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Underdogs, Secession, and Puns About Fundament

May 18, 2009

Over at Strike The Root, Stewart Browne writes:

In the battle between libertarians and statists, there is no question who is David and who is Goliath.  There also is no question regarding who continues to win…Just as the rules of basketball favor those who are tall, strong, and have a good jump shot, the rules of democracy favor those who want to grow the government.  For decades, we have been playing by Goliath’s rules, the very rules that allowed Goliath to rise to power in the first place.

The only way we can play away from our weakness is to get out of the electoral politics game altogether.

The article covers some of the recent buzz about secession, including a great quote from Ron Paul:

[Perry] “really stirred some of the liberal media, where they started screaming about: ‘what is going on here, this is un-American.’ I heard one individual say ‘this is treasonous to even talk about it.’ Well, they don’t know their history very well, because when you think about it… it is very American to talk about secession. That’s how we came in being. Thirteen colonies seceded from the British and established a new country. So secession is a very much American principle. What about all the strong endorsements we have given the past decade or two to all the republics that seceded from the Soviet system? We were delighted about it.”

But…but…they were seceding from that bad communist government.  That makes them freedom fighters.  Trying to secede from a good democratic government like the US, that sounds like terrorism.

Stewart then points out:

Six months ago, secession was a pipe dream.  Now it’s a topic of conversation.  And we haven’t even tried to push it yet.

Some of you might protest that last sentence.  Some of you have been pushing secession all your life.

Good job to you.  Keep it up.

But the vast majority of Americans who want smaller government are trying to accomplish it from within the system.  It is to these Americans I speak.  We need you to stop banging your head against the door and start trying to open it.

Whether it be Seasteading, Freestating, Cambrian Exploding, Panarchy Chasing, or just gold old fashioned Seceding, if we fully abandon our strategy of getting in and instead focus all that wasted energy on dropping out, we’ll be playing our own game rather than Goliath’s.

He cleverly suggests that we use the massive current tax burden as leverage – encourage people to get out of the pyramid scheme before it crashes down:

In addition to the massive tax burden we have always paid, each one of us is also on the hook for about $200,000 in future debt (or by other numbers, well over $300,000 per person).

It was this explosion of new debt more than anything else that caused growing anger at government to boil over into last month’s Tea Parties, where half a million Americans gathered to scream, Who is going to pay for this?

Secessionists are the only ones with a viable answer to that question.  Secessionists can answer, “Not me.”

What if some of the energy and money that in the past went towards winning our place in Washington instead went to spreading the word that anyone who wants out of this ridiculous downward cycle of national debt can get out if they join us in secession?

While I like the idea of using anger at the current massive borrowing to subsidize bad bankers, I am a bit more skeptical of the positive feedback loop he envisages:

As the strength of our position grows through steps 1 (abstain from voting) & 2 (public support of secession), an increasingly threatened state will lash out at us, but we will remain peaceful.  The nature of Washington will be laid bare for all to see, our position will grow stronger, and the number of people willing to engage in Step 1 will grow.

As with all positive feedback loops, all it takes is enough energy on our part to get it started.  Eventually, it will have enough momentum that it can’t be stopped.  In the Soviet Union , it took less than a decade to go from a tyrannical central state to widespread, successful secession.

And whether the first big leap to freedom happens in New Hampshire, in San Francisco Bay , or outside of any geographical boundary, once the first group secedes, it will be much easier for others to follow.  We shouldn’t worry if the first step is less than perfect (say, if Medicare is replaced with “Texicare”).  If any single group in America pulls off real secession, the game is permanently changed.  Secession is the great equalizer that counterbalances the dreadful incentives in a democracy.  It’s been against the rules for 150 years.  We need to put it back into play.

The phrase “The nature of Washington will be laid bare for all to see” sounds a bit like a common fallacy – that if we can expose the corrupt nature of the system, people will revolt.  This viewpoint has numerous problems: many people don’t see the system as corrupt and never will, they don’t see alternatives as credible, and those in power are good at holding onto it, including dealing with the occasional bad PR.  This is why I see the Agorist strategy of vague hope that the corrupt system will collapse as absurd – contrary to our intuitions about justice, a system can be completely corrupt yet totally stable.

But let’s not dismiss this argument completely.  Showing the nature of the system may be hopeless, but showing alternatives through competition is quite another matter.  Stewart is completely right that a single secession could start a powerful trend.  If secession is a credible threat (and that’s a big if), states will have much greater negotiating power, and may be able to win enough concessions that seceding is unnecessary.

On the gripping hand though, while I’m certainly in favor of secession and the shrinkage of political units, I think it is wrong to treat seasteading and secession movements as identical.  There are two important differences:

1) Leaving vs. Taking.  Creating a floating city in international waters is using the existing exit rights of emigration and movement of capital.  It operates on no-man’s land which is largely unusued and unclaimed.  Seceding, on the other hand, is taking away land currently controlled by the largest military in the world and claiming it for a new political entity with far less military strength.  Yes, it’s historically justified – but politics is a consensual creation of the human mind, and psychologically it feels very different and is far more likely to be stopped with violence.  We had this argument 150 years ago, and the anti-secessionists won.

