This is the fourth in the series, A Soft Landing, which explores how we might achieve a more just, equitable society without violent revolution.
The Achilles’ heel of our present government is the idiosyncratic status of our fifty States. They vary widely in breadth (Alaska claims 17% of our total land area; Rhode Island a mere 0.03%), population (12% of us live in California, only 0.18% in Wyoming) and income (Maryland’s median household income of $75K+ is almost twice that of Mississippi’s $40K). They have to the power to legislate, litigate, and tax, oftentimes contrary to the Federal government (consider today’s havoc about marijuana). In theory, state and federal governments address different aspects of our society. In truth, ever since we abandoned the Articles of Confederation in favor of a stronger national government, the Feds have selectively absorbed more and more functions. Whether under the guise of fairness, equity, or simply to expand power; whether labeled the New Deal, the New Frontier, or the New Federalism, today’s Federal government has its fingers in every aspect of local life.
In a world of increased interdependence, there’s logic to Federal ascendency. Despite the current vogue of tribal and nationalist sentiment; centralized government, corporate business, and mass communication is spreading all over the earth. The trend is inevitable: we will become more and more technologically, economically, and politically interconnected until we collapse under our own weight and trigger the next Dark Age.
In the meantime, the United States is saddled with historical states that guarantee outsize influence to our rural populace and white people. I can’t foresee how we create a new Constitution that doesn’t continue, in some form, this hodgepodge of states. For starters, states are the mechanism for assembling a Constitutional Convention, as well as the vehicle of ratification. Perhaps others can envision a way to transition states out of active governance—let them be cultural and historical artifacts—but I just don’t see them voting themselves out of existence.
I can, however, suggest a simple yet potent way to counter the influence of states. Not by diminishing their power, but by giving them more.
Our current Constitution outlines how a state can join the Union. Yet it is silent on whether and how a state might partition itself or even leave the U.S. Typical human hubris: proclaiming a path to growth without even conceiving that we might wish to shrink. Our bloodiest war centered on this oversight. Our new Constitution ought to enable it.
Becoming one of the United States should not be easy; partitioning a state or exiting the country should be even harder. The criteria should be rigorous, involving multiple ballot initiatives over time, maybe even super majorities. But secession should be feasible, and the Constitution should spell out how.
Why would a libertarian liberal like me espouse an idea so often attributed to the deep right? First, because it’s the kind of bold idea that can trigger meaningful discussion across ideological bounds. Second, because if we are to be a nation of states that choose to come together for our common good, we ought to allow states to leave if our common good is exhausted. Third, in the era of 50% divorce rates and the age of Brexit, we must acknowledge that sometimes, parting ways is for the best.
The most important reason, however, to grant states the right to partition or secede, is that it will enable us all to get along better. I’ve spent enough time in enough outposts of our nation to hear all variety of arguments for states rights, most often in the form of bile spewed against the Federal government. I’ve heard folks in economically exhausted areas pine for greater autonomy, even independence, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we ought to give them what they desire—the chance to go it on their own—with the certainty that once that right is available, they will think better of the idea.
If we give the passionate citizens of rural Northern California the right to actually create the State of Jefferson, they will quickly calculate the lost aid that flows north to them and change their mind. If we allow South Carolina, the birthplace of state’s rights, to become an independent nation, it won’t take long to factor the economic impact that independence will wreck on the state that receives the most federal dollars per dollar of federal tax paid ($7.87 to $1 according to The Atlantic WalletHub.)
A few places within the United States could probably function as independent nations, yet they are among the least likely to secede. Could California be an independent country? For sure. Texas? Probably, though they already tried it and they asked us to let them in. New England may be wealthy and geographically distinct enough to function autonomously. But the South? It would certainly become poorer.
As long as we deny states the right to secede, they fester an easy complaint against the national government. But if we create a Constitution that provides a right and process for secession, I’m confident those complaints will cease, and we’ll realize that we’re all better off if we hang together