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Devolution Is Superior to Secession

The 1996 Salzburg Seminar was a prestigious international gabfest organized to discuss “cross-cultural perspectives on conservatism.” Worldwide political parties and movements designated “conservative” at home or considered as such by Westerners were invited to explain their views on conservatism, to discuss what they held in common. With representatives from across Europe to Turkey, and even from China, obviously there was little commonality.

Playing by the rules, this U.S. representative suggested that localism and community could be a unifying ideal for the right, at which the French representative nearly swooned, furiously insisting that conservatism was precisely the opposite. It was love of the patria and of its representative the national state, whose point was seconded immediately by the Turkish representative. The Spanish, Italian, Belgian, and several Eastern European national representatives actually denounced local nationalistic movements as threats. But when I suggested sub-national movements were alive even in Britain, the idea was so preposterous the room immediately broke into laughter, with the Englishmen questioning my very sanity.

Two decades later Scotland massed 45 percent of its population willing to break 300 years of ties to become independent of England. Inspired, a million Catalans went to the street to demand independence, and its regional legislature voted to hold a (non-binding) referendum. Basques threatened the same. Flanders nationalists in Belgium promised that if Scotland received European Union representation, so would they. The Italian Northern League, organized around the ideal of separation, cheered Scotland on. Even Bavaria every so often threatens splitting from Germany. Norway and Sweden did separate in 1905, as did the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.

All Europe was centralized under divine right kings and nationalisms at great cost in blood and treasure throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, forcing previously independent nations and peoples into the larger units we know today. Germany and Italy were not unified until the 1870s. Hundreds of independent states were dissolved over the period, but most of the successors retained local customs and institutions, many nursing old and developing new grievances against an often remote and unresponsive state. Even France still has restive Basques, Bretons, Savoyans, and others demanding local rights or independence.


Americans certainly have not been immune to the secession impulse, of course, including a great civil war costing millions of lives. While that war presumably settled the matter, even today a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 23.9 percent of Americans would like to see their state pull away from the union, up from 18 percent in 2008. In the previous year under George W. Bush, 32 percent of liberals thought breaking away would be a good idea, compared to 17 percent of conservatives. Today under Barack Obama, 30 percent of Republicans and even 20 percent of Democrats would have their state secede.

Former congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul even claimed [1] a recent “growth of support for secession” inspired by Scotland and demonstrated by the one million Californians who supported dividing the state into six entities, saying this “should cheer all supporters of freedom.” He was congratulated for raising the issue by Daniel McCarthy of The American Conservative, but McCarthy responded that secession is not a principle of liberty [2]. Not only does secession often trade one master for another—as Scotland would do under the European Union and NATO—but there is no guarantee the new state would foster internal liberty. McCarthy argues persuasively that for Scotland and America,

secession and union are questions of security and power, which undergird prosperity, self-government, and individual freedom. For much of the rest of the world, poisoned by ethnic and sectarian hatreds, secession means nationalism and civil strife. In both cases, breaking up existing states to create new ones is a revolutionary and dangerous act, one more apt to imperil liberty than advance it.

Indeed, Paul’s own original article on the matter viewed secession sentiments mostly as pressure on a national government to limit its power over local units as opposed to being valuable in itself. He specifically urged “devolution of power to smaller levels of government,” which can be a very different thing from secession. While secession is problematical as McCarthy argues, devolution of power within a national government is essential to liberty.

While unsuccessful as secession, Scotland’s threat forced even unionist party Prime Minister David Cameron to promise greater local autonomy not only for it but for Wales, Northern Ireland, and even England itself, although federalism will be challenging for Britain since England holds 85 percent of the population. While England basically invented local government with the parish (and transferred this ideal to America while it was being suffocated at home), it has long marginalized local government and restricted its powers. Margaret Thatcher, for all of her love of freedom, overrode local governments with abandon. Scotland’s message just might awaken England to its historical ties to local and regional government. Some useful ideas could be found by dusting off its 1957-1960 report of the Royal Commission on Local Government.

