Why All the Outrage Over Ron Paul's Secession Musings?


Ron Paul

Ron Paul stirred the pot with comments addressing the post-election secession sideshow, and he's brought the usual suspects out of the woodwork to gasp with outrage that he's not also gasping with outrage because a few (hundred-thousand) petitioners are venting on a White House Website. To his credit, Paul didn't endorse the sour-grapes secession petitions, but confined himself to philosophically defending the idea of breaking-up a political union as an ultimate right and a check on government power. That's enough, though, to draw charges that he's entertaining "treasonous" talk on a "settled" question.

Wrote Paul:

In a free country, governments derive their power from the consent of the governed. When the people have very clearly withdrawn their consent for a law, the discussion should be over.  If the Feds refuse to accept that and continue to run roughshod over the people, at what point do we acknowledge that that is not freedom anymore?  At what point should the people dissolve the political bands which have connected them with an increasingly tyrannical and oppressive federal government?  And if people or states are not free to leave the United States as a last resort, can they really think of themselves as free? 

If a people cannot secede from an oppressive government, they cannot truly be considered free.

His critics acknowledge that Paul isn't endorsing the current round of secessionism fueled by post-electoral disappointment, but that's not enough to buy the good doctor a pass for even treating seriously the idea that the United States of America isn't forever and ever and ever.

Writing at the Christian Science Monitor, Washington Editor, Peter Grier, objects, "[F]or all practical purposes the Civil War did settle this question."

At U.S. News & World Report, Managing Editor for Opinion, Robert Schlesinger, fulminates:

Secession is a deeply un-American principle. It is a principle that posed the greatest existential threat to the United States of America and was vanquished by our greatest president. … The bloodiest war in the nation's history was fought over the question of secession and the side which tried to destroy the United States lost. That settles it.

At Esquire, Charles P. Pierce is so offended that he feels moved to re-define the word "secession" to put Paul as far off the reservation as possible.

The country was not born through "secession" as anyone understands the word. The determination of the American colonies to leave the British Empire was not "secession." Secession implies that both sides entered into an voluntary arrangement that one side now chooses to leave.

For the record Merriam-Webster defines secession as "withdrawal into privacy or solitude : retirement" and "formal withdrawal from an organization." I don't know where in hell Pierce gets his definitions, but I doubt he does, either.

Look … All nations are human creations subject to change and eventual demise. Ask the Assyrians, Romans and Ottomans how eternal their countries were. Ask the Austro-Hungarians or the Yugoslavs about the unassailability of their borders. Anybody betting on the United States of America to exist in unaltered form over the centuries to come better be putting down Confederate dollars.

This doesn't mean every eruption of secessionist sentiment is justifiable, or a good idea. It may even be a really stupid idea, especially if better alternatives (like just taking federalism seriously) present themselves. But the transformation of borders and the nations within them is inevitable.

As for secession being a "settled" issue … The Civil War definitely settled the issue of who, between the Union or the Confederacy, could more effectively make its will stick on the battlefield in the 1860s. Hands down, after four years of bloody war, the Union settled that question. But questions that are "settled" by overwhelming force can be unsettled the same way. If those Texas secessionists had a couple of H bombs to add to their petition, this would be a very different conversation.

And you don't need H bombs. You just need the means to make your argument stick, and a lack of the same on the other side. Spain's constitution apparently does not allow for secession, but Catalonia, for better or worse, appears in spitting distance of making it happen.

Yes, the current flurry of secesssion petitions are a little over-the-top, though I think keeping your partners on notice in any relationship that your continued participation is conditional has a certain value. I'm not sure I'd be happier under a separatist Team Red regime than under victorious Team Blue, anyway. But there's nothing wrong with seriously discussing ideas like secession, or with revisiting, from time to time, the pros and cons of any political arrangement.