“To the Size of States There Is a Limit” by Kirkpatrick Sale

Yes, Aristotle declared there to be a limit to the size of states: “a limit, as there is to other things, plants, animals, implements; for none of these retain their natural power when they are too large…, but they either wholly lose their nature, or are spoiled,” so he said. But, really, what the hell did he know?  He lived at a time when the entire population of the world was somewhere around 50 million people—about the size of England today—the population of the Greek-speaking city-states, which were not united in a nation, in all may have been 8 million, and Athens, where he lived, considered a large city, would have been under 100,000 people.  Limits?  He couldn’t even imagine a world (ours) of 6.8 billion, a nation (China) of 1.3 billion, or a city (Tokyo) of 36 million.  How is he going to help us?

It is because, firstly,  he did know that there are limits: “Experience shows that a very populous city can rarely, if ever, be well governed; since all cities which have a reputation for good government have a limit of population.  We may argue on grounds of reason, and the same result will follow: for law is order, and good law is good order; but a very great multitude cannot be orderly.” And it doesn’t matter if that city is 1 million or 36 million–political entities at such sizes could certainly not be democratic in any sense, could not possibly function with anything approaching efficiency, and could exist only with great inequities of wealth and material comfort.

And because, secondly,  he did know that  human beings are of a certain limited size of brain and comprehension, and that putting them in the aggregate does not make them any smarter—or as another philosopher, Lemuel Gulliver, once said, “Reason does not extend itself with the bulk of the body.”  There is a human scale to human politics, defined by human nature, that functions well only in such aggregations as do not overstress and overburden the… quite capable and ingenious but limited human brain and human capacity.

So political units, Aristotle said—he thought mostly in terms of cities,  not knowing nations—but even if we may extend those units with the experience of 2000 more years to larger units such as nations, they have to be limited: limited by human nature and human experience. And  it is with that maxim of Aristotle’s that we now may start contemplating what in today’s world would constitute the ideal, or let us say the optimum, size of a state, with these two overriding criteria: “sufficient,” in Aristotle’s words, “ for a good life in the political community”—that would be some form of democracy—and “the largest number which suffices for the purposes of  a good life”—that would be efficiency. Democracy and efficiency.

And hark– this is not some sort of idle philosopher’s quest. It is, or could be, the foundation of a serious reordering of our political world, and a reordering such as the process of secession—indeed, only the process of secession, as I see it—could provide.  We have abundant evidence that a state as large as 305 million people is ungovernable—some scholar said in the paper just this past Sunday that we are in the fourth decade of the inability of Congress to pass a single measure of social consequence.  Bloated and corrupted beyond its ability to address, much less solve, any of the problems as an empire it has created, it is a blatant failure.  So let us be bold to ask, what could replace it, and at what size?  The answer, as will appear, is the independent states, that is to say nations, of America.

Let us start by looking  first at real-world figures of modern-day nations to give us some clue as to population sizes that actually work.

Of all the world’s political entities—there are 223 of them, counting the smallest independent islands—45 are below 250,000 people, 67 below 1 million, 108 below 5 million; in fact 50 per cent of nations are below 5.5 million,  and a full 58 per cent are smaller than Switzerland’s population of 7.7 million (Wikipedia: World populations by rank). That says right there that it is obvious that most countries in the world function with quite relatively small populations.  And looking at the nations that are recognized models of statecraft, there are eight of them even below 500,000—Luxemburg, Malta, Iceland, Barbados, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino—and the example of Iceland, with the world’s oldest parliament and an unquestioned beacon of democracy (troubles of its banking aside), suggests that 319,000 people is all you would need. Going up a bit in size, there are another nine models of good governance below 5 million, including Singapore, Norway, Costa Rico, Ireland, New Zealand, Estonia, Luxembourg, and Malta.

