Break It Up, America!

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