Centralization’s historic claim to greatness was ending Europe’s wars, especially those of religion through the 17th-century Treaty of Westphalia. Despite the claim by an overwhelming number of historians and commentators ever since, ending the 30 Years War did not end wars on the continent, much less elsewhere. A long series of dynastic wars followed, including the worldwide War of Spanish Succession, which Americans call the French and Indian War. More important, the 30 Years War was not a religious but a dynastic struggle. Catholic France actually fought on the supposed Protestant side. Major dynastic wars continued right up to World War I.

Westphalia actually created a number of powers sufficiently strong to challenge each other in alliances to decide which would rule, leading to the instability of the period. The world is more peaceful today because only one power emerged from World War II and the Cold War. While the U.S. has engaged more than was prudent, as McCarthy emphasizes, “a world consisting of more states more evenly matched, would almost certainly not be more peaceful.” Those who understand the fragility of freedom “should appreciate that all states are aggressive and seek to expand, if they can—the more of them, the more they fight, until big ones crush the smaller.”

American hegemony properly controlled thus assists world peace, and secession could threaten international and domestic liberty. Still, secession in its tamed form of federalism and decentralization presents the secret to domestic liberty, especially in larger states. The ability to devolve power to the lowest levels possible—first to the individual, then to the family, to free associations and businesses, to the community, to local and regional government, and only to the national state when no other institution can perform the function—allows freedom to adjust to community differences and make individuals more satisfied with their national state.

Where secession sentiments are high, it is a strong indicator that too much power is centralized. It is a lesson for Britain but, alas, increasingly one for the United States as well as a glance at recent federal court decisions immediately confirms.

Donald Devine [3] is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition and Constitution [4], and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Devolution Is Superior to Secession"

#1 Comment By SteveM On October 9, 2014 @ 11:49 am

Indeed, too much power is centralized. But the problem is, apart from succession, there are no apparent solutions. Washington is cronied up to the core in a dysfunctional parasitic dystopia that works for both sclerotic political parties and their Elite donorists while hosing everybody else.

That the haggard, über-mediocrity Hillary Clinton, and the usual suspects of Republican Neocon political hacks are being bandied about as future Oval Office candidates demonstrates just how rotten the system actually is. That’s the best to Beltway can do?

There is just so much wrong with the American Politico-Crony superstructure that is running America into the ground through self-aggrandizement, blatant stupidity, reckless war mongering and conscious avoidance of the things that really matter. With no effective mechanisms for substantive change available to the taxpayers apart from the generalized implosion that will be foisted upon them. Succession may be reactionary, but there’s an old saying, “When you have no alternatives, there is no problem…”

BTW, American hegemony can’t be properly controlled. Because of the huge disconnect of the taxpayers from the Elites who play the Masters of Universe Hegemon. The Imperial Presidency is out of control. And the feckless Congress has shown no real inclination to right that hyper-asymmetric relationship. Give that, out of control hegemony, (accompanied by massive hemorrhaging of American treasure) with resultant global chaos is the norm.

#2 Comment By Chris in Appalachia On October 9, 2014 @ 12:34 pm

And it is this kind of thought that separates us TAC conservatives from the brainless Limbaugh-Fox News “conservatives.” This article articulates actual and legitimate Conservatism.

#3 Comment By EngineerScotty On October 9, 2014 @ 2:13 pm

Separatism/devolution, much like states rights, depends on whose ox is being gored. Were conservatives firmly in charge in the US, and liberals on the West Coast (for example) engaging in serious separatist talk, it would not be tolerated by the right. OTOH, the South tends to make secessionist noises (and of course actually attempted to do so, at a cost of millions dead) whenever it doesn’t dominate national politics.

Liberals are guilty of playing the same game.

#4 Comment By Martin Ranger On October 9, 2014 @ 2:28 pm

“Calls for secession are often strong indicators that too much power is centralized.”

