How Secession Solves Our Problems (Guest: Ryan McMaken)

It’s obvious our country is deeply divided, and national elections don’t seem to solve the problem. Is there another, more radical, solution that we’re ignoring?

Crisis Point
Crisis Point
How Secession Solves Our Problems (Guest: Ryan McMaken)
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Transcript

Eric Sammons:

It’s obvious that our country is deeply divided and national elections don’t seem to solve the problem, however, is there another more radical solution that we’re ignoring? That’s what we’re going to talk about today on Crisis Point.

Hello, I’m Eric Sammons, your host, editor in chief of Crisis Magazine. Before we get started, I just want to encourage people to smash that like button, to subscribe to the channel, let other people know about it. I really appreciate when you do that, and it helps the channel grow, which it has been growing, and I appreciate everybody who has been sharing it with other people. Also, just a reminder everybody that you can follow us on all those different social media channels.

We’re usually @crisismag. You can find out the latest what we’re going on. Also check out our new website we just updated about a week or so ago. And so I really encourage people to go to that. So our subject today is going to be secession, which people who have followed this podcast know I’ve talked about before, I’ve written about it in Crisis, but I thought, why don’t we get someone who actually knows what they’re talking about on the subject with secession, which isn’t always me. So what I did was, I brought in Ryan McKaken. I should ask you beforehand, is it McCaken or McKaken?

Ryan McMaken:

It’s McMaken.

Eric Sammons:

McMaken. Okay. McMaken. Yeah, right, exactly. Okay, McMaken. Ryan McMaken. He is the senior editor at the Mises Institute. He has a bachelor’s degree in economics, and a master’s degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre, and most recently right here I have it in my hands, Breaking Away: The Case for Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities. He was a housing economist for the state of Colorado. Ryan is a co-host of the Radio Rothbard Podcast and has appeared on Fox News and Fox Business ,and has been featured in a number of national print publications between Politico, The Hill, Bloomberg and the Washington Post. I think I covered all of the high points. Did I miss anything important, Ryan?

Ryan McMaken:

No, that’s probably about it. I mean, if people like what I say here and they are interested in my stuff, they should all just go to mises.org, M-I-S-E-S.O-R-G for just you can get my whole archive, and we publish new articles there every day.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah. I just want to say that I’m a big fan of the Mises Institute, and I encourage you to go to mises.org, check out what they’re doing. What’s amazing I think about your website is, there’s so much on there for free, books that are really important books that you think you’d have to pay a lot of money for, and you can just download them, the PDF or the EPUB right there off of the website. I’ve done that a number of times, so I really appreciate the work Mises is doing.

Ryan McMaken:

Yeah. We get a ton of downloads of big economics books per week. You’d be shocked at the amount of interest there still is in reading big economics books. And of course you can get this book that we’re going to discuss today, the PDF version online for free. Of course, if you want a physical version, you’re going to have to pay. But yeah, we just post most everything we produce for free online, but also 60, 70 years of historical books related to our scholars as well.

Eric Sammons:

I just downloaded Liberty and Equality, I think is the name of it, which I can’t remember now. Somebody recommended it to me, and I thought… Because it had some sections on democracy and monarchy. Now I’m blanking on the name of the author.

Ryan McMaken:

Is that Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn.

Eric Sammons:

That’s exactly who it is. That’s exactly… Somebody recommended it to me, and I was like, okay, I want to check this out, and so I did a Google search, thinking I’m going to have to buy it at Eight Books or something like that, and there’s the free download right at the Mises, and I should have gone there first. And so yeah, I just downloaded that last week and started reading it recently. So I encourage people to go to Mises. And so you are the senior editor there. Tell us a little bit more about your background? Our audience is predominantly Catholic, and I’m under the understanding that you are too. Just tell us a little bit about yourself beyond the basic description I just gave?

Ryan McMaken:

Sure. Well, I’ve been at the Mises Institute for I think eight years now, but this is really the only job I’ve ever had. I wasn’t in any sort of ideological activism or anything thing like that. I just had regular jobs before this. I worked at the Division of Housing, which is a state office, and I was their economist, which basically just means that I did a lot of research and analysis on economic trends in the state. So when I’m not doing this more theoretical, larger international relations sort of stuff like in this book, I’m looking a lot at employment numbers and home prices and a lot of stuff related to the central bank, money, inflation, that sort of stuff. And so that’s a lot of what my writing is at mises.org today. But I did a lot of that for 10 years when I was at the Division of Housing.

And that was all pretty non-political. I was just producing stuff for policy makers to use, and me avoiding any sort of policy prescriptions. I didn’t want to encourage anyone to pass any new laws or anything that might be terrible. But it was nice just to look at those numbers for a living for so long, just to get a sense of how the economy works. And you spend enough time doing that, you get a pretty good idea of those sorts of things, kind of a gut feeling about bailouts and foreclosures and how screwed up the banking system is and all that sort of stuff. So I spent a large chunk of my professional life doing that. Before that, I did other sorts of work at the State Legislature. So I’ve actually been involved in local or rather state government for quite a long time. Before that, I was an academic. I was in the PhD program, which I never finished at Indiana University, and a lot of that was focused on international relations.

