Break It Up, America!

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Break
it up! That’s the schoolyard cry when kids tangle and things get
out of hand. But as America’s polarized political factions get down
and increasingly dirty, some people want to break up not the fight,
but the country folks are fighting over.

Boston
College’s Paul Lewis, a professor of English, caused a ruckus in
September of 2003 when he, tongue in cheek, opined in the Toronto Globe and Mail
that states which supported Al Gore in 2000 should secede and join
Canada. “Citizens of the new Canadian provinces would enjoy basic
entitlements and benefits unheard of in the U.S., including: universal
health care; good and affordable colleges and universities; good
mass transit in major cities…”

Harboring
more-modest goals, former economics professor Thomas Naylor wins
respectful media coverage for his campaign to withdraw Vermont from
the United States. On the Second Vermont Republic website, Naylor
calls for a nation based on “[d]irect democracy, sustainability,
economic solidarity, quality education, wellness, nonviolence…”

Far
across the political spectrum, Cory Burnell’s Christian Exodus organization
“is coordinating the move of thousands of Christians to South Carolina
for the express purpose of re-establishing Godly, constitutional
government,” according
to the Knight-Ridder news service.

Christian
Exodus draws inspiration, though not ideology, from the Free State
Project, a much-publicized group that is resettling thousands of
libertarians in New Hampshire. In the essay that launched
the project
, founder Jason Sorens wrote of concentrating individualists
with the goal of “reducing government to the minimal functions of
protecting life, liberty and property.” The project isn’t overtly
secessionist, but it reserves the tactic as a last resort.

And
why shouldn’t secession be a political tactic?

The
US government, born of secession from Britain, bases its legitimacy
on the “consent of the governed.” It’s clear that Americans are
a fractious people and they consent to be governed in very different,
and mutually exclusive, ways. Cory Burnell’s theocratic vision runs
afoul of Paul Lewis’s desire for equal rights for gay and lesbians.
Thomas Naylor’s bicycle-riding communitarians butt heads with Jason
Sorens’s live-and-let-live libertarian allies.

Would
it be so terrible if Lewis, Naylor, Burnell and Sorens got to live
as they pleased with like-minded people? They would probably be
happier to be governed according to their own values, and they might
even get along better with one another if freed from each other’s
conflicting ideologies.

True,
the idea that people with different preferences might be better
off negotiating an amicable political divorce doesn’t square with
fifth-grade Social Studies lessons about democracy. Generations
of students have been taught that 51% of the population has the
divine right to treat the other 49% like the losers in a playground
game of kickball – and the losers should suck it up. But as Enrico
Spolaore, professor of economics at Brown University, and Alberto
Alesina, professor of economics at Harvard University, write in
their 2003 book, The
Size of Nations
, “as countries become larger, diversity
of preferences, culture, language etc. of their population increases.
As heterogeneity increases, then, more and more individuals or regions
will be less satisfied by the central government policies.”

Mini-states
don’t just make their citizens happier; they can be prosperous,
Spolaore and Alesina say, if they embrace free trade.

Which
brings us back to the obvious fact that many Americans conceive
of hell as a world in which they must abide by the values of some
of their countrymen.

This
wouldn’t matter if the US still took federalism seriously. Then,
constrained by constitutional protections for individual rights,
states could continue to experiment with different systems within
the same country. Spolaore and Alesina “emphasize how decentralization
can, up to a point, substitute for secessions” and cite traditional
US federalism as a model for keeping different types of people happy
by distributing decision-making power to states, localities and
individuals.

That’s
fine and dandy, but in modern America the political action is increasingly
concentrated in Washington, D.C. As Professor Norman Barry, a political
scientist at Britain’s University of Buckingham who writes extensively
on federalism around the world, observes, “America is no help. Its Constitution clearly delineates (under
the Tenth Amendment) the respective roles for the federal government
and the states but that has not held.” The whims of a few hundred
members of Congress become the law of the land for liberals, conservatives,
communitarians, libertarians, Christian fundamentalists and everybody
else.

In
a nation of hundreds of millions of citizens, isn’t it inevitable
that the Lewises, Naylors, Burnells and Sorenses, along with uncounted
others, “will be less satisfied by the central government policies”?

For
now, America’s secessionists remain on the fringes. But if federal
politicos insist on one-size-fits-all policies for a diverse population,
it’s only a matter of time before people in the mainstream contemplate
the benefits to be had if they decide to “break it up.”

July
13, 2004

JD
Tuccille [send him mail] is
an Arizona-based writer and political analyst.

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