Debate: It's Time for a National Divorce
Are political breakups really as American as apple pie?
A National Divorce Is an Opportunity for Peaceful Coexistence
Affirmative: Angela McArdle
The largest, most obvious divorce-worthy incidents in this country were the COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccine mandates. Those of us who opposed these measures were dehumanized and effectively shut out of society. The proverbial line was finally drawn in the sand, but setting those grievances aside, we are still too culturally far apart to peacefully coexist. Our country has become an ideological war zone, with battles being fought over Black Lives Matter, abortion, school curriculums, and child gender reassignments. Everything has been politicized, from entertainment to diet to the FBI. While a large group of libertarians refuse to fit perfectly into the left or right paradigm, there are two culturally and politically dominant factions in this country, and they are not living peacefully together.
We are in an abusive relationship. I want a divorce.
Instead of letting one party twist in the wind as their rights are further eroded until nothing is left, we should call it quits before worse rights violations and violence erupts. One of the most infuriating experiences over the last three years has been watching emotional reactions supersede basic constitutional rights and civil liberties.
Much like a traditional divorce, a national divorce is an emotional topic. People long for the good ol' days, remembering when things weren't so bad. But those days are gone and we just don't get along anymore.
We've gone through a terrible national trauma and most of us are not willing to let bygones be bygones. Emily Oster infamously called for "pandemic amnesty." Those of us who suffered at the hands of mandates angrily shot back, "No amnesty!" We would not discuss divorce if we were trying to work out a minor disagreement. This fight is existential: We want the right to live our lives peacefully, without the threat of everything we hold dear being arbitrarily stripped away at the whim of nanny state bureaucrats.
For libertarians, this should be a simple issue: Do human beings have the right to self-determination? Yes, we should have the absolute right to choose how we live our lives, so long as we do not aggress upon others. But a large chunk of the population does not believe in this concept. How can we coexist in a country with people who seek to subjugate us?
Even faced with these obvious arguments, some libertarians feel squeamish. National divorce? That's unpopular. It could make us look bad. It could remind people of the Civil War.
We should worry less about "looking bad" to a group of people that dehumanized us so recently. Regardless, divorce is a fairly normalized and acceptable practice in the United States (after all, 40–50 percent of marriages end in divorce).
Surely, we're not worried about losing our constitutional rights when so many of them are already gone. Progressives view the overturning of Roe v. Wade as a constitutional violation. To libertarians, the First Amendment, Second Amendment, and Fourth Amendment have been diminished beyond recognition. We've all but lost our federal system of checks and balances between the three branches of government, and the balance of powers between state and federal governments hardly exists, either. There is effectively no check when the same party holds power on the federal and state level.
But what if states break away and do bad things? In the eyes of many people, that is happening right now. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) sometimes refers to California as a nation-state, and just recently, California passed a trans kids refugee bill. In 2021, members of the Texas Legislature proposed a secession bill, and the following year Texas outlawed abortion. Both of these bills were seen as an affront to liberty by people with different values. It's unlikely that any secessionist government could do worse without the backing of federal military power, and residents would be able to move to another state much more easily than the average U.S. resident can move to another country.
The national divorce argument is always framed through fear, uncertainty, and doubt. What about the incredible opportunities that we stand to gain? A national divorce provides an opportunity for peace, a culling of America's global hegemony, a diversity in currency and return to sound money, an economic boon for states that deregulate, economic and technological competition, happiness from cultural cohesion, and the avoidance of a massive violent conflict.
The American experiment in representative democracy started out gloriously. I have tremendous appreciation for the Founding Fathers and our Constitution, but they were only able to get us so far. Our once-great Republic is barely recognizable. The America of the past is becoming a distant memory.
