“If an insufficient patriotism is one of the ills of contemporary America,” declares National Review editor Rich Lowry, “then a national divorce would prescribe arsenic as a cure. It would burn down America to save America, or at least those parts of America it considered salvageable.”
It is precisely here that the anti-secession movement goes wrong, as it has more than once before. In the manner of obtuse historians, they identify the government as the nation itself, and in this case choose the political union over the social fabric. Lowry would sooner see the American tradition perish than accept the dissolution of the federal monstrosity strangling it. Going back to the seventeenth century, American society has been marked by political decentralization, economic liberty, and meaningfully limited government, limited more often by practical constraint than by statute. This has been the tradition of American society, as distinct from the various governments that have attempted to impose on it trade regulations, prohibitions, empires, paternalism, state churches, and grants of monopoly, all with remarkably little success before the twentieth century. It must be admitted that the American character has been, for hundreds of years, quite stubborn against the edicts of London, Washington, and even Richmond.
The distinction between Washington and America is so blithely ignored by National Review that it must be emphasized here. The distinct character of American society (however you choose to characterize it) has far better claim to the name “America” than anything in the imperial city, its laws, fashions, or ambitions. When Washington DC imposed prohibition as a law, was America sober? Not in the least; to call America “dry” because the federal government had declared it so would be an absurdity. And so it is with the general character of Washington today; its nature is so out of step with the general public that a normal citizen may be expected to commit hundreds of crimes against its laws in his lifetime, merely in the course of his normal business, while the democratically elected legislature, for its part, receives consistently negative approval ratings from the very people that selected it. The voters regret the outcome of their votes, while the lawmakers regard the people’s ordinary routines as criminal. Washington and America are not a society, but two in conflict.
And it is this federal government, already so divorced culturally from the American public, and still further alien to the more independent Americans of the past, that Lowry regards as the heart and identity of “America.” For what does secession really rend apart? Does national divorce really mean a separation of Nevada from Arizona, or even New York from Texas? They are practically as separate now as they would be after secession, because they share no political ties outside the federal government itself. The only thing that is being broken is the federal bond; there are no New York laws for Texans to throw off, there are no Texas Rangers patrolling Albany, which the New Yorkers may only expel by seceding from the union. Political secession severs one political tie, and that is to the federal government. The conflict between the hostile states consists entirely in injuries done to one another by way of Washington DC, by having a hand in the election of officials that make and enforce laws to the harm of the other. Simply ending federal jurisdiction ends the low-grade war; both states will have lost both cause and means to injure each other.
Lowry speaks (with appropriate brevity) of the benefits of our federal union, citing free trade within the United States as a major loss if the union were to break up. That the federal government provides free trade in America is a direct falsehood, though it is conceivable that the separate states might be foolish enough to reinstate protectionist interference in trade. The present U.S. is not a free trade zone by any stretch, and the largest single factor in this conspiracy in restraint of trade is federal law. Without going into the full litany of federal agencies and their war on American domestic commerce, including OSHA’s ever-widening grasp to the petty extortion of the ICC, federal regulation alone would make this claim laughable. But the agencies are not alone; the federal income tax devours revenues orders of magnitude beyond anything even the most illiterate state government imposes, crippling virtually every commercial enterprise in this supposed “free trade zone” more severely than the worst abuses of the Lords of Trade upon the colonists. And though this account must be brief, the Federal Reserve, in centrally planning the money supply and the interest rate, intimately interferes with every business that uses the dollar, and inflicts nationwide crashes and inflations that a decentralized system would have a chance to resist. If domestic free trade is of benefit to Americans, that is urgent argument against political union with Washington, not for it.
