history

The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability

For reasons I outlined in “The Price of Government,” the post-Civil War boom of 1866-1907 finally gave way to the onslaught of Progressivism. Real GDP grew at the rate of 4.3 percent annually during the post-Civil War boom; it has since grown at an annual rate of 3.3 percent. The difference between the two rates of growth, compounded over a century, is the difference between $13 trillion (2009’s GDP in 2005 dollars) and $41 trillion (2009’s potential GDP in 2005 dollars).

As I said in “The Price of Government,” this disparity

may seem incredible, but scan the lists here and you will find even greater cross-national disparities in per capita GDP. Go here and you will find that real, per capita GDP in 1790 was only 4.6 percent of the value it had attained 218 years later. Our present level of output seems incredible to citizens of impoverished nations, and it would seem no less incredible to an American of 1790. In sum, vast disparities can and do exist, across nations and time.

The main reason for the disparity is the intervention of the federal government in the economic affairs of Americans and their businesses. I put it this way in “The Price of Government”:

What we are seeing [in the present recession and government’s response to it] is the continuation of a death-spiral that began in the early 1900s. Do-gooders, worry-warts, control freaks, and economic ignoramuses see something “bad” and — in their misguided efforts to control natural economic forces (which include business cycles) — make things worse. The most striking event in the death-spiral is the much-cited Great Depression, which was caused by government action, specifically the loose-tight policies of the Federal Reserve, Herbert Hoover’s efforts to engineer the economy, and — of course — FDR’s benighted New Deal. (For details, see this, and this.)

But, of course, the worse things get, the greater the urge to rely on government. Now, we have “stimulus,” which is nothing more than an excuse to greatly expand government’s intervention in the economy. Where will it lead us? To a larger, more intrusive government that absorbs an ever larger share of resources that could be put to productive use, and counteracts the causes of economic growth.

One of the ostensible reasons for governmental intervention is to foster economic stability. That was an important rationale for the creation of the Federal Reserve System; it was an implicit rationale for Social Security, which moves income to those who are more likely to spend it; and it remains a key rationale for so-called counter-cyclical spending (i.e., “fiscal policy”) and the onerous regulation of financial institutions.

Has the quest for stability succeeded? If you disregard the Great Depression, and several deep recessions (including the present one), it has. But the price has been high. The green line in the following graph traces real GDP as it would have been had economic growth after 1907 followed the same path as it did in 1866-1907, with all of the ups and down in that era of relatively unregulated “instability.” The red line, which diverges from the green one after 1907, traces real GDP as it has been since government took over the task of ensuring stable prosperity.

Only by overlooking the elephant in the room — the Great Depression — can one assert that government has made the economy more stable. Only because we cannot see the exorbitant price of government can we believe that it has had something to do with our “prosperity.”

What about those fairly sharp downturns along the green line? If it really is important for government to shield us from economic shocks, there are much better ways of getting the job done that they ways now employed. There was no federal income tax during the post-Civil War boom (one of the reasons for the boom). Suppose that in the early 1900s the federal government had been allowed to impose a small, constitutionally limited income tax of, say, 0.5 percent on gross personal incomes over a certain level, measured in constant dollars (with an explicit ban on exemptions, deductions, and other adjustments, to keep it simple and keep interest groups from enriching themselves at the expense of others). Suppose, further, that the proceeds from the tax had a constitutionally limited use: the payment of unemployment benefits for a constitutionally limited time whenever real GDP declined from quarter to quarter.

Perhaps that’s too much clutter for devotees of constitutional simplicity. But wouldn’t the results have been worth the clutter? The primary result would have been growth at a rate close to that of 1866-1907, but with some of the wrinkles ironed out. The secondary result — and an equally important one — would have been the diminution (if not the elimination) of the “need” for governmental intervention in our affairs.

Related posts:
Basic Economics
The Economic and Social Consequences of Government

Secession Redux

In “Secession,” I wrote:

The original Constitution contemplates that the government of the United States might have to suppress insurrections and rebellions (see Article I, Section 8), but it nowhere addresses secession. Secession, in and of itself, is not an act of insurrection or rebellion, both of which imply the use of force. Force is not a requirement of secession, which can be accomplished peacefully.

Therefore, given that the Constitution does not require a subscribing State to pledge perpetual membership in the Union, and given that the Constitution does not delegate to the central government a power to suppress secession, the question of secession is one for each State, or the people thereof, to determine, in accordance with the Tenth Amendment. The grounds for secession could be … the abridgment by the United States of the “rights, privileges and immunities”of its citizens.