2) As I argue in my dynamic geography paper, the ocean is a different medium from land, and one which is fundamentally more conducive to liberty and diversity in government.  Secession has the enormous short-term advantage of not requiring us to rebuild civilization someplace new.  It has the enormous long-term disadvantage of being built on terrain with fixed geography which naturally leads to borders and exploitation of trapped citizens.  Bad government has powerful systemic advantages, and to beat it, we need to change the rules of the game.  I believe that moving to the oceans does this more fundamentally than secession (literally!), although admittedly at high cost.

Still (to continue my waffling), I find secession far more promising than folk activism, and I hope these ideas continue to spread.  There is no sure route to better government, and so we need a diverse portfolio of strategies.  Secession increases competition among governments, and that’s our best chance for a better world.

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5 Comments
  1. May 19, 2009 4:41 am

    Thanks for the thoughtful reading of the column.

    ‘The phrase “The nature of Washington will be laid bare for all to see” sounds a bit like a common fallacy – that if we can expose the corrupt nature of the system, people will revolt. ‘

    I can see how that phrase implies a Hollywood sort of ending, where we all see the light as we watch the Rodney King clip.

    The idea isn’t so much that people will revolt, but that they’ll back off — the basic premise of nonviolent resistance. The context here is that, if a secessionist movement gained enough traction to be credible, the government likely would feel threatened and lash out, and in that case, non-violence and its ability to generate useful propaganda is a better response than violence.

    I expect the notion of propaganda as a useful tool leads to a point of disagreement. I think that:
    a) there might well be enough people with libertarian ideals in America right now that if we work together in a smarter way, we can achieve a significantly greater level of freedom than we have now.
    b) if there aren’t enough people yet, there are enough who are close that if we bring them along via some good old folk activism we’ll soon have enough.

    If I’m wrong about letter B, hopefully I’ll have at least created a new Seasteader or two.

    As to the Leaving Versus Taking argument, yes, many serious secessionist attempts globally have failed, some have ended in terrible violence like the one American experiment with the idea.

    I see the Soviet Union as the most interesting historical example. Plenty of differences between the Soviets then and Americans now, but at root, Soviet secession came about when a weakened central state couldn’t stop all the Republics from leaving. I think the time is ripe for American libertarians to really give secession a go because so many of us know how much better off we’d be without Washington on our backs, and Washington is going broke so quickly that it might not be able to stop us.

    • May 23, 2009 9:59 pm

      The idea isn’t so much that people will revolt, but that they’ll back off — the basic premise of nonviolent resistance. The context here is that, if a secessionist movement gained enough traction to be credible, the government likely would feel threatened and lash out, and in that case, non-violence and its ability to generate useful propaganda is a better response than violence.

      Maybe. The world has seen a lot of governments cracking down on a lot of independence movements, with great violence and great success. Has successful secession really tended to be via propaganda and non-violence rather than guerrilla warfare? I don’t know enough history to know.

      • May 28, 2009 4:41 am

        Has successful secession really tended to be via propaganda and non-violence rather than guerrilla warfare?

        I got an email awhile ago from a German, recounting his memories of East Germany liberating itself. From it:

        Demonstrators gathered every Monday evening after work first only in the city of Leipzig, but then in many different cities, to protest against their government. They were called “Montagsmaersche” or “Montagsdemonstrationen” (Monday Marches or Monday demonstrations).

        Since they were held on a regular basis on Mondays (first monthly, than biweekly, later every Monday) they grew in size and locations. Through their continuity and growing nature the demonstrations put a lot of pressure on the politicians, because the protesters realized they “surrounded” (outnumbered) the politicians. The main slogan of the demonstrations was “WIR SIND DAS VOLK” -“WE ARE THE PEOPLE”. Imagine thousands of people chanting: “WE ARE THE PEOPLE – WE ARE THE PEOPLE- WE ARE THE PEOPLE”. That’s extremely powerful and peaceful.

        I think if something were to come about in America, it would need to be like this, where traditional methods of citizen political pressure in America (demonstrations, civil disobedience) started springing up very specifically in favor of secession. Although our government in America has become quite violent, I think the people are mostly peaceful, and any attempt to shut down a large group of nonviolent secessionists by force would be damaging to Washington.

        All of this assumes there is a supermajority of people in a group or an area who want to secede and form a more libertarian society, which right now isn’t the case. Attempting to grow the number of Americans interested in trying some sort of dropout is a good way for libertarians to spend our energy, I think.

  2. May 21, 2009 2:04 pm

    Indeed, you’ve got to remember that the secession was over the very much libertarian issue of whether every human being owns themselves.

    I don’t imagine raising forces for such a moral crusade would have been too tricky, wheras if (say) Texas seceeded over (say) central government corruption, I cannot believe that American soldiers would so easily raise their fists and rifles against their former fellows over such a matter.

  3. Mike Gibson permalink*
    May 21, 2009 6:26 pm

    I don’t have the clearest memory, but I’ve been thinking about the beginning of the Civil War as presented in The Battle Cry of Freedom. There’s a problem the South faced then (aside from being slave owners) that I’m afraid any secessionist would face today. As I recall the first provocation to violence came because the Federal government owned land in the South: military bases, ports, and so on. And they didn’t want to lose it. Today, I imagine that the amount of property the USG owns in each state is an even greater bundle of mixed goods: not only military bases but now national parks, offices and so on.

    I’m interested in what sort of claims USG would have to their property in a state that secedes. I suppose USG has bases in Japan and Germany, but somehow it seems a bit precarious to have one in your secessionist state, no?

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