My thesis ended up being, my master’s thesis, which I did complete, was on the late Cold War, conservative opposition to the militarization of the Cold War period. So looking a lot at the guys who were allied against the war mongers essentially of the Cold War period on the conservative side. So guys like Russell Kirk, who was very good on sound and restrained foreign policy as well, as he had some more libertarian leading guys like Frank Chodorov, who everybody should check out, and the so-called Old Right, which was a lot of these good conservatives from the ’40s and ’50s who never quite bought into the more aggressive foreign policy that came afterward under the Buckley wing of conservatism.

And that became the dominant wing for a long time. But at the end of the Cold War, we had the return of a lot of good restrained foreign policy stuff, and I talk about that a lot in my research from the olden days. So I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing intellectual trends in conservatism and such, even though I don’t really consider myself to be one. Nevertheless, I’m perfectly happy playing nice with conservatives when we have overlapping interests.

Eric Sammons:

So I just have to ask, were you like the Ron Swanson from Parks and Rec when you’re working for the state government? You know that character from Parks and Rec?

Ryan McMaken:

Well, my libertarian views are never quite as cartoonish as Ron Swanson’s, where you’d go to the local park, and your permit was just a scrap of paper that said, I do what I want, and I didn’t necessarily eat 10 pounds of bacon a day and that sort of thing. But yeah, my reputation was kind of as a Ron Swanson within the department. So yeah, there’s something to that.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah, that’s hilarious. Okay. So we want to talk about secession today, because you write this great book about it. And what I want to do is, first just talk in a general sense about it so people understand the basis for what we’re defining, what we mean by secession, and then we’ll talk more specifically in the American context, because that’s really where most of our audience cares about. What are we talking when we talk about secession as a solution to problems? I mean, that’s kind of what we’re talking about, is not secession just as some abstract idea, but as a solution to actual problems we’re having. So let’s start off, and why don’t you just define the idea of secession and what it means and what it entails?

Ryan McMaken:

So secession should really just be thought of as one form of political decentralization. In America, we’re pretty familiar with the idea of decentralization overall. Most people call it federalism, but the idea that there are some levels of government where most of the action should take place, and then maybe higher levels of government, the federal government should have some things to do, but it’s restrained in that way, and that you still have some sort of sovereignty then at the state level, or even the local level in some cases, although the US doesn’t have much of that. It’s pretty much a state federal division. So Americans get the idea of decentralization overall, but what of course they forget is that America’s past is founded on the idea of a more radical version of decentralization, which is known as secession. And so secession took place during the American Revolution, which was a attempt for these 13 sovereign states to secede from the larger empire.

And the philosophy of secession is summed up pretty well in the Declaration of Independence. People have natural rights, and if the government doesn’t protect those rights, then they have a right to break off and form their own political institutions more suitable to what it is that people want. Now, Jefferson, of course, was thinking in terms of universal rights, not specific to America. And he’s right of course that, if we look historically, we see secession all over the place. And if you want to see just one example of how secession is very much a real and current thing just over the last century, we can look at the fact that the number of countries in the world nearly tripled from 1945 to now. So how did we go from about 60 countries to 180 countries? And the answer is through secession. And that happened through a variety of different ways throughout the 20th century.

You started off with secession movements. You had the case where Norway peacefully seceded from Sweden, and they just broke off into two countries. At the end of World War I, you had more secession movements. You had Iceland break off from Denmark to create their own self-governing territory, and then went even farther and declared themselves a republic in 1944. You had Malta secede from the British Empire quite peacefully in the 1960s, and that was part of a large decentralization and secession wave that occurred after World War II when these large empires could no longer afford to maintain the empire. So you had countries like Nigeria and other countries throughout Africa simply secede from the empire. And you had throughout West Africa countries secede from the French Empire. And then you had another wave that came at the end of the Cold War when you had 15 new countries formed out of the old Soviet Union, many of which are very successful today, especially in the Baltics where they’ve come very, very far in terms of economic growth and development.

Poland also has done pretty well since they really… Well, Poland was more of a defacto secession where they freed themselves from the Warsaw Pact, which was a method of centralizing power. The Baltics actually straight up just left the Soviet Union, which they were considered just a indivisible part of. And the same with Ukraine, which voted in ’92 to just leave the Soviet Union. They voted 90% something to just leave, and even though that was considered the heartland of the Soviet Union at the time. And the Russians were too impoverished or messed up or in the middle of transition to do anything about it. And that’s usually how secessions come about. What you get is some mother country that’s become weakened, and either the people back home in the mother country don’t have the political will to fight, or as was the case in Britain at the end of the American Revolution, they just simply lost the political will to keep going.

They had plenty of money and resources to do that, but the US ended up seceding. So we see secession everywhere. And then of course, if you go back even further, it’s just dynamic and there’s pieces of countries breaking off of other pieces all the time in the Middle Ages, which of course was a time of extreme decentralization where you had thousands of small principalities and polities throughout western Europe. So really the West is born on this idea of splitting up countries into smaller pieces, maintaining very small states when large states were seen as a threat to liberty. Even if it was the more imperfect medieval conception of liberty, fine, whatever. The fact of the matter is that secession and radical decentralization is baked into the Western mind since the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Eric Sammons:

So as you say, secession is actually very common. And I guess most Americans don’t really realize that because probably their only thought of secession immediately goes to the American Civil War, the South trying to secede from the union. That’s only secession that’s ever happened almost in their mind. But as you said, it’s very common. What would you say… I mean, obviously since there’s been hundreds of secessions even in the last century, what would you say is probably the common themes among all of them, or at least most of them, why a country actually decides to secede from another country?