Nope. Calls for secession are often strong indicators that local “populists” have convinced some people that they are forced to give their hard-earned money to the moochers and looters in the rest of the country.

#5 Comment By Jude On October 9, 2014 @ 4:37 pm

From Quebec, to Scotland, to even Staten Island, secessionist movements are economic and driven by misinformation, driven by self-serving politicians, that “our” money disproportionally supports the central government.

Thus, the Quebecois were led to believe that Quebec money supports Ottawa, Scots to believe that their oil money supports London, and Staten Islanders to believe that their money supports Manhattan…

Similarly, most Red States receive more from the Federal Government than sent to Washington in taxes, yet these states are decidedly anti-Washington.

Amtrak subsidies are a microcosm of the issue. While hammering Amtrak subsidies as “supporting Northeast mass transit,” Red State representatives in Washington patently ignore the easily proven fact that the Northeast Corridor is the only Amtrak line that makes money and effectively subsidies money-losing lines that connect the Midwest and South.

I don’t have an answer to this and the cynical side of me says give the people what they want. The relived Northeast would at least be financially better off without Red State leeches. Equally important, those in the Northeast would also be freer and without endless attempts at personal liberty restrictions…

#6 Comment By Dan Phillips On October 9, 2014 @ 4:51 pm

“Devolution Is Superior to Secession”

No it isn’t. What’s up with TAC’s recent crusade against secession?

#7 Comment By RadicalCenter On October 9, 2014 @ 9:18 pm

In the UK (really England)’s panic when it seemed that the Scots might vote for secession, they promised to devolve more power from London to the Scottish Parliament (as well as devolve more powers from London to the Welsh Parliament and to England itself).

We’ll see whether the UK follows through on the promise, but it’s apparent that strong poll support for secession pushed them to make the promise.

Likewise, perhaps we need to hold non-binding referenda in various States on seceding from the US. It may be that only relatively strong showings of public support for secession will induce the fed gov to return to SOME observance of the Tenth Amendment and return some of its usurped powers to the States and localities.

Probably the fed gov will NEVER do that, short of a successful violent rebellion, and that is not a prospect I’d like to contemplate.

#8 Comment By Winston On October 10, 2014 @ 1:20 am

True. You are missing one thing: incredible rise of regional governance/integrated local governance. Even when states have more autonomy they also have few haves and many have-nots. A defense mechanism is integrated local governance. It also boosts local/regional economies.
Integrated local governance can also be a tool to manage excessive fragmentation as in case of France-as it has been since 1890!

#9 Comment By philadelphialawyer On October 11, 2014 @ 10:19 am

Fittingly, Salzburg is quite near the small village that was the birthplace of Leopold Kohr. Kohr’s Austria was shorn of its Empire during his childhood, and Kohr himself felt forced to flee when the Germans under the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. For his while life, he believed that life in and around Salzburg in the little Austria he grew up was superior to citizenship in any large state.

Kohr argued that small polities created happier citizens, and were less likely to fight imperialist wars or to become tyrannical internally. A world with only small states would be much more peaceful, and more democratic, and more free, than the world we have today. In a small state, criminals have less anonymity and space to hide, and thus police methods need not be so draconian when it comes to flushing them out. Everyone more or less knows everyone within the sounds of the city’s bells, and so there is less need for internal spying. Government is local, for the most part, and thus is less likely to be captured by self perpetuating elites. And the state is simply too small to seriously embark on unnecessary warfare as a policy.

The argument that big states protect small states and keep the peace misses the fact that what the big states protect the small states from is other big states. Much like the claim that men protect women, it only makes sense in terms of there being more of the same class of “protectors” out there who would do harm. As the feminists say, Yes, men protect women, they protect them from other men!

But while we can’t do without men(!), we can do quite well without big states.

