Much ink has been spilt in search of a ‘conservative Canada’ – a place where libertarians and traditionalists can take refuge from the left-leaning government du jour. Liberals have jokingly suggested third world locales like Afghanistan and Somalia with their ‘hands-off’ approach to governance of any kind. More levelheaded pundits have pointed to Chile, Hong Kong, and even Singapore with their firm commitment to the principles of the free market. Ultimately, however, every developed nation has far too many government programs for a conservative’s liking – generous welfare nets, strict civil codes, and individual mandates, to name a few.
Lacking any viable foreign alternatives, many conservatives turn inward in search of an ideological promised land. Their best bet, they reckon, is the autonomy of their respective, right-leaning states. For some of them, the ultimate goal is secession.
At no time in recent memory has this secessionist ambition, this yearning for a conservative Canada, been more pronounced than in the wake of President Obama’s reelection. Within days of Election Night, secession petitions were circulated throughout the nation, initially garnering quite a bit of media attention. By December 10, the signature counts in eight states – all former members of the Confederacy – had silently climbed above 25,000 each.
At first thought, given the salient political divide between the North and South, an observer is tempted to sympathize with these Southern separatists. After all, why shouldn’t a geographically concentrated community of like-minded individuals make its own decisions? Why should it suffer at the legislative whims of the populous North?
Upon examining the hard numbers behind the new secessionism, however, this sympathy immediately dissipates; it becomes clear that this is not the story of a mature polity trying to part ways with another polity of equal repute. Rather, the new secessionism is a paradoxical, self-destructive tale of a dependent South rebelling against its Northern patron.
Take the example of secessionist Mississippi. Its GDP per capita – about $32,000 – would rank 22nd in the world, wedged between that of Italy and Equatorial Guinea. Fortunately for Mississippians, for every $1.00 the state pays in taxes to the federal government, it receives a whopping $2.73 back. Of the seven other states whose residents filed a response-worthy petition, all but Texas receive significantly more than they pay in, placing the South’s yearning for independence among the most hypocritical, masochistic stances in modern political history. In contrast, Massachusetts, with a GDP per capita of about $58,000, would rank fourth in the world, right ahead of Singapore. Of course, that’s before we lose $0.17 for every dollar we dutifully pay to D.C.
In terms of economic potential, a recent Harvard study found that the mathematical proficiency of eighth graders in Mississippi was less than half the national average, slightly worse than that of their peers in Bulgaria and Serbia. The Bay State, on the other hand, was wedged between Japan and Liechtenstein in this category. Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina fared only marginally better than the Magnolia State, all severely below the national average, and all lagging behind second world nations such as Lithuania and Latvia. And in terms of reading proficiency, several northeastern states blow places like Liechtenstein and Iceland out of the water. Massachusetts, in particular, is beaten only by Finland and a couple of post-colonial Chinese city-states such as Hong Kong and Shanghai. The secessionist states of the South, by contrast, perform like mid-level Balkan nations in this category.
If the eight separatist states in question – Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Texas – chose to split off and go it alone, they’d probably find they don’t need the much maligned federal Department of Education for the day-to-day functioning of their schools. But they’d also find that their eight-graders don’t need a first world education, which is good because they probably wouldn’t get one.
In terms of healthcare payments, the longitudinal lines of the U.S. might as well be North-South cash chutes. The federal government pays for about 70 percent of the medical expenses of every Medicaid recipient in Arkansas, of which there are plenty. (The separatists of Arkansas fell only a few signatures short of the 25,000 threshold). In wealthier states, by contrast, the federal government pays for only about 50 percent these costs. What’s more, if the state of Mississippi does not opt out of President Obama’s Medicaid expansion, a controversial provision within the Affordable Care Act, the federal government will pay to Mississippi about 10.5 percent of the state’s GDP annually for the purpose of bolstering its health care coverage. Compare that to the 0.43 percent that Vermont will receive from the federal government or the 0.59 percent that Delaware will get. Other Southern states would score slightly less federal money than Mississippi, but South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, and Kentucky would all receive 6 percent of their respective GDPs or more, meaning that under Obamacare, five separatist Southern states would rank in the top six states overall for federal healthcare receipts.
All these numbers point to the fact that the states most desirous of independence are the ones economically least capable of it. Still, much of the secessionist spirit is based more on a desire to seal off Dixie from the hedonism of the North than on any economic calculation. Even this brand of secessionism, however, suffers from an inflated Southern sense of self-worth: in secular, atheistic Massachusetts, the divorce rates and teenage pregnancy rates are the lowest in the nation, less than half that of many states in the Christian South.
Given the statistical realities, it would be easy for a Northerner to feel disrespected, underappreciated, and, frankly, a bit pissed at the South’s new secessionism. The question could be posed, “If these secessionists want to live in an impoverished, uneducated, pseudo-theocracy of their own, why should we stop them?” Better yet, “For our own sakes, why shouldn’t we encourage them?”
The most compelling response has nothing to do with politics or economics; in fact, if one were to answer these questions only in terms of political or economic utility, acquiescing to the secessionists would be a no-brainer. Instead, the most reasonable and most universally applicable response holds that secession would be unethical – that it would set a bad precedent. Democracies should not separate into their component parts every time politico-regional disagreements arise. If they did, representative government would just be a means for territorial division, as it unfortunately is in parts of the third world.
Those who argue against secession – most people hopefully – could also point out that these petitions are by no means popular mandates. A majority of voters in every U.S. state opposes seceding, and though each signature in effect represents the opinions of hundreds of residents, 25,000 persons per state is still not an overwhelming number.
That said, it is not an insignificant number either, and with politicians like Rick Perry and commentators like Pat Buchanan flirting with the idea of cutting ties from Uncle Sam, one cannot simply dismiss this neo-confederate sentiment as an extremist sideshow.
Many hundreds of thousands of Southerners now honestly believe that they must secede in order to save their economy and their “wholesome” culture from the “sinking ship” that is the United States – (their analogy, not mine). But when one examines the statistics – educational, economic, and even moral – this sentiment comes across as sanctimonious whining. Perhaps, the better analogy for Southern secessionism – if we, like many secessionists, were to look at it only in terms of economic and political utility – is not the removal of eight passengers from a “sinking ship,” but rather the cutting away of eight irretrievable anchors.
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