Next, let’s look at the size of the most prosperous nations ranked by per capita Gross Domestic Product (Wikipedia: List of countries by GDP, CIA Factbook). (Parenthetically let me say that I realize GDP is a crude and entirely uncritical measure of economic worth, and reflects all kinds of growth, much undesirable, but until we have nations devoted to steady-state economies instead this is the best way to gauge economic performance.)  Eighteen of the top 20 by GDP rank (a total of 27 countries because of ties) are small, under 5 million, and all but one of the top ten are under 5 million (that’s the U.S., at ten, the others being Liechtenstein, Qatar, Luxembourg, Bermuda, Norway, Kuwait, Jersey, Singapore, and Brunei in order); the average size of those nine is 1.9 million. The average size of all 27 of the top economic nations, excluding the U.S., is 5.1 million.

You are beginning to get the picture.

Let’s take another measure—freedom, as reckoned by three different rating sites, Freedom House, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist, using measures of civil liberties, open elections, free media, and the like.  Of the 14 states reckoned freest in the world, nine of them (64 per cent) have populations below Switzerland at  7.7 million, 11 below Sweden at 9.3 million, and the only sizeable states are Canada, United Kingdom, and Germany, the largest, at 81 million.

There’s one other measure of freedom that is put out by Freedom House, ranking all the nations of the world according to political rights and civil liberties, and there are only 46 nations with perfect scores.  Of those 46, the majority of them are under 5 million in population, and indeed 17 of them are even under l million.  That’s rather astonishing in itself.  And only 14 of the 46 free nations are over 7.5 million.Excluding the United States, whose reputation for freedom is fully belied by its  incarceration of 2.3 million people, 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners, and excluding the United Kingdom, Spain, and Poland, the average population of the free states of the world is approximately 5 million.

Let me finally take several other national rankings.  Literacy: of the 44 countries that claim a literacy rate of 99 or better (I say claim, since it is hard to verify), only 15 are large, 29 (66 per cent) of the 44 below 7.5 million. Health: measured by the World Health Organization, 12 of the top 20 are under 7 million, none over 65 million. In a ranking of happiness and standard of living last year by  sociologist Steven Hales, the top nations are Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Austria, and Finland, all but Canada and Australia small.  And a “sustainable society index” created by two scholars earlier last year, adding in environmental and ecological factors, ranks only smaller countries in the top 10—in order, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Austria, Iceland, Vietnam, Georgia, New Zealand, and Latvia.

Enough of that—the point I trust is well and simply made.  A nation can be not only viable and sustainable at quite small population sizes, a model of more-or-less democratic and efficient government, but in fact can provide all the necessary qualities for superior living.  Indeed, the figures seem to suggest that, though it is certainly possible to thrive at sizes under a million people, there is a more-or-less optimum size for a successful state, somewhere in the range of 3 to 5 million people.

Next, let us take a quick look at geographic sizes of successful nations. A great many nations are surprisingly small—underlining the point, often missed by critics of secession, that a nation does not have to be self-sufficient to operate well in the modern world. In fact there are 85 political entities out of the 223 counted by the U.N. that are under 10,000 square miles—that is to say, the size of Vermont or smaller—and they include Israel, El Salvador, Bahamas, Qatar, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Singapore, and Andorra.

And if we go back to that measure of economic strength, the Gross Domestic Product per capita, small nations prove to be decidedly advantageous: of the top 20 ranked nations (27 in all including ties), all but eight are small in area, under 35,000 square miles, the global median (the size of South Carolina), and two of those eight include Norway and Sweden, technically large but excluding their empty northern areas effectively small; in other words 77 per cent of the prosperous nations are small.  And most of them are quite small indeed, under 10,000 square miles (Liechtenstein, Qatar, Luxembourg, Bermuda, Kuwait, Jersey, Singapore, Brunei, Guernsey, Cayman Islands, Hong Kong, Andorra, San Marino, British Virgin Islands, and Gibraltar).

