D. Dowd Muska


If at First You Don’t Secede…

September 12, 2013

America’s been light on secession lately.

Since The Big One -- the North-South breakup that produced the unimaginably bloody conflagration of the 1860s -- U.S. political boundaries have been remarkably inflexible. It’s a foolish consistency, but fortunately, one that activists seek to change.

In November, Coloradoans in several adjoining counties will vote in a referendum that asks whether commissioners should “pursue becoming the 51st state of the United States of America.” The (Boulder) Daily Camera described the region’s ire as “rural residents’ extreme dissatisfaction with laws the legislature passed this year, including oil and gas bills, gun-control bills and a bill that doubled the amount of energy rural electric cooperatives had to obtain from ‘green’ sources.”

Rabble-rousers in Northern California are looking to split their territory from Sacramento and form the State of Jefferson. Journalist Steven Greenhut reports that the movement isn’t backed by tea partiers alone: “Although secession has a conservative bent -- with its focus on gun-rights [sic], and complaints about land-use restrictions and oddball priorities in the Capitol -- it’s not entirely right wing. Marijuana farmers and free spirits in the rural coastal counties, such as Humboldt, have also complained about indifference from far-off officials.”

Secession fever’s in the East, too. “If you think you have a long list of grievances and it’s been going on for decades, and you can’t get it resolved, ultimately this is what you have to do,” Scott Strzelczyk recently told The Washington Post. The leader of the Western Maryland Initiative wishes to escape from Annapolis’s control, and establish a new, significantly less-blue state.

If moonbattery is more your taste, get behind the creation of the Second Vermont Republic. It’s not looking to ditch Montpelier -- it’s fleeing “the clutches” of Washington’s “immoral, unsustainable, ungovernable, unfixable empire.” Additional goals include “the peaceful breakup of meganations such as the United States, China, and Russia” and “a strategic alliance with other small, democratic, nonviolent, affluent, socially responsible, cooperative, egalitarian, sustainable, ecofriendly nations such as Austria, Finland, and Switzerland which share a high degree of environmental integrity and a strong sense of community.”

Some in Texas desire their own nation as well -- a departure that many of America’s elites would welcome. Alaska and Hawaii are strong prospects for D.C.-free sovereignty, too.

What’s strange about today’s secession talk is that it sounds so strange to so many. When one group of people attempts to “dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” most Americans think 1861 and slavery, not 1776 and freedom.

That shouldn’t be the case. Founded in rebellion, wrote philosopher Steven Yates, “the new republic … was hardly as stable, initially, as today’s history books suggest. Secession was threatened a number of times during its first 70 years by states or groups of states both Northern and Southern on various pretexts.” (The Lincoln administration went beyond talk, and oversaw the electorally advantageous, if illegitimate, carving-out of West Virginia.)

Secession should no longer carry with it the stigma of men and women “held to Service or Labour.” Slavery is settled. Today’s bitterly contested debates are about sexuality, guns, entitlements, and the environment. By crafting smaller, more tightly aligned jurisdictions -- entities whose residents hold similar beliefs about taxes, regulations, and civil liberties -- secession promises the manifold blessings of depoliticization.

It’s clear that the opposite approach hasn’t worked. The consolidation of government-school districts has confirmed the existence of diseconomies of scale in the “public” sector. But it’s also forced children to be exposed to values that their parents don’t share. At the state level, centralization is dominant; federalism is nearly dead. Most capitals now follow Washington’s lead -- usually in response to federal carrots and sticks -- in funding bureaucracies that irk citizens who are uncomfortable with corporate welfare, reject subsidies to the arts, aren’t terrified of “climate change,” and oppose the “War on Drugs.”

In a post-presidency letter, the Sage of Monticello averred that “the earth belongs to the living,” and that each generation should be considered “as a distinct nation, with a right, by the will of its majority, to bind themselves, but none to bind the succeeding generation.”

For a century and a half, political boundaries have been considered sacrosanct, as if they were drawn by omniscient beings, not men who lacked the ability to foresee social and economic squabbles far into the future. Enough. Prudently restructuring the configuration of municipalities, counties, and states -- even permitting the dissolution of parts of the union -- isn’t dreamy kookery. It’s experimentation, American style.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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