The Libertarian Case for Breaking Up America
Arnold Kling wrote an intriguing piece that discussed why America should break up, but it really had nothing to do with the standard arguments about irreconcilable differences between the Left and the Right. Kling’s argument was really just that the United States would function better if there was a split. His argument is worth exploring. Here’s the gist of it:
A modern society needs a lot of governance. But a modern society also has many institutions that can provide governance: corporations, trade groups, professional associations, standard-setting bodies, homeowners’ associations, school boards, cities, states, and more.
There are very few problems that require solutions to emanate from a central government in a country with the geographic size and population of the United States. Countries as small as Singapore (6 million), Norway (5 million), Denmark (6 million), and Switzerland (8 million, with a lot of autonomy for its 26 cantons) work quite well.
The United States is the third largest country in the world, by population. The quality of government in the other countries that make up the top ten is abysmal.
The other largest countries are China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Brazil Bangladesh, Russia, and Mexico. One can never be sure, but it seems very plausible that the world would be a better place if every one of these polities were broken up into about a dozen countries.
Smaller countries would give rise to more issues that must be settled internationally. But this could be done through treaties.
...Smaller polities, like Norway, have progressive taxation. Comparably small units within the United States should be able to employ progressive taxation. To get units the size of Norway, we could have to move power down to the county level. Giving counties but not the federal government the ability to price discriminate would shift the balance of power away from Washington and toward counties.
Unlike today, most government benefits would come from counties, not from Washington. Counties would compete with one another, as people vote with their feet. They would negotiate with one another, particularly over what happens to people’s taxes and benefits when they migrate.
...When someone says, “We should have a welfare state like Norway,” a libertarian answer should be “Yes! We should have many welfare states, each about the size of Norway. We just need to drastically shrink the size of the federal government and distribute governance responsibility to smaller entities. To move in that direction, it would really help to reduce the federal government’s use of progressive taxation and deficit spending.”
This argument is highly intelligent, interesting, and it makes a lot of sense in a theoretical way, but it also leaves a lot of practical realities unaddressed. It’s almost like a problem from a textbook that starts out, “If you assume the following values for X, Y, and Z, then what does A have to be?”
So, let’s start with the basics.
What we find over and over again is that the closer the people are to the politicians that govern them, the better the job those politicians tend to do. Realistically, if you live in say West Virginia, some Senator from California knows very little about what you want, the conditions in your town, and how to serve your interests. Incidentally, you could say the same thing about a Senator from South Carolina and a citizen of Berkeley, California. On the other hand, the mayor of the town you live in may have a kid going to the same school your kid does, his cousin may work at the same place you do, and his wife may read your posts on Nextdoor. That doesn’t mean he’s going to do whatever you want, but it does mean that he understands what you want much better than anyone in DC.
This is why states are generally much better run than the federal government. In fact, to the extent that they’re not, it’s often BECAUSE they’re trying to get grants from the federal government, the local leaders are trying to get elected to a national political office, or they’re expecting the federal government to simply step in and bail them out if there’s a problem. If the federal government was taken out of the equation, you would absolutely see even better state government. This is one of the reasons I’m a supporter of the Greater Idaho movement, which seeks to break counties off from multiple nearby states to move to Idaho. People act as if that’s a crazy idea, but to me, there are few things we could do in America that would do more to improve governance than allowing unhappy counties to move to willing states nearby:
If individuals don’t like the state they’re living in, they should move. Large numbers of people, mostly in liberal states, have done just that in the last year. However, in states where some groups of people are locked out of power and view the people in charge as hostile to their interests, why shouldn’t they be able to choose to move as a group to a willing contiguous state that better represents their interests? Should we even be okay with states saying, “We’re going to force your county to be part of our state, even though you don’t want to be here and there’s a contiguous state that wants to add you to their ranks?” There’s an awful lot of talk about freedom and choice in America, so why shouldn’t those counties have that choice if they want it? It’s the right thing to do.
It would also be likely to improve the governance of liberal states by forcing them to finally suffer at least SOME consequences for poor performance. There are a lot of poorly governed Democratic states where everyone knows that no matter how badly the politicians screw up, they’ll never be replaced by a Republican. Furthermore, even if they engage in catastrophic mistakes, like taking on an unpayable amount of debt or destroying their state’s economy by shutting it down for months on end to fight COVID, the federal government will simply step in and give them enough money to protect them from the consequences of their actions. Having whole poorly served counties say, “No thanks,” and move somewhere else would be the sort of rebuke that might even get through to liberals.
So, would splitting the United States up into nation-states produce better government across the board? Unquestionably yes. This is the biggest part of where things begin and end for Kling’s argument, but there’s a lot more to it that he doesn’t address.
For example, things like water rights, interstate travel, and legal issues could suddenly become orders of magnitude more complex. It is true that Western Europe, which has a number of nation-states in close proximity, has managed to generally work all of this out. However, it took them hundreds and hundreds of years and a large number of wars to get to that point.
There are currently seven states that rely on the Colorado River for water. Let’s say one of them cuts off the others down the line and suddenly people are starving. If we were talking about different nations, could you see a war starting over that? What about if citizens of the “Nation of Texas” were beaten, humiliated, and murdered by citizens of the “Nation of New Mexico,” which decided not to prosecute the killers since sentiment was so heavily anti-Texan? Again, could that kind of thing lead to war? Absolutely.
You’d also have to consider issues like nuclear proliferation. Currently, there are 10 states with nukes. That would mean there would be 10 NATIONS with nukes (with more soon to follow) and yes, some of them might use nuclear blackmail or be willing to sell nuclear secrets to other nations for cash. Additionally, those other nations that Kling said should also break up? They probably wouldn’t. Instead, they’d fill the power vacuum left by the end of the world’s only super-power and yes, they’d play games here as well.
It’s very easy to imagine multiple nations signing treaties, sending troops, and agreeing to cooperate with one American nation-state in a war against another. If say, New York couldn’t get along with its neighbors, they might consider working with a nation like China or Russia to conquer them. It’s also very important to point out that if the United States broke into 50 nation-states, each would likely need its own currency. Most people don’t even have an inkling of the sort of economic devastation that would cause:
…We currently have far more dollars in our economy than we have assets that can be used to back them up. If the United States split up, the economy in every region would massively contract because the value of their currency would be much more closely pegged to the actual assets they have available (gold, silver, oil, food, etc.). Those new nations also would not be able to borrow the enormous amounts of money that the United States does today. That would mean there would simply be a lot less money to go around.
No matter what the reason may be for a break-up of the United States, the consequences would be devastating. That would be even if we peacefully decided to split up because we thought, correctly, that we’d be better governed as nation-states than as one nation indivisible. The unfortunate reality is that it may happen anyway. Maybe we won’t have much of a choice about that as a nation one day, but no one should delude themselves. The whole process would be a nightmare and a lot of good Americans would suffer terribly because of it.