All this is proof positive that economically successful nations needn’t be large in geographic size, and to the contrary, this is the important point: it is strongly suggestive that large size may in fact be a hindrance. The reason for this is that administrative, distribution, transportation, and similar transaction costs obviously have to rise, perhaps exponentially, as geographic size increases.  Control and communication also become more difficult to manage over long distances, often to the point where central authority and governance become nearly impossible, and as all the lines and signals become more complex the ability to manage efficiently is severely diminished.

Small, let’s face it, is not only beautiful but bountiful.

{Once that important idea is understood, a further logical argument can be derived from it: that in many cases a smallish nation might find it desirable to divide up even farther so as to take advantage of smaller areas for more efficient economic functions.  This might be outright secession in some places, where it would simply be good economic sense—and more,  places where it would make political and cultural good sense as well. But it might also take the form of economic and political devolution, giving smaller areas autonomy and power without outright secession, much as Switzerland is the model of.}

In fact, I wish to propose to you, out of these figures and even moreso out of the history of the world, that there is a Law of Government Size, and it goes like this: Economic and social misery increasers in direct proportion to the size and power of the central government of a nation.

In testing this law in history—Sale’s Law, as I like to think of it—let  let me begin with Arnold Toynbee’s great and justifiably classic study of human civilization, whose primary conclusion is that the next-to-last stage of any society, leading directly to its final stage of collapse, is “its forcible political unification in a centralized state,” and he gives as evidence the Roman Empire, and the Ottoman, Benghal,  and Mongol empires, and the Tokugawa Shogunate, and ultimately the Spanish, British, French, and Portuguese empires.  The consolidation of nations into powerful empires leads not to shining periods of peace and prosperity and the advance of human betterment, but to increasing restriction, warfare, autocracy, crowding, immiseration, inequality, poverty, and starvation.

The reason for all this is not mysterious.  As a government grows, it expands both its bureaucratic might over domestic affairs and its military might over external ones.  Money must be found for this expansion, and it comes either from taxation, which leads to higher prices and ultimately inflation—result, as Mr. Micawber might say, social misery—or from printing new money, which also leads to higher prices and inflation—result, again, social misery.  Wealth is also thought to come from conquest and colonization, enlarging spoils through warfare, but it comes at the price of imposing increased government control and military conscription at home (“War is the health of states,” as Randolph Bourne put it) and increased violence, bloodshed, and misery for one’s own army and civilians and opposing forces abroad.  Result, economic and social misery.

I have detailed much of this in my book Human Scale (available on request from New Catalyst Books),  but let me just give a capsulated version here, concentrating on Europe.  There have been four major periods of great state consolidation and enlargement in the last thousand years:

1.From 1150 to 1300 AD, with the establishment of royal dynasties replacing medieval baronies and city states in England, Aquitaine, Sicily, Aragon, and Castile, resulting in rampant inflation of nearly 400 percent and almost incessant wars, with increasing battle casualties from a few hundred to more than 1 million.

2. From 1525 to 1650, with the consolidation of national power through standing armies, royal taxation, central banks, civilian bureaucracies, and state religions, saw an inflation rate of more than 700 per cent in just 125 years and an unprecedented expansion of wars, a war intensity seven times greater than Europe had seen before, warfare casualties increasing to maybe 8 million, maybe 5 million in the Thirty Years War alone.

3. From 1775 to 1815, the period of modern state government over most of Europe, including national police forces, conscripted armies, centralized state power a la the Code Napoleon, there was an inflation rate of more than 250 per cent in just 40 years, in 1815 the highest at any time until 1920s, and war casualties up to 15 million (maybe 5 million in the Napoleonic Wars) in that short period.

Finally, in period 4, from 1910 to 1970, familiar to us, all European nations consolidated and expanded power, known in many places as totalitarianism (though known in the U.S., though we had all the components of totalitarianism–consolidated central power, national bank, income tax, national police, conscription, imperial presidency– known as freedom and democracy), resulting in the worst depression in history and inflation of 1400 per cent, and of course the two most ruinous wars in all human history contributing to casualties, mostly deaths, of 100 million or more.

Conclusion inevitable: the larger the state, the more economic disaster and military casualties.  The Law of Government Size.

