Nations, much like religions, have their taboos and their heresies. You cannot think or advocate for some things without attracting major criticism. When you go against the taboo, you place yourself outside the Overton Window of common discourse.
F.H. Buckley, professor of law at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, has broken all the taboos in his new book, American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup.
The Secession Problem
The word “secession” is just such a taboo among Americans of today. American liberals see it as the fruit of Southern slavery in the nineteenth century, and hear echoes in Southern attempts to frustrate civil rights legislation in the twentieth. Conservatives’ history is more complicated, having long debated secession and related topics since the Civil War. Efforts by philosopher Harry Jaffa and his fellows have silenced most of that debate by declaring that Lincoln’s side, as the upholders of human equality, was the correct one.
This position has been strained as America has become more divided. Conservatives show increasing levels of contempt for California. “California,” Buckley notes in his book, “has become the symbol of utopian excess, and a place where conservatives wouldn’t want to live.” The same kind of disdain comes from the left: progressives regularly insult “flyover” country and the South generally. A recent CNN panel highlighted progressive contempt for the South. Three of the network’s talking heads dumped on the South, in pseudo-drawls, imitating the simplistic thinking that progressives think conservatives use.
Buckley holds out that secession is not only a constitutional, but also a reasonable solution to what ails us as a nation.
How to Split a Country
In his chapter entitled, “Secession: A How-To Guide” Buckley provides his argument for secession on constitutional grounds. He argues that secession is not openly prevented by the Constitution. He also argues that, given today’s climate, secession might be preferable to the continued hatred of sections for one another. Buckley holds that an Article V convention of the states might succeed in dissolving the Union into the several states. These new sections might form new republics as their people see fit.
His remarks on the Founders’ perspective is particularly good:
The delegates thought of the government under the Articles of Confederation, and then under the Constitution they were drafting, as a compact among thirteen states, and they believed that when one state thought its rights had been traduced by the federal government it could withdraw from the compact, even as one party can rescind a contract when the other party has breached it. That’s what Madison argued, first in the Constitutional Convention, then in Federalist 43 and then in the Virginia Ratifying Convention. It was an argument he would repeat in drafting the 1798 Virginia Resolutions. In its ratifying convention, Virginia reserved the right to secede when the powers granted to the federal government had been perverted, to the injury or oppression of the state. That, said Madison, would safeguard Virginia should it object to the federal government. So Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution was expressly conditioned on a right of secession. How then could it be deemed unconditional?
Bigger Isn’t Better
Buckley’s constitutional arguments holds up. But, if his historical argument is weak, Buckley offers another that is rare to hear on the Right: the argument that size is a problem.
Buckley begins with the philosophers, drawing upon Hume, Montesquieu, and sometimes Rousseau. He argues that sheer size of a republic is not a mark of its goodness or the liberty of its citizens. Moving to social science data, he argues that our large, complex government results in rules which benefit some at the cost of others.
He applies this last point to the political influence of money. The problem is not ideologically motivated money, like that of the Kochs or George Soros. That money is arguably an expression of politics that is to be expected when people differ over the government’s goals. The problem is the money that comes with serious quid pro quos attached: corporate and lobbyist money. Citing studies on the efficacy of lobbying, he argues:
Firms that lobby also lower their tax rate, an one study reported that for every dollar spends targeted tax loopholes the payoff is between six and twenty dollars. In addition, the have significantly lower probability of being prosecuted for fraud.
This sort of rent-seeking behavior is common to business firms who are under the eye and thumb of powerful government bureaucracies and legislatures. Buckley has called such actions “minoritarian misbehavior.” One possible way to reduce this misbehavior is to reduce the government’s complexity. This would impact its ability to hide things in far away places with obscure, ever-changing regulations and laws.
An Undesirable Choice
In his argument, Buckley labors hard to place himself between pro-Lincoln conservatism and Old Right libertarians who dislike Lincoln. He succeeds in this, but few will find this pleasing. Admitting that Lincoln may have been wrong violates the Lincoln mythos on the Right. Similarly, Buckley may fail to appeal to libertarians by admitting secession could be allowed but not condemning Lincoln.
Buckley’s remarks in a latter chapter his book nicely sum up his position:
We’ve been taught that the idea of secession is long behind us. It’s not, and there’s much to be said for an American breakup. We’re not longer apt to hang out with people across the partisan divide, or work with them, or even live in the same neighborhood. As a people we’re too darn mean, and as a country we’re too damn big. We would get along better if we split apart. The constitutional hurdles are far lower than most people think, and there would be no Abraham Lincoln to stop us.
I think we all sincerely hope that we never become so fractured that dissolution alone is the solution. But if our future choices are tyranny, civil war or secession, I’ll choose secession.