As Michael Malice, author and podcast host, said in 2016, why should two monolithic cultures with opposite worldviews continue attempting to move forward as one unit when they are ideologically moving further apart? American progressives view everyone else as something they can "own" and force into compliance. It's long past time for conservatives and libertarians to live as they see fit. And who's to say we could only split apart into two governments? There is potential for us to split into many different governments, maybe even a libertarian state.
The libertarian call for divorce doesn't have to fall along a strict red/blue boundary. It could look like any number of things: from a radical return to strict federalism, a confederation of smaller state-countries, or any other number of voluntary arrangements spanning political, cultural, or geographic boundaries. The United States already has territories and states spread across the world. A national divorce doesn't need a single, geographic dividing line to split the country neatly down the middle.
There's no guarantee you won't have conflict with a national divorce, but there's no guarantee you won't have civil war or fighting without a national divorce either. We face many of the same risks regardless, so why shut ourselves off from a last chance for happiness?
Libertarians should be thoughtful but fearless in the representation of our ideas. Moderate positions never move the needle in the directions of liberty. We should advocate for national divorce as the emotionally intelligent choice in this conflict. The compassionate, empathetic thing to do in a volatile relationship is for one party to let the other go.
Do I want to be forcibly subjected to a government that may further strip me of my rights, lock me in my home, declare my livelihood nonessential, and unperson me because I refuse to get a shot? No, I do not. No sane libertarian would willingly choose this fate for himself or his family. Let's turn this opportunity for dissolution into something positive and negotiate a peaceful divorce.
Ideological Differences Don't Necessitate Divorce
Negative: Zach Weissmueller
Calls for national divorce imply that Americans are too different to share a country. Better to retreat to enclaves. Better to cluster with those who share your political affinity and religious beliefs. Let's stick to our own kind.
This crude tribalism is the most disturbing feature of national divorce discourse. It's self-reinforcing: Insist Americans' differences are irreconcilable, cherry-pick extreme but rare examples to exaggerate those differences, and presto, the increased hostility bolsters the case for national divorce!
National divorce is not devolving policy from the federal government down to the state and local levels. That's federalism. It's not governors challenging federal authority through the courts. That's also federalism. It's not citizens banding together to flout immoral laws. That's civil disobedience. And it's not engaging in off-grid, hard-to-trace activity. That's agorism. All are viable and laudable libertarian strategies for resisting tyranny; none are national divorce.
National divorce fans might say political breakups are as American as apple pie. After all, the Declaration of Independence says sometimes it's "necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another." No argument there. Divorce, though often brutal and traumatizing, is sometimes necessary. But America's revolutionaries also understood the profound cost they'd pay for independence. "Prudence," they declared, "indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes."
The revolutionaries' cause was neither light nor transient. More than eight years of bloody and disease-ridden guerrilla warfare dissolved those ties to a distant and despotic king. The victory paved the way for the world's most libertarian governing political document: the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, a national divorce today would trash the fruits of that astounding outcome. Unshackling state and local governments is exactly what today's would-be national divorcees hope to do.
After the Mises Caucus allies of my debate opponent took over the Libertarian Party in May 2022, the party's Twitter account called the Supreme Court "an illegitimate institution" that "should not be empowered to make sweeping decisions for 330 million people." This might bewilder libertarians who notice that the court has been more friendly to government critics lately on issues like COVID-19 lockdowns and mandates, student loan forgiveness, and religious freedom.
But delegitimizing the Supreme Court is a crucial step along the path to national divorce. The short-term goal is to discredit the modern interpretation of the 14th Amendment's due process clause. Then the Bill of Rights would no longer restrain state or local governments. In post-divorce America, California would have freer rein to confiscate guns. Florida lawmakers could shrug off the First Amendment and ban "offensive" speech. Cops everywhere wouldn't need to concern themselves about violating citizens' constitutional rights.
Does that sound like a more libertarian America?
My opponent has tweeted that "we should peacefully separate as much as possible." The party account has asked, "Pro-lifers, why share a country with those who support the dismemberment of babies in the womb? Pro-choicers, why share a country with those who would take a woman's right to abort away?"
