By Jeff Deist
[This article is adapted from a talk presented at the Houston Mises Circle, January 24, 2015.]
Presumably everyone in this room, or virtually everyone, is here today because you have some interest in the topic of secession. You may be interested in it as an abstract concept or as a viable possibility for escaping a federal government that Americans now fear and distrust in unprecedented numbers.
As Mises wrote in 1927:
The situation of having to belong to a state to which one does not wish to belong is no less onerous if it is the result of an election than if one must endure it as the consequence of a military conquest.
I’m sure this sentiment is shared by many of you. Mises understood that mass democracy was no substitute for liberal society, but rather the enemy of it. Of course he was right: nearly 100 years later, we have been conquered and occupied by the state and its phony veneer of democratic elections. The federal government is now the putative ruler of nearly every aspect of life in America.
That’s why we’re here today entertaining the audacious idea of secession — an idea Mises elevated to a defining principle of classical liberalism.
It’s tempting, and entirely human, to close our eyes tight and resist radical change — to live in America’s past.
But to borrow a line from the novelist L.P. Hartley, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” The America we thought we knew is a mirage; a memory, a foreign country.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is precisely why we should take secession seriously, both conceptually — as consistent with libertarianism — and as a real alternative for the future.
Does anyone really believe that a physically vast, multicultural, social democratic welfare state of 330 million people, with hugely diverse economic, social, and cultural interests, can be commanded from DC indefinitely without intense conflict and economic strife?
Does anyone really believe that we can unite under a state that endlessly divides us? Rich vs. poor, black vs. white, Hispanic vs. Anglo, men vs. women, old vs. young, secularists vs. Christians, gays vs. traditionalists, taxpayers vs. entitlement recipients, urban vs. rural, red state vs. blue state, and the political class vs. everybody?
Frankly it seems clear the federal government is hell-bent on Balkanizing America anyway. So why not seek out ways to split apart rationally and nonviolently? Why dismiss secession, the pragmatic alternative that’s staring us in the face?
Since most of us in the room are Americans, my focus today is on the political and cultural situation here at home. But the same principles of self-ownership, self-determination, and decentralization apply universally — whether we’re considering Texas independence or dozens of active breakaway movements in places like Venice, Catalonia, Scotland, and Belgium.
I truly believe secession movements represent the last best hope for reclaiming our birthright: the great classical liberal tradition and the civilization it made possible. In a world gone mad with state power, secession offers hope that truly liberal societies, organized around civil society and markets rather than central governments, can still exist.
Secession as a “Bottom-Up” Revolution
“But how could this ever really happen?” you’re probably thinking.
Wouldn’t creating a viable secession movement in the US necessarily mean convincing a majority of Americans, or at least a majority of the electorate, to join a mass political campaign much like a presidential election?
I say no. Building a libertarian secession movement need not involve mass political organizing: in fact, national political movements that pander to the Left and Right may well be hopelessly naïve and wasteful of time and resources.
Instead, our focus should be on hyper-localized resistance to the federal government in the form of a “bottom-up” revolution, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe terms it.
Hoppe counsels us to use what little daylight the state affords us defensively: just as force is justified only in self-defense, the use of democratic means is justified only when used to achieve nondemocratic, libertarian, pro-private property ends.
In other words, a bottom-up revolution employs both persuasion and democratic mechanisms to secede at the individual, family, community, and local level — in a million ways that involve turning our backs on the central government rather than attempting to bend its will.
Secession, properly understood, means withdrawing consent and walking away from DC — not trying to capture it politically and “converting the King.”
Secession is Not a Political Movement
Why is the road to secession not political, at least not at the national level? Frankly, any notion of a libertarian takeover of the political apparatus in DC is fantasy, and even if a political sea change did occur the army of 4.3 million federal employees is not simply going to disappear.
Convincing Americans to adopt a libertarian political system — even if such an oxymoron were possible — is a hopeless endeavor in our current culture.
Politics is a trailing indicator. Culture leads, politics follows. There cannot be a political sea change in America unless and until there is a philosophical, educational, and cultural sea change. Over the last 100 years progressives have overtaken education, media, fine arts, literature, and pop culture — and thus as a result they have overtaken politics. Not the other way around.