Ryan McMaken:

Since the 19th century, most of it has been motivated, I think, by just the concept of a nation. And often the idea of the new nation that’s going to break off doesn’t really coincide with the real nations within it. I mean, we could point to Nigeria where there’s many different nations contained within that country. And so the Biafrans, for example, have long wanted their own country, and have not been allowed to do that because Nigeria’s too centralized. But there was this idea of we are Africans, or we are Nigerians, or we are Ghanaians, we are South Africans, we are Indians, and so we deserve our own country. And this has perhaps been one of the most powerful ideologies in human history that really started to rise in the late 18th century, and just flowered in the 19th century. Nationalism has a lot of downsides, but there’s no denying that is probably the number one motivation for the idea of secession, which is just tied to the concept of national liberation.

And Murray Rothbard, who we of course are very fond of here at the Mises Institute, is a 20th century economist and very much a free market guy, but also very much in favor of decentralization, called the American Revolution one of the first wars of national liberation. Because he looked at how, yes, the American Revolution began as this disagreement over some specific policies, but if you look at how the rhetoric and the political realities changed over time, by the end of the war, the United States very much had embraced this idea of themselves as a separate nation. And even when the British came to them and said, hey, maybe we should negotiate a little bit, and we’ll give you those things we refused to give you back in 1775, the Americans were already at the point where they’re like, yeah, forget it. We got our own thing going. You people are like foreigners to us now. We’re not interested.

And that’s very much what happens in most of these secession movements, is there’s usually some affinity for the mother country early on, but over time, nationalist impulses take over. And we see that quite well documented in say the split up of Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s where it began as these very technical disagreements over ways that Czech federalism could have been better implemented, but by the time the actual separation took place, people were taking very clear positions on, I’m Czech, you’re Slovak, we’re different people, we can’t be in the same country. And so anywhere you start to get this idea of a cultural divide between two groups, then you start to move very quickly in the direction of secession.

Eric Sammons:

Now, the conventional wisdom is generally that countries should come together, they should form unions, and that’s going to be better for citizens. For example, the EU, obviously the big push to unite Europe into one entity, so to speak, even though it’s not exactly one entity. The attacks on Brexit, this idea that, oh my gosh, this is going to be the worst thing ever for Britain if they break away from the EU. You see it in the United States, just the idea of that together we’re much better off than we would be separately. What would you say against that is probably the strongest arguments for why secession actually makes a country better in a lot of these cases?

Ryan McMaken:

Well, secession is warranted and appropriate and better than the alternative when you don’t have enough cultural bonds to ensure peace between these countries that have been forced together by some larger political entity. So if you had a country where people were content to live and let live in the neighboring district where, okay, they do things differently, one principality over in this confederation, one canton, one state over, and we just agree to let them do their thing, and we’ll do our thing, but we can agree to be united in terms of a customs union. We’ll have free trade with those people, or we’ll enter into some sort of defense agreement. If the guy next door gets invaded, there’s obviously an advantage to us then helping them defend themselves. Why? Because we have common economic and political interests, and that guy over there who might invade them, we don’t have anything in common with them.

And so you can see that, if the United States were run that way, if it were just free trade between the states, and it were simply a defense union, we wouldn’t be having these conflicts we’re having now where we’re fighting over abortion, and we’re fighting over regulation, over tax policy, which affects some states more than other states, where marriage is a federal policy, all of these issues that end up dividing different groups in the country into different places. Boy, think about education policy. What gets funded by these federal tax dollars, which are then collected at the federal level from people in the states, and then it’s all redistributed according to the central government, according to their ideas of who gets what money. So you’ve got one part of the country exploited for the benefit of another country for things that everybody doesn’t share in common in terms of their interests.

So if that money was just being spent on something like military defense, that would just be completely different than if you had policy that was uniform nationwide on all these social issues. So if you did that, that would probably actually lessen the tensions, and that probably is going to end up being the reality, is if the US does really start to decentralize and locals really start to assert control over their own self-determination, it probably won’t get to the point of really splitting up to a full blown, boy, that’s your sovereign state, this is our sovereign state, but there’s going to need to be some significant decentralization in order to avoid conflict. And that’s the purpose of secession, is to avoid conflict so that people feel that we can rule ourselves, and you can do your thing, and there’s no reason for us to fight each other. Because some countries simply get along better when they’re two different countries than when they’re forced to live together under a common government. So that’s the real issue at hand.

Eric Sammons:

I think the point about the cultural cohesion is what really makes a entity, a country, whatever, either stay together or not, depending on the degree of cohesion. And you can kind of see somewhere like Czechoslovakia, which was an invented state in the beginning where you have very clearly people have a Czech identity, people have a Slovak identity, and generally they live in different geographical areas in there. So it’s very obvious, okay, this is a dumb union here, let’s just go ahead and split this up.

