a libertarian system people do not have the right to coerce their neighbours, whose freedoms are protected, and the only outcome possible is differing levels of freedom across different areas.

Given that the proper defence of freedom and property is undertaken by the central, minarchist libertarian state, there remains no area in which a libertarian local government could properly legislate. Any action undertaken by a local government could only impinge upon liberty more than is necessary, and is thus an un-libertarian action.

The waters are muddied further by the problem of demarcating the areas and groups granted such autonomy. For example, if Wales voted to secede from the United Kingdom, why should inhabitants of Wales who voted against that policy be forced out of the UK? The legitimacy of ‘Wales’ as an entity might not be something they subscribe to, and no libertarian state should allow people to lay claim to others against their individual will on the basis of group identity.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but libertarians should be centralisers. Both nationalists and localists are enemies of universal liberty, which must surely be our ideal. A patchwork of petty tyrannies informed by local ballot is not libertarian in the slightest.

Henry Hill is the winner of the 2011 Young Writer on Liberty Award. He blogs at