The Debate About Secession

The Colorado Freedom Report--www.co-freedom.com

The Debate About Secession

by Ari Armstrong, December 8, 2000

What would happen if the United States were to separate into two or more federal organizations? Would that result in greater peace and harmony, or create instability and chaos? Regardless, is such a move even possible?

I took a look at several recent articles about secession in a December 6 article (http://www.co-freedom.com/2000/12/secession.html). The next day, Rick Riemer published "Secession is NOT the Solution" at the Sierra Times (http://www.sierratimes.com/archive/guesteds/gedrr120700.htm).

I'm not actively supporting any secessionist movement; however, I recognize the political validity of the strategy and I see tremendous value in pursuing a public debate on the issue. After all, the United States took control of their own destiny by seceding from the British state. I'm happy to take up the pro-secessionist side of the argument. In many respects, I join Riemer and other writers in renewing that old debate between the federalists and anti-federalists. That's a debate Americans have all but forgotten, yet it is the most important issue in the history of our young nation.

I don't think another secession will happen any time soon. Americans are too fat and happy to want major changes, and that's fine. (I've gained a few pounds myself.) Also, the devastation of the Civil War is still too fresh. However, it would be foolish to believe the United States will remain unchanged indefinitely. At some point in the future, the United States will either join a larger confederation, suffer invasion and subjugation, or splinter into smaller nations. It's inevitable. History marches on. I personally believe secession has a good chance here within the next century. Further, I think secession might be the best development for human liberty since the Revolution. Therefore, I believe it's important to keep the concept of secession alive, and to defend it against detractors.

As I noted in my last article, my preference is to return to the loose federalism described by the Constitution. However, there's a reason that document failed to reign in the national government. The centralized state is a monster that always seeks to expand its power. Madison, Franklin and the rest would have laughed at (or committed) the person who suggested the federal government of the United States would one day tax a fourth of the nation's wealth and regulate the size of toilets, yet's that's the situation in which we find ourselves.

We'd be even better off returning to the Articles of Confederation. Of course, that agreement of unanimous consent would not work well for 50 states, but it would work well for smaller groupings of states.

The problem, then, is to reign in the modern central state so that the individual has more room to breathe and live his or her life free from oppression. Riemer's solution is to "dig in and work to reclaim our country." "We patriots need to reclaim power," he writes. That's a noble cause, but it's a strategy that hasn't been working very well. (That doesn't mean we should quit trying, of course.)

Secession is a strategy worth keeping on the table. In the best-case scenario, secession would divide the nation along cultural lines that already exist. Some people would move across lines to where they felt more comfortable. The south and west would probably adopt a less intrusive central state, with more local control and more individual rights. The coasts would probably adopt a more aggressive central state. Such an outcome would probably achieve more freedom than the is possible now. And it may be even easier to achieve. Those who pull the levers of power might be happier with more control over fewer people, than with less power over all the people.

There are numerous and obvious problems with secession. However, I believe those problems are solvable. As I read Rieman's criticisms of secession, some of them popped out as ludicrous, and others as significant. I'll go through them all, starting with the worst and moving to the best.

MORAL LEGITIMACY -- Rieman argues that

the noble ideal of the "United States" is still a beacon fueled by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The opportunity to start with nothing and achieve one's material and spiritual success--it still happens every day here, for people who are willing to work for their dreams... Upon secession, that noble ideal vanishes instantly--the "last, best hope for mankind" will have done no better than the dynasties of old... and as did the USSR before it, it will vanish into the ash heap of history.

However, Rieman's comments here smack of nationalism. What's more important: an arbitrary geographic boundary, or the noble ideals of human liberty? Benjamin Franklin desired "that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the earth, so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say: 'This is my country.'"

An even more obvious rejoinder to Rieman is that the Constitution united only 13 states. If it were true that the unity of states somehow manifests a "noble ideal," then we should still be able to form three distinct nations -- four if we split up a couple of the larger states -- and maintain this ideal.

The comparison to U.S. secession and the fall of the Soviet Empire is bizarre. What's significant about the decline of the Soviet Union is not that the nation divided, but that its communist system collapsed. What's significant about the United States is not the number of states united, but the ideals of human freedom upon which the nation is founded. If those ideals are furthered by secession, as is likely, then the resulting nations would be an even brighter beacon of hope.

ECONOMIC SEPARATISM -- Rieman argues

A seceded republic could still be a powerful economic force, but its standard of living WILL be at a significantly lower level... What currency would the seceded American republic use? How would it be pegged on the world markets? What about trade agreements and tariffs, all of which affect what we can consume and what we pay to do so? And what happens to the public debt (and credit) that was incurred while we were all "here?"