Now that we have established the virtue of smallness worldwide, let’s apply these figures to the United States and see what it tells us.

Of the 50 states, just over half (29) are below  5 million people.  Half the population lives in 40 states that average out to 3.7 million people; the other half is in the 10 largest states.  There are 10 states and one colony in the 3-to-5 million population class that I’m suggesting would be ideal secession candidates—Iowa, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, Colorado, and Mississippi—another 13 between 1 to 3 million—Montana, Rhode Island, Hawai’i, New Hampshire, Maine, Idaho, Nebraska, West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Kansas, and Arkansas—and another eight below a million but larger than Iceland, and that includes beloved Vermont.In other words,  30 of the states (plus Puerto Rico) fall in a range where similar sizes in the rest of the world have produced successful independent nations.  Those are the candidates for successful secession.

Add to that the lessons from geographic size.  We’ve already seen that 84 political areas in the world are smaller than Vermont, the second smallest U.S. state.  Now let’s see how the states measure up to the world figures.  The median size of U.S. state area is roughly 58,000 square miles—25 states are smaller than that, 25 bigger.  If all of those under 58,000 were independent, they would match 79 other nations in the world, among them Greece, Nicaragua, Iceland, Hungary, Portugal, Austria, Czech Republic, Ireland, Sri Lanka, Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Taiwan.  In other words, size is no hindrance whatsoever to successfully operating as a nation in the world—and, as I’ve suggested,  small size seems indeed to be a virtue.

It needn’t be all about population or geographic sizes–one might factor in cultural cohesion, developed infrastructure, historical identity, and suchlike– but that certainly seems to me to be the sensible place to start when considering viable states.  And since the experience of the world has shown—indeed, over and over again in the formation of nations since the 19th century—that entities in the 3 to 5 million range may be optimum for governance and efficiency, and some within a 1-to-7 million range,  that is how to begin assessing bodies for their secessionist potential and their chances of national success.

I hope all this is Aristotelian examination is not regarded as a mere academic exercise, though a great deal of exercise, I assure you, has gone into it.  I believe that it establishes something in the way of propellant impetus for Americans who understand that their national government (no oxymoron intended) is broke and can’t be fixed (there were 70 per cent of them in a national poll not long ago), and who realize that the only hope to re-energize American politics and recreate the vibrant collection of democracies that the founding generation of the 18th century envisioned, is to create truly sovereign states through peaceful, popular, powerful secession.

Let me underscore that conclusion: the only hope is secession.


“The Secession Solution” by Kirkpatrick Sale

Aristotle declared that there should be a limit to the size of states. But really, what did he know? He lived at a time when the entire population of the world was somewhere around 50 million—about the size of England today. Athens, where he lived, would have been under 100,000 people. He couldn’t even imagine a world (ours) of 6.8 billion, or a city (Tokyo) of 36 mil­­lion. How is he going to help us?

He, at least, knew this much:

“Experience shows that a very populous city can rarely, if ever, be well governed; since all cities which have a reputation for good government have a limit of population. We may argue on grounds of reason, and the same result will follow: for law is order, and good law is good order; but a very great multitude cannot be orderly.”

So political units, Aristotle said, have to be limited. And it is with that understanding that we now may start contemplating what in today’s world would constitute the ideal, or optimum, size of a political state.

This is not some sort of idle philosopher’s quest but the foundation of a serious reordering of our political landscape, and a reordering such as the process of secession—indeed, only the process of secession—could provide. The U.S. provides abundant evidence that a state as large as 310 million people is ungovernable. One scholar recently said that we are in the fourth decade of the U.S. Congress’ inability to pass a single measure of social consequence. Bloated and corrupted beyond its ability to address any of the problems it has created as an empire, it is a blatant failure. So what could replace it, and at what size? The answer is the independent states of America.

Let us start by looking at modern nations to give us some clue as to population sizes that actually work.

Among the nations that are recognized models of statecraft, eight are below 500,000—Luxembourg, Malta, Iceland, Barbados, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino.