Poster Jude is correct that separatism CAN be a dodge for xenophobia, for sour grapes, for ill informed, yahoo populism, but that hardly means that it must be those things. The entire decolonization movement, starting with the American Revolution, is based on secessionist principles. Just because certain territories were combined into one polity, at some point in history, hardly justifies them remaining so combined, forever, nor does it mean that any criticism of their combination must be in bad faith. And formally swallowing up the lesser or smaller entity, and allegedly making it an integral part of the larger polity, a la the French in Algeria, the English in Ireland, the Israelis in Jerusalem, etc, does not mean that subsequent separatist movements must, of necessity, be based only on the misinformation of self-serving politicians.

Each case should be judged on its particular merits, and there are examples where secession would not have led to more freedom, as in the CSA of 1860. Of course, the Anschluss did not lead to more freedom either! Neither did the stubborn refusal of the British and French, et al, to relinquish their colonies.

In addition, Korh argued that loose confederacies, something the EU when it was still only the European Community, could provide the benefits of larger polities without the drawbacks. Postal unions, customs agreements, standardized weights and measures, and the like, could ensure the free movement of ideas and visitors, while still allowing control of borders, immigration, trade and so on. Polities could have the amount of free trade that they felt was beneficial to them, NOT as dictated by the big states and big private entities. Same with financial and monetary policy.

Decentralization and subsidiarity are fine things as well. But the tendency is always for power to be concentrated at higher and higher levels. The interests of the elite at the higher levels always coincide with the interests of the government at those levels. The more power that is held in the center, the stronger, more important, more wealthy, more famous, etc, etc, the elites who control or live off of the center are. So, decentralization is almost always a temporary victory.

The history of the USA shows as much. The centralizers in Philadelphia did not dare to set up a highly powerful national government. And were forced by the opposition that they knew they would encounter to hedge that national government with federalist features in the new Constitution. And even though the first three Administrations were rather nationalist, the desire of the country to remain decentralized won out in 1800, and the country pretty much did stay that way until 1860. But a civil war, industrialization and the simple fact that the USA had risen to great power and prominence on the world stage led, inevitably, to power shifting from local and State governments to DC. And now we have reached the point where pretty much everything of any importance, if not actually decided in DC, is decided within narrow parameters set in DC.

A Constitutional amendment or even a series of them might temporarily restore the balance, but only secession can ensure a permanent victory against over centralization.

In my view, the USA is just too damn big. I think most of us would be better off if the government in DC was scrapped altogether, and the States or regions were independent entities. Membership in a loose organization, with no pretensions to being a national or even federal government, would probably ensure that whatever benefits arise out of bigness remain. And then we could ditch altogether our out of control MIC, our national law enforcement state, our national security state, our spy agencies, and so on.

#10 Comment By Glaivester On October 11, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

Devolution may be superior to secession, but when the central government is determined not to allow devolution, secession may be the only alternative to complete central control.

Martin Ranger appears to believe that calls for secession are strong indicators that the central government isn’t doing enough to crush opposition.

Jude on the other hand makes the common mistake of reducing all of the issues to economics – the issue, according to him, is that red states falsely think the blue states are mooching off of them while the reverse is really true.

But that’s not it. The red states feel that the blue states are determined to use the central government to force policies upon them that promote mooching and that destroy their culture – in addition, Obama has made it clear with his refusal to enforce immigration laws (which is just an exaggerated version of what previous administrations have done) and its total war waged on any state that tries to discourage illegal immigration (See Arizona) that it despises the historic American population and wants to displace and replace it.

We are ruled by a hostile elite that controls the central government and that blocks any attempt to use its own processes to reduce its power. When a system blocks all attempts at reform from within, eventually people will work on reform from without.

#11 Comment By David J. White On October 11, 2014 @ 4:53 pm

A long series of dynastic wars followed, including the worldwide War of Spanish Succession, which Americans call the French and Indian War.

The French and Indian War was the North American theatre of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). The War of Spanish Succession was a half-century earlier.