The Rise of Nullification


Most Likely to Secede: What the Vermont Independence Movement Can Teach Us About Reclaiming Community and Creating a Human-Scale Vision for the 21st Century, Ron Miller and Rob Williams, eds., Chelsea Greeen. 272 pages

I presume to review this book, even though I am a contributor to it, because it is a fine representation of an increasing tendency across this land of resistance to a federal government grown inept, corrupt, overreaching, overlarge, and overintrusive. That tendency may be labeled, for convenience: nullification.

It doesn’t matter that the word does not appear in this volume, for its spirit does. The volume is called Most Likely to Secede, and it grows out of a secession movement in Vermont that has been active, off and on, for a decade now. But I don’t think secession really is in the immediate future. Instead the subtitle comes closest to what this book is all about – state independence. It is a collection of essays from a magazine called Vermont Commons, which started publishing in 2005, and they deal with every aspect of what it takes for a state to assume unto itself all the processes that have been ceded to (or seized by) the federal government over the years: money, business regulation, energy, health, education, democracy, food safety, information, the commons, and social policies such as abortion and marriage.

Obviously, every attempt to increase or establish independence on the state level will eventually run up against laws and regulations on the federal level. Take food, for example. One essay here points out that Vermont will not be able to have food produced “locally and regionally … until we openly name and then dismantle the tyranny of our corporate-industrial food system – which is supported by our government.” It goes on to look at federal regulations that have grown and grown in the 20th century, which “did achieve a certain level of food safety” but at the cost of “creating a system where small abattoirs and locally available meat are scarce because of the capital investment required to comply with all of the safety standards.” So, too, with milk, which the federal government has long required to be pasteurized and produced and bottled in expensive settings with expensive processes that make it very hard for a small farmer to comply.

So if the food movement in Vermont – which has done a lot in recent years to promote local farming and marketing – is ever to set up a truly independent and truly local agricultural system it will have to find a way to push back federal regulations and practices: that is, nullification.

Or take education. Another essay here lays out all the ways in which Vermont could have schools that develop independent thinking, regardless of grades and testing, and gives examples of this being done in a few places in the state. But it is hard to expand these models when the state government is obligated, by state and national laws, to have standardized education. “One vital goal of Vermont independence,” writes Ron Miller, a founder of the “holistic education” movement, “is an educational culture that respects and encourages learning on a human scale, that supports caring and loving communities of learning.” But it runs up against “authoritarian educational policy” and federal “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” requirements. “National educational policy is one more reason why we need to challenge the burgeoning power of the American empire,” he writes. “We ought to decline the Federal government’s inducements to participate in any ‘race to the top’.”

But declining that means more than a polite “no thank you.” It needs a deliberate campaign to nullify federal laws. That takes courage, but that’s what a surprising number of state legislatures are now displaying.

Nullification acts have been introduced in state legislatures all across the country, particularly in the last few months: no fewer than 10 states took up proposals in the last week of February. According to one estimate at the Tenth Amendment Center, which tracks such things, there are more than 70 proposed bills to nullify federal laws and practices now in state legislatures, sometimes consciously labeled nullification, sometimes not.

For example, 12 states have introduced proposals for state marijuana laws in defiance of federal regulations under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, joining the 15 states that have already passed various decriminalization provisions, including most recently Washington and Colorado. (Interestingly, they are not confined to blue or red states but stretch across the land: Alaska, Washington, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Michigan, Arkansas, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Maine.)

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