Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The "s" word can now be mentioned in polite company


The Wall Street Journal
has published an article about the potential devolution of the United States. Surprisingly, it is respectful, even somewhat favorable to the idea.

Paul Starobin writes, "Picture an America that is run not, as now, by a top-heavy Washington autocracy but, in freewheeling style, by an assemblage of largely autonomous regional republics reflecting the eclectic economic and cultural character of the society."

For such a thought to be permitted to draw breath in the WSJ, you've got to believe devolution is entering the mainstream, or at least several tributaries of the mainstream. And it is. Individual states passing resolutions declaring their sovereignty -- legally inconsequential, but symbolically important -- is as trendy as twittering.

Searching on Google for solid information about how many states have such urges is frustrating. The big legacy media, true to their calling ("if we decide you should know, we'll tell you"), seem disinclined to recognize the secessionist cause. And I'm not willing to take the word of just any blog for it.


MarketWatch, also part of the WSJ network, says that nine states have declared their sovereignty. They are Washington, New Hampshire, Arizona, Montana, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, California -- California! -- and Georgia. Its story adds that "possibly" Colorado, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Montana, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Alaska, Kansas, Alabama, Nevada, Maine, Illinois will follow.

The relationship between the states and the federal government has been controversial throughout our history. The struggle to devise a Constitution, and the first few election campaigns, were fraught with disagreement between the federalists and the anti-federalists. School textbooks claim the Civil War settled the issue forever. Wrong. It settled the issue for its time through brute military force, but the ideal of a country where power was divided among a central government, states, and localities has never died, for the simple reason that it is one of the finest political ideas of all time -- a brilliant stroke against potential tyranny.

In his WSJ article, Starobin says:
Devolved America is a vision faithful both to certain postindustrial realities as well as to the pluralistic heart of the American political tradition—a tradition that has been betrayed by the creeping centralization of power in Washington over the decades but may yet reassert itself as an animating spirit for the future. Consider this proposition: America of the 21st century, propelled by currents of modernity that tend to favor the little over the big, may trace a long circle back to the original small-government ideas of the American experiment. The present-day American Goliath may turn out to be a freak of a waning age of politics and economics as conducted on a super-sized scale—too large to make any rational sense in an emerging age of personal empowerment that harks back to the era of the yeoman farmer of America’s early days. The society may find blessed new life, as paradoxical as this may sound, in a return to a smaller form.
If truth were temporarily in fashion, we would admit that there is no longer a "United States," and hasn't been for 40 years. That's approximately how long the "country" has been deeply split along ideological lines.

I have no wish at the moment to argue for one side or the other. The present point is that with such a wide gulf between sectors of the citizenry, Congress has been increasingly paralyzed. If not for other factors, I'd say that's a good thing on the whole: self-serving as they are, our representatives (to use the quaint old term) have such a dismal record of serving the public weal that for them to do nothing instead of something is usually a blessing.


But a power vacuum never lasts long. The federal legislative branch's dysfunction has allowed its powers to be usurped, de facto, by the executive (presidential) and judicial (federal court) branches of government. Presidents now feel not a twitch of hesitation in sending American armed forces off to fight without a congressional declaration of war (Afghanistan and Iraq are only the most recent manifestations of this constitutionally abhorrent practice, which goes back at least to Harry Truman and the Korean war). The federal courts have the ultimate trump card in their (also unconstitutional) assumed power to declare the will of the people (or of their state legislative or Congressional avatars, anyway) unconstitutional because they don't agree with it. There is no appeal. Look up the definition of "oligarchy."

I'm not entirely on-board with Starobin, who seems to see the secession question through the usual
WSJ lens of economics and pro-immigrationism:
California? America’s broke, ill-governed and way-too-big nation-like state might be saved, truly saved, not by an emergency federal bailout, but by a merciful carve-up into a trio of republics that would rely on their own ingenuity in making their connections to the wider world. And while we’re at it, let’s make this project bi-national—economic logic suggests a natural multilingual combination between Greater San Diego and Mexico’s Northern Baja, and, to the Pacific north, between Seattle and Vancouver in a megaregion already dubbed “Cascadia” by economic cartographers.
I would really hate to see any part of the present-day United States unite with utterly corrupt Mexico, dominated by criminal narcotics gangs. Or Canada, while our northern neighbor is in its current cultural Marxist dreamland. Still, part of the rationale for devolution is that local wishes should have far more scope than they do now, which is virtually zero. California has already in essence agreed, with the encouragement of the federal government, to become an annex of Mexico. To me it's an insane choice, but I'll accept it if California and similar bi-coastal states no longer have the power to enforce their ideology on states that reject it.


Obviously there are many practical problems that would attend secession of one or more areas. The causes for our national divided house are no longer mainly geographic. In a devolution, some people would have to move if they wanted to be where they would feel most comfortable, and some because of lack of means, age, health, or other reasons would be unable to. But many people of "blue" leanings find themselves in "red" regions and vice versa now. Naturally, it is to be hoped that each of the ex-U.S. regions would provide full civil rights including freedom of speech and the press for all its political minorities.

There are no perfect solutions to most problems, especially political ones. I cannot see that secession would create any more tension than there is now. To prevent it, the Washington Leviathan will have to tighten the screws on local government and individual liberty continually. More than anything, secession is the best opportunity to stop the insatiable appetite for growth of a federal government that is becoming an ultimate, unaccountable power over every aspect of our lives.