In other words, national divorce would involve extreme ideological self-segregation.
Balkanizing heavily armed Americans into highly polarized partisan tribes who couldn't possibly "share a country" isn't a promising formula for a peaceful separation. Look at the war-torn history of the actual Balkans. Yet this is a rhetorical strategy of the new Libertarian Party: Exaggerate political divides (for example, most Americans are actually moderates on abortion) to further escalate the culture war. If you persuade enough people that living among the "other" is intolerable, divorce and migration into distinct cultural enclaves looks more viable.
Even more disturbing, a national divorce likely means the end of free movement between states. Ryan McMaken of the Mises Institute spells this out in a February 2020 article, arguing that, "By ending legal and physical separations between culturally and legally diverse political jurisdictions, opposing sides end up fighting bitterly over who controls the central government."
The centralization of power in the federal government is a problem that all libertarians should be working to reverse. But erecting patrolled borders between the states would shred a vital personal liberty: the right of exit. Americans would find themselves far less free to "vote with their feet." Millions did this during the pandemic, escaping "lockdown" states for less restrictive jurisdictions. I was one of them.
Trade barriers between the states would also cripple America's global economic advantage. Since free trade makes war less likely, this would also increase the odds of violent interstate conflict. Sure, states could work out their own trade agreements, but who knows when or if that would happen? This all paints a rather dark picture of a future that's quite the opposite of the promised peaceful separation.
A national divorce would bring an end to the American experiment. No longer would a written constitution promise every citizen the "blessings of liberty" because of his or her inherent value as an individual. In its place, local "community" concerns would triumph. Who defines the community and its concerns? Look around the world for your answer: whichever group claims sovereignty over the land and has the violent means to back up that claim.
National divorce thus implies a reversion to a kind of pre-Enlightenment politics. It jettisons the equal protection of individual rights for a political order based around a reductive question: Are you friend or foe? The role of these new states is to protect friends and punish enemies. The personal, political, and cultural must merge with this sort of state to form an all-encompassing tribal identity. You're either in the tribe or out.
I propose a more pragmatic and palatable means of political decentralization: Embrace and leverage the federalism that the Constitution guarantees. When practical, engage in outright disobedience to advance and secure human liberty.
Call it a national renegotiation.
The cannabis legalization movement traversed this path for decades. Some local sheriffs have disregarded state firearm regulations, declaring "gun sanctuaries." So-called progressive prosecutors ignore "victimless crimes" such as sex work or drug possession. "Sanctuary cities" refuse to work with federal immigration agencies. There's very little the federal government can do about much of this.
A little disobedience goes a long way. This is a proven nonviolent method for decentralizing government power. The consequence for local disobedience is rarely an armed federal invasion. It's a closing of the checkbook. That is the truly hard political task: Refuse federal money, and cut the strings that come attached.
Unlike a national divorce, this path is peaceful, achievable, and quintessentially American.
Subscribers have access to Reason's whole May 2023 issue now. These debates and the rest of the issue will be released throughout the month for everyone else. Consider subscribing today!
- Debate: It's Time for a National Divorce
- Debate: Artificial Intelligence Should Be Regulated
- Debate: Democracy Is the Worst Form of Government Except for All the Others
- Debate: To Preserve Individual Liberty, Government Must Affirmatively Intervene in the Culture War
- Debate: The E.U. Was a Mistake
- Debate: The U.S. Should Increase Funding for the Defense of Ukraine
- Debate: Mentally Ill Homeless People Must Be Locked Up for Public Safety
- Debate: Despite the Welfare State, the U.S. Should Open Its Borders
- Debate: Cats Are More Libertarian Than Dogs
- Debate: Make Housing Affordable by Abolishing Growth Boundaries, Not Ending Density Restrictions
- Debate: Bitcoin Is the Future of Free Exchange
- Debate: Be Optimistic About the World