1930, Columbia professor Karl Llewellyn published The Bramble Bush, his famous tract on how to think about and study law. Llewellyn urged readers to consider both law and custom when seeking to understand a society, to recognize the difference between the black letter legal codes and the day to day practices of state officials and citizens. Where there was no sanction, the author instructed, there was no law. In other words, we should focus on the substance of things at least as much as we focus on the form. This is an important lesson for how we view the United States today, with an eye toward what is actually happening on the ground among people and institutions, rather than legal formalisms.
A few years ago, on a panel discussion at an event in Vienna, Dr. Hans-Hermann Hoppe made an offhand remark I found very interesting. Paraphrasing him, he said that nationalist movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were largely centralizing while the nationalist movements of the twenty-first century were largely decentralist in character—breakaway movements represented by Brexit, Taiwan, Scotland, Catalonia, and others. Donald Trump also represented a breakaway movement of sorts, away from DC, but of course this possibility went totally unfulfilled.
This strikes me as an important insight. What we know as today’s map of Europe is really countries cobbled together from principalities, city-states, kingdoms, dukedoms. And the EU seeks, but has not achieved, total dominion over them as a supranational government. What we think of as the US is really an incredibly disparate set of regions which became fifty states over which the US federal government asserts almost total control. And in both cases, cities became politically, economically, and culturally dominant.
So our topic today, in the context of the US, is this: What if the greatest political trend of the past two hundred years, namely the centralization of state power, reverses in the twenty-first century? What if this century is not about ideology, but about separation and location? And what if covid has dramatically laid bare this possibility?
Empires desperately fear losing control over their provinces, and exactly that appears to be happening in the US. Those of us on the anti-interventionist right sometimes forget that DC is very much an imperial power with respect to the fifty states, not just in the Middle East. So any discussion of soft secession and its prospects in the US begins with identifying domestic pushback against this empire. And contra the self-styled progressive saviors, any political arrangement which denies people the right to walk away peacefully is not liberal by definition.
What do we mean by soft secession versus hard secession? It is something more than de facto versus de jure, because everything about American laws and political norms already became blurred over the past century. De facto violations of constitutional provisions, for example, become de jure over time, by operation of federal regulations or the terrible Supreme Court. Garet Garrett’s 1944 essay “The Revolution Was” explains this as a “revolution within the form.” Everything ostensibly remained the same: a constitution, fifty states, three “branches” of government. The country was overthrown a hundred years ago—beginning with Woodrow Wilson and reaching full form in FDR’s New Deal. But America’s second revolution was managerial, a seizing of jurisdiction over every aspect of life by a centralized federal bureaucracy.
So by soft secession we mean a counterrevolution within the form: aggressive federalism, regionalism, localism, and an aggressive subsidiarity principle, operating in de facto opposition to the federal state—or at least sidestepping it. Sometimes it takes the form of direct nullification or flouting of federal edicts, which it turns out are fairly hard to enforce without the support of local populations. Biden’s vaccine mandates will be an instructive test of this; several governors already filed suits. Or it can take the form of legal grey areas, as we’ve seen with more “liberal” US states in their approach to immigration sanctuaries and marijuana laws.
Soft secession also sidesteps the thorniest issues: what to do about federal land, federal entitlements, debt, the dollar, military bases and personnel, nuclear weapons.
Hard secession, by contrast, means an outright division of the US into two or more new political entities, complete with their own boundaries and governments and a surviving rump state. This is far more difficult; among other obstacles there is a Reconstruction-era Supreme Court case which claims the various states must agree to let a particular state secede. Yet the possibility remains, and this scenario could be reasonably peaceful or quite violent. It could look like the former Soviet Union and the Baltics, or it could look like the former Yugoslavia. But this is far less likely absent an outright economic collapse.
Yet that’s just it. We need to understand that America is less a country than an economic arrangement. It’s an arrangement about land and jobs and capital. About subsidies like Social Security and Medicare. About cheap imports, a good distribution system, and a strong US dollar relative to other currencies. Calvin Coolidge famously said, “The chief business of the American people is business.” That’s not all bad, and it’s far better than nothing. But it is held together by an increasingly shaky political arrangement, America as a place has lost its sense of meaning or shared commonalities. I don’t know how long this economic arrangement can or will last, but the point is if it fails there is no social or cultural arrangement underpinning it.