We should be working out the constitutional rules for peaceful, legal seccession now. Or we can risk having to deal with the wish of large and apparently growing numbers of Americans to leave the union the way we dealt with it in 1861-1865.



Rich Rostrom said...

State courts also override the popular will based on dubious constitutional theories. Note the impositions of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, California, and Iowa. A few years ago the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the legislature could ignore the constitutional requirement of a 2/3 majority for tax increases if it conflicted with the constitution's mandate for "adequate funding of education".

Furthermore, "...the insatiable appetite for growth of [the] federal government" is matched by the unchecked spending and rampant corruption of state governments, many of which are at least as broke as the Federal government.

As for the "unconstitutional" practice of sending U.S. forces into battle without a "declaration of war", it goes back to John Adams and the "quasi-war" against France in 1798. Jefferson fought the Barbary Pirates with no declaration of war. Commodore Perry "opened" Japan by force in 1853 with no DoW.
U.S. forces joined the multi-national Peking Expedition (to relieve the embassies besieged by the Boxers) with no DoW. The U.S. Army went into Mexico after Pancho Villa with no DoW. FDR ordered the Navy to attack German U-boats with no DoW.

And I wouldn't say that Bush sent U.S. forces into Iraq and Afghanistan "without a twitch of hesitation". Bush spent several weeks obtaining explicit Congressional authorization for the use of military force.

But I digress. It is simply a fact that nowhere in the continental United States are there the spatially distinct ethnic, or religious, or linguistic, or economic divisions which are the necessary basis of political break-up.

Nor is the history of such break-ups in the last century encouraging. For every "velvet divorce" such as the division of Czechoslovakia, there has been a bloody horror such as India, Ireland, or Yugoslavia. Note that India and Ireland are both still subject to terrorism based on "unfinished business" from their divisions - 60 and 80 years later.

togo said...

It is simply a fact that nowhere in the continental United States are there the spatially distinct ethnic, or religious, or linguistic, or economic divisions which are the necessary basis of political break-up.

The "economic divisions" will exist in the near future with the almost certain collapse of the dollar.

The Alaska Independence Party tried to get a secession initiative on the ballot in 2006. The Alaska Supreme Court did not allow the question on the ballot because secession was deemed unconstitutional based on the US Supreme Court's ruling in Texas v. White(1869).

Based on the Wikipedia entry, Texas v. White(at least the part dealing with secession) looks like a SCOTUS ruling that makes Roe seem the very model of strict constructionism. No doubt still inflamed by the passions of the
war, the majority decision depended on the words "to form a more perfect union" from the Preamble to assert their claim of indissolubility.

Ron Paul on secession:

togo said...

The Texas pro-secession movement on Texas v. White:
For space considerations, here are the relevant portions of the Supreme Court's decision in Texas v. White:

"When Texas became one of the United States, she entered into an indissoluble relation. The union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and as indissoluble as the union between the original States. There was no place for reconsideration or revocation, except through revolution or through consent of the States.

"...The obligations of the State, as a member of the Union ...remained perfect and unimpaired. ...the State did not cease to be a State, nor her citizens to be citizens of the Union.

"...Our conclusion therefore is, that Texas continued to be a State, and a State of the Union."
— Texas v. White, 74 U.S. 700, 703 (1868)

It is noteworthy that two years after that decision, President Grant signed an act entitling Texas to U.S. Congressional representation, readmitting Texas to the Union.

What's wrong with this picture? Either the Supreme Court was wrong in claiming Texas never actually left the Union (they were — see below), or the Executive (President Grant) was wrong in "readmitting" a state that, according to the Supreme Court, had never left. Both can't be logically or legally true.

To be clear: Within a two year period, two branches of the same government took action with regard to Texas on the basis of two mutually exclusive positions — one, a judicially contrived "interpretation" of the US Constitution, argued essentially from silence, and the other a practical attempt to remedy the historical fact that Texas had indeed left the Union, the very evidence for which was that Texas had recently met the demands imposed by the same federal government as prerequisite conditions for readmission. If the Supreme Court was right, then the very notion of prerequisites for readmission would have been moot — a state cannot logically be readmitted if it never left in the first place.

Rick Darby said...

Rich and Togo,

Thank you both for filling in the historical background that I left out or was ignorant of.

Rich, devolving the United States would be awkward and contentious. That goes without saying in finding a reasonably workable solution to any serious political problem.

It seems to me that the divisions in the United States go beyond policy disagreements that can be resolved by compromise. They are fundamental conflicts of principle that show no sign of abating and cannot be reconciled on a split-the-difference basis.

I am afraid that the only way to hold the country together is through out-and-out repression of one side, which looks to be the goal of Obama and many of his followers.

Divorces are not usually amicable, but they can be. You acknowledge that "nowhere in the continental United States are there … spatially distinct ethnic, or religious, or linguistic, or economic divisions." I agree (the key point being spatially distinct), but that puts us in a different category from India and Ireland. As for Yugoslavia, it was united only by Tito's dictatorship; not a model we want to follow.

Rick Darby said...


Sorry, I failed to respond to your point that state governments and courts can be irresponsible and corrupt as well. True. So can local governments, for that matter, such as city councils "owned" by real estate interests.

Nevertheless, the more local the government, the more personal contact the citizen can have with it and the greater the possibility of influencing it.