The Corner

California Needs Federalism, Not Secession

Some Californians want to secede:

A fringe political group in California wants to opt out of a Donald Trump presidency by leaving the union.

The Yes California Independence Campaign aims to hold a referendum in 2019 that, if passed, would make California an independent country.

Far-fetched as it may sound, the plan started gathering steam after Tuesday night’s surprising presidential vote. The movement has an impressive backer in Shervin Pishevar, a well-known angel investor who offered to bankroll a campaign to secede.

Secession is one option, I suppose. Another is “federalism,” and, unlike secession, it has the distinct advantage of being how the country was supposed to work in the first place.

Because they understood how intellectually, politically, and economically diverse the colonies were, the founders invested relatively little power in the federal government. Indeed, they ensured by law that it could only do a few enumerated things, and they left the rest to the states. Mostly, this was a good idea then, and it is a good idea now, especially given how divided the country is. (The glaring exception, of course, is Civil Rights, which must, must, must be a federal concern.) If Californians so wished, they could use their influence in Congress and elsewhere to limit the reach of Washington D.C., and thus of the world’s Donald Trumps. Why don’t they?

The answer, I think, is that the temptation to control is stronger than the fear of losing concentrated power. It is amazing to me how much overlap there is between those who talk of secession whenever they don’t get their way and those who want to nationalize every political question. How is it, I have wondered aloud for years, that the champions of a big, centralized government cannot see how easily their creation could back to bite them? Did the kids of the Obama era they really believe they were going to win forever? Do they honestly think that History takes sides?

The great thing about a robust federal system is that it allows people who have different conceptions of the Good Life to live out their lives without ruining everybody else’s day. A smaller federal government doesn’t stop Californians from doing whatever they want in their state; it merely stops them from imposing their will on Florida or Maine or Idaho. And, in turn, it stops the people of Florida or Maine or Idaho from imposing their will on California in such cases as they obtain the upper hand. Or, put another way, federalism permits Californians to live as they see fit and it limits their exposure to those they dislike. Given how different people are in Brooklyn and Mississippi, I’d expect to see more interest in this arrangement than I do.

Certainly, there are some downsides to a reduction in federal power. If you are worried about climate change, for example, you presumably believe that the U.S. needs a national policy; pollution, after all, does not respect state borders. But, while this is a fair objection in a vacuum, I struggle to see how Californians would improve their lot in this realm by turning their state into a separate country and removing 55 electoral college votes from the people they like in D.C. If Shervin Pishevar is serious about bankrolling change, perhaps he could start by distributing copies of the Federalist Papers to those who are disposed to follow him.

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