Should Libertarians Root for a National Divorce?

Dave Smith discusses the libertarian case for and against breaking up the United States.


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Is it time for blue states and red states to stop fighting over their differences and just get a divorce?

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R–Ga.), along with many on the political right, says it's time to seriously consider breaking the country apart.

The Libertarian Party (L.P.) has also been promoting this idea on Twitter since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

"Pro-lifers, why share a country with those who support the dismemberment of babies in the womb?," the L.P. tweeted in June. "Pro-choicers, why share a country with those who would take a woman's right to abort away? #NationalDivorce."

The politics of abortion are thorny and contentious even among libertarians, but what about when it comes to the more straightforward libertarian positions on free speech, guns, and private property? Is trampling on individual rights more legitimate when a state or city government does it?

Why would it be acceptable at the local but not the federal level to relinquish our liberties to the tyranny of the majority?

Also, the kind of national divorce between red and blue America that partisans like Greene are calling for doesn't accurately capture the rich political diversity of a country designed from the founding to contain multitudes.

When I tweeted that talk of a "national divorce" implies "there are only two sides, that you must choose one," and that the discussion is mostly about "tribal rage," I got a lot of pushback, including in the form of this map, showing America divided into its thousands of counties, suggesting that we can Balkanize into a limitless number of political tribes.

"I love how [discussing a national divorce] gets people thinking about something that seems almost off limits," says comedian, podcast host, and possible L.P. presidential candidate Dave Smith. I talked with Smith about the possibility of a national divorce after we exchanged words on Twitter about it. You can see a fuller discussion between us in the video above. He says the topic is a political litmus test.

"I think the question becomes how bad do you really think this current situation is?" says Smith. "Is it an inconvenience? Or is this something that is really dangerous? And I think the situation of us being a union right now is very dangerous."

The increasing centralization of political power in America is indeed concerning and dangerous. But is rooting for the breakup of the U.S. at this moment in time really all that libertarian?

This question reminds me of the litmus test posited by the anarcho-capitalist economist Murray Rothbard, whose work has had a major influence on Smith and the current L.P. leadership: What if a button existed that would immediately abolish all government? A radical libertarian, Rothbard writes, would "blister his thumb pushing" it, while so-called gradualists—including fellow anarcho-capitalist theorist David Friedman, whose work Rothbard was critiquing in the essay, and many of us at Reason magazine—would hold back as we fretted over the unintended consequences.

Smith, who says he's a fan of the work of both Rothbard and Friedman, says he'd blister his thumb pushing the hypothetical button.

"I think why so many people are at the point of entertaining this idea of a national divorce is that the Constitution has already been disregarded," says Smith. "Give me an amendment to the Bill of Rights, and I'll tell you how the federal government has wildly violated it in every possible way you could imagine."

He's right that words written down on an old piece of paper aren't enough to protect our rights if politicians disregard them. But they do matter.

As Austrian Nobel Prize winner F.A. Hayek wrote, "the only safeguard" against creeping tyranny is "a clear awareness of the dangers" by the public. Having a written constitution that venerates individual rights makes "them part of a political creed which the people will defend even when they do not fully understand its significance."

Defending and improving institutions that emerged to meet precisely the challenge of safeguarding liberty—such as the courts, the media, think tanks, and advocacy organizations—was a major theme in Hayek's work.

"What we must learn to understand is that human civilization has a life of its own," he wrote, and that we must cautiously and humbly "aim at piecemeal, rather than total" reform to avoid the kinds of bloody and barbaric upheaval that ideologues of the 20th century inflicted on much of the world.

Does this cautious approach mean every government institution must be preserved? Of course not. What Hayek criticized in particular, and what libertarians should aim to abolish as quickly as possible, is the monopolization of services by the state.

"A free society demands not only that the government have the monopoly of coercion but that it have the monopoly only of coercion," Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty. "In all other respects it [should] operate on the same terms as everybody else."

I'd like to see a libertarian president immediately shut down monopolistic federal agencies, end America's foreign military occupations, and for the Supreme Court to declare the modern administrative state unconstitutional.

Libertarians are and should be engaging in political struggle and pressuring courts however they can to protect Americans' liberties against all levels of government: federal, state, and local.

And the most effective method for increasing freedom is the use of technological tools that allow us to bypass the state altogether and extend the scope of the Bill of Rights: Print your own guns, communicate through encrypted services, build new worlds in cyberspace, and hold and transact in bitcoin, which the government can't censor or devalue.

In a reply to Rothbard, Friedman stressed the value of humility in politics, writing that "my arguments and [Rothbard's] could be wrong; some sort of government might be the least bad alternative among workable human institutions." Rothbard, on the other hand, was "certain he was right and viewed disagreement as war."

That's why I'm not a button-pusher like Rothbard or Smith: I need to know what comes after the collapse of the state. And we simply cannot know. Always proceed with caution in the face of uncertainty.

A dramatic national divorce—and the ensuing "total" reform that Hayek warned about—could lead to a more libertarian world, or it could lead to chaos and destroy the hard-won liberties that emerged from centuries of unplanned human effort.

It's a gamble. How lucky do you feel?

The Constitution isn't a holy text. It's not an all-powerful shield against government tyranny. But it is, as Frederick Douglass once put it "a glorious liberty document." For libertarians, it can be a weapon—quite a powerful one—in the arsenal needed to defend our liberties and decentralize power. Instead of tossing it aside, maybe the task is figuring out how better to wield it.

Watch my conversation with Smith in the video above.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller; editing and graphics by Regan Taylor

Photos: Jeff Malet/SIPA/Newscom; Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom; Monica Jorge/Sipa USA/Newscom; Ron Adar/M10s/MEGA/Newscom/RAAST/Newscom; Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom; Stefani Reynolds/picture alliance/Consolidated News Photos/Newscom