But in the United States, we’re famed to be the melting pot, and you have a situation where, for example, a blue state like Illinois is really a red state with Chicago added onto it, because if you look at it, the vast majority of Illinois, it’s going to be a red type state, but then you have Chicago that just kind of overwhelms it. So even if we’re not full blown secession, how do you try to break up something like the United States even, or decentralize it when we have such a mix? It’s not as clear where you have a… Especially when you have a nationality like Czech or something like that. Over here, we don’t really have that here.

Ryan McMaken:

Well, there’s always going to be some of that where… Even in Czechoslovakia, there was not just this even division, and in fact, the things considerably favored the Czechs in terms of federal property was mostly in the Czech part of the country, and so dividing all that up was actually very difficult, and they had to sort out the issue of, do you maintain your citizenship in both countries when we split up? So that would be an issue, is if you’re living currently in Illinois, but you consider yourself to be a Missouri sort of person, do you maintain some sort of Missouri citizenship if say the country were divided along the Mississippi River or something like that? Those are all issues which always have to be determined when a country divides up. But I do think that the more you moved in that direction where there would have to be real decentralization and a real understanding that there are real cultural divides here, I think you would start to see people sort themselves more and more.

I think the 20th century is probably what produced all of that mixing. Because during the mid 20th century, you had this whole thing called the liberal consensus, and everybody was told that Americans all believe essentially the same thing, and essentially people who didn’t have mainstream views were canceled, they weren’t allowed on the evening news. There’s all this talk today about controlled speech and all this stuff by the media, it was actually far worse in the 1960s when it was tightly controlled as to what sort of opinions were considered acceptable and pro-American and that sort of thing. So there was this perception that the United States was basically uniform, at least certainly among the middle class and the elites, and I think that then sent home the message that there’s no point to move for political reasons, that America’s all pretty much the same, but I think you’re starting to see that idea go into decline.

And that’s actually the topic of a book that came out about 12, 13 years ago called The Big Sort. And boy, the author’s name now escapes me, but he talked about how geographical distribution along ideological lines was growing rapidly in the United States. So you started to see then people were no longer mixed in the suburbs in the way they used to be, or mixed in the same larger geographical areas that had been the case. So people were choosing to live more and more just amongst people that they agreed with ideologically. And so that’s actually a trend which makes it easier then to divide up the United States into more discreet pieces where self-determination is something that’s pursued along geographic lines. Now, I think you would have to have issues where you had exclaves, where maybe you had a urban area that perhaps just simply didn’t fit into a larger state that had broken off.

And of course in the modern world, there’s no reason why you can’t have a political confederation of some kind that’s made up of a large number of say core cities that pursue similar interests. And I didn’t put it in the book, but I had an article on mises.org… It’s still there, about how the central cities should really be able to form their own states and to have their own real self-determination in that way, and that the ring of suburbs around them in those metro areas that had very different ideological viewpoints could then have their own self-government put together in a different way. And so just the way the United States is put together is so antique that it’s going to have to really be sorted out sometime or another, because if it’s not sorted out in some way where you’ve got states like Oregon saying, well, you got people in a few cities that think a certain way, and we’re just going to tell everybody else in the rest of the state how to live.

51% live in this couple of cities, 49% live elsewhere. Well, the 51% gets to tell the 49% how to do everything. That’s not a recipe for continuing to get along. And that’s a recipe for building a political system that’s more and more based on coercion. And all these old borders that were drawn in the 19th century to fit the realities of a long ago past, it’s just not going to keep working indefinitely. So we’re going to have to confront that issue one way or the other. It might have to be through real radical secession, or at least through some sort of means of really allowing people self-determination that they have been denied in a way in recent decades that just doesn’t fit the realities.

Eric Sammons:

And I think we’ve seen The Big Sort kind of accelerate since COVID, because we saw with the last election I think with obviously a lot of people decided to move to Florida, some moved to Texas, because they had very different regulations and rules about COVID than other states did, and we saw in Florida there was overwhelming win for DeSantis, and even Rubio got a lot. And then I think in Texas, it was easy wins for the Republicans, who had been a little bit better on COVID than the Democrats had been, definitely better than a California Democrat had been. And so all of a sudden, you saw it. And I wonder if… Especially in Florida where you see DeSantis seems to want to stand up to the federal government, at least on certain things, certain indications, and people seem to support that. And that seems to be at least a first step towards a decentralization in the sense that maybe the people of Florida will be like, yeah, we want you actually to ignore what the federal government tells you to do, and you haven’t seen that before.

But if you get enough people moving to Florida who say that, it might actually happen then. So I think that’s part… I mean, I think it was happening before COVID, but COVID did seem, like many things, accelerated that process on some level. Now, when we talk about secession, I want to bring up some of the most common arguments against it. I personally think a lot of them tend to be a little knee jerk, not really thought through, but I do understand at least why the mind would go to that. So if you had a United States that was now, let’s just say six sovereign countries broken up in some configuration, doesn’t really matter why, obviously things would be different.

I think the number one thing I’ve always heard whenever I’ve even suggested secession is this idea of national defense, that we weaken the country, we make the military less strong, because somehow you’re dividing up military six ways. Let’s say everybody gets an even number of troops, everybody gets an even number of nukes, whatever. But the idea though is now we’re weaker. We’re six weaker nations, rather than once. So what is the… Historically with countries that have seceded, and how would that actually work, and would it be that our national defense would get weaker and we’d open ourselves up to potentially an invasion, someone like China, Russia, whoever the boogeyman is this week?

