On October 27, the Parliament of Catalonia declared independence from Spain. There are lots of libertarian lessons therein.

First: There is no political disease political violence cannot make worse. Catalan nationalism, a three century-long fact of Catalan culture, right or wrong, has boiled over. Madrid’s response has been intransigence. Where there was ambiguity of what Catalan nationalism is, and was, much less what they really want, now Catalans know there is a fight because Madrid is making it one. Voting for a vote for independence sometime in the future in a jack-leg referendum is ephemeral, batons upside the heads of Catalan ladies by the Guardia Civil is very real. Political violence is a catalyst for political reality, the same way witchcraft is ephemeral, but killing a cat makes it real.

Madrid’s response to the independence movement overlays a historical pattern of Catalan cultural suppression, and will likely erase whatever progress Madrid has made in atoning for it. After all, the Catalan language was illegal in the living memory of many.

Jailing Catalan’s leaders will not defuse this bomb. It will only add in another negotiating point, among the many others on the table, and that is assuming the best outcome of a sit-down negotiation rather than a combat one. It will require Catalan replacement leaders to drive a hard bargain for the freedom of their political martyrs. Symbolic negotiation points should not preside over real ones.

Second: political violence often happens because it has been happening, with the abstract causes fading into the reality of the turn of events (think of the joke that became “America fighting for freedom and Democracy” in Iraq). Political conflict needs to be avoided as far as possible because the best way to stop it happening is to keep it from happening. Can anyone really argue that Iraq would be not be better off if the ethnic feuds could be subsumed to forming a true Nation? Whatever deal of power-sharing attempted in the Iraqi Constitutional deliberations, the outcome turned out to be less stable, more violent and more expensive.

That Catalan has to resort to this, to negotiate political conflicts, is really an indictment of the lack of adaptability in the binary political approach of Western democracies. Libertarians argue for an evolution beyond this. This is the same winner-take-all system that in the USA brought about a presidential contest between two candidates of such unpopularity that it could never have survived any parliamentary system on the earth, and now Drumpf rules our vast state.

But, politicians embrace illogic as much as anything else their constituencies demand. This point of should be easily understood in the Trump era. It is likely Catalan would spend all the money disproportionately taken from them in taxes on the trappings of their own State. Our Founding Fathers warned us against these passions of the mob, creating the deliberative Senate, as the saucer to cool the hot passions of the House. Libertarians would handcuff popular political power as much as centralized power. Neither has a historical monopoly on wisdom, and both have a long historical history of being very wrong.

An outcome of independence would likely see the EU apply harsh terms on the new nation (they would say rump), the same way they now seem to be oriented towards doing towards the UK. That the EU will impose penalties long after the incentives and grievances have played out is as good a metaphor for the folly of harming people for their own good as any (again, the EU is ephemeral, sanctions upside the head is very real). The EU has never been popular anywhere it’s been tested (and always, the argument for keeping it is that it is too far advanced to retreat from). Yet it is to this remote and unaccountable entity the Catalans must weigh their future? Catalans can’t object when the EU makes them pay Greece’s bills as well as those of most of their countrymen? And they have no real possibility of remedy? And that on top of the sovereignty they have already so painfully surrendered (and want back)?

If the argument is that a divided Spain is a precedent to other nations in an unfavorable relationship with the EU, with coercion (in the form of EU penalties) needed to get them to remain, is this not more of an argument for reforming the EU than one for insisting minority cultures forgo their history? Especially, as we have seen, since minority cultures are often made stronger by the smiting. Remember, the EU was created to unite Europe. Again, conflict makes its own reality, and makes opaque the original goal.

Of course, the flip side of the ethics coin of the conflict is: who are these separatists to start a fight on behalf of all other Catalans? What about the millions of Catalans who earn their living through trade within Spain and the EU? This quandary illustrates the same limitations of the binary, winner-take-all, zero-sum, developed world’s political system. Better to leave State control loose and taxes flat. It should not be for one political entity to “weigh” the benefits and concerns of another (because there is always a thumb on the scale, or as important, the perception of one).

Third: People object to paying other people’s taxes.

The complexities of a modern people’s needs are very hard to reduce to binary political solutions like the novel that is a person cannot be reduced to a chalkboard slogan. In Catalonia’s case, in trying to stretch a political tent over their culture, Spain is now having to drive people under it with clubs. The extremity of Spain should not make us miss the fact that across the politically developed world, including our own Republic, the old tents are fraying for the stretching. Is driving Southern Baptists under the tent that includes a panoply of gay rights going to take the same force? Drumpf has a “pen and a phone” too, the one the previous owners of the very same winner-take-all system used to do things to their their political enemies, and who now feel the same system is delegitimized; and now it is axiomatic that we are extremely divided, possibly fatally so. We fought the Civil War over the great and clear issue of slavery. But now? Our own political culture, the most developed in the world, the most diverse in its tent, and the most adaptive in history, is knives out over thin-soup issues like what sort of bathrooms the state will mandate. And we don’t have to contest with really big issues like the legacy of Franco’s fascism, which was recent enough that Saturday Night Live had a running gag about it. Better to let federalism allow what the culture can stand without conflict. Better to loosen the grip of the centralized state, better to let progress and evolution iron out retrograde cultural elements, or allow them to dwindle out of the heat of conflict.

Political power is very hard to calibrate without conflict. It is suitable for something simple like warring on an enemy (and the wrong track has been taken when the enemy is us), but it cannot resolve cultural conflicts, only exacerbate them: either there is an elite minority stepping on a majority (EU), or far more common, a majority lording it over a minority (Catalan). There is simply no way to calibrate this balance externally, and political whimsies can change a stable alchemy overnight. America’s track record (historically, not recently) of the give-and-take over time of evolution, combined with robust protections of minority rights, but more importantly, freedom, has been the secret to success for our polyglot, ever-evolving culture. We were blessed with this because political power is restricted as much as popular power.

Madrid should kennel her political dogs. They should renegotiate what they can. For what they can’t, there should be provision for a true referendum, one that will not be a deep tendon reflex to existing political violence, if possible, given the swirl of events. Britain showed how, both with the Scottish independence vote, and their Brexit.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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