What about Texas v. White (U.S. Supreme Court, 1868), in which a 5-3 majority anticipated … arguments for a mystical bond of Union; for example:

When … Texas became one of the United States, she entered into an indissoluble relation. All the obligations of perpetual union, and all the guaranties of republican government in the Union, attached at once to the State. The act which consummated her admission into the Union was something more than a compact; it was the incorporation of a new member into the political body. And it was final. The union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and as indissoluble as the union between the original States. There was no place for reconsideration, or revocation, except through revolution, or through consent of the States.

Considered therefore as transactions under the Constitution, the ordinance of secession, adopted by the convention and ratified by a majority of the citizens of Texas, and all the acts of her legislature intended to give effect to that ordinance, were absolutely null. They were utterly without operation in law. The obligations of the State, as a member of the Union, and of every citizen of the State, as a citizen of the United States, remained perfect and unimpaired. It certainly follows that the State did not cease to be a State, nor her citizens to be citizens of the Union.

It would have been bad — bad for slaves, bad for the defense of a diminished Union — had the South prevailed in its effort to withdraw from the Union. But the failure of the South’s effort, in the end, was owed to the superior armed forces of the United States, not to the intentions of the Framers of the Constitution.

In any event, the real jurisprudential issue in Texas v. White was not the constitutionality of secession; it was the right of the post-Civil War government of Texas to recover bonds sold by the secessionist government of Texas. Moreover, as Justice Grier noted in his dissent,

Whether [Texas is] a State de facto or de jure, she is estopped from denying her identity in disputes with her own citizens. If they have not fulfilled their contract, she can have her legal remedy for the breach of it in her own courts.

The majority’s ruling about the constitutionality of secession can be read as obiter dictum and, therefore, not precedential.

Clifford P. Thies makes a similar case in “Secession Is in Our Future“:

The US law of secession is thought to have been decided by the US Supreme Court in White v. Texas, following the Civil War. The actual matter to be decided was relatively insignificant. The Court used the occasion to issue a very broad decision. Chief Justice Chase, speaking for the Court, said,

The union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and as indissoluble as the union between the original States. There was no place for reconsideration or revocation, except through revolution or through consent of the States.

The first sentence I just quoted invokes words such as “perpetual,” and in so doing may create the impression that the Supreme Court decreed that no [S]tate could ever secede from the Union. But, on careful reading, the relationship between Texas and the other [S]tates of the Union is merely “as indissoluble as the union between the original States.” In other words, Texas, having been a nonoriginal [S]tate, has no greater right of secession than do the original [S]tates. As to how [S]tates might secede, the second sentence says, “through revolution or through consent of the States.”

As to why a [S]tate might secede, … Chief Justice Chase presciently discusses the … 10th Amendment[] to the US Constitution, which reserve[s] to the [S]tates and to the people thereof all powers not expressly granted to the federal government, and that the design of the Union, implicit in the very name “United States,” is the preservation of the [S]tates as well as of the Union:

the preservation of the States, and the maintenance of their governments, are as much within the design and care of the Constitution as the preservation of the Union and the maintenance of the National government.

In other words, the federal government abrogates the Constitution when it fails to honor Amendment X:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Thies puts it starkly:

The so-called United States of America ceases to exist when the political majority of the country attempts to rule the entire country as a nation instead of as a federal government. In such a circumstance, the “indestructible union of indestructible [S]tates” of which the Court speaks is already dissolved.

I would put it this way: The legal basis for the perpetuation of the United States disappears when the federal government abrogates the Constitution. Given that the federal government has long failed to honor Amendment X, there is a prima facie case that the United States no longer exists as a legal entity. Secession then becomes more than an option for the States: It becomes their duty, both as sovereign entitities and as guardians of their citizens’ sovereignty.

Modernism in the Arts and Politics

David Friedman has a theory about the “modern” movement:

Suppose you are the first city planner in the history of the world. If you are very clever you come up with Cartesian coordinates, making it easy to find any address without a map, let alone a GPS—useful since neither GPS devices nor maps have been invented yet.

Suppose you are the second city planner. Cartesian coordinates have already been done, so you can’t make your reputation by doing them again. With luck, you come up with some alternative, perhaps polar coordinates, that works almost as well.

Suppose you are the two hundred and ninetieth city planner in the history of the world. All the good ideas have been used, all the so-so ideas have been used, and you need something new to make your reputation. You design Canberra. That done, you design the Combs building at ANU, the most ingeniously misdesigned building in my personal experience, where after walking around for a few minutes you not only don’t know where you are, you don’t even know what floor you are on.

I call it the theory of the rising marginal cost of originality—formed long ago when I spent a summer visiting at ANU.

It explains why, to a first approximation, modern art isn’t worth looking at, modern music isn’t worth listening to, and modern literature and verse not worth reading. Writing a novel like one of Jane Austen’s, or a poem like one by Donne or Kipling, only better, is hard. Easier to deliberately adopt a form that nobody else has used, and so guarantee that nobody else has done it better.