Ryan McMaken:

Well, there are a few different issues involved there. One is that smaller countries tend to be wealthier countries. And so holding yourself together in a large country that’s torn by internal divisions, potential civil wars, a increasingly controlling government that’s regulating the economy, and half the country hates that, that’s actually an impoverishing factor, and impoverishment reduces your ability to have effective self-defense. So that’s probably one of the most major factors in a country’s ability to defend itself and assert power. So centralization, large countries often are going down the road of impoverishment, and that doesn’t help. And we can look at some examples of that. For example, you can look at just how successful say the Dutch Republic was after breaking off from the Habsburg Empire in the 17th century where, this was a country that very quickly became a peer of other countries like France and England militarily, as well as the Spanish, and this was largely due to the fact that this was just a well-run, wealthy small country that was able to focus on trade, and was able to defend itself quite effectively.

So we can certainly find examples of that. We can find examples of many small countries that are able to play the international field in such a way that they maintain both sovereignty and effective defense. The state of Israel is one such example. The state of Israel does not surrender its own self-determination in local governments to the United States in order to get all those sweet special favors that it gets out of Congress, and it just plays that game very, very well. And that’s just one perfect example. This is a country surrounded by a dozen hostile countries that would love to invade and shave off pieces of its territory, and it doesn’t happen, because this is a small country that maintains a very small nuclear arsenal, as well as effective military force.

And this historically has been shown to be the case. As long as you’re one of the wealthier countries surrounded by perhaps poorer countries, you’re going to be fine. But then of course the other issue is just being able to ally with other countries. And so this idea then that breaking up the United States into say a half dozen functionally independent countries, so what reason do we have to believe then that these countries would find it in their best interest to invade and devastate their neighboring trade partners? There’s no reason to believe that would happen any more than the United States would be interested in bombing Canadian cities in order to somehow bring Canada to heel. The United States and Canada have been at peace since 1815, and by extension, at peace with the United Kingdom since 1815, because of course Canada didn’t really get its own foreign policy until the 1930s.

And so here were two countries with a common language, and which competed for a lot of the same resources, and had many reasons to disagree on things, but have not come to blows for more than 200 years. So you have to think, well, why is that? Well, common language goes a long way, as well as a commitment to just basic what we would call classical liberalism. Now, of course neither the United States nor the UK are hardcore, classical liberal countries in that sense, but they’re certainly moreso than most countries in the world in the fact that both these countries value trade and open economies and those sorts of things that we find to be valuable and enlightened in terms of international relations. And the fact is, both the US and the UK, Canada, most of Western Europe nowadays are committed to those sorts of things, and what we see is that all those countries get along quite well.

So if you’re telling me that the confederation of New England is now going to plead and beg in Beijing for the People’s Republic of China to launch an invasion of Tampa Bay to somehow teach those Floridians a lesson, there’s no precedent for anything like that happening. Cultural bonds go a long way, and there’s no reason to believe the United States would not continue to be an important cultural block where these countries got along with each other, where they saw the benefits of free trade, and where they saw the benefits of working together in terms of mutual defense, just like the US and Latin America works together on mutual defense and works together with Canada on mutual defense. I mean, these are just important issues that people recognize it’s important to enter into bonds with countries that have deep cultural ties with your own.

China doesn’t have any of that with the US, certainly not India, certainly not Russia. And back to the issue of wealth, it’s very important to note that when comparing the war-making capability of the United States to China, the United States is still just far, far ahead, so much so that you could… I do an analysis of this in the book where let’s just start off by breaking the US into two pieces, where each of those two pieces would still be wealthier and have greater war-making capability than China. The fact that China has larger GDP overall is not actually an indication of it’s war-making capability. Just as important, and you have to then take into account is per capita GDP. And so I look at some research done by a great international relations scholar named Michael Beckley, and he says the real calculation you need to do is, you basically have to multiply GDP by per capita GDP. And once you do this math some, you work out this formula.

What you find is, that’s a much better predictor of war-making capability than if you just look at, oh, China has a huge GDP, it’s slightly larger than the US, so I guess they can build more tanks and all of that stuff. The reality is that China has a billion people. So having a large GDP, that has to be offset by the fact that they have to feed a billion people, they have to house a billion people. When you have the same size GDP for a small fraction of that, as the case of the United States, your surplus war-making capability is much, much larger. So even a piece of the United States would still be one of the most wealthy, capable countries in terms of international power in the world. And so it’s kind of beside the point when you’re trying to claim that the United States must remain united at all costs, or China will immediately invade and take over the United States.

The demographic realities don’t point to that. China’s already showing declines demographically. By 2050, it’s looking like China will actually maybe only have say a hundred million more people than the United States. They could drop down to half a billion people by the middle of the century conceivably. It’s a country of old people, of disabled people, of a population that is in no condition to be asserting itself as the way it’s been doing over the last 20 years. So if we look even at those issues, China’s in decline, the US will continue along its general trajectory. So I just generally disagree with this idea.

