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Secession, Imaginary and Real

Since the reelection of President Obama, there’s been a surge of interest in secession. A petition [3] on the White House webpage requesting that Washington allow Texas to secede has attracted over 100,000 signatures. The Washington Examiner notes [4] that similar petitions have been established for Alaska, Rhode Island, New York, Maryland, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia, although these have attracted fewer signatures.

The petitions have no legal force and are semi-anonymous. Nevertheless, Erick Erickson of RedState thought it worth the effort to read them out [5] of the conservative movement. Texas governor Rick Perry apparently concurs [6].

These developments are little more than linkbait for liberal bloggers. No state is going to secede. And I doubt that many of the petitioners are serious about wanting to do so.

In Spain, by contrast, a real debate about secession is now in progress. An informative post by Joshua Tucker on The Monkey Cage observes [7] that public opinion in Catalonia has grown increasingly favorable to secession in recent years, culminating in a  pro-secession demonstration by over 1.5 million people this past September 11 (Catalonia’s national holiday). It’s not clear that all the participants really want to secede: many may favor a deal that would afford Catalonia more political and economic sovereignty. But the failure of negotiations for a so-called “fiscal pact” has encouraged nationalist sentiments.

On November 25, the Autonomous Community of Catalonia will hold elections. If the nationalist Convergencia i Unió party gains a majority in the the regional parliament or is able to form a coalition with other nationalist parties, the Catalan Prime Minister Artur Mas is likely to call a referendum on secession from Spain. The threat of a referendum could be a bluff to extract concessions from the national government. But it may also be a step toward the Balkanization of weak states in the heart of Europe, particularly Spain and Belgium.

This possibility has attracted less attention in the American press than the issue of Scottish independence. But it is potentially more significant. The rest of the United Kingdom can get on perfectly well without Scotland. But Spain cannot afford to lose Catalonia, and Wallonia cannot prosper without Flanders.

The danger here, in other words, is not that secession would lead to the creation of unviable states: the Catalans and Flemish would probably be better off in their own countries. It’s that it would leave behind economic basketcases. The European Union has proved unable to handle one Greece. What would it do with a couple more?

In a previous post, Daniel Larison wondered [8] why Americans should care about non-violent separatism in Western Europe. The scenario I’ve just outlined, in which Europe remains economically and politically paralyzed, is one answer. As a critic of the EU and defender of traditional nation-states, it’s fun to contemplate the discomfiture of the Brussels elite. But our own economy will not fully recover as long as Europe remains in crisis.

Secession, then, is not the moral horror that some commentators imagine. There is nothing sacred about specific borders, particularly when they enclose several linguistically, religiously, and culturally distinct groups.

But secession tends to create as many problems as it resolves. It is a last resort that is wise only when these groups cannot live together in peace. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Spain. And it’s obviously not in these United States.

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#1 Comment By Clint On November 16, 2012 @ 8:10 am

” Some people claim that the Civil War proved that secession is illegal. Whether one was in favor of the North or the South, all that war actually “proved” is that a state or group of states can be militarily forced to continue being a part of a group. Superior strength does not prove morality or legality as any citizen of the former Soviet Union can attest. “

#2 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On November 16, 2012 @ 8:12 am

I’m all for it. How many stupid foreign wars could we fight without Texas?

#3 Comment By Matt On November 16, 2012 @ 8:33 am

The secessionism of late is mostly just overreaction to having lost an election. And this is coming from someone who thinks the Confederacy was well within its rights to secede. It’s true what you say though: “But secession tends to create as many problems as it resolves.” It’s unlikely that South Carolina, for example, could really prosper as an independent country. That’s why the southern states originally formed the confederacy to begin with. Texas, on the other hand, probably would do just fine.

#4 Comment By chipotle On November 16, 2012 @ 9:03 am

Perhaps separatism (fueled by nationalism to a greater or lesser extent) is the answer to what happens to sclerotic, incontinent, overcommitted, dysfunctional welfare states? Maybe this is what finally arrests the many decades (centuries?) long movement towards centralization, bureaucratization, and rule-by-expertise?