In other words, if you can’t readily do better than your predecessors, you take the easy way out by doing something different — ugly as it may be. And you call it “progress.” As I wrote here:

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the visual, auditory, and verbal arts became an “inside game.” Painters, sculptors, composers (of “serious” music), choreographers, and writers of fiction began to create works not for the enjoyment of audiences but for the sake of exploring “new” forms. Given that the various arts had been perfected by the early 1900s, the only way to explore “new” forms was to regress toward primitive ones — toward a lack of structure…. Aside from its baneful influence on many true artists, the regression toward the primitive has enabled persons of inferior talent (and none) to call themselves “artists.” Thus modernism is banal when it is not ugly.

Painters, sculptors, etc., have been encouraged in their efforts to explore “new” forms by critics, by advocates of change and rebellion for its own sake (e.g., “liberals” and “bohemians”), and by undiscriminating patrons, anxious to be au courant. Critics have a special stake in modernism because they are needed to “explain” its incomprehensibility and ugliness to the unwashed.

The unwashed have nevertheless rebelled against modernism, and so its practitioners and defenders have responded with condescension, one form of which is the challenge to be “open minded” (i.e., to tolerate the second-rate and nonsensical). A good example of condescension is heard on Composers Datebook, a syndicated feature that runs on some NPR stations. Every Composers Datebook program closes by “reminding you that all music was once new.” As if to lump Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven.

All music, painting, sculpture, dance, and literature was once new, but not all of it is good. Much (most?) of what has been produced since 1900 is inferior, self-indulgent crap.

As it was in the arts, so it was in politics. Yes, there was sleaze before 1900, and plenty of it. But presidents, members of Congress, and justices of the Supreme Court generally remained faithful to the Constitution, especially its restraints on the power of the federal government. Then along came populism and “progressivisism” — the twin pillars of political modernism in the United States — and down went liberty and prosperity.

The “Big Five” and Economic Performance

The “Big Five” doesn’t comprise Honda, Toyota, Ford, GM, and Chrysler (soon to become the become the “Big Four”: Honda, Toyota, Ford, and GM-Chrysler-Obama Inc.). The “Big Five” refers to the Big Five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

I discussed the Big Five at length here, and touched on them here. Now comes Arnold Kling, with an economic analysis of the Big Five, which draws on Daniel Nettle’s Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are. Kling, in the course of his post, discusses Nettle’s interpretations of the Big Five.

Regarding Openness, Kling quotes Nettle thusly:

Some people are keen on reading and galleries and theatre and music, whilst others are not particularly interested in any of them. This tendency towards greater exploration of all complex recreational practices is uniquely predicted by Openness….

High Openness scorers are strongly drawn to artistic and investigative professions, and will often schew traditional institutional structure and progression in order to pursue them.

Precisely. For example,  a high Openness scorer (93rd percentile) progressed from low-paid analyst (with a BA in economics) to well-paid VP for finance and administration (with nothing more than the same BA in economics), stopping along the way to own and run a business and manage groups of PhDs. The underlying lesson: Education is far less important to material success than intellectual flexibility (high Openness), combined with drive (high Conscientiusness and Neuroticism), and focus (low Extraversion and Agreeableness).

Kling says this about Conscientiousness (self-discipline and will power):

I think that people with low Conscientiousness annoy me more than just about any other type of people.

Me, too (Conscientiousness score: 99th percentile). I find it hard to be around individuals who always put off until tomorrow what they could do in a minute, who never read or return the books and DVDs you lend them, who are always ready to excuse failings (theirs and others), and who then try to cast their lack of organization (and resulting lack of personal accomplishment) as a virtue: “Life is too short to sweat the small stuff.” Yeah, but you never sweat the big stuff, either; look at the state of your house and your bank account. The small stuff and big stuff come in a single package.

According to Kling, “Nettle thinks of Extraversion as something like lust for life, sensation-seeking, and ambition.” More from Nettle:

We should be careful in equating Extraversion with sociability… shyness is most often due to … high Neuroticism and anxiety….

…The introvert is, in a way, aloof from the rewards of the world, which gives him tremendous strength and independence from them.

Right on, says this introvert (Extraversion score: 4th percentile).

Kling says this about Agreeableness:

To be agreeable, you have to be able to “mentalize” (read the feelings of others, which autistic people have trouble doing) and empathize (that is, care about others’ feelings, given that you can read them. Sociopaths can read you, but they don’t mind making you feel bad.)

On average, women are more agreeable than men. That is why Peter Thiel may have been onto something when he said that our country changed when women got the right to vote. If people project their personalities onto politics, and if agreeability goes along with more socialist policies, then giving women the right to vote should make countries more socialist.

Thiel is on to something. Although