The Prospects for Soft Secession in America
1930, Columbia professor Karl Llewellyn published The Bramble Bush, his famous tract on how to think about and study law. Llewellyn urged readers to consider both law and custom when seeking to understand a society, to recognize the difference between the black letter legal codes and the day to day practices of state officials and citizens. Where there was no sanction, the author instructed, there was no law. In other words, we should focus on the substance of things at least as much as we focus on the form. This is an important lesson for how we view the United States today, with an eye toward what is actually happening on the ground among people and institutions, rather than legal formalisms.
A few years ago, on a panel discussion at an event in Vienna, Dr. Hans-Hermann Hoppe made an offhand remark I found very interesting. Paraphrasing him, he said that nationalist movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were largely centralizing while the nationalist movements of the twenty-first century were largely decentralist in character—breakaway movements represented by Brexit, Taiwan, Scotland, Catalonia, and others. Donald Trump also represented a breakaway movement of sorts, away from DC, but of course this possibility went totally unfulfilled.
This strikes me as an important insight. What we know as today’s map of Europe is really countries cobbled together from principalities, city-states, kingdoms, dukedoms. And the EU seeks, but has not achieved, total dominion over them as a supranational government. What we think of as the US is really an incredibly disparate set of regions which became fifty states over which the US federal government asserts almost total control. And in both cases, cities became politically, economically, and culturally dominant.
So our topic today, in the context of the US, is this: What if the greatest political trend of the past two hundred years, namely the centralization of state power, reverses in the twenty-first century? What if this century is not about ideology, but about separation and location? And what if covid has dramatically laid bare this possibility?
Empires desperately fear losing control over their provinces, and exactly that appears to be happening in the US. Those of us on the anti-interventionist right sometimes forget that DC is very much an imperial power with respect to the fifty states, not just in the Middle East. So any discussion of soft secession and its prospects in the US begins with identifying domestic pushback against this empire. And contra the self-styled progressive saviors, any political arrangement which denies people the right to walk away peacefully is not liberal by definition.
What do we mean by soft secession versus hard secession? It is something more than de facto versus de jure, because everything about American laws and political norms already became blurred over the past century. De facto violations of constitutional provisions, for example, become de jure over time, by operation of federal regulations or the terrible Supreme Court. Garet Garrett’s 1944 essay “The Revolution Was” explains this as a “revolution within the form.” Everything ostensibly remained the same: a constitution, fifty states, three “branches” of government. The country was overthrown a hundred years ago—beginning with Woodrow Wilson and reaching full form in FDR’s New Deal. But America’s second revolution was managerial, a seizing of jurisdiction over every aspect of life by a centralized federal bureaucracy.
So by soft secession we mean a counterrevolution within the form: aggressive federalism, regionalism, localism, and an aggressive subsidiarity principle, operating in de facto opposition to the federal state—or at least sidestepping it. Sometimes it takes the form of direct nullification or flouting of federal edicts, which it turns out are fairly hard to enforce without the support of local populations. Biden’s vaccine mandates will be an instructive test of this; several governors already filed suits. Or it can take the form of legal grey areas, as we’ve seen with more “liberal” US states in their approach to immigration sanctuaries and marijuana laws.
Soft secession also sidesteps the thorniest issues: what to do about federal land, federal entitlements, debt, the dollar, military bases and personnel, nuclear weapons.
Hard secession, by contrast, means an outright division of the US into two or more new political entities, complete with their own boundaries and governments and a surviving rump state. This is far more difficult; among other obstacles there is a Reconstruction-era Supreme Court case which claims the various states must agree to let a particular state secede. Yet the possibility remains, and this scenario could be reasonably peaceful or quite violent. It could look like the former Soviet Union and the Baltics, or it could look like the former Yugoslavia. But this is far less likely absent an outright economic collapse.
Yet that’s just it. We need to understand that America is less a country than an economic arrangement. It’s an arrangement about land and jobs and capital. About subsidies like Social Security and Medicare. About cheap imports, a good distribution system, and a strong US dollar relative to other currencies. Calvin Coolidge famously said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” That’s not all bad, and it’s far better than nothing. But it is held together by an increasingly shaky political arrangement, America as a place has lost its se
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