On Thursday, a majority of Scots voted against independence from the United Kingdom. Their desire for self-determination, though, is easy to understand: The same impulse motivates present-day demands for federalism and state autonomy in the United States. Over the past decade, for instance, the Free State Project has been drawing libertarians to the relatively libertarian-friendly state of New Hampshire to pursue smaller government. Could New Hampshire or another state (one in four Americans want their state to secede, according to a poll last week) ever hold its own vote on independence?
From the perspective of the libertarians, there are good reasons for frustration with the federal government. The United States is a very large country and, as Francis Fukuyama noted in “America in Decay,” a recent essay for Foreign Affairs magazine, the nation’s massive size and clunky institutions have made the country less and less governable. Bureaucratic “kludge” continues to grow. The number of pages in the federal register, one indicator of regulatory burden, had grown to over 80,000 in 2013, a quadrupling over the 1970 figure. The United States’ economic freedom ranking in the world has fallen from second in 2000 to nineteenth in 2011. Its government now enjoys the twin ignominies of incarcerating and shooting dead more of its own citizens per capita than any other industrialized country, by far, even though its violent crime rate is not much above average.
Political scientists have found that more populous countries are more decentralized, because government becomes less and less effective over larger populations. Spain, Britain, Belgium, Italy and Canada have all decentralized over the past 50 years. But the United States has gone in the opposite direction. In 1913, according to Census Bureau data, local governments raised 56 percent of all taxes in the United States, and state governments another 12 percent. Today, those numbers have flipped: The federal government raises more than 55 percent of all taxes, and local governments account for only 15 percent.
A more workable country would let state and local governments go their own way on more policies, but a more just country would also be based firmly on the principle of free association. Free association is the original American way. The country was founded on an act of secession.
Consider New Hampshire’s possible future. While the Free State Project does not endorse independence for New Hampshire – or any specific legislation – its “Statement of Intent” endorses government limited strictly to protecting people’s rights. Free Staters generally support more autonomy for the state. If the federal government won’t let New Hampshire opt out of the vast federal Leviathan, then what? New Hampshire joined the union on condition that it remain a fully sovereign state free to break the tie with the United States if that link were no longer in its interest. Article 7 of the New Hampshire Constitution declares that “the people of this state have the sole and exclusive right of governing themselves as a free, sovereign, and independent State; and do, and forever hereafter shall, exercise and enjoy every power, jurisdiction, and right, pertaining thereto, which is not, or may not hereafter be, by them expressly delegated to the United States of America in congress assembled.” Banning secession would break this original agreement.
On some level, Washington must know this. If Texas, Vermont or Alaska wanted to break away to pursue distinctly conservative or progressive policies within a basically just, liberal, democratic regime, then what? It seems unlikely that the U.S. government would use force against Americans guilty of nothing but believing in government by literal consent of the governed. More likely, it would make the same choice the British government made for Scotland: let the people vote.
For now, there are no serious secessionist movements. No state has the sense of distinct nationality that Scots enjoy, and Puerto Rico, which has the cultural prerequisites for nationalism, derives immense economic benefits from union. Even now, independence is not ideal for New Hampshire. We Granite Staters can still hope for broader self-government before anybody discusses striking out on our own.
But 30 or 60 years from now, a U.S. government that had lost military predominance to China and India while keeping up increasingly centralized and sclerotic institutions could well face a serious secessionist challenge from a state such as New Hampshire. To prevent secession, the U.S. government will not use force; it will have to devolve power.