What are the prospects for soft secession in the US? It’s impossible to give odds, but surely the possibility is far higher today than any time in recent US history. Those prospects are higher now than two weeks ago, before Biden announced his vaccine mandates. They are higher now than when Biden was elected, despite his promises of bringing the country together. They are far higher now than before covid, as vaccines, masks, lockdowns, and travel restrictions have divided the American public in remarkable new ways over the last year and a half. They are higher now than when Trump was elected in a brutally divisive election, higher now than after the Bush versus Gore debacle in 2000 created the idea of red versus blue state. And they are higher now than in the turbulent sixties and seventies, when civil rights, feminism, Roe v. Wade, birth control, and radical social change roiled the country. Those prospects are probably the highest they have been since the terrible 1860s.
The Great Sort
Covid has given us a great gift, the gift of clarity. Over eighteen months we’ve learned that all crises are local. For eighteen months it has mattered very much whether you live in Florida or New York, whether you live in Sweden or Australia. And the physical analog world reasserted itself with a vengeance: no matter where you are, no matter how rich you may be, you must exist in corporeal reality. You need housing, food, clean water, energy, and medical care in the most physical sense. You need last-mile delivery, no matter what is happening in the broader world. Your local situation suddenly mattered quite a bit in 2020. It was the year localism reasserted itself.
Whether your local reality was dysfunctional or did not matter quite a bit in the terrible covid year. And people are waking up to the simple reality of this dysfunction. We know the federal government can’t manage covid. It can’t manage Afghanistan. It can’t manage debt, or the dollar or spending, or entitlements. It can’t even run federal elections, for God’s sake, much less provide security or justice or social cohesion.
So how can it manage a country of 330 million people? How can it manage fifty states?
Whether we want to call it the Great Awakening or the Great Realignment, something profound is happening. Imagine if the twenty-first century reverses the dominant trend of the nineteenth and twentieth, namely the centralization of political power in national and even supranational governments? What if we are about to embark on an experiment in localism and regionalism, simply due to the sheer inability of modern national governments to manage day-to-day reality?
A kind of centrifugal force is at work. Here in the US, people are self-segregating—both ideologically and geographically—this is part and parcel of any soft secession. Moving is the best, most direct sorting mechanism we could possibly hope for. A recent survey by United Van Lines confirms what we already knew: people are fleeing California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois for Texas, Idaho, Florida, and Tennessee. This is simple flight from the dysfunction of big cities and unworkable progressive policies, laid bare by the analog lessons of covid.
We should cheer this. If just 10 percent of Americans hold reasonable views on politics, economics, and culture, they would constitute 33 million people—we could coalesce as a significant political force! And this nation within a nation would be larger and more economically powerful than many European countries.
Furthermore, we are witnessing a tremendous shift in political power away from cities, toward exurbs and rural areas. There really is nothing like it in US history. America started in colonies and villages, before moving westward to farms and ranches. When factories began to replace farms as major employers, Americans moved to the old Rust Belt cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh and Detroit. When tech and finance began to overshadow manufacturing, Americans moved to Manhattan and Seattle and Silicon Valley for the best jobs. But that revolution in finance and tech means capital is more mobile than ever, and covid accelerated our ability to work from home. All of this could have huge beneficial effects for smaller cities and rural areas, which in turn could have profound effects for the congressional map and electoral college. If the angry school board meetings across US towns over masks are any indication, politics already has become more localized.
Covid policies ruined cities, at least for a while, and the Great Sort will reduce the political and economic power of those cities.
So a once-in-a-generation opportunity is before us. So we should cheer when Americans lose faith in it due to Trump or covid or Afghanistan or public opinion polls which show a deeply divided and skeptical country.
Contra our political elites, covid and the disastrous reaction by governments may end up reducing their power and standing in society.
Is the Great Sort Necessarily Illiberal?