But then you just look at the moral issue of it. I mean, you’re going to argue that Washington DC must rule everything within the current borders of the United States no matter what because of China? I mean, this is that old Cold War mentality of William F. Buckley when he literally said that, if it’s necessary for the United States to adopt a totalitarian system within its own shores to defeat the commies, then so be it. Well, I’d rather take the risk of letting the commies get a little too powerful than adopting totalitarianism. So yeah, I reject that whole Cold War conservative idea.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah. Another thing when you talk about national defense is, if the United States broke up into, let’s say a half a dozen different sovereign countries or functionally sovereign countries, I would say this, that each one would not be able to go around the world and tell everybody what to do, and military interventionalism, which is of course a feature of secession not a bug, because that would actually solve a lot of problems around the world, rather than create them. Now, another big one that I hear a lot… And I’m sympathetic to this argument, is that especially for conservatives like myself… For example, I strongly believe abortion should be illegal. Definitely think it’s immoral, should be illegal. And so if we broke up, sure, abortion could be made illegal in Texas or something like that, but… And not just abortion, but all the cultural issues as well.

But in California, it’s going to get… They don’t even have any check on them. Because at least now they have somewhat of a check on them in California, considering how crazy it probably would be without the federal government involvement and being part of the United States. So do we just say, forget those Californians, they can just go in their own hell scape? I mean, that’s what it almost seems to be what we’re saying, instead of saying, let’s try to fight to keep this union together and make it so that across the country we have good laws and things like that.

Ryan McMaken:

Well, it should be noted that a lot of the craziness in California is essentially funded by the federal government, and that they don’t have to worry about defense, they don’t have to spend money on their own welfare state. They also know there’s an implied possibility of bailout should the state government in California go belly up. There are lots of guarantees that come from being part of the United States where you can rely on the printing press and federal funds to help keep things under control, and help out your state government. And so we have to then think in terms of, would the California government be identical to its current self were it its own sovereign country? And I don’t think you can assume that. I think they would have a variety of other issues that they would have to deal with. Now, on top of that then, I certainly would think that California would continue to do all sorts of nutty things if it was its own sovereign country.

The flip side of course of that is that the rest of the United States would improve immediately were the United States to leave. That would remove more than 50 votes in Congress that vote overwhelmingly democratic in Congress, and it would just completely tip the scales. There would be no more Democrat presidents were California to leave the United States. This is what I advocated for when Scotland was talking about leaving the United Kingdom. I said, look, the English will be immensely better off if Scotland leaves. There’s no doubt about that. Not to mention the fact that Scotland is a huge suck on the United Kingdom’s welfare system, because Scotland’s a country of old unemployed people largely, and is a country of poverty and so on. But if they want to have their own country, so be it. That’s their business. And so you need to think in terms of, okay, what would happen to the rest of the country?

It would be much better off. And then of course people in central California and so on, who didn’t want to live under the Sacramento regime, would be able to leave. The United States would be free to offer essentially free passage to Californians for a period. This is what happened in the old Czech Republic and the Baltics and such, is that there’s always a period where you’re like, well, if you don’t want to live on that side of the border, just come on over, and we’ll issue you a passport, even though at the time of secession, you were on the wrong side of the “border.” And so that of course should be made available to people. And an additional answer to that is just the fact that, the answer to some secession is more secession. There’s no reason why California, if it were to break off, why the coastal lands should get to rule the inner cities, by which I mean cities in the inner part of the state, indefinitely.

So you could certainly then break up California itself into smaller pieces. And the fact is, would the new Sacramento government would be willing to fight a war to keep the Walking Valley from joining Nevada, for example? Would they even have the ability? Would they have the money? They wouldn’t be able to print money the way the United States can, because the new California currency wouldn’t have global reserve status the way the dollar has. So it would be very much more limited in terms of its spending ability and war-making ability, and you need to think of that in terms of its ability to consolidate power.

So all these issues are important, but the fact of the matter is, why would you want to continue condemning Americans to live under a Congress heavily influenced by the state of California, when you could set California free and improve lives for about 270 million Americans who would be remaining in the rump United States? I’ll take the side of the almost 300 million people against that couple of million people stuck in California who can just leave and come join us in the now vastly improved rest of the United States.

Eric Sammons:

I like that idea of how just saying that America’s just much bare off without California. I mean, just essentially that’s it. Now, one thing I wanted to bring up was, in Catholic social teaching, there’s this idea of solidarity, and then there’s subsidiarity, and obviously secession tends to at least look like it’s going towards subsidiarity. How would you say secession is compatible with the balance of those two ideas of solidarity and subsidiarity?

Ryan McMaken:

Well, by engaging in secession, you’re actually improving your chances of solidarity within these areas that now have self-determination. And I think you can see this a lot in the fact that smaller countries tend to have much higher levels of public trust, that people trust their institutions more, that people believe that they have a real say in how their institutions function. And you can just think about how the average Fin, Finlandian, whatever they call themselves, would regard their local legislature. There’s 5 million people in that country, you’re living amongst all of your neighbors, amongst the people who run that country. In Norway, you could run into the king on the street in Oslo. Just the idea of the ruling class is so different in a small country and where you have so much more in common in terms of geographical needs and commonalities and language, that the ideas of solidarity in a small country are much more better developed than they are in this large country where people very easily could view someone of a different social class a thousand miles away as really quite opposed to whatever their interests are for their family.

