Paul Starobin, the author of an informative primer on foreign policy realism, had an interesting piece in the weekend’s Wall Street Journal on the topic of breaking up the United States.
Devolved America is a vision faithful both to certain postindustrial realities as well as to the pluralistic heart of the American political tradition—a tradition that has been betrayed by the creeping centralization of power in Washington over the decades but may yet reassert itself as an animating spirit for the future. Consider this proposition: America of the 21st century, propelled by currents of modernity that tend to favor the little over the big, may trace a long circle back to the original small-government ideas of the American experiment. The present-day American Goliath may turn out to be a freak of a waning age of politics and economics as conducted on a super-sized scale—too large to make any rational sense in an emerging age of personal empowerment that harks back to the era of the yeoman farmer of America’s early days. The society may find blessed new life, as paradoxical as this may sound, in a return to a smaller form.
Today’s devolutionists, of all stripes, can trace their pedigree to the “anti-federalists” who opposed the compact that came out of Philadelphia as a bad bargain that gave too much power to the center at the expense of the limbs. Some of America’s most vigorous and learned minds were in the anti-federalist camp; their ranks included Virginia’s Patrick Henry, of “give me liberty or give me death” renown. The sainted Jefferson, who was serving as a diplomat in Paris during the convention, is these days claimed by secessionists as a kindred anti-federal spirit, even if he did go on to serve two terms as president.
The anti-federalists lost their battle, but history, in certain respects, has redeemed their vision, for they anticipated how many Americans have come to feel about their nation’s seat of federal power. “This city, and the government of it, must indubitably take their tone from the character of the men, who from the nature of its situation and institution, must collect there,” the anti-federalist pamphleteer known only as the Federal Farmer wrote. “If we expect it will have any sincere attachments to simple and frugal republicanism, to that liberty and mild government, which is dear to the laborious part of a free people, we most assuredly deceive ourselves.”
Bonus points to Starobin for pointing to the same passage from George Kennan that I’ve taken to quoting. Kennan worried whether “ ‘bigness’ in a body politic is not an evil in itself.” As a result, he wondered “how it would be if our country, while retaining certain of the rudiments of a federal government, were to be decentralized into something like a dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment.”
The most obvious objection with which Starobin doesn’t deal is that you’d have a hell of a time selling this scheme on Washington, which happens to have–how to put this politely?–the means to ensure it gets what it wants.
A related objection would be the eternal political question “who gets the guns?” What sort of armed forces would a decentralized United States possess? Under whose control would they be? Would we distribute nuclear weapons to each of the States in order to ensure none of them would get too skittish?
People smarter than me have argued that size isn’t an obstacle to republican government in the case of the United States. Note, though, the first of the four premises on which the pro-size argument rests:
In the first place it is to be remembered that the general government is not to be charged with the whole power of making and administering laws. Its jurisdiction is limited to certain enumerated objects, which concern all the members of the republic, but which are not to be attained by the separate provisions of any…
If the case for centralism rests on premises like these that are artifacts of a long-since-squandered legacy, we probably ought to reconsider the arguments against centralism. At the very least, those of us who want a very small government ought to think hard about the viability of a situation in which a small, weak federal government administers a giant, powerful nation.