SO ALL THE TALK ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR, coupled with the recent Scottish vote and now Greece and the EU has me thinking: If a state or states wanted to secede from the United States now, would there be another civil war? It was basically unthinkable — at least, as far as I know, nobody thought it — that Britain might use troops to keep the Scots in by force. The EU isn’t talking about sending gunboats to Greece. So if, say, Texas — or maybe a group of states — really wanted to leave the Union today, would the United States really be willing to, once again, slaughter vast numbers to prevent that?
Of course, there’s a better solution.
People also talk about secession for more serious reasons. They feel that the central government doesn’t respect them, forces them to live under laws they find repugnant and takes their money away to pay off its own supporters. You see secession movements based on these principles in places like Scotland, Catalonia, Northern Italy, and elsewhere around the world. Some might succeed; others are less likely to. But in every case they represent unhappiness with the status quo.
America has an unfortunate history with secession, which led to the bloodiest war in our history and divisions that persist to this day. But, in general, the causes of secession are pretty standard around the world: Too much power in the central government, too much resentment in the unhappy provinces. (Think Hunger Games).
So what’s a solution? Let the central government do the things that only central governments can do — national defense, regulation of trade to keep the provinces from engaging in economic warfare with one another, protection of basic civil rights — and then let the provinces go their own way in most other issues. Don’t like the way things are run where you are? Move to a province that’s more to your taste. Meanwhile, approaches that work in individual provinces can, after some experimentation, be adopted by the central government, thus lowering the risk of adopting untested policies at the national level. You get the benefits of secession without seceding.
Sound good? It should. It’s called federalism, and it’s the approach chosen by the United States when it adopted the Constitution in 1789. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 45, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”
It’s a nice plan. Beats secession. Maybe we should give it another try.
Maybe we should. But the problem with federalism is, it offers insufficient opportunities for graft.