There's no reason to believe the standard of living would decline, and good reason to believe it would increase. To the extent that the new nation refrained from straining the economy with taxes and statist regulations, its economy would flourish.

Rieman seems to assume the divided nations would stop trading. That's unlikely. Americans would continue to share a tight-knit culture. Hopefully all parties would recognize the folly of trade restrictions.

The issue of currency is more interesting. We could return to the gold standard! Short of that, there's no reason the new nation(s) couldn't use the same dollar or make a new one. It would float on world markets the same way every other currency does.

The question of "public debt" is also an interesting one. I suspect that a compromise would saddle each new nation with a portion of that debt. (However, I see no moral problem with a new nation simply leaving the debt to the damn fools who rung it up.)

CHINA -- But the foreigners will come beat on us!

One of the gravest reasons for concern is the rise of a Communist China determined to reclaim Taiwan and establishing its hegemony in Asia—regardless of cost. China is increasingly capable of engaging, and defeating, the United States—thanks to an explosion in Chinese espionage, military-industrial development, and diplomatic pressure actively abetted by AL GORE! ...do you think for a second that Red Chinese targeting plans would distinguish between the "federal" United States and a seceded American republic?

This is the same bugaboo the federalists relied upon to raise fears about the Articles of Confederation. Essentially, the claim is that, in order to ward off tyranny from abroad, we must accept tyranny here at home. Patrick Henry said of this argument, "It is the fortune of a free people not to be intimidated by imaginary dangers. Fear is the passion of slaves."

Yes, I wish Taiwan would remain free of Chinese control. But is it worth starting WWIII over? The libertarian foreign policy solution to Taiwan is to offer safe passage to the United States for all islanders who want to move, and then leave that mess alone.

The main reason China may be able to engage the United States is the country's economic development. That development -- and the resulting trade with us -- also gives the Chinese a powerful incentive to remain peaceful.

It is true that the Chinese have been stealing secrets from the United States. However, the solution to this problem is not bound up with the matter of secession.

Besides, North American nations would have every reason to cooperate in order to ward off a Chinese threat. Again, Rieman assumes a divided nation could have no interaction. While nations should generally avoid "foreign entanglements," the tight-knit culture and geography of North America makes cooperation inevitable.

MILITARY DIVISION --

Who would own the formerly-American nukes scattered worldwide? How would secessionists lay claim to them, without risking fratricidal catastrophe? Likewise, how would the two Americas divvy up the armed forces... [W]hat infrastructure would be in place in the seceded republic to support its defense successfully?

I don't really see much danger in letting one nation or the other have the nukes. The forces could be divided along current geographical lines, or in a wide number of other ways.

RESISTANCE FROM DC -- The great problem with secession is getting it to happen -- not anything that comes afterwards. Even a secession that was mutually agreed to would be difficult. But, as the Civil War demonstrates, mutual agreement itself is tough to manage.

However, this time around, secession is not marred by the evils of slavery. Yes, I know: blacks fought on both sides of the war and it's an over-simplification to say the war was about slavery. But that doesn't change the fact that slavery weighed down the South with a moral inferiority complex. This time, secession would clearly be about human freedom, or at least states' rights.

Still, Rieman's concerns carry weight:

[T]he Confederacy was defeated soundly, at great cost to Southern society and to the principles of states' rights. Serious secessionist efforts won't be tolerated by the current Federal government, either..."

I doubt a new secessionist movement would meet with similar violence. The motives of modern secessionists are pure (there is no issue similar to slavery to shame them). Today, it's possible that many on both sides of the secession would support it and stand to gain from it. Having learned about the horrors of the Civil War, Americans would have little taste for that kind of blood. Modern Americans are more secular than their great-great grandparents, which translates into a healthy desire to finish out life here on earth. Finally, many Americans are disillusioned with the State and don't harbor strong nationalistic sentiments.

* * *

I don't think American secession will come about either by violent revolution or by stately debate. Rather, if it comes, it will be by default, because the centralized state has become so bloated and ineffectual that it simply won't be able to maintain its rule.

My purpose in discussing secession is not to promote it in the near future, but simply to return the concept to nobility, as is its birthright. It's good to want to live free of an oppressive, centralized bureaucracy. The modern American State is nothing like what the revolutionaries fought for, or even what the Constitution established. Those men fought and bled for their right to secede. The least we can do is recognize its inherent worth.

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