Of the 14 states generally reckoned freest in the world, 9 have populations below Switzerland’s, at 7.7 million, and 11 below Sweden’s, at 9.3 million; the only sizable states are Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany (the largest, at 81 mil­­lion).There are other national rankings. Literacy: Of the 46 countries that claim a literacy rate of 99 or better, 25 are below 7.5 million. Health: Measured by the World Health Organization, 9 of the top 20 are under 7 million. In 2009 rankings of happiness and standard of living, the top countries were Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Austria, and Finland; all but Canada and Australia have small populations.

Enough of that. The point, I trust, is well and simply made. The figures seem to suggest that there is an optimum size of a successful state, somewhere in the range of 3 million to 5 million people.

Surprisingly, a great many countries are also modest in geographic terms—underlining the point, often missed by critics of secession, that a nation does not have to be self-sufficient to operate well in the modern world. In fact, there are 85 countries out of the 195 counted by the United Nations that are under 10,000 square miles—that is to say, the size of Vermont or smaller.

And if we measure economic strength by per capita GDP, small countries prove to be decidedly advantageous. Seventy-seven percent of the most prosperous countries are small. And most of them are quite small indeed: under 10,000 square miles.

Administrative, distribution, transportation, and similar transaction costs obviously rise, perhaps exponentially, as geographic size increases. Control and communication also become more difficult to manage over long distances, often to the point where central authority and governance become nearly impossible.


I propose that, out of these figures and even more so out of the history of the world, results a Law of Government Size, and it goes like this: Economic and social misery increase in direct proportion to the size and power of the central government of a nation.

The consolidation of nations into power­ful empires leads not to shining periods of peace and prosperity and the advance of human betterment, but to increasing restriction, warfare, autocracy, crowding, immiseration, inequality, poverty, and starvation.

Small, then, is not only beautiful but also bountiful.

How does all of this apply to the United States today?

Of the 50 states, 29 have populations below 5 million people. Eight states and a colony in the 3 million to 5 million population class would be ideal secession candidates: Iowa, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Alabama. Twelve—Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Idaho, Nebraska, West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Kansas, and Arkansas—have between 1 million and 3 million people, and seven, including Vermont, have fewer than 1 million people but more than Iceland.

The argument for secession need not focus exclusively on population or geographic size—one might factor in cultural cohesion, developed infrastructure, historical identity—but that seems to be the sensible place to start in considering viable states. And since the experience of the world has shown that populations ranging from 3 mil­lion to 5 million are optimal for governance and efficiency, that is as good a measure as any to use to begin assessing secessionist potential and chances of success as independent states.

The only hope for reenergizing American politics is to create truly sovereign states through peaceful, popular, powerful secession.

Originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Chronicles magazine.

“The Case for American Secession: Still a Good Idea” by Kirkpatrick Sale

There has always been talk about secession in this country by those variously disgruntled on both the right and left, but, since the last presidential election, which revealed deep-seated divisions in American society over a variety of fundamental issues, that talk has grown exponentially. Such talk is not likely to lead to a dissolution of this country into separate states or regions, but that is by no means inconceivable. The issue should be taken seriously and examined carefully.

The first question is whether secession is legal—whether the Constitution can be read, and history cited, as permitting (or at least not forbidding) a state to declare its independence from the Union. Scholars have come down on both sides of this issue, but that fact alone suggests that there is a legitimate argument to be made. To put it simply: The Tenth Amendment reserves powers not delegated to the United States to the states or the people, so states may act unless specifically prohibited. The Constitution in fact says nothing about secession, and, as Southern states were seceding, Congress considered an amendment forbidding secession—a strong indication that secession is permissible. Three of the original thirteen states (Rhode Island, New York, and Virginia) kept an explicit right to secede when they joined the Union, and, since that was never challenged or questioned, it must be a right that all states enjoy. In the 19th century, before South Carolina began the bandwagon of secession in 1860, seven states (Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, and Vermont) enacted acts of nullification—refusing to recognize some or all of the powers of the federal government—without any retaliation by Washington.

