Which American State Should Secede?

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Laura Reeg, of Yuba City, joined dozens of others from several rural counties in support of creating the the state of Jefferson, at a Capitol  the in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014.
Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP/Corbis

Britain has decided to remain whole, but the secession fever gripping the world has not yet broken. Catalonia will hold a non-binding vote on independence in November, and a number of other European regions are contemplating going it alone.

There’s always some idle secession chatter in the freedom-and-independence-loving United States, too. A new poll shows one in four Americans support “the idea of your state peacefully withdrawing from the United States of America and the federal government.” 

But could it ever be more than a rhetorical phenomenon in the States? It seems unlikely, given that those who benefit most from union are those most interested in secession. 

Here’s from a recent poll on who wants to leave:

Secession got more support from Republicans than Democrats, more from right- than left-leaning independents, more from younger than older people, more from lower- than higher-income brackets, more from high school than college grads…. Of the people who said they identified with the Tea Party, supporters of secession were actually in the majority, with 53 percent. 

In other words, it’s recipients of government largess who want to get out. It’s net donors to the government who want to stay. To wit, only one in five residents of the wealthy New England states supports secession, separatist-lusty Vermont included, versus one in three residents of the poorer southwest, where the urge is more pronounced.

In the United States, the most likely breakaway is Texas, and there’s at least some reason to believe it might do fine as an independent republic. It has access to international waterways. It has a diversified economy, with all that cattle and oil money coming in. It has a long foreign border with Mexico. Most of all, it has that independent spirit.

But it takes a lot more than grit to make it as a new country — and generally, the poorer, smaller, and less-diversified the state, the worse it would fare after independence. Secession itself would also be extremely costly, though how costly would depend on whether the United States acceded to the plan (not likely) and how much it wanted to antagonize New Kansas or Free Texas or what have you. Would it forgive said state’s debts? Would it implement airspace restrictions, travel restrictions, sanctions, or even a full embargo? Might it bar a new country from the global payments system

But let’s say we’re in a heartless, rationalist thunderdome-type situation. In that case, who deserves to get kicked out?

Alas, it probably makes sense to axe a poor state like West Virginia. A few states send Washington more money in taxes than they receive in benefits. But most get a lot more than they give. In West Virginia, the disparity ranks among the highest, primarily because the state is so poor. The average household there makes $43,500 a year. In Maryland, it’s $72,000. Combine that with high rates of disability and heavy use of social programs, and West Virginians take almost $3 for every $1 they pay in. That’s using 2010 data. Now that the hugely redistributive Affordable Care Act is in place — taxing the rich, giving health insurance to the poor — the skew is likely greater.

By the same token, rich states like New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Connecticut end up donating tax dollars to get pushed out to the lower-income frontier. Such rich economies would be well suited to going alone — especially if they banded together to maximize their economic diversity and the potential of their physical infrastructure. The Thirteen Colonies, for instance, might make for a lovely new country.

All else equal, we’d probably notice the change the least if we got rid of Wyoming, which has the smallest population. Since it’s part of the contiguous lower-48, though, it might make more sense to get dispense with the former monarchy of Hawaii, which as the economist Tyler Cowen has noted, is culturally distinct and hard to defend. Alaska also seems like a good option. It has oil resources to support it. It has a small, hardy, heavily armed population. And, along with Texas and Vermont, it keeps threatening to secede anyway. 

But finally, we come to the States that are just asking for it, namely Florida, America’s lunatic dongle, and Ohio, our land of pool-raft fuckers and skyline chili. If they left, would we really miss them?

But there is, of course, a reason they never do — just like why Scotland never did. Cleaving a part of a country away from another makes sense in some rare cases — when countries’ polities are deeply cleaved on political, economic, or social lines, for instance. It’s hard to imagine the largely united if decidedly federalist United States ever wanting to go down the same path. And it is worth noting that it’s more likely that we’ll get additions rather than subtractions in the coming years.