And for example, am I really supposed to believe that an atheist in Massachusetts who hates my way of life has any feeling of solidarity toward me? I mean, the fact that we just by accident happen to be within a single nation state really doesn’t mean anything. And so if you’re going to come up with your concepts of solidarity just based on where some political lines were drawn 150 years ago, that just doesn’t make that much sense. So we need to think in terms of solidarity, in terms of people who actually have common interests and a common culture, and who can agree on some things like abortion, or on religious liberty, and a variety of those other issues. And to simply just say, well, this is where we drew the borders forever ago, and so you 49% who are ruled over by the 51%, solidarity dictates you just have to take it, you just have to accept whatever the 51% is willing to dish out, that’s a pretty incoherent idea in my mind.

And so if you want real solidarity, then you need more local self-determination. You need people to feel like they actually have some level of self-rule, and that their ideas actually matter among their representatives in government institutions. And the way we have it now, it’s just not like that at all. And so you live in a state, let’s just say Colorado, which has eight legislators now with the new reapportionment, well, there’s 435 members of the house, and so laws that greatly affect my daily life are being made by hundreds of people who maybe have never even set foot in this state, and don’t know anything about its needs or way of life. And so that just strikes me as a terrible way of doing things.

It would be one thing if it was just a very small number of issues like free trade or national defense in some ways, but that’s not the way we do it. We do it where the federal government has immense control over your daily life, and that just doesn’t help solidarity at all. And so subsidiarity of course works in lots of places, is used very effectively by the Swiss, and of course the concept of subsidiarity just applies to the world just in general where you recognize the French do things one way, the people in Burkina Faso do things another way, and there’s really no reason why those people should all be ruled from some central government institution. And so people, I think, recognize on some level that’s important. The only real disagreement is, are our differences between Californians and people in Arkansas enough that they should really have to completely separate and sovereign sorts of self-determination?

Eric Sammons:

Good stuff. One thing I want to… Maybe my last question here really is, practically speaking, how do you see… I mean, I think we both acknowledge the idea of an actual secession in the United States is probably not in the immediate future. I will say this though… I just want to bring this up. I remember bringing up secession back in 2015 or ’16, and everybody was like, you’re an idiot, that’s silly. I mean, this is all mostly conservative people who are just like, that’s ridiculous. And I don’t hear that as much anymore. When I bring it up, yeah, sure, some do, but a lot more are like, tell me more.

And so I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but I do think we both know politically, I don’t think there’s very many politicians calling for it. Even somebody like a Rand Paul isn’t on the stump for a secession. But how practically do you see a path of secession in the United States? How would it actually work out in real life in the sense of what steps would we need to go through to get to a point where Colorado can govern themselves separately from the rest of the country?

Ryan McMaken:

Well, you would have to move slowly. And one of the points I would make, of course… Well, people use phrases like, well, it’s never going to happen. Well, never is a very, very long time in political history, and you don’t even have to go back that far to see how drastically national borders can change. Just go back to 1945 to see how different things were, or before that, go back just 100 years, and the lines on the map are very, very different. Well, what’s 100 years in the big scheme of things? 100 years is a long way from never. So we have to think in terms of, okay, five years from now, probably not. 10 years, more likely, but probably not that likely. 30 years from now when I’ll still probably be alive… Maybe not, but could easily still be alive.

The chances of it may go up considerably when you start to look at that sort of timeframe. So what do you need to do in that period? Well, I think the COVID thing was a nice jumpstart to the system in the sense that people suddenly realized that who rules you from your state government actually matters quite a bit, that governors are powerful, that the laws vary considerably, and that the culture varies considerably from place to place. So I think you want to continue to emphasize that. I think what you want to do at the same time is then really start to scale back the centralization of politics in general. You don’t have to even touch national defense anytime soon, but some of the key places you need to keep going on are laws related to guns. Conservatives need to really grow a spine when it comes toward the issue of really asserting local control over things like gun law, over things like immigration.

And in the book, I look at those issues of how immigration actually used to be a state issue, and nobody thought it was a federal policy issue until the 1880s. And the states should take back that issue. The states should really think in terms of citizenship within their states, which was common in the 19th century. Citizenship was like a dual thing. You had state citizenship, you had federal citizenship, not just this kind of one merged thing. States are healthfully looking at the issue of asserting control over who can vote, and in what way. It’s very important for states to maintain that. And traditionally that’s been the case, but states have really gradually let go of their control on those issues throughout the late 20th century, and they need to take control of those issues again. And I think the abortion issue will also highlight the different cultural realities between states.

And so that all moves you in the direction then of splitting up the United States into different blocks, at least politically then. I think larger cultural trends are probably enough to keep the United States united culturally, but all of that stuff needs to be explored and emphasized and really pushed at the federal level. The other big thing you need to do is, you need to find some way to decentralize the welfare state. I think that’s the biggest issue, and that’s one of the biggest mistakes the United States ever did, was allowing the central government to take control of the welfare state. And Europe doesn’t have that problem. And in a chapter in the book, I look at the ways that the EU is actually better than the United States in terms of its construction. One of those ways is that there’s still a legal method for withdrawing from the EU as a political union.

