Time for Secession

Frank Chodorov

[Reprinted from Analysis, 195x]

If I were governor of a state, or even a legislator, I would put my weight behind a secessionist movement; not secession from the Union, but secession from Washington. I would do so exactly because I favor the Union, as originally conceived and my advocacy of secession would be based on the same reasoning that prompted initiation of the Union, namely that divided authority is a good guarantee of freedom.

The Union was-it still exists on paper-a voluntary association of autonomous states, each invested with all the political authority not specifically assigned to the federal government. Outside these limitations, the federal government could not go while state authority was restricted only by the Constitution. This neat political package is being clawed at by the power-mad denizens of the cocktail capital of the country, simply because so long as it remains intact, no matter how damaged, they cannot achieve their ultimate purpose of complete centralization; and the American citizen has some hope of avoiding a regime of absolutism.

The importance of bolstering the Union concept looms large when we consider how far centralization has gone, in the economic field. Through the instrument of taxation, one-third of our economy has already been centralized. Through subsidies and regulation, our industrial plant is virtually operating on the fascist pattern of the private ownership under federal control; outright confiscation waits only upon the excuse of war. Through involvement of our financial institutions in its fiscal schemes, the government has, for all practical purposes, reduced them to mere agencies of the United States Treasury. Through labor legislation presumably intended to favor the worker union leaders are able to ride herd on our basic industries, and the nationalization of labor can be effected by simply drafting these leaders into the government.

Politically, however, the drive toward centralization is handicapped by the residue of power still remaining in the state governments. This fact was recognized by the maniacs of centralization who invaded Washington early in the New Deal era. Promptly, Mr. Roosevelt's notorious Temporary National Economic Council proposed the division of the country into "administrative" units. With the usual double-talk, the TNEC denied any intention to circumvent the Constitution, but argued the impossibility of carrying out "national programs" under the handicap of divided authority.

The unlikelihood of getting the states to vote themselves out of existence turned the centralizers to other means, such as bribing the state authorities with patronage, alienating the loyalty of the citizenry with federal subsidies, establishing within the states independent administrative bodies for the management of federal works programs. It will be noted that these management bodies are called "authorities"-and that they are, in fact, set up to take care of political matters coincident to their other functions. The current urgency for FEPC, with its promise of using federal troops for the enforcement of the law, is in line with the policy of liquidating the autonomy of the states.

The centralizers know their history. Wherever absolutism got going, the liquidation of home rule prepared the way. A half century before Hitler, Bismarck had cleared the road for him by wiping out the independent German states. Cavour did as much for Mussolini in Italy. The Czars made the advent of Stalin easy. Centralization is the antithesis of home rule, and the dualism written into our Constitution is an assurance, so long as it remains in effect, that Washington will have trouble in achieving Moscow. The first step I would take, if I were governor of a state, would be to require every school child to become familiar with the history and theory of what we call states' rights, but which is really the doctrine of home rule. For, it was precisely the fear of centralization, such as we are now faced with, that prompted the Founding Fathers to write that doctrine into our basic law.

It must be remembered that the early American had had his fill of far-off government. Having got rid of it at the cost of war he was dead set against a native version of London rule. He knew he had to have some kind of central government-to deal with foreign governments, to prevent the component commonwealths from setting up trade barriers between themselves, and several other matters that could not be handled by local government-but he wanted it severely restricted in scope. The only kind of Constitution he would accept was one that clearly delimited the power of the government to be set up under it.

In all other matters he was willing to put his trust in local government. Why? Simply because it was not likely to get out of hand; one could keep one's eyes on it. Besides, being a government of neighbors it was likely to be cognizant of and responsive to the temper of the governed. It is a certainty that the legislator representing Sauk Center, Minnesota, is more fully conversant with the problems of that community than is the Senator from Alabama, and can be trusted not to vote against its interests; on the other hand, the Senator from Alabama has no inhibitions about riding roughshod over the interests of Sauk Center if, in his opinion, these interests run contrary to what he conceives to be to national interest. Then, there is always the possibility of Sauk Center being completely ignored in a tariff deal between the Senators of New York and California.

The extent to which this fear of centralization possessed the early American is illustrated by the story of a point that came up in the term of President Washington. The "father of his country" was expected in Boston, and Governor Hancock cogitated the propriety of his going to meet the distinguished visitor; would he not be compromising the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by so doing? He settled the problem by pleading illness. The sequel to that story is also illustrative. It was suggested to President Washington that he review the Massachusetts militia, but he rejected the idea because such a review might imply federal interference with the military arm of the state; after all the tacit understanding in those days was that the militia might be called upon to face the federal army.

