When a famous conservative told me ten years ago that “the U.S. is too big,” and only “breaking it up into 35 different countries” would preserve a free and decent society, I was shocked. Today, leaving aside the exact number of successor states, I wonder if he wasn’t right.
Certainly secession is sweeping the world, much to the dismay of the State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations. Secession freed many subject peoples of Moscow and Belgrade. In Italy, the powerful Lega Nord political party advocates separation from the rapacious central government in Rome, and from welfare areas of Southern Italy.
Russia itself may now break up, since Moscow continues to hold many nations subject within the “federation.” Belgium separated into two countries, one for the French-speaking Walloons and one for the Flemish-speaking minority. Quebec may leave English-speaking Canada. And the African artifices of colonial cartographers may dissolve as well.
In almost every African country, a dominant tribe oppresses all the rest. Why shouldn’t each people have sovereignty? In fact, why shouldn’t the whites of South Africa have their own homeland as well?
In the U.S., meanwhile, the central government gets more tyrannical and expensive by the day. Is it time to think about bidding it adieu?
Certainly, secession from Britain made a lot of sense. Whenever “any Form of Government becomes destructive” of the inalienable rights granted by the Creator, writes Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence “it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government.” When a “long train of abuses and usurpations” shows “a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”
“Every man and every body of men on earth, possesses the right to self-government,” Jefferson wrote elsewhere, and in 1786, he even defended Shay’s tax revolt, which was suppressed by federal troops. To Jefferson, “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
That same year, he wrote to James Madison advocating secession for what were then the western states, after Congress had proposed to make them fewer and larger. “This is reversing the natural order of things,” he wrote. “A tractable people may be governed in large bodies; but, in proportion as they depart from this character, the extent of their government must be less.”
Thirty years later, Jefferson wrote: “If any State in the Union will declare that it prefers separation” over “union,” “I have no hesitation in saying, ‘let us separate.’”
Not everyone agreed. In his farewell address, George Washington — who had been horrified by Shay’s rebellion — condemned “every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest.” Still, the freedom to secede was accepted by many American political leaders. In 1848, even Abraham Lincoln endorsed it: “Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable — a most sacred right — a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world.”
“Nor,” said Lincoln, “is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so much of the territory as they inhabit.”
When he became president, Lincoln called secession the “essence of anarchy.” Not because of slavery, but because of taxes. Tariffs were the major source of federal revenue and like all taxes, a powerful tool of the special interests. In this case they were used to protect Northern manufacturers from foreign competition at the expense of Southern agriculture, and to fund Northern public works projects.
Surpassing even the “tariff of abominations” of 1832, Lincoln doubled tariffs when he entered office to their highest rate in American history, threatening to impoverish the South, which imported almost everything.
In his 1861 inaugural speech, Lincoln told the South it must pay taxes. He would use, if necessary, “bloodshed or violence” against the seceding states “to collect the duties and imposts,” but for no other purpose.
The secession had to be stopped, a Union newspaper in Boston editorialized, because the South would be a low-tax nation with a “revenue system verging on free trade.” If “only a nominal duty is laid upon imports” in Southern ports, the “business of the chief Northern cities will be seriously injured.”
Woodrow Wilson too seemed to support secession for all peoples, when he said in 1918 that “no people must be forced under sovereignty under which it does not wish to live.” But a year later, he backed off: there were too many nationalities! “When I gave utterance to those words, I said them without the knowledge that nationalities existed, which are coming to us day after day.”
Although Wilson talked endlessly about self-determination, he was actually against the break-up of unified states. He would have agreed with Eleanor Roosevelt, who asked, while the U.S. representative to the UN, “Does self-determination mean the right of secession?… Obviously not.”
Sometimes tyrants, knowing the appeal of secession, have used it as a ruse. In 1931, for example, before the Chinese Communist Party came to power, it guaranteed the “right to complete separation from China” to various nationalities including “Mongolians, Tibetans, Miao, Yao, Koreans, and others living on the territory.” After the Party took over, its promise went the way of Lenin’s similar lie. But when China is freed from communism, as it will be, we can expect to see many regions, including the more prosperous Canton, separating from the hated Peking.
Centralized states like the U.S. resort not only to military force to prevent secession, but also to spending. The cash continues to flow unless a state shows even the slightest inclination to independence. Even on minor matters like the drinking age, seatbelt laws, and speed limits, the feds threaten to cut off all funds unless the state legislatures capitulate, which they soon do.
Yet why should Palm Springs taxpayers subsidize Appalachian welfare? Or Appalachians subsidize Arkansas farmers? Or Alaskans build public housing in Atlanta? Why should Texas, once an independent nation, have to take orders from anyone? Jefferson’s test for a justified secession was “a long train of abuses and usurpations.” Today’s train makes George III’s look like a caboose.
As long as the states are held under the federal thumb, they will never be able to experiment with free markets. National labor, tax, environmental , civil rights, and regulatory codes will not allow it. Wisconsin, for example, had to seek Washington’s approval to try a very minor welfare reform.
“No people and no part of a people shall be held against its will in a political association that it does not want,” wrote Ludwig von Mises. Otherwise economic freedom would suffer along with political freedom. For Mises, international cooperation was as important as domestic cooperation, but this was achieved through free trade, not unified politics.
Is secession the only hope for restoring freedom of all sorts? Perhaps, if we are not content indefinitely to be a “tractable people.”