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A Small Revolution

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12/12/2017

Dr. Robert Murphy and I enjoyed a robust discussion of the current political landscape this past weekend at the University of Central Florida. A significant percentage of attendees, maybe half, agreed with the proposition that the US is past the point of political solutions. Everyone agreed, regardless of their age and background, that the possibility of America breaking — violently or voluntarily — is very real.

My talk focused on the value of smaller polities. Given the stubborn tendency for governments to emerge and endure in human societies, we should focus our efforts on creating smaller political units that more closely allow for a Misesian vision of democratic self-determination. This may not satisfy libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, but neither will trying to persuade a winning electorate of 70 million Americans to vote for even a reasonably liberty-minded presidential candidate.

Mass democracy, in a decidedly diverse nation of 320 million people, is a recipe for disaster. And we’re seeing that disaster unfold in the cold civil war known as the Trump era. Increasingly federalized state power, combined with our winner-takes-all, top-down rule by DC, creates terrible zero-sum outcomes for millions. Five people on the Supreme Court wield an extra-constitutional power that creates deep and lasting cultural divides. 535 members of Congress have the ability to spend, tax, regulate, inflate, and war us into oblivion.

A few salient points from my presentation:

  • US politics now takes place in an era of assumed bad faith, what Tom Wolfe’s character Wismer Stroock in A Man in Full called “post-goodwill.” Both sides, to the extent left and right have meaning, believe the other actively seeks to harm them and make them worse off (this may be nothing new in American history, but social media intensifies it and reinforces our preconceived perspectives). The 2020 presidential election, therefore, will create an atmosphere of antipathy, division, and vengefulness not seen in our lifetimes.
  • Trump’s election produced two salutary developments. First, millions of American progressives suddenly recognized what libertarians have argued for decades: democratic elections, even when fairly held, do not confer legitimacy on victorious political candidates or the governments they subsequently control. Second, millions of Americans on all political sides now fully recognize that democracy does not create a compromise between two sides, both getting some but not all of their preferred goals.
  • A large degree of de facto secession among US states can be achieved without addressing thorny questions about federal land, military protection and bases, entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, or realigning physical borders.
  • Simply allowing real federalism, and following the Swiss system of pushing all government decisions down to the smallest possible political subdivision, would greatly reduce culture wars. The Swiss federal website explicitly states that federalism is designed to improve social cohesion in their multilingual society.
  • The 11 counties and 8 million people of the San Francisco Bay area, for example, could enact the whole panoply of progressive legislative goals here and now — for example, single-payer health care. Yes, some liberty-minded people in the area would be worse off politically (and otherwise, as progressive programs inevitably failed). But it is easier to leave northern California than to leave the US.
  • Polls showing significant support for third parties are overstated. Americans had the opportunity to vote outside the box, e.g., for Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Jill Stein, and Gary Johnson in the last two presidential elections — but largely chose not to. And we forget that John Anderson received 6 million votes in 1980, or 6.6% of the electorate, and Ross Perot received an astonishing 19 million votes in 1992, about 20% of all votes. If anything, third party momentum has diminished since then. So while Americans complain endlessly about Republicans and Democrats, and tell pollsters they want a viable third party, their actions say otherwise.
  • The 2020 election will be an all-out offensive by progressives to oust Trump. Female candidates will dominate both the narrative and the candidate slates across local, state, and national contests. To the extent any third party presidential candidate is seen to “take” votes from Trump, progressives will vigorously support him/her. But if they appear to split votes away from the Democratic nominee — a charge leveled at both Jill Stein and Gary Johnson in 2016 — expect savage attacks and attempts to rig debate qualifications.
  • Virtually every aspect of human life — from business organizations to trade to food to communications to travel to shopping to money to education — becomes more and more decentralized every day. Hub and spoke networks are dying; replaced by nimbler webs and networks. Only government, in its hubris, bucks this dominant trend of the digital age. Somehow governance continues to go in the wrong direction: from local to regional, from regional to national, from national to supra-national, and from supra-national to global. And it’s not just DC: bodies like the UN, EU, and IMF work every day to centralize the management of human affairs. Why do we put up with this, even as we demand decentralized efficiency in everything else?

Decentralization of political power, subsidiarity, and “Irish Democracy” are all pragmatic and peaceful responses to our current hellscape of identity politics and ill will. But it will take more people who reject the notion that all Americans, much less the world, must live under one universal political arrangement. It will take people who are not “post-goodwill.”

If we hope to avoid what both conservatives and progressives see as a looming potential for a nasty breakup of America, we would do well to apply a serious dose of Swiss-style federalism to the fraying body politic. At this point a move toward political subsidiarity and outright secession seems the most fruitful, realistic, and humane approach for libertarians. Diversity, the real kind, requires us to understand that millions of Americans don’t view the state as we do.

Jeff Deist is president of the Mises Institute. He previously worked as chief of staff to Congressman Ron Paul, and as an attorney for private equity clients. Contact: email; twitter.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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