If At First You Don't Secede

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One of the secrets the institutional establishment would like to keep from the rest of us is the existence of worldwide pressures to decentralize political power. While political systems seek to extend their authority through increased police and military powers (as in America) and through the creation of such supra-national political structures as the European Union or the World Trade Organization, these practices are really desperate efforts to forestall the further decline of political authority throughout the world.

A principal manifestation of such decentralizing tendencies has been the growth of political secession movements. From the collapse of the Soviet Union to "separatist" efforts being made in Tibet, Mongolia, Spain, Italy, Indonesia, Yugoslavia, India, France, Northern Ireland, Quebec, a number of the former Soviet Republics, and elsewhere, informal processes — in varying degrees of energy — are at work to reduce the size and power of stultifying, life-destroying political structures. Even at the heart of the Middle Eastern conflict lies a demand, on the part of the Palestinians, for the right to secede from Israel.

Secession movements have also been thriving in America, where the first one was successfully undertaken over two hundred years ago when the colonials separated from the British government. Whatever legitimacy the new American government was able to claim vis-à-vis the British was, of course, rejected when the southern states tried to secede from the American union. The contradiction between the Revolutionary and Civil wars has left unthinking Americans in a quandary over the secession question. Any defense made of the right to secede from established political authority is often met with expressions of disbelief at the temerity of even asking such a question. One could more readily engage a thoughtful discussion on a proposal to have the government endeavor to reverse the orbit of Jupiter than to consider the propriety of secession.

Philosophically, any denial of the right of people to secede from a political system is also a denial of the legitimacy of the state itself. As I developed in a prior article, the modern state is premised on a "social contract" theory wherein men and women, being free to act individually to protect their lives and property from wrongdoers, may establish a political system to perform this function on their behalf. Individuals, in other words, are supposed to be the principals, and state officials their agents.

There is no evidence, of course, that any state system ever came into existence as a result of a contract unanimously entered into by a nation of people. Political systems have always been brought about by conquest, by naked coercion, by the same forces of victimization that it was the theoretical purpose of the state to prevent! When government officials interfere with the right of secession they are, in effect, announcing to us all the fraudulent nature of the so-called "social contract."

It should come as no great revelation to point out that democratically-constituted political systems have interests of their own that conflict with the wills of their alleged "principals." FDR’s ambitions to get into World War II — even though the overwhelming majority of Americans opposed doing so — is but one example. More recent evidence can be found in the response of the Irish government to the 2001 referendum wherein 54% of Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice, which proposed fundamental changes in the power structure of the European Union. Not to worry, for the Irish government decided to order another vote on the matter! In America, thwarting the will of the electorate is handled differently. When voters vote contrary to establishment interests on a referendum question, the courts simply declare the outcome "unconstitutional." Who do the voters think they are, daring to intervene in the business of their political masters?

It is interesting to contemplate the dynamics underlying the secession movements throughout the world. The phenomenon is simply too widespread to lay its causes at the feet of any ideology or political movement. I suspect that the explanation lies in such factors as the tendency for political systems to become increasingly dysfunctional, bureaucratic, oppressive, and aggressive as their size and power expands; as well as a growing awareness that the state exists to promote the interests of a few at the expense of the many.

Whatever the explanation, and despite years of having been carefully conditioned in the statist mindset by the schools, the media, and the state, secession campaigns are ongoing in various parts of America. In Alaska, Texas, Hawaii, and many southern states, fledgling efforts have been made on behalf of secession from the United States. But less ambitious undertakings have been occurring elsewhere. Staten Island, for instance, has been working to secede from New York City, while various counties in different states seek to withdraw from one state and to join another, or to set up new states altogether.

Among the more noteworthy campaigns are the efforts on behalf of the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood to secede from the city of Los Angeles and set up their own cities. A popular vote on the question will be on the ballot this November. Similar campaigns are underway to create a separate city status for other Los Angeles area communities.

The reaction of city officials and business interests to secession is quite revealing regarding the nature of all political systems. The mayor of Los Angeles announced a major anti-secession campaign, and contacted businesses and lobbyists who do business with the city for major contributions, some as high as $100,000 each. The previous LA mayor, along with numerous other local, state, and federal officials, have joined in the anti-secession campaign.

