Secession: The Final Frontier

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Secession: How Vermont and All the Other States Can Save Themselves from the Empire. By Thomas H. Naylor. Foreword by Kirkpatrick Sale. Feral House, 2008. 119 pages.

As a general matter, most Americans insist on placing their collective faith in "democracy" as the primary means to address the escalating problems of rising consumer and commodity prices, the value of the U.S. dollar on the edge of free-fall, a foreign policy based on aggressive imperialism, and the gradual erosion of the nation's infrastructure and natural resources. These are undoubtedly issues of great importance and concern. And yet, Americans seem to have either lost total faith in the electoral process and feel utterly powerless, or they still honestly believe that their votes for the "right" presidential candidate will "make a difference" or lead to "change" (Obama, anyone?). This stark reality of democratic politics applies just as well to the average citizen living in the rest of the Americas, much of Europe, Australia, parts of Asia and South America, or in any other country purportedly based on democratic values.

Pitted against this global democratic status quo is the political concept of "secession." Secession is commonly defined as the consensual exit of a group of people and territory from an existing nation-state. In many cases (but not all), what results from secession is the emergence of new politically-sovereign entities. That said, it is not too much of a stretch to note that secession remains a difficult concept for the average person to intellectually digest. Even with the relatively peaceful political break-up of the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries over fifteen years ago, citizens residing in democracies the world over barely give secession a serious thought. And political establishments in those democracies refuse to recognize secession as a legitimate tool for effecting meaningful political and socioeconomic change. To them, secession remains a threat to "territorial integrity."

Nevertheless, is it possible that now, in the early part of the 21st century, the idea of secession may soon catch political fire and inspire millions of people to push for political decentralization and dismemberment of the world's existing nation-states?

In his important new book, Secession: How Vermont and All the Other States Can Save Themselves from the Empire, Thomas H. Naylor concludes that efforts to reform the "American Empire" are futile, and that secession is the only feasible mechanism that can be used to disentangle the United States in the most peaceful and least chaotic manner possible. This conclusion may seem somewhat unusual coming from someone like Naylor, who is not exactly your run-of-the-mill radical, judging by his "establishment" credentials as an Emeritus Professor of Economics at Duke University and former CEO of a successful computer software firm.

Naylor begins Secession with a dedication to, of all people, the famed American diplomat and foreign policy guru George F. Kennan. Kennan is most famous for having developed the foreign policy of "containing" Communist expansion during the Truman Administration of the 1950s. However, what is not widely-known is that by the early 1990s, in the twilight of his life, Kennan became a strong sympathizer for an independent Vermont and proponent of breaking up the United States into "a dozen constituent republics" as a means to roll back aggressive American foreign policy imperialism. Having been the father of containment diplomacy, it is reasonable to assume that Kennan may have known a thing or two about the dangers of aggressive imperialist expansion and how to combat it. Indeed, it is fascinating to note that Naylor considers Kennan to be "a major source of inspiration for the Second Vermont Republic," even going so far as to deem him as its "godfather." For those that do not know, the Second Vermont Republic is the name given by Naylor and others to a future Vermont that will perhaps one day become its own sovereign independent republic, broken free from the yoke of the current territorial borders of the United States.

The foreword to Secession is provided by Kirkpatrick Sale. He is perhaps best known as one of the political Left's most prominent journalists and a prolific author of numerous books with topics ranging from environmentalism and radical political decentralization to neo-Ludditeism and bioregionalism. Sale has focused his energies on becoming a preeminent advocate of secession, and in particular, the secession of Vermont from the United States. In his foreword, Sale lays out in a few short paragraphs how a small group of attendees to a "Radical Consultation" conference in Middlebury, Vermont in 2004, went from completely rejecting American electoral politics to whole-heartedly embracing secession for effecting political change. By the end of that conference, Sale, along with Naylor and a few others, founded the Middlebury Institute. According to its Declaration, the Middlebury Institute is a think-tank created in order to "place secession on the national agenda, encourage secessionist organizations, develop communication among existing and future secessionist groups, and create a body of scholarship to examine and promote the ideas and principles of secessionism." Secession certainly represents a contribution to that body of scholarship.

Naylor begins Secession by declaring that the United States today is an imperial power centralized in the hands of an oligarchic federal government that exercises too much of that power both at home and abroad. Early on, Naylor offers the following insight, which sets the tone for the arguments he makes throughout the book:

A cursory study of world history reveals a self-evident truth. No major empire anywhere at any time in history has ever proven to be sustainable. Sustainability refers to the ability of a community, a town, a city, or a nation-state to ensure the availability of political, economic, agricultural, social, cultural, and environmental resources for future generations… (p. 28)

Naylor proceeds to offer a litany of arguments describing how the United States has become "unsustainable." In standard left-liberal style, he rails against big businesses like Wal-Mart that exploit their workforce and threaten to wipe out their smaller, local "mom and pop" competitors in Vermont and other parts of the nation. Naylor further bemoans the "total market control" of large fast-food corporations such as McDonald's that wield tremendous buying power over the nation's food supplies, to the detriment of small family farms. Both Naylor and Sale also point to the unsustainability of global warming, overused natural resources and excessive American importation and consumption of the world's oil supplies.

