A Successful One-Family Secession Movement

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In a recent
report published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, which is one
of the best non-profit outfits anywhere, we learn about a family
that was given the shaft by the local city bureaucracy. Now, this
is not big news. It happens all the time. But this time, the family
stuck it back to the city, good and hard. This is a “man bites
dog, and then kicks its butt for good measure” story. The article
is titled, “Secession
in Michigan
,” by Adam Young.

ROUND
ONE

On Tuesday,
December 17, 2002, Arenac Township and Omer City, Michigan
held a joint referendum brought about by the actions of one
woman, Cheryl Perry. The Perrys simply no longer wished to
be looted by the Omer municipal government, even if it was
only $41.62 a year. . . .

Omer
entered the national spotlight, with ABC News, the Chicago
Tribune, and the Detroit Free Press stopping by,
when Cheryl Perry refused to be bullied by her “representatives”
and decided to fight City Hall. It all began when the Omer
city government promised to extend the existing water line
to connect the new home the Perry’s were building, but halfway
through construction, the government changed its tune, claiming
the city government’s coffers were bare and it couldn’t afford
the pipeline extension. . . .

The city’s
regime said they would be happy to extend the pipeline if
the Perrys would be willing to pay for it, and at the inflated
cost of all government construction, one presumes. Apparently,
this “offer” didn’t appeal to the Perrys, who instead dug
their own well at a cost to themselves and now have all the
water they need.

The Perrys
dug a well. This way, they could live in their new home. They
were fortunate. In some urban communities, digging a well is illegal.
The cities’ water departments won’t allow the competition. They
refer to it as “below-market pricing” — way below. Sometimes 500
feet below.

The city
continued to charge the Perrys $41.62 a year for water service.
This was legal. It was preposterous, but it was legal.

ROUND
TWO

In an
interview Cheryl Perry had a very common sense reaction to
this action by Omer’s governmental bureaucracy: “I don’t feel
I should have to pay because I don’t get the water.”

This woman
just didn’t get it. Legally, taxes aren’t primarily about services.
They’re primarily about power. “See this gun? I’m holding it.
You aren’t. I’m entitled to hold it. You aren’t. Pay up.”

But Mrs.
Perry decided that there was a better way, a better political
way. “Find someone else who holds a gun, but who extracts less
tribute.”

When
petitioning one’s government for redress of grievances proved
to be a farce, Cheryl Perry turned the tables on the bureaucrats:
if she had to pay the tax because she lived in Omer, she would
secede from Omer and take her new house and land with her.
Cheryl Perry petitioned the city government to secede from
Omer and join neighboring Arenac Township, a process covered
by Michigan State law, which requires a local referendum.
So, on December 17, both Arenac Township and Omer held a contest
at the ballot box — an “election” over only one issue: whether
to allow the Perrys to leave Omer’s jurisdiction without actually
moving.

Now, here’s
a novel idea! Get governments competing against each other for
your tribute money. “Let’s get an auction going here! Let’s see
some price competition!”

Arenac
Township Clerk Elaine Pula thought some sort of compromise
would eventually be worked out. “I kind of thought the city
of Omer and our township would get together and, you know,
come up with something to save the expense.”

Compromise?
Governments? Bureaucrats? Guns? Not likely.

ROUND
THREE

Mrs. Perry
persisted. She demanded an election. She wanted to know: Would
other townspeople in Omer stand with her and allow her to secede?

To hold
the vote Omer and Arenac Township spent $2,000 which included
printing enough ballots for all 1,000 potential voters and
hiring workers to man the voting places from 7am to 8pm, even
though most people figured around 50 people would actually
turn up to vote, if that.

After
the polls closed Cheryl Perry got the outcome she wanted.
Out of a total vote tally of 140, with 82 votes Yes and 58
miserable voters voting No, the Perrys had successfully seceded
from Omer and Omer’s taxman.

She won.
She has successfully transferred her official allegiance to a
more distant government, which charges her nothing for the water
it doesn’t supply. Whether it supplies a fire truck, the report
didn’t say.

AN
ASSESSMENT

No, not the
new city’s assessment; our assessment.

Was it worth
her trouble? Was it worth the city’s $2,000?

Mr. Young,
a libertarian, proves once again that too many libertarians take
no delight in the absurd. This was not true of Murray Rothbard,
but it afflicts a lot of them. They prefer cold-blooded cost-benefit
analyses. But in making these analyses, they never factor in the
sheer joy of sticking it to politicians. He writes:

However,
the concern for libertarians should be the waste in time, money
and lost opportunities entailed by having your income and other
property perpetually at the mercy of the vote of your neighbors.
Consequently we should see this as yet another reason to not
only fight City Hall, but to abolish it, because even if conservatives
would herald it a success, it would only be because she won,
but what if she lost? The Perrys would have been forced to relinquish
some of their property year after year because their neighbors
agreed that they should.

“I wish
we didn’t have to go through this whole thing,” Cheryl Perry
told ABC News. “It’s been pretty time-consuming for us.”

I call your
attention to five words: “Cheryl Perry told ABC News.” This lady
was successful in getting her story in front of millions of voters,
most of whom have been manhandled by some bonehead local bureaucrat
at least once. Besides, they watch ABC news for entertainment
value. What better entertainment than this! Here was true reality
TV. She was able to get some local politicians to eat the political
equivalent of horse colons. Mr. Young is oblivious to all this.

And even
though Cheryl Perry won her referendum and thus saved the extorted
costs of the annual water levy, how much did she lose in lost
opportunities as well as her share of the actual costs that
she and others were forced to incur to operate the referendums?
An additional cost is the social cost incurred by the Perrys
whose neighbors grew to resent both the Perry’s themselves and
the attention they brought to their town.

Is he kidding?
Social cost? What social cost? In the Perrys’ cost-benefit analysis,
personal delight in sticking it to the system on national TV surely
must have offset any threat of possible future social costs, however
we might measure such a phantom.

We see in
this story the irrevocable operation of North’s Law of Bureaucracy:

“There
is no government regulation, no matter how plausible it initially
appears, that will not eventually be applied by some bureaucrat
in a way that defies common sense.”

There are
only two things that successfully restrain the expansion of bureaucracy:
(1) cut their budgets; (2) publicly humiliate them for having
done something preposterous that’s completely legal.

The Perrys
did both. They cut the Omer’s budget by $41.62 a year. They forced
the city to “waste” money on an election that the city lost. They
also forced local bureaucrats to worry about being exposed in
the national media as ham-handed dolts. Have you ever done anything
of equal political value with your spare time? I surely haven’t.

Mr. Young
eventually sided with the Perrys. “The Perrys were right: justice
and the right not to be coerced cannot be separated.” But that’s
too antiseptic for my taste. They not only beat city hall, they
beat it where it hurts most: on national TV. They did what it
is almost impossible to do. They converted run-of-the-mill, anti-business-as-usual
political pig-headedness into entertainment. Do that, and you
will get covered by the media. (The master of this approach was
the late Saul Alinsky.)

CONCLUSION

The Perrys
are an inspiration to me. They fought city hall and won. They
have challenged my innate cynicism about such efforts, for it
was I, a quarter century ago, who announced in Reason magazine
the following principle of political action:

“You can’t
fight city hall, but you can pee on the steps and run.”

I was wrong.
Sometimes you can pee on the steps and then get on ABC News.

January
23, 2003

Gary
North is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.freebooks.com.
For a free subscription to Gary North’s twice-weekly economics newsletter,
click
here
.

Gary
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