In both cases neither personal idiosyncrasy nor considerations of etiquette were of prime importance. It was the spirit of the times that found expression in these incidents, and the spirit of the times found expression in these incidents, and the spirit of the times was characterized by a keen jealousy of freedom. The early American knew that freedom was nothing more than the absence of external restraint on behavior; the government could not give you freedom, it could only take it away. And he knew from experience, if not from his reading, that when a government is detached from the governed it invariably strives to take it away. Freedom, then, is in better case when the effective government never gets beyond the purview of the town hall meeting.

That is the truth that needs constant reiteration, now that semantics has found a way to fragment freedom and enumerate the parts. The early American could not have been bamboozled by that verbal slight of hand.

There is a facet of political dualism that needs exploration and exploitation. It is the fact that divided authority introduces competition in government, Political science accepts as an axiom the monopolization of coercion by government; it must have that monopoly, so the axiom runs, in order that it may prevent the indiscriminate use of coercion by citizens. There is no arguing with that point. But, when the individual is free to move from one jurisdiction to another, a limit is put on the extent to which the government may use its monopoly power. Government is held in restraint by the fear of losing its taxpaying citizens, just as loss of customers tends to keep other monopolies from getting too arrogant.

For instance, because our federal government has not yet managed a national divorce law, there is competition between states for that kind of business. Some states try to attract capital by advertising their abstention from inheritance and income taxation, and Nevada's legalization of gambling has to some extent overcome her lack of natural resources and business opportunities. The practice of evading local sales taxes by crossing state borders is a common example of the principle of competition in government.

Before the Sixteenth Amendment got into the constitution, a number of states instituted the income taxes. Though the levies were always small, collection was attended with considerable difficulty; the tax collectors, being neighbors, not "foreigners" from Washington, were inclined toward leniency, and collusion was not uncommon. Nevertheless, the states that did not tax income made that fact known, and the fear of losing industry to them caused a number of states to drop income taxation.

Socialistic experiments did not originate with the New Deal; state governments had their own laboratories, long before 1932. Many years ago I saw an idle state-owned cement plant in South Dakota, and early in the depression a Wisconsin law made it obligatory for restaurants to serve two ounces of Wisconsin made cheese with every meal, whether the diner wanted it or not. The platform of the Farm-Labor party, which sprang up around 1920, and captured several states, was larded with socialism. However, every state experiment in socialism failed simply because of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of movement for both labor and capital across state lines. Federal socialism can be made to operate somehow only because there is no escape from its constabulary.

Then there is the point in dualism that the citizen can apply to the federal government for relief when the state government transgresses his constitutional rights. And a state government may bring suit against the federal government. The effect, then, of divided authority is to keep both the federal and state governments off balance; neither one has that complete monopoly of power necessary to a regime of absolutism.

What with amendments to the Constitution, legalistic interpretations and downright circumvention made possible by well placed subventions, the autonomy of the states has been well watered down. Nevertheless, state lines have not yet been wiped out and there are areas of jurisdiction that are still reserved to the states. These areas can be strengthened and expanded. It is only a matter of intelligent and resolute resistance by the state governments to every scheme, no matter the how seemingly innocuous or politically attractive, that emanates from Washington. If for no other reason, personal pride should prompt every governor and state legislator to take a secessionist attitude; they were not elected to be lackeys of the federal bureaucracy.

Just how far that resistance can go, and remain legal, is a matter for lawyers to determine. But, it is quite obvious that the states can make it difficult for the federal government to expand its spheres of influence by a non-cooperative attitude. Take the federal government's invasion of electric power business under the guise of flood control and it is still necessary for the centralizers to obtain permission from state governments to carry out such schemes and refusal would go hard with them. Federal tenements, which in practice become enclaves of votes for the party in power, are made possible by exemption from real estate taxes, which is still the prerogative of the local authorities; were exemption regularly refused, the housing bureaucrats would be in a sorry plight. If every grant-in-aid were refused, the federal government would be in the unenviable position of a philanthropist bereft of beggars.

There is no end of trouble the states can give the centralizers by merely refusing to cooperate. Such refusal would meet with popular acclaim if it were supplemented with a campaign of education on the meaning of states' rights, in terms of human freedom. In fact, the educational part of such a secessionist movement should be given first importance. And those who are plumping for a "third party", because both existing parties are centralist in character, would do well to nail to their masthead this banner: Secession of the 48 states from Washington.