Of course, Lincoln’s government acted as if secession were illegal and unconstitutional, and its victory established the practical case that states will be punished if they try to secede, and the Constitution is irrelevant. It did not establish a legal case, however, and the legal (not to mention moral) argument for the right to secede remains strong—so strong that, even if it were denied in the U.S. courts, it would likely be defended in the court of international opinion by many of the world’s nations, including those in the European Union and those that have recently exercised that right (in the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia, for example). And that might make it difficult for the federal government to act against a state that has voted for secession, particularly if there were no overriding moral issues (e.g., slavery) and the state proved agreeable to negotiation over federal property and assets within its boundaries.

A second question arises over whether the U.S. government could allow a state (or a group of states) to secede, if this action threatened its sovereignty and power over the remaining states. The federal government might not want to let California go, for fear that Cascadia (Oregon and Washington) and New England (and who knows how many disgruntled others?) would follow suit. If it still had the military means and the loyalty of the remaining troops, it might be expected to contrive a way (a Gulf of Tonkin or WMD excuse) to justify an invasion.

And yet, it is hard to believe that Washington would actually command its troops to mow down Los Angelenos and San Franciscans the way they do the civilians of Fallujah and Najaf, or withstand the barrage of criticism, domestic and international, if it did. Such an act would more likely propel additional secessions than gain support. It is harder still to think that the troops would actually carry out such an order, killing (ex-)Americans on (ex-)American territory. And if the troops did actually succeed in conquering and occupying an independent state, the population would be virtually uncontrollable: If it is not possible to win the hearts and minds of Vietnamese and Iraqis by invasion, think how much less possible it would be to win over people who had voted for secession with the full knowledge that it might lead to war.

It is not fantastic, then, to imagine that, instead of a futile war, Washington would be willing to negotiate a settlement in the hopes that, by giving concessions on, say, autonomy and self-regulation and by demonstrating the extent of federal dollars lost, it could win a secessionist state back into the Union. In some cases, that might well happen, and, if it failed, it would at least show a government intelligent and confident enough to act as a future ally rather than a marauding warmonger. And as an ally, it might be able to establish diplomatic and trade ties that would allow it to continue using such resources and talents of the new state as it wanted, perhaps even the bases it had previously used—with the additional benefit of no longer having to maintain federal offices, regulators, highways, parks, dams, and such, and even presumably with a negotiated fee in compensation for these lost assets.

There is another strategy that a federal government determined to quash secession might take that involves no troops, no war—nothing but a few phone calls. Washington might put pressure on large chain operations—Wal-Mart, Target, McDonald’s, General Motors, Gannett, etc.—to cease doing business in the secessionist state, lest the feds make things difficult for them in all the others. And, unless the secession is so widespread that more states are out than in (a highly unlikely scenario), the corporations will comply. Would such a threat cut the legs out from under a secessionist state and force it to come crawling back to the Union? I think not, for several reasons.

First, a seceding state would already be working toward self-sufficiency in a great many areas and have developed trading links with other nations for those goods and services it could not provide for locally. Such self-sufficiency would have to be carefully planned for and be seen generally as workable and desirable, but, if the secessionist movement did its homework and selling right, it could make local development out to be a deeply patriotic, and possibly profitable, act. Like Japan historically, and a number of other states more recently, a seceding state would adopt a tactic that Jane Jacobs has called “import replacement”—the building of bicycles at home, recycling the metals and materials from the dumps and by the wayside, instead of buying them from abroad. It would certainly not be able to offer bikes for sale as cheaply as Wal-Mart does, at least at first, but it would put many more people to work per bike and strengthen its economy in ways that would eventually enable its people to buy the more expensive product. Imagine this going on for a host of other goods across the state, replacing those that can be made by intelligent recycling and manufacturing; refitting and reusing others; developing handicrafts as a substitute for machinery to create others; refusing to make those that are pointless, wasteful, environmentally harmful, or costly; and foregoing many that turn out, after a while, to be unnecessary or undesirable. Wal-Mart not only wouldn’t be missed but would, upon reflection, be seen as having been a foolish enterprise that foisted too much needless “stuff,” in too many useless varieties, of too shoddy a manufacture, with too many added-in transportation costs, on a gullible and malleable public. Those citizens who really missed the big chain stores would stoically bear that burden as good and loyal patriots.

