Ron Paul Is Wrong on Secession

by Charles C. W. Cooke

Quelle surprise! Ron Paul has joined in with the secession talk. Yesterday, he wrote on his House website:

Secession is a deeply American principle. This country was born through secession. Some felt it was treasonous to secede from England, but those ‘traitors’ became our country’s greatest patriots.

I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea that secession is a “deeply American principle.” This is a revolutionary nation, after all. But let’s understand that — practically speaking at least — “secession” and “revolution” are now to all intents and purposes the same thing. For better or for worse, that ship has sailed, the Civil War having settled the question of whether or not states can peacefully secede. Any modern attempt at secession by one of the fifty states would likely be treated as an insurrection and put down as such. Sure, the United States was “born through secession,” but this is because the revolution was won, not because the principle was suddenly accepted in international convention in 1776. Likewise, posterity ultimately judges the founding fathers as “patriots” and not as ”traitors” because they succeeded, not because they were right. If they had not, the “traitors” would have become, well, dead traitors – footnotes to a rebellion. And that would have been that. 

But, Paul argues:

If the possibility of secession is completely off the table there is nothing to stop the federal government from continuing to encroach on our liberties and no recourse for those who are sick and tired of it.

Well, of course secession is not “completely off the table.” Whether it is legal or not, it’s never completely off the table. You can no more outlaw revolution than you can outlaw murder. But you can set the rules for what happens if one tries it. Ultimately, the legality of secession — or revolution for that matter — is pretty much an irrelevance. Even if the Founding Fathers were philosophically correct in claiming justification for separation — and they most definitely were – the more important practical question is whether or not the power from which one wishes to secede recognizes your right to do so. If it does, great, put your statue next to Gandhi’s. If it doesn’t, then you’re in trouble. As the 1766 Declaratory Act made very clear, the British government did not consider there to be any such route for American separation. This is par for the course: The British fought back when the 13 colonies sought to establish their independence just as the Union fought back when the Confederacy sought its own separation. Parent powers tend to do that. Unless Ron Paul considers it likely that a state would now be allowed to go without a fight — I do not — all the natural-rights talk in the world will do no good. You also have to win.

Aha!, Paul writes, but “Thomas Jefferson believed secession was proper, albeit as a last resort” — and so should you. Free people, he contends, should have this as an option. Jefferson, he notes, contended that states ”should separate from our companions only when the sole alternatives left, are the dissolution of our Union with them, or submission to a government without limitation of powers.” I don’t disagree with Jefferson, as I outlined here. But I do with Paul’s invocation of this line. Why? Well, Paul apparently considers this to be an argument in his favor; whereas, to my eyes, it is exactly the opposite. Bluntly, those who think that secession is their “sole alternative” in 2012 need to stay away from the metal polish. In both the letter that Paul quotes and in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson makes it abundantly clear that he does not consider there to be an untrammeled right to separation, nor an unalienable right to revolution that can be asserted independently of the caveat that “Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes.” Burke would no doubt agree.

The question, then, must be whether or not we have reached that point of last resort. Clearly, we have not. And although I agree with Ron Paul that the federal government does far too much and unreasonably curtails American liberty, his list of usurpations is frankly risible:

The Feds have been arresting peaceful medical marijuana users and raiding dispensaries that state and local governments have sanctioned. This shouldn’t happen in a free country. 

It remains to be seen what will happen in states that are refusing to comply with the deeply unpopular mandates of Obamacare by not setting up healthcare exchanges.  It appears the Federal government will not respect those decisions either.

These things are indeed bad. And, yes, they shouldn’t happen in a free country. But are they bad enough to justify breaking apart the country? And can one legitimately invoke the “last resort” of secession to remedy problems that, by Paul’s own admission, have not yet been resolved? This is rather to put the cart before the horse, and to invite the frivolous fracturing of the country every time that a vote goes against the interests of any unit smaller than the federal government. That way lies chaos. No, secession is not flatly off the table at all points and for all reasons. Nor, obviously, is revolution. Nobody is required to suffer under tyranny. But unless there is a bloody good reason, they should not even be countenanced. That bloody good reason does not yet exist, and to talk as if it does is hysterical.

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