Secession Talk: Interview with Professor Donald Livingston Part 2

todayFebruary 18, 2014 2 1

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Click here for Part 1 of the interview

Begin Mike Church Show Transcript

Mike:  Just to put this back into the equation of human scale, as we talk about this in 2012 post-election with all these secession petitions — the State of Texas actually has the legal means, we’ve recently discovered, should they choose to split into five separate states or countries.  They are not obligated to join the union.  This is all written in a compact in 1843 in the annexation of Texas.  As we talk about this, even those five states, if they were to split in Texas, historically speaking — Kirkpatrick Sales has a great chapter in the book about this — those states would probably still be too large to be republics, especially successful republics.  I have never read anything that is quite as convincing as Kirkpatrick Sales’ take on the “optimal size of a state.”  He runs through this in the book.  Can you just inform the listeners a little bit?  Even the State of New York is way out of scale, right?

Livingston:  Yeah.  New York has 8 million people in it, roughly.  That’s the size of countries.  Switzerland has 7 million people.  Switzerland is a good example of a human scale federation.  It has around 7 million people.  In territory it’s a little over half the size of South Carolina.  It has 26 little states, not counties, states. These states have their military force, a militia, they determine citizenship.  You first become a citizen of one of these states, and if no state will take you, you can’t be a citizen at all.  They have enormous autonomy.  They spend about 95 percent of the national revenue.  That is exactly what he’s talking about.  On average, these come out to around 30,000 people per state.  Some are 500,000.  There’s one state around 38,000, very small.  They have different sizes but they’re within a human scale.

There’s no magic number about scale and representation.  Mobility, technology, these things can make scale variable to some degree.  I think the figure of under 200,000 that the ancient and medieval republics had is a ballpark to go by.  Under modern conditions, that could be larger perhaps.  The point is to work in that direction as much as possible.  What Kirk shows in his article, he takes various criteria of what makes people happy, how many people are incarcerated in prisons, crime rates, health, civil liberty.  These criteria work out in international foundations and organizations.  When you take those standards, the ideal state seems to be something like 5 million people divided in various ways.  That’s his argument.  The United States is behind in many of these criteria, possibly because of its bulk.

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Mike:  You mentioned the classical size of states.  One of the other things I’ve read from you — and part of it is in the book but I’ve heard you explain it personally as well — is that prior to the modern era, a republic — I think one of the examples you give is the Italian Republic of Florence that had less than 200,000 and the things that came out of that.  People think that’s dangerous.  If you only have 200,000, you’re going to get invaded, mowed over by the neighbor next door.  What do you say to that argument?  Talk about what was accomplished in the ancient world with far fewer people.

Livingston:  I’m not arguing that there should be nothing but states of this size. What we need to realize, though, is great civilizations have been produced by small polities.  From Athens we get Plato and Aristotle, world-class architecture, medicine.  We still study Athens today.  With 60,000 people, Florence gives us Michelangelo and Da Vinci and Donatello and Brunelleschi and Galileo and Machiavelli and opera (Galileo’s father developed opera), modern banking.  All of this flows from a little city-state of around 60,000 people.

As to defense, you need federations for defense.  Persia was a centralized empire of 40 million people.  Greece was made up of 1,500 little states strung out from Naples to the Black Sea with only 8 million.  You’d think the Persians could just pick them off.  The Persians were never able to do it.  They came in and did some damage but the Greek states were able to keep them at bay.  We wouldn’t have Western civilizations if those Greek states hadn’t done it.  The Middle Ages was made up of thousands of small polities.  From that we get capitalism, universities, parliamentary government, the idea of individualism, romantic love.  All sorts of things we get from these tiny states.  If there’s defense, you need to do something about it.  We need to be clear that being big is no guarantee of security.  Look at Europe.  Germany got big so it would be secure.  France got big.  What happened?  World War I and World War II.  You just had bigger wars.

Mike:  These are things to consider, folks.  Professor Donald Livingston is on the Dude Maker Hotline with us, Rethinking the American Union for the 21st Century, and answering the philosophical and intellectual arguments against the act of secession.  I inform the audience often that secede is not a dirty word.  It’s an old Latin word, isn’t it?

Livingston:  Yes, secedere.  It simply means to withdraw.

Mike:  I’ve taught all my children, Don, to excuse themselves, when they have to go to the restroom or to their bedroom, that they’re going to secedere.  It’s not a naughty word.

Livingston:  That’s how it was used up to the Civil War.  Secession just meant withdraw. People would say we’ve seceded to the east side of town and have a new house.

Mike:  Not anymore, though, since the American Civil War.  The other question that comes up here — and I already see it just looking at the Twitter feed, and I’ve probably answers this about 15,000 times but I’ll let you give it a go.  You clowns in the South, you go ahead with your stupid little acts of secession.  What are you going to do when Obama and the Congress declare war on you and the killing starts?  Does there have to be killing to leave unions?

Livingston:  No.  A friend of mine recently said that.   He said the union would have an atomic bomb and all that.  We haven’t used bombs since World War II, and neither have the Soviets.  Secession doesn’t cause war.  The Soviet Union peacefully broke up without war.  Let’s try to imagine, suppose eleven states on the West Coast secede and send commissioners to Washington to negotiate their share of the national debt, trade treaty and so on.  What would the world think if the Eastern states launched a scorched earth war to force them back into the union, an invasion?  That Pacific Union would have friends abroad.  It would have friends in other countries.  Given the way the world is today, there are things you can’t do if you’re going to survive with other countries.  It’s not inconceivable that what’s left of the United States would use force as Lincoln did, but I think it’s very unlikely that would happen.