Shorter: is this the political version of a bankruptcy court reorganization?

(P.S. – I recognize that my hypothesis is highly under-supported. As I am relatively ignorant, it’s all I got.)

#5 Comment By c matt On November 16, 2012 @ 9:12 am

The problem with secession in the US is that, despite our red/blue maps, our cultural diversity is not as geographically concentrated. The most concentrated states are still a 60/40 split at most, if not closer. It is tough to mount a serious secession effort with +40% against it. Better to just let economic nature take its course, and let the US naturally fall apart.

#6 Comment By CDK On November 16, 2012 @ 10:11 am

“Obviously not”? Why is that obvious, and to whom?

#7 Comment By Aaron Gross On November 16, 2012 @ 10:39 am

Historical question: Has an under-taxed, over-welfared group ever tried to secede from its state in recent history?

#8 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On November 16, 2012 @ 10:56 am

Texas better be careful what is asks for. The U.S. has a pretty established track record of how it views/interacts with soverign nations that sit atop oil reserves (or other natural resources). That said; were Texas to secede; the U.S. would gladly invade/occupy – in order to ensure that Texans enjoy democracy. and it would be a win/win; as we could use the oil revenues to cover the cost of the war, and we (and our drones) would be greeted as liberators.

#9 Comment By Bryan On November 16, 2012 @ 11:06 am

Aaron, if recent history were the only determinant of future events, nothing would ever have happened; there would be no such thing as history.

#10 Comment By Mikhail On November 16, 2012 @ 11:34 am

This actually brings to mind something that Paul Krugman has mentioned on a few occasions with regards to the EU, which is that the viability of these large, fiscal unions/groups (the EU and arguably the USA) is based on their willingness to transfer funds from one region to another. The USA has an almost unlimited willingness to bailout, for instance, Florida. The same is not present in the EU, which is why we’re talking about a possible crackup of the EU but not the US.

The thing is, these fiscal transfers tend to even things out. They restrain the really rich regions, yes, but they also benefit the less-well-off ones, such as the rest of Spain. So if you end up with balkanization along such economic lines, it will benefit some and hurt others, and you end up with a more unequal society.

I suppose one could argue that people will get what they deserve — it’s not hard to say “g’bye Texas! Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!” but it’s probably not the most enlightened response.

Not really sure where I’m going here, but food for thought, I suppose.

#11 Comment By JR On November 16, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

Is it my imagination or are the would-be seceders more or less the same people who think Obama is unpatriotic?

#12 Comment By Craig Morris On November 16, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

People don’t really want to secede. What they want is for the federal government to return to it’s constitutional role as defender of our borders and monitor of interstate commerce and leave the rest to the states (etc.). The secession petitions are an empty threat but the frustration that drives them is real.

#13 Pingback By A Secession Playlist | The American Conservative On November 16, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

[…] think we can all agree that the White House secession petitions are mostly not serious, and most of the hyperventilating responses are a chance for the left to continue glossing those […]

#14 Comment By beejeez On November 16, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

Funny how those secession noises seem to come from places where this kind of thing has happened before. And funny how it’s this particular president that seems to have really set them off, even though federal taxes are at lifetime lows and nobody’s come for their guns. Who knew they felt so strongly about health care policy? It must be that, because what else could it be about this particular president that would get them so riled up as to leave the U.S. of A.? I can’t think of anything.

And funny how you don’t see New Yorkers and Massachusettans reaching for their secession petitions when they’re disappointed by an election result, and oh boy, have they been disappointed sometimes. Maybe they just don’t have much experience with Constitutional law.

#15 Comment By Red Phillips On November 17, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

Erick Erickson proves once again that he is nothing but a mouthpiece for the Establishment. If any authentic voice of conservative resistance rears it’s head, you can always count on Erickson to quickly attempt to purge it. Does he know he’s being a tool of the Establishment in which case he is malicious or does he not realize that he is a tool in which case he is a fool.

#16 Comment By tz On November 17, 2012 @ 8:36 pm

Europe remains economically and politically paralyzed by the venom of reality. Our own economy will implode for the same reason. Do the math. Interest on the debt and the like.