The question that immediately comes to mind is this: why would elected officials and corporate leaders want to oppose secession? If government officials are our representatives, our agents, why wouldn’t the mayor — having learned from opinion polls that most of the Valley residents favor secession — be doing everything he could to see that "the will of the people" to secede from the city be carried out? One who represented you in a business or legal matter, and who worked behind the scenes to thwart your interests, would certainly open himself up to liability for breach of contract or professional ethics. How can a man make any pretense of being a "representative" of the very people whose desires for a more local system of government he is actively trying to subvert?

The mayor has dug up all kinds of "bogey-men" with whom to scare Valley residents to give up their efforts to liberate themselves from LA City Hall. Though he argued that secession would be detrimental to "public safety" — a local government phrase designed to serve the same purpose as "national security" at the federal level — an agency set up to study the feasibility of secession concluded that smaller cities are able to provide government services more efficiently than can larger cities; and that the per capita costs of such services decline in smaller cities. Given the high crime rates that prevail in major cities across America — particularly that most-politically-centralized of all the world’s cities, Washington, D.C. — the argument that smaller cities would be unable to match the safety records of larger cities should evoke rounds of laughter.

I wonder if the mayor’s fears of a multitude of independent cities carries over into his understanding of economics? Would he contend that there is something unwholesome about General Motors having to compete with other auto manufacturers, and ought, therefore, to be given a monopoly? If competition is a useful means for disciplining participants in the marketplace, ought not the same logic apply here? As long as we are stuck with political institutions, would it not be better to have a multitude of such agencies — rather than a monopoly of just one — so that each could help check the excesses and abuses of the others?

The mayor next trotted out a non-existent sentiment on behalf of keeping Los Angeles intact, rather than subdivided into numerous separate cities. Anyone familiar with LA knows that the city has always been a collage of separate cities. I do not remember who it was who called Los Angeles "two hundred suburbs in search of a city," but even a cursory view of an LA map will reveal the truth of the proposition. Within the Los Angeles area are such independent cities as Pasadena, Glendale, Burbank, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Culver City, Torrance, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Irvine, Long Beach, Pomona, Fullerton, West Covina, . . . the list goes on and on. Does the mayor really believe that the LA area has suffered from such a diffusion of cities, and that adding one or two more will cause unforeseen problems?

What this proliferation of independent cities does produce, of course, is a diffusion of political power, and wanting to keep as much power centralized within Los Angeles City Hall — and in his hands as mayor — is what most concerns this man and the business interests supporting his anti-secession campaign. Being the mayor of Los Angeles carries with it more power and prestige than does being the mayor of Burbank.

For corporate interests, being able to influence political decision-making — which $100,000 contributions will certainly enable one to do — in a city of 3 million people will greatly reduce the transaction costs that would exist if those same 3 million people were located in twenty cities. Furthermore, business interests that benefit from contracts with the city are eager to maintain the status quo. In putting together the mayor’s coalition of supporters, one of his aides declared that "nobody’s been hard to get." A more poignant observation was made by a supporter of secession who, in speaking of the mayor’s coalition, stated: "The only criterion for being in this coalition is need or greed." It is no wonder that, as reported by the Los Angeles Times, the largest contributor to the anti-secession effort is a man who wants to build a football stadium in Los Angeles, possibly with taxpayer’s money!

There is one comment by the mayor to which attention must be directed: his declaration that secession would be "a disaster of biblical proportions." I don’t know if the man was suddenly possessed of hyperbolic humors, or if he is, indeed, an agent of divine forces. If it is the case that this man enjoys a pipeline to the throne of the cosmic order, his pronouncements ought not be dismissed so lightly. Perhaps nothing less than a reopening of the Old Testament is in order, with his speeches and press releases collected and sandwiched in between the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes! Secession is one thing, but raising the specter of fire and brimstone is quite another matter. On the other hand, doing a sequel to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is an event that only an independent Hollywood could handle!

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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