The Fallacy of Composition

Thomas Sowell is usually one of the most sensible commentators around, but I fear he goes badly astray in a recent column entitled 'The problem with the gay marriage issue.'

Sowell says that the real issue is not gay marriage per se, but 'who should decide such issues -- that is, what kind of country and what kind of government do we have or want to have?' This is the standard 'conservative' line of attack on this issue'it's not gay marriage we object to, it's those darn activist judges (or mayors) subverting the will of the people!

He continues:

'What does democracy mean if any headstrong minority can violate the laws passed by a majority and enshrined in centuries of legal precedents?'

The funny thing is, there was a time that conservatives were highly skeptical of the value of democracy. They feared that the majority would use the vote to expropriate the property and curtail the liberty of minorities. Democracy, it's been said, is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

But Sowell really goes wrong two paragraphs later:

'Even those who incessantly repeat the mantra of 'diversity' do not follow up the logical implications of that diversity. A diverse society can degenerate into a fragmented society and an internally warring society unless the various groups and interests agree to respect some over-arching principles and authority.'

Sowell says that diversity necessarily results in a war of all against all, if there is no recognized authority that can keep everyone in line. But, it's hard to see why this must be, logically speaking. Consider that not only many communities, but many countries peacefully coexist without an 'overarching authority.' But, if war can only be prevented by the existence of an over-arching authority, Sowell's argument would seem to logically imply the necessity of a single world government! I somehow doubt that's what he intends.

The problem may be that Sowell assumes that the nation-state is sacrosanct. He says:

'The history of the human race around the world shows how hard it is to create and maintain a national unity when different segments of the society think that what they want over-rides what everyone else wants and justifies violating the very accord that makes a society possible.'

But there is nothing natural or inevitable about the world being carved up into the presently existing nation-states. Why is 'national unity' so important that it should trump the claims of different groups within the nation? If their wants and interests are really incompatible, why should they be forced to live together under a single legal regime?

Anyone who has lived in different parts of the U.S.A. recognizes that the culture, norms and values of, say, the San Francisco Bay area are much different from those of a small town in Indiana. Why should we assume that a continent-spanning nation of nearly 300 million people could be governed by a single authority? Democracy, understood as sheer majority rule, invites conflict when it requires the minority to submit to the majority, especially when there are differences of values and meaning at stake.

The alternative to a single overarching authority is not, pace Sowell, '[r]ace riots, military coups, anarchy and civil wars,' but peaceful separation. As Thomas Naylor and William Willimon write in their book Downsizing the U.S.A.:

'The powerful, intrusive megastate is not the hope of individual freedom. Only a state which gives room for a variety of communities can foster individuals with the narratives, values, and sense of meaning necessary to make their way in the world . . . . There is only one solution to the problems of America 'peaceful dissolution, not piecemeal devolution . . . . Just as a group has a right to form, does it not also have a right to disband, to subdivide itself, or to secede from a larger unit?' (p. 25, italics in the original)

As I have argued elsewhere, centralized government, by its very nature, imposes a single set of values and meanings on those over whom it rules. But the diversity of the modern world makes this approach increasingly untenable. Peaceful secession, on the other hand, would allow for the flourishing of local social arrangements embodying a variety of values. We might see bio-regions, independent city-states, and anarcho-capitalist zones with competing defense agencies. The point is not to enforce a single way of life, but to allow for the maximum amount of freedom, flexibility and experimentation.

Sowell writes that 'Gay marriage is not a local issue but a national issue because maintaining the rule of law -- or what is left of it -- is a national issue of historic importance if we are not to see America degenerate into the world's largest banana republic, or worse.'

But this is only a problem if we assume that there must be a single rule of law over the entire nation! Jettison this assumption and the zero-sum game Sowell fears will disappear as well. Violence becomes more likely when groups are prevented from seceding peacefully (for instance, in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union). Allow the right of exit and there is far less of an incentive for one party to try to impose its will on another. Coercive homogenization can be replaced with genuine diversity.

The price of liberty is relinquishing the desire to control others. How can I expect my freedom to be respected if I don't respect yours? This applies to groups as well as individuals. Folks in Nebraska needn't be especially concerned about what folks in California or Vermont are doing. Affirming the principle of peaceful separation is nothing more than affirming the right of all people to determine their own fate. Unlike increased centralization, which breeds conflict and violence, it allows for greater peace and freedom for all.

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Lee McCracken lives in Philadelphia and works in publishing.  He has also written for