A second reason that the economic threat would not have much force is that the new state might well start out with more money in its coffers because it would not have to pay federal income, gasoline, telephone, and other taxes; 17 states (12 of them “blue,” interestingly enough) now pay more to the federal government than they get back in federal benefits. California got back just 78 cents in benefits for every dollar she sent to Washington in 2003 (according to the Tax Foundation) and, as the independent Republic of California, would thereby have an extra 22 cents in her pocket for every dollar. That would have meant, in 2004, that the citizens would have kept $88 million that could have been used for local projects.

Of course, not every state is California, and the attempt at some sort of economic independence would work out differently in different places. If a state could not survive on its own economically, it would be very foolish for its people to launch a secessionist movement. A great many states could be economically viable on their own, however, by establishing trade with outside nations, including the United States and Canada. The necessity of economic survival is a very fertile mother, and, like many small nations, an independent state could find ways of making itself useful in the economic world; indeed, some of the richest nations—Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Cayman Islands, Iceland, Belgium, San Marino, and Singapore—are among the smallest (and that is leaving aside the Persian Gulf oil states).

The last reason for being optimistic about small-state viability and the nullity of the Wal-Mart strategy has to be viewed in the context of the economic future of the United States. I happen to be among the growing band of people who believe that extremely difficult times lie ahead—in the nearer rather than further future—as a combination of crises and calamities pushes us to a completely new kind of society. They include the dwindling of cheap oil supplies (which already seems to have begun) and skyrocketing gasoline prices; the collapse of the value of the dollar from the spiraling trade deficit and national debt; the bursting of the real-estate bubble; the effect of global warming on agriculture and fisheries; the rise of sea levels; the spread of diseases old and new; the increase in severe weather (of which Katrina is a foretaste); the diminution of fresh water; the exhaustion of tropical forests; the erosion of arable soils; the continued pollution of air and water; the depletion of mineral resources; and the whole impact of human activity on the global environment.

As a result of all that—or, indeed, of any of several parts of that—the national economy will have to transform itself. What follows will, in fact, be less a national than a local economy, particularly as gasoline supplies diminish and become prohibitively expensive and the dollar becomes an increasingly irrelevant measure of worth. James Howard Kunstler, whose new book, The Long Emergency, demonstrates the likelihood of just such a future, writes that it will require us to downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do and how we do it, from the kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we grow our food to the way we work and trade the products of our work. . . . Anything organized on the large scale, whether it is government or a corporate business enterprise such as Wal-Mart, will wither as the cheap energy props that support bigness fall away.

And then a small, independent state, which can be more or less buffered from the national emergency and dependent on a relatively self-sufficient economy, makes a lot of sense.

That might be the best argument for secession. If the future is going to be anything like what we alarmists are saying, there would seem to be a need to establish small-scale institutions and enterprises and trading circles as soon as possible, along with revivified community enterprises and cottage craftsmanship, and a statewide level suggests itself as the appropriate scale. And if that can be done in connection with political and cultural independence, such economic independence makes a powerful and attractive package—even, perhaps, a necessary one.

This country simply is not working right—as both the war in Iraq and the bumbling of Katrina (at all levels) make clear—and its corruption and inefficiency are harmful to the bulk of the population. The federal government, aside from being bureaucracy bound and politically hamstrung, is too big and complicated and inherently incompetent, and its attempt to provide for 280 million people and maintain a global empire of 725 military bases has proved to be impossible, placing terrible political and financial burdens on everyone. Secession would allow states to escape this Leviathan, keep their human and financial resources from going down the rathole, avoid association with the failed politics of an ugly empire, and set their own policies (on same-sex “marriage,” abortion, stem-cell research, etc.) without interference from a distant central government increasingly in the hands of corporate interests and neoconservative ideologues. It would allow a blue state a chance to escape from the policies and culture of a red-state government and set its own course. It would, in short, allow people to leave the country they dislike without leaving the homes they cherish. What could make more sense?

Originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of Chronicles magazine.

“Why Neighborhoods Must Secede” by Karl Hess

The Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini warned us not to “imagine that you can free yourselves from unjust social conditions before winning a country of your own. Do not be seduced by the idea of improving your material conditions without first solving the national questions.”

The Irish revolutionary James Connolly translated that into the independence of his people. Lenin, impressed by Connolly, used the idea to do his thing at home rather then globally. Barry Goldwater, when he was was a revolutionary, used to talk about something similar when he spoke of independence and virtual nationhood for states, counties, even cities. Huey Newton talks about it still, seeing the liberation of his oppressed comrades in independent, decolonized communities.

Since all of the others are either retired from revolution or dead, Huey Newton is the most vital. He also may be the most perceptive in seeing where, in this particular nation-state, a great energy for social change is to be found. That energy is in the neighborhoods.

To survive, the people in neighborhoods are going to have to secede.

In every large city the problems of crime, of welfare, of health care, of education, have outpaced every ability of metropolitan planners and bureaucrats. There is no successful big city in this nation. And no amount of enlargement of the bureaucracies and spending in the cities has changed this. The alternative seems, clearly, to be toward decentralization.

Resources? The liberal myth that poor neighborhoods, for instance, receive more from Government than they could afford on their own has been sharply disputed in the first survey of such a neighborhood which does not fall for the standard swindle of giving the poor neighborhood its pro rata share of such unwanted expenditures as the Vietnam war or subsidies to big business and big politicians.

In one of the poorest welfare sections of Washington, D.C., the survey showed that the residents shell out at least $40 million in taxes, licenses, etc., to all levels of government. They get back, in geographically located services and payments, about $30 million, thus losing $10 million to the rich, the powerful, the people who are supposed to be protecting them but who, instead, are simply fleecing them.

Civility? That resource is historically available. Neighborhoods in crisis throw up all manner of self-actuating groups to get jobs done. Some shrink in horror that one such group might be of vigilantes to crack down on street crime. Is the F.B.I. or the downtown police really more trustworthy, more accountable to the people themselves? Both institutions are, in fact, far less accountable than community-controlled police.

As for general governance, to the exact extent it is needed and only to that extent, the neighborhoods are ideally suited for government by assembly, for participatory democracy, for town-meeting government. The role of larger, regional or even continental government in a land of free, fraternal communities would be simply that of coordination or, while national interests persist in the world at large, the role would be one of representing the communities as a Federal emissary or, woefully, as a Federal coordinator of defense forces composed, on the Swiss or Chinese models, of local citizen soldiers based and rooted in the neighborhoods themselves.

Many who oppose decentralization are haunted by a specter of resurgent plantationism in the South. But local power there certainly need not mean Klan power over everyone. Rather, localism could mean a chance for black communities to have the sort of local identity which can defend against depredations by making the black community something more than just a niggertown appended to the white establishment’s turf. The rural patterns of the South are made to order for local power. Decentralization has been thwarted so far by white, rich landowners seeking to maintain their own hold on resources and control over populations.

But it is in the cities that the neighborhoods have been most abused. They have been gobbled up by the urban imperialism of downtown rentiers. They have been insulted as ethnic or racial while the downtown Wasps milked them dry for votes or zoning. And yet they persist–occupied by strange police, harassed by criminals who have more connections downtown than any of the victims, impoverished by absentee landlords and tax collectors, abandoned by megalopolitan hospitals and treated like Skinnerian mice by visiting school teachers.

They need not take it. They do not need it. They should rise. They should secede.

Originally published in The New York Times January 31, 1972