Secession is a pretty controversial idea, even within libertarian circles. The notion that states, provinces or regions within a nation-state should be allowed to withdraw from it and form their own independent nation rubs a lot of people the wrong way. In America, it is associated with slavery and the Civil War. But, more than any particular association, it would also mean the end of the country as we currently know it. That goes against the “civil religion” that we have been taught for well over a century. America, we are told, is somehow “special” and the last best hope for mankind. It is holy and inviolable and, even suggesting that we all might be better off with some alternative arrangement, is a terrible sin. But the United States is no different from any other human institution and it will not last forever. History teaches us that even the greatest empires fall. From the Persians through the Romans and continuing onto the British, all these came to an end.
Around the world, secessionist movements are everywhere. Some are, frankly, nationalistic, seeking “independence” for a particular ethnic group. While the period after the second World War was a time when there was a strong interest in international institutions and regional governments such as the European Union, there has been a reaction against that movement in recent decades. The Brexit movement in Great Britain appears to have successfully set in motion a British withdrawal from the EU. Curiously enough, even within Great Britain, the independence movement in Scotland very nearly succeeded at the ballot box. Even where complete independence has not been achieved (or even sought,) there are numerous regions throughout the world who have gained significant autonomy, particularly as regards domestic policy.
And, while “serious commentators” continue to snicker over secessionist movements in this country, they do exist and are gaining increasing interest in recent years. While an independent Vermont might seem ludicrous, states like Texas and California would be significant nations in their own right. While untying all the knots that bind California to the rest of America would be a logistical nightmare, stranger things have happened. But why now? What would prompt otherwise sober and responsible people to contemplate such “un-American” ideas?
It actually isn’t hard to understand. Just listen to the people involved and they will tell you themselves. In part, it is because different regions of the country have very different notions of the kind of nation that America should be. On some points of principle, it appears that any compromise is unacceptable to both sides. It has gotten to the point where some politicians and activists don’t even think it is worthwhile to talk to the other side. That sort of thing just never ends well.
But it isn’t simply that our differences are greater. They were at least as large during the 1960’s. But what has changed is the amount of power we now vest in the national government versus the individual states. Whether it is in law enforcement, education or in the funding of social programs, much of the real decision making is taking place in Washington DC. In our zeal to provide greater equality between individuals, regardless of where they reside, we have left many people feeling disenfranchised, unable to effect change or protect their values. That frustration leads to anger and demands for radical change.
And so we return to the idea of secession. If one considers it a problem, the solution lies within our Constitution. America, in theory at least, has a federal system of government, one which divides power between the national government and those of the individual states. The national government is to deal with external threats to all, establish a system of courts, coin a common currency and provide for the free movement of people, ideas and goods between the states. That’s about it. Every other power not explicitly delegated, is reserved to the states. That’s a very high level of autonomy and one which would address many of the concerns of those in secession movements, whether they be liberal, conservative, socialist or even libertarian.
We have seen other nations tear themselves apart in recent years but we have also seen the opposite. In many cases, the average voter doesn’t really seek separation but merely a greater voice in their own affairs. Independence movements in Canada, Great Britain and Spain have been blunted somewhat my offering regions greater autonomy. It is ironic that, in a country built on exactly those principles, we are behind in providing the same. It is not surprising that people in Vermont, New Hampshire, Texas and California have different ideas about the kind of society they want. In the end, we can provide them the opportunity to have that kind of society within the United States or we can watch as the call for separation grows louder. You can pay me now or pay me later.
I think there is more to say on the principle of secession so I will likely revisit it sometime soon. As always, thanks for following along and have a great week!