It’s still outlined in their legal documents about how you just leave, and we saw Brexit, that that was something where that happened. But the other issue too is that, fortunately in Europe, the welfare state is still decentralized. So if you think the National Health Service in the UK is very, very important, it really has nothing to do with your membership in the European Union. It’s the same way with all those member countries, Portugal, Spain, whatever. They all have their own independent welfare states. So when people talk about the safety net, and are worried what’ll happen to the poor and so on, it’s not reliant upon membership within the EU. Once you get to the point where US states are going to want to break off, then expect all the fear tactics from Washington. Well, you’re not going to get your social security, you’re not going to get your Medicare.

Now, what we know is that US states, even the poorest US states like Mississippi and West Virginia, have more than enough GDP and GDP per capita to fund their own welfare state. Just like countries that are poorer than any US state, like say Croatia, Portugal, much of southern Europe in general, which are on a GDP per capita basis much poorer than the US overall, they all have their own independent welfare states. There’s no reason why states in the US can’t break off and say, okay, don’t pay your social security tax anymore, you just pay it now to us, and we cut you your safety net check. There’s absolutely no reason why that can’t happen. One of the biggest obstacles is just the fact that old folks have been hoodwinked into this completely false notion that they paid into social security, and that’s their money, and it’s in a trust fund somewhere, and they’re just getting it back, complete nonsense.

You’re just on welfare if you’re on social security. So you’ll get your welfare check. It’ll be fine. You’re just going to get it from… If you’re in Colorado, you’re going to get that check from Denver, instead of Washington DC, and your physical check’s going to have a picture of a mountain on it, instead of a picture of the Statue of Liberty. Fine, whatever. That’s the only real difference that will take place. But we know they’ll use that scare tactics the same way that the unionists in the United Kingdom used it against Scotland. Oh, all you Scottish pensioners aren’t going to get your money from London anymore, so vote to remain. But the reality is that these countries are, they’re not dirt poor, developing world countries. Even as their own pieces, these would still be western countries with the ability to fund their own welfare state. But you’ve got to start moving in that direction of decentralizing that, so that the fear tactics are less effective.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah, it makes sense. And I think generally though for the individual, the way to promote this is really you’re promoting your local, where you live. And hopefully you live in an area, maybe you have to move to an area where the cultural climb is a little bit more conducive to what you believe in. I mean, I know a lot of Catholics who have moved over the past number of years because, just for example, they wanted to go to a community that had traditional Latin mass, and they wanted to go where maybe the bishops are a little bit more understanding, or where the local governments are better about COVID policies, all that stuff. And so I do think, like you said, we’re seeing this natural grouping together, and that’s what I think then eventually could lead to people saying, I don’t really have to listen to Washington on this, we can take care of ourselves, and we’ll be fine.

But like you said, it could be a slow process. But I always feel like these things, it’s like they’re slow, and then they’re all of a sudden. It’s like you don’t really see them coming, you kind of talk about them, then all of a sudden overnight something big happens. And COVID obviously accelerated it, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if going forward it happens again. Okay. So I want to wrap it up here. I just want to encourage everybody to buy the book, Breaking Away: The Case for Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities. I’ll have a link to it in the show notes. You can get it right from mises.org, but I’ll make sure I link to it, so people know. What else do you want to tell us about, Ryan, that you guys are doing at Mises that people should know about?

Ryan McMaken:

Well, I think the issue that’s going to be important for people coming up are issues related to inflation, unemployment, economic business cycles. And that’s a big part of what we do. Really the major part is business cycle studies, looking at the issue of where are we in the boom bust cycle right now, what should you be expecting from the Central Bank, from the Federal Reserve in terms of money printing, how bad will inflation be, what can we expect from policy makers. We spend a lot of time on that. And we generally tend to get more traffic when the economy tanks, and it’s because people are looking for better answers than what they’re just getting from the conventional usual economists who are always claiming everything’s just fine, and you can print $6 trillion, and there won’t be any downside to that. And so we offer, I think, a much better explanation of how economies work. And so we’re mostly an economic research institute. So if you’re interested in that sort of thing, you definitely want to come to mises.org.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah. It’s kind of like why Rand Paul got hit so big in 2008, because everything he’d been saying hadn’t yet happened, and then it did happen in 2008, and they’re like, whoa, hey, this guy actually knows what he’s talking about, maybe we should listen to him. And so I think same thing with Mises, what you guys are doing. Now that inflation is a reality in people’s lives, it’s something like, oh, let’s find out actually how this happened. Okay. So I encourage everybody to go to mises.org. Again, the book, Breaking Away: The Case for Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities. I loved it. I got it. And this is an interesting case. A lot of people I interview on this, the publisher sends me the book, I get it for free, I read it, I like it, I interview them. But this one, I bought myself, and I reached out to Ryan because I was like, oh, I love this, and I think we should talk about this. So I really wanted him on.

Ryan McMaken:

Well, I think it’s only 12 bucks also, so it won’t break your bank.

Eric Sammons:

That’s right. It’s only $12. I’m interviewing a guy next month, and his book’s $50, so this definitely is a bargain. And if you really can’t handle even that, like you said, the mises.org website, you can actually download the PDF for free. But I highly recommend it. Well, thanks so much, Ryan. I appreciate you being on the podcast and talking about this important subject. And good luck with all the work you’re doing.

Ryan McMaken:

Thank you, Eric.

Eric Sammons:

Okay everybody, until next time. God love you.

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