So as the Great Sort, proceeds, and I certainly hope it does, several questions present themselves: Is this trend toward soft secession necessarily illiberal? Does it require some new form of nationalism, which the modern West considers ever and always a bad thing? Is the potential for creating more states or political subdivisions, even if smaller and less sclerotic, moving us further from an idealized Hoppean private community model?
The short answer to all of these questions is no. And the long answer is that even illiberal or nativist or aggressive nationalist movements are far less. Because Western imperialism and colonialism did not end in the twentieth century. It just changed form. Political centralization, despite the false advertising, has not been a liberalizing force in the world but rather a force for the West, particularly the US, to impose hegemony in the guise of freedom. Centralization has always worked in favor of Western interests, never against.
Mises had a lot to say about all this, especially in Nation, State, and Economy and Liberalism. In my strong opinion both books are deeply misunderstood, sometimes purposely so, by Mises’s admirers. They are radically decentralist and secessionist in their main thrust, not universalist, as often claimed. Coming out of the polyglot patchwork of 1800s Europe, Mises was very concerned about the plight of political minorities in a society—whether due to language, ethnicity, or simply smaller voting numbers in a political entity. He elevated self-determination—the right to walk away peacefully from a political arrangement—to the level of a central principle of liberalism. He also, by the way, said the whole program of liberalism could be condensed into a single word: property—an inconvenient fact for the egalitarian zeitgeisters.
Contra some of his champions, Mises’s strong antipathy for economic or military nationalism did not make him an opponent of the nation-state. On the contrary, Dr. Joe Salerno has written about Mises’s “liberal nationalism” or “peaceful nationalism.” This is a program of laissez-faire at home and free trade abroad, to prevent the tendency toward autarky and outward expansion. He even went so far as to say, “Nationalism does not clash with cosmopolitanism, for the unified nation does not want discord with neighboring peoples but peace and friendship.”
Mises’s liberalism is rooted in the nineteenth-century conception, not the twentieth. Its two political principles were the right of self-determination—which Mises granted down to individuals, in theory—and national unity. He affirms the idea of nations as “organic entities” supported by shared affinities—independent of political entities and often-arbitrary state borders. In his mind, Italians, Greeks, Poles, Germans, and Serbians all deserved independence from despotic rule. The question today is whether Trumpists in Alabama or Catalans in Barcelona have the same right.
Now to be fair, Nation, State, and Economy and Liberalism both contain passages which might give us pause today, given the benefit of a century of hindsight. He praises democracy as “self-government, self-rule,” and says, “The laws can be repealed or amended, officeholders can be removed, if the majority of the citizens so wishes. That is the essence of democracy; that is why the citizens in a democracy feel free.” And he doubled down in this in the 1940s in some passages in Human Action, arguing that democracy allows for the peaceful transfer of political power—which has been mostly true in the West. His faith in democracy might sound quaint today, but again, we have a hundred years of hindsight; Mises may not have been able to imagine how mass democracy in large countries would become a weaponized veneer of legitimacy for every imaginable intervention. And in fact, democracy is preferable to outright violence and war for political power in almost every case.
Mises also created what I argue is an unfortunate confusion over cosmopolitanism in this passage in Liberalism: “Liberal thinking always has the whole of humanity in view and not just parts. It does not stop at limited groups; it does not end at the border of the village, of the province, of the nation, or of the continent. Its thinking is cosmopolitan and ecumenical: it takes in all men and the whole world. Liberalism is, in this sense, humanism; and the liberal, a citizen of the world, a cosmopolite.”
But this is not an argument for international or one-world government, certainly not when taken in the radically decentralist context of the book. Mises, Lew Rockwell reminds us, could take a train from Vienna to London in the prewar years without ever showing anyone a passport. Yet he was nothing if not a proud Wiener. By “cosmopolitan,” Mises simply means “not provincial.” He means having an interest in and concern for the broader world, beyond one’s own town or life or immediate concerns. Cosmopolitanism does not mean adopting a universalist left-cultural world view to be imposed everywhere. That’s not what it means at all.