Mike:  What I try to tell people that are concerned about that, think of it like this: can you think of a scenario in which those states you mentioned — and it’s interesting that you pointed out Western states and not Southern states — for example, right now Arizona has been under siege by the Bush administration and now the Obama administration for about half a decades, and certainly for decades, because they are forced to bow to federal pressure and federal policies on who they must admit into their state.  What if Arizona was to federate with Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, Montana and New Mexico?  Could you imagine a meeting of the 114th Congress where John Boehner and members of Congress get together and begin debating a resolution to engage and declare an act of war against those states in order to compel them?  Who’s going to sign up for that army?  Who’s going to march into Colorado and start shooting the citizens of Denver, telling them they don’t have the right to self-government?  To me, this is what boggles the mind.  Don, our fellow citizens claim to live in the land of the free, but you don’t have the freedom, if I’m to understand this, to declare and choose our own forms of government.  What do you say to that?

Livingston:  I think you’re right.  That’s one of the things that’s interesting about the war between the states.  When the seven states formed the confederacy, the opinion in the North, the editors and journalists overwhelmingly said let them go.  Some would say they don’t think it’s a good idea but let them go and we wish them well.  This was overwhelmingly the view.  It was Lincoln that provoked the business at Fort Sumter.  He started the war.  He raised the war illegally.  He got money illegally without calling Congress.  There’s no declaration of war, etc., etc.

My point is, had it not been for Lincoln, Americans would have fumbled through this thing and sorted something out.  It might have been a confederacy but that wouldn’t have been a disaster.  There’s no reason why there couldn’t be two federations on the continent.  We have three: Mexico, Canada, United States.  We can have four.  We really do have to look really hard at Lincoln.  That war was unnecessary.  I think it’s unlikely there would be a war today.  It’s possible Obama might be like Lincoln.  He just might be able to arrange things and get the shooting started and one thing could lead to another.  That could happen if you have a crazy man as president.  Even then, as you say, he would have to get support.  Who would go along with it?

When the Communist Party made a last-ditch stand to try to maintain itself, there was this image of tanks moving in.  They were confronted by pretty girls and young people.  This one tank, having looked at all that, it wheeled around and turned its guns the other way.  It simply would not fire on them and turned and faced the other tanks.  That was it.  It just dissolved.

Mike:  A final question for Professor Livingston, editor of the book Rethinking the American Union for the 21st Century, with the gentlemen that provided the essays therein.  One of the things you told me when the book came out last year and we first interviewed you, your intent in publishing the book and the authors’ intent, even though each individual author may desire his or her state to secede from the union, that wasn’t necessarily the purpose of it.  The purpose of it really is contained in the title, isn’t it?

Livingston:  Yes.  We need to rethink.  We need to question the assumptions that have gotten us into this situation, assumptions that pay no attention to size and scale and representation.  We need to ask what are those assumptions and question them.  As to secession, one of the things that’s good about this secession talk, as I’ve said, is that people are turning their faith away from the central government and looking elsewhere for authority and leadership, namely to their states.  If you’re worried about secession, you can really prevent secession by simply devolving power back to the states.  States that can govern themselves, communities that can govern themselves, cities that can take on republican character are not going to be interested in seceding.  Why would you want to secede from a union, a federation of vibrant states, each with its own self-government and trying out different things and be in federation, why would you want to leave such a thing?  You wouldn’t.  Why would you want to stay in one that was simply suffocating self-government?

Mike:  That’s the question that we have to ask and answer.  Professor Don Livingston, I thank you very much.  His book is Rethinking the American Union for the 21st Century.  Autographed copies at the Founders Tradin’ Post.  Final question, Don, when is the Abbeville Conference next year?

Livingston:  The next conference is to be at the University of Virginia March 7-10.  It’s not on a political topic.  It’s on the origin and character of southern music.  The South has created a great variety of music.  Without the South, American music would be pretty flat.  The question is where did this music come from?  What are its diverse forms and character?  This is important for self-government.  One of the things that makes a people a people is its music.  When the Scots lost their independence, well almost, in 1707 when the Scottish parliament unified with England, some people fled to America but others stayed.  Fletcher of Saltoun said, “Let who will make the laws, as long as I can write the songs.”  Scotland would still exist if he could control the songs.

Mike:  So southern music is the topic of discussion.  Don, as always, a pleasure speaking with you today.  I thank you very much and we’ll talk again soon.

End Mike Church Show Transcript

Click here for Part 1 of the interview


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Hello, You talk about the western states and I wanted to bring up the comment on invasion. Who would invade? I am retired military and from my experience, most of the valiant members of the US military are predominately from the West and midwest. Most of the liberals on the east coast would not join the all volunteer military. I think that if this come about, most of the US military from the west would return home to defend and the military might of the US military would shift from the east to the west. If you look at the current structure of military, most of the big bases are out west as the east doesn’t want bases there. Bliss, Carson, Twenty Nine Palms, Edwards, Kirtland, Cannon, Luke, San Diego, Bremerton, Whidby Island and others are all bases out west. Most of the actual structure of the military is in the west. I don’t think you would find military members from Colorado wanting to fight friends and neighbors.

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