In making such arguments, it is worth noting that Naylor either misses or ignores an important economic insight, consistently put forth by Austrian School economists in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises, that large-scale economic production, when channeled toward the service of the individual consumer and not governmentally-privileged corporations, provides lasting social benefits to society as a whole. Such large-scale production for large-scale consumption is indicative of capitalism in its most genuinely laissez-faire form, unlike the business-government economic fascism that left-liberals such as Naylor and Sale appear too often to mislabel as genuine, free market capitalism.

As much as Naylor and Sale may be perceived by "right-wingers" as spokesmen for the political Left with all their talk of "sustainability" and the evils of McDonald's and Wal-Mart, their arguments for secession nevertheless share much in common with right-libertarian political thought. For instance, Naylor perceives America to be electorally corrupt and essentially a one-party system in which no real difference exists between the Republicans and Democrats when it comes to foreign policy. In reading this, one is reminded of the "War Party" label that Antiwar.com writer and libertarian Justin Raimondo often ascribes to the bipartisan Republican/Democrat foreign policy consensus in Washington, D.C.

Naylor also recognizes that American imperialism is comprised of "both external and internal imperialism." Again, this dichotomy of imperialism may remind one of a similar "welfare/warfare state" dichotomy conceived by libertarian and Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard to describe the U.S. federal government as a symbiotic, interrelated domestic and foreign policy leviathan. Naylor even cites libertarians Lew Rockwell and Thomas DiLorenzo as authorities on America's internal imperialism, originating with the oppressive violations of civil liberties committed by former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's administration in the 1860s and continuing through to the present day with the current regime of President George W. Bush.

In a recent talk delivered at the Future of Freedom Foundation’s conference on “Restoring the Republic: Foreign Policy and Civil Liberties” last month, Rockwell himself indirectly, but in a very cogent way, expands on Naylor's attempt to put the purpose for secession in its proper perspective:

…Think of your local and state governments. They tax and spend. They manipulate and intervene. As with all governments from the beginning of time, they generally retard social progress and muck things up as much as possible. What they do not do, however, is wage massive global wars, run huge deficits, accumulate trillions in debt, reduce the value of money, bail out foreign governments, provide endless credits to failing enterprises, administer hugely expensive and destructive social insurance schemes, or bring about immense swings in business activity.

State and local governments are awful and they must be relentlessly checked, but they are not anything like the threat of the federal government. Neither are they as arrogant and convinced of their own infallibility and indispensability. They lack the aura of invincibility that the central government enjoys….

From their own divergent political perspectives, Naylor (despiser of Wal-Mart) and Rockwell (defender of Wal-Mart) put forth essentially the same argument in favor of dismantling the federal government through secession. This coming together of "left" and "right" may represent a new common ground among thinkers from different political places who happen to share the same anti-imperialist foreign policy values and understand that radical political decentralization may be the only true means to achieve those values. With the emergence of the Middlebury Institute, this ideological common ground could lead to a growing political coalition for secession in the future as the American socioeconomic and geopolitical landscape continues to degenerate and the average American becomes increasingly disillusioned with the political status quo.

That being said, Naylor's primary and more selfish motive as a secessionist is to achieve a sovereign Vermont republic, wholly independent of the United States. To that end, he devotes a chapter that describes in some detail the uniqueness of Vermont as a state known for its political independence, grass-roots democracy, local markets, cultural heritage, and focus on clean environmental living. Naylor recites the importance of Vermont's colonial heritage and streak of independence as originating largely from its favorite son, the colonial-era hero Ethan Allan. In telling Vermont's story, Naylor provides a moral justification for preserving Vermont against the heavy hand of the U.S. federal government and all the "mega"-sized institutions that it bolsters. It makes one think – if some day the majority of Vermonters wish to preserve their unique values and way of life within an independent Vermont, who are others to tell them "no"? And if Vermonters could do it, why not others?

Perhaps the most important chapter in Secession is the cleverly-entitled "Untied States of America." By substituting "Untied" for "United," Naylor paints an effective picture of the precise purpose for secession. According to Naylor, secession is not meant to be disruptive or chaotic. Rather, secession is meant to, among other things, "disengage." In fact, this is one of the four "Ds" of secession that Naylor lists – the other three being "Denunciation," "Demystification," and "Defiance." To all four of these "Ds", one could add a fifth "D" — "Demolition" — which is exactly what Naylor does when he thoroughly refutes a number of preconceived notions and attitudes that most Americans have when it comes to the alleged unconstitutionality of secession and the overly-glorified Abraham Lincoln (in the course of "demolishing" Lincoln, Naylor cites generously to DiLorenzo's The Real Lincoln and Lincoln Unmasked). Reading Naylor here will make one at least rethink, and in all likelihood utterly reject, that oft-repeated and false notion that secession is nothing more than code for "slavery" and "states' rights."

With Secession, Thomas Naylor provides the average person trapped in the "black-box" of democracy with a short, easy-to-read book that lays out a new political frontier using persuasive and well-reasoned arguments. Unlike most books published on secession, written mostly by political philosophers attempting to weigh the costs and benefits of secession under the assumption of some hypothetical Rawlsian "democratically just" state, Secession is one of the few books available that offers a truly normative case for breaking up the United States and many other of the world's nation-states, using interdisciplinary arguments based on economics, politics, history, culture, and, most importantly, reason. Secession is a path-breaking contribution to the secession literature, and arguably the first of many books on the topic that are sure to follow in the years to come.

July 11, 2008