And today it is precisely Western elites who personify provincialism, in the sense they cannot conceive of a life or world view much unlike their own. This is why they insist on one set of top-down rules for New York and Texas and Florida and Afghanistan. The insistence that every polity on earth ought to be trending inexorably toward your preferred political arrangement strikes me as incredibly narrow-minded, not cosmopolitan.
The Mirage of Universalism
None of what we find in these two books is an argument for universalism. On the contrary, universalism is the hubris of our age. It is a mirage, the idea that humans have perfected a form of governance—social democracy—and now it simply needs to be applied everywhere. And it is the unspoken heart of resistance to the soft secession we considered earlier.
So many things we think are universal in practice are not. Human diversity of thought and action, not political or philosophical universalism, creates the foundation for the division of labor and cooperation across nations. Universalism is inherently collectivist, and fails to comport with praxeology:
The philosophy of universalism has from time immemorial blocked access to a satisfactory grasp of praxeological problems, and contemporary universalists are utterly incapable of finding an approach to them. Universalism, collectivism, and conceptual realism see only wholes and universals. They speculate about mankind, nations, states, classes, about virtue and vice, right and wrong, about entire classes of wants and of commodities.
Who decides what is universal, in a world of individual human action? Which state, or which god, is the final arbiter?
The essential problem of all varieties of universalistic, collectivistic, and holistic social philosophy is: By what mark do I recognize the true law, the authentic apostle of God’s word, and the legitimate authority. For many claim that Providence has sent them, and each of these prophets preaches another gospel. For the faithful believer there cannot be any doubt; he is fully confident that he has espoused the only true doctrine. But it is precisely the firmness of such beliefs that renders the antagonisms irreconcilable.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Ah yes, but Mises was a utilitarian democrat. Didn’t Rothbard come along and make the normative case for laissez-faire statelessness, but also for the universal application of the nonaggression principle and everything that flows from it? Certainly we can agree that the corollaries of self-ownership, including just ownership of property, apply to all humans. But an awful lot of people, perhaps the majority of people on earth, would not accept our conception of property and self—even if we could properly explain it to each and every soul.
This is a subject where Dr. Walter Block, for example, would strenuously disagree and chasten me. And we would love to have Rothbard’s thoughts on the current situation. But would he object to ten thousand Lichtensteins replacing the EU? Would he accept New York and California imposing authoritarian regimes in exchange for Florida and Alabama becoming largely unyoked from Washington, DC? I think he would.
I’ll close with this: the pushback we are witnessing in America and across the West is directly proportional to the speed and ferocity with which progressives have advanced their agenda in the past five years. Reactionaries are reacting to something. It’s not just in their heads.
Trump had to happen; Brexit had to happen. It was never about Trump’s politics or policies or personnel; it was about 70 million Americans willing to go off script and vote against Hillary Clinton, the embodiment of the deterministic progressive arc notion of history. Both Trump and Brexit were protosecessionist events. American progressives essentially have been in a state of psychological coping and vengeance ever since.
Left progressives oppose the decentralization of political power for a very simple reason: they firmly believe they are winning. So why would they let anyone walk away? They will always portray breakaway movements as nativist or racist or nationalistic. They can’t help themselves. This is the white savior complex of today’s progressive West.
Thus the way forward is to demonstrate enough resistance—hard, soft, and in sufficient numbers—to make them question their own doctrine of inevitability.
Even soft secession offers the Left an opportunity to have far more of what they want, the whole panoply of progressive policies, right here and right now. But not everywhere. It’s an offer they should take. And a bargain compared to real violence or civil war. Some people on the left in the US are starting to get it.
We don’t vote our way out of this. We attempt to separate, to unyoke ourselves politically. Our old polarities of individual versus state and public versus private no longer provide satisfying answers to the questions of our day.
And like it or not, this will almost certainly require some kind of organic nationhood, and probably some amount of geographic concentration, to accomplish. Soft secession is how we begin. But the price to be paid by people of all ideological stripes is abandoning the naïve dream of universalism. After all, what are covenant communities if not an idealized conception of diversified private law producing less conflict and more cooperation?
This article is excerpted from a talk given recently at the Property and Freedom Society conference in Bodrum, Turkey.