Lowry goes on to call secession “self-defeating,” in the context of the presidential election. “Let’s say Texas left. That’s 40 electoral votes off the national map for Republicans.” Checkmate, Texas! Is it though? Surely it would be childish for Texans to concern themselves with the election of a president with no power over their lives. Far from self-defeat, they have achieved a much greater and longer-term goal: ensuring they will never be ruled by Clinton or Biden. By giving up the rather mean-spirited ambition of imposing a Trump on others, they have escaped all danger of having their enemies imposed on them. Who loses by this? Well, Trump, Clinton, and Biden would find it unpleasant to have their reach reduced, but every state in (or out of) the union benefits by it. It is once again the interests of Washington versus the interests of America, and quitting on America is unforgivable.
“A disaggregated United States would be instantly less powerful. Indeed, Russia and China would be delighted and presumably believe that we’d deserve to experience the equivalent of the crackup of the Soviet Union or the Qing dynasty, respectively,” Lowry hypothesizes. And indeed they might, just as many in the West delighted in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as the liberation of millions crushed under the boot of a too-powerful, too-centralized, imperial state were set free. The more general point, regarding military strength, deserves particular attention because it speaks to the true motivation of much anti-secession sentiment, and is once again, precisely wrong. Lowry (like most neoconservatives) is judging military power in terms of resources directed to the military, not in terms of national security. To clarify, bad strategy is capable of absorbing an unlimited amount of resources; you can spend trillions without making your nation any more secure if you dedicate those trillions to a multi-decade expedition to the other side of the world, as a random example. Washington’s ambitions for a global order have transformed the relatively simple project of defending a nation surrounded by oceans and two benign neighbors into a wild goose chase after global dominance. With the federal government itself failing to produce the strategic vision of a Hadrian, the necessity of limiting the mission may perhaps only be served by limiting the federal government’s power to recruit resources out of the nation.
One way or another, America must defend itself from having its whole life sucked into the service of the wild dreams of the Bushes, Clintons, Cheneys, and McCains. And if this clear strategic necessity is too much to ask of Washington’s personnel then Washington’s personnel must have a reduced hold on America’s resources. Political secession might not be the only solution to our suicidal foreign policy consensus, but it is the consistent federal failure to do what must be done that pushes us ever closer to the necessity of political breakup, to achieve by other means what competent strategic leadership would have done decades ago.
As for the opposing “superpowers” of Russia and China, Lowry alludes to our nuclear arsenal and the difficulty of splitting it up, apparently without noticing that it is mathematically impossible to split 3,800 warheads between two nations, and not have one of them (or both) still be the largest nuclear power in the world. If China is a threat with its 300 warheads, then the U.S. can afford to split into up to twelve nations, every one still better armed than the Chinese. And all this without even invoking the natural mutual-defense impulses of Americans for Americans, whether under the federal yoke or free from it. In the nuclear sphere, secession poses no real threat to a deterrent that was radically overbuilt to begin with, and in the sphere of conventional war Lincoln’s dark prophecy is truer than ever: “All the armies of Europe and Asia…could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years.”
While the desire to preserve the centralized military (and the centralized command that squanders it) is the core of the classic resistance to secession, it is another of Lowry’s challenges that truly gets to the heart of the matter. “But if we are going to split up because we can’t even agree on bathroom policies or pronouns, how are we going to agree to divvy up our territory and resources?” Such a question reveals the true issue at stake, and the reason twenty-first century America is widely musing about political breakup. For most Americans throughout history (including many in our own time), the idea of a nationwide “bathroom policy” could only be expressed in the form of a joke. For us to have reached a situation where politics reaches this deeply into what is at once mundane, trivial, and personal speaks to a true insanity in the scope of modern government. “We can’t agree on bathroom policy” is not an admission of disunion, but of idiocy. One might call this condition, where national policy will be satisfied with nothing less than ruling over every toilet in the nation, a pathological unity. Americans are (politically speaking) crowded unnaturally close, worrying about one another’s bathroom as if it were any of their business. In light of the existence of “bathroom policy” it should be obvious that Americans would be seeking some means to return to their traditional political decentralization, and rebuild social harmony by restoring healthy boundaries.
Sam Peters is a contractor and libertarian writer.