This is why our movement, the libertarian movement, must be a battle for hearts and minds. It must be an intellectual revolution of ideas, because right now bad ideas run the world. We can’t expect a libertarian political miracle to occur in an illibertarian society.
Now please don’t get me wrong. The philosophy of liberty is growing around the world, and I believe we are winning hearts and minds. This is a time for boldness, not pessimism.
Yet libertarianism will never be a mass —which is to say majority — political movement.
Some people will always support the state, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves about this. It may be due to genetic traits, environmental factors, family influences, bad schools, media influences, or simply an innate human desire to seek the illusion of security.
But we make a fatal mistake when we dilute our message to seek approval from people who seemingly are hardwired to oppose us. And we waste precious time and energy.
What’s important is not convincing those who fundamentally disagree with us, but the degree to which we can extract ourselves from their political control.
This is why secession is a tactically superior approach in my view: it is far less daunting to convince liberty-minded people to walk away from the state than to convince those with a statist mindset to change.
What About the Federales?
Now I know what you’re thinking, and so does the aforementioned Dr. Hoppe:
Wouldn’t the federales simply crush any such attempt (at localized secession)?
They surely would like to, but whether or not they can actually do so is an entirely different question … it is only necessary to recognize that the members of the governmental apparatus always represent, even under conditions of democracy, a (very small) proportion of the total population.
Hoppe envisions a growing number of “implicitly seceded territories” engaging in noncompliance with federal authority:
Without local enforcement, by compliant local authorities, the will of the central government is not much more than hot air.
It would be prudent … to avoid a direct confrontation with the central government and not openly denounce its authority …
Rather, it seems advisable to engage in a policy of passive resistance and noncooperation. One simply stops to help in the enforcement in each and every federal law …
Finally, he concludes as only Hoppe could (remember this is the 1990s):
Waco, a teeny group of freaks, is one thing. But to occupy, or to wipe out a significantly large group of normal, accomplished, upstanding citizens is quite another, and quite a more difficult thing.
Now you may disagree with Dr. Hoppe as to the degree to which the federal government would actively order military violence to tamp down any secessionist hotspots, but his larger point is unassailable: the regime is largely an illusion, and consent to its authority is almost completely due to fear, not respect. Eliminate the illusion of benevolence and omnipotence and consent quickly crumbles.
Imagine what a committed, coordinated libertarian base could achieve in America! 10 percent of the US population, or roughly thirty-two million people, would be an unstoppable force of nonviolent withdrawal from the federal leviathan.
As Hoppe posits, it is no easy matter for the state to arrest or attack large local groups of citizens. And as American history teaches, the majority of people in any conflict are likely to be “fence sitters” rather than antagonists.
Left and Right are Hypocrites Regarding Secession
One of the great ironies of our time is that both the political Left and Right complain bitterly about the other, but steadfastly refuse to consider, once again, the obvious solution staring us in the face.
Now one might think progressives would champion the Tenth Amendment and states’ rights, because it would liberate them from the Neanderthal right wingers who stand in the way of their progressive utopia. Imagine California or Massachusetts having every progressive policy firmly in place, without any preemptive federal legislation or federal courts to get in their way, and without having to share federal tax revenues with the hated red states.
Imagine an experiment where residents of the San Francisco bay area were free to live under a political and social regime of their liking, while residents of Salt Lake City were free to do the same.
Surely both communities would be much happier with this commonsense arrangement than the current one, whereby both have to defer to Washington!
But in fact progressives strongly oppose federalism and states’ rights, much less secession! The reason, of course, is that progressives believe they’re winning and they don’t intend for a minute to let anyone walk away from what they have planned for us.
Democracy is the great political orthodoxy of our times, but its supposed champions on the Left can’t abide true localized democracy — which is in fact the stated aim of secession movements.
They’re interested in democracy only when the vote actually goes their way, and then only at the most attenuated federal level, or preferably for progressives, the international level. The last thing they want is local control over anything! They are the great centralizers and consolidators of state authority.
“Live and let live” is simply not in their DNA.
Our friends on the Right are scarcely better on this issue.
Many conservatives are hopelessly wedded to the Lincoln myth and remain in thrall to the central warfare state, no matter the cost.
As an example, consider the Scottish independence referendum that took place in September of 2014.
Some conservatives, and even a few libertarians claimed that we should oppose the referendum on the grounds that it would create a new government, and thus two states would exist in the place of one. But reducing the size and scope of any single state’s dominion is healthy for liberty, because it leads us closer to the ultimate goal of self-determination at the individual level, to granting each of us sovereignty over our lives.
Again quoting Mises:
If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done. (italics added)
Furthermore, some conservatives argue that we should not support secession movements where the breakaway movement is likely to create a government that is more “liberal” than the one it replaces. This was the case in Scotland, where younger Scots who supported the independence referendum in greater numbers hoped to create strong ties with the EU parliament in Brussels and build a Scandinavian-style welfare state run from Holyrood (never mind that Tories in London were overjoyed at the prospect of jettisoning a huge number of Labour supporters!).
But if support for the principle of self-determination is to have any meaning whatsoever, it must allow for others to make decisions with which we disagree. Political competition can only benefit all of us. What neither progressives nor conservatives understand — or worse, maybe they do understand — is that secession provides a mechanism for real diversity, a world where we are not all yoked together. It provides a way for people with widely divergent views and interests to live peaceably as neighbors instead of suffering under one commanding central government that pits them against each other.
Secession Begins With You
Ultimately, the wisdom of secession starts and ends with the individual. Bad ideas run the world, but must they run your world?
The question we all have to ask ourselves is this: how seriously do we take the right of self-determination, and what are we willing to do in our personal lives to assert it?
Secession really begins at home, with the actions we all take in our everyday lives to distance and remove ourselves from state authority — quietly, nonviolently, inexorably.
The state is crumbling all around us, under the weight of its own contradictions, its own fiscal mess, and its own monetary system. We don’t need to win control of DC.
What we need to do, as people seeking more freedom and a better life for future generations, is to walk away from DC, and make sure we don’t go down with it.
How To Secede Right Now
So in closing, let me make a few humble suggestions for beginning a journey of personal secession. Not all of these may apply to your personal circumstances; no one but you can decide what’s best for you and your family. But all of us can play a role in a bottom-up revolution by doing everything in our power to withdraw our consent from the state:
- Secede from intellectual isolation. Talk to like-minded friends, family, and neighbors — whether physically or virtually — to spread liberty and cultivate relationships and alliances. The state prefers to have us atomized, without a strong family structure or social network;
- secede from dependency. Become as self-sufficient as possible with regard to food, water, fuel, cash, firearms, and physical security at home. Resist being reliant on government in the event of a natural disaster, bank crisis, or the like;
- secede from mainstream media, which promotes the state in a million different ways. Ditch cable, ditch CNN, ditch the major newspapers, and find your own sources of information in this internet age. Take advantage of a luxury previous generations did not enjoy;
- secede from state control of your children by homeschooling or unschooling them;
- secede from college by rejecting mainstream academia and its student loan trap. Educate yourself using online learning platforms, obtaining technical credentials, or simply by reading as much as you can;
- secede from the US dollar by owning physical precious metals, by owning assets denominated in foreign currencies, and by owning assets abroad;
- secede from the federal tax and regulatory regimes by organizing your business and personal affairs to be as tax efficient and unobtrusive as possible;
- secede from the legal system, by legally protecting your assets from rapacious lawsuits and probate courts as much as possible;
- secede from the state healthcare racket by taking control of your health, and questioning medical orthodoxy;
- secede from your state by moving to another with a better tax and regulatory environment, better homeschooling laws, better gun laws, or just one with more liberty-minded people;
- secede from political uncertainly in the US by obtaining a second passport; or
- secede from the US altogether by expatriating.
- Most of all, secede from the mindset that government is all-powerful or too formidable an opponent to be overcome. The state is nothing more than Bastiat’s great fiction, or Murray’s gang of thieves writ large. Let’s not give it the power to make us unhappy or pessimistic.
All of us, regardless of ideological bent and regardless of whether we know it or not, are married to a very violent, abusive spendthrift. It’s time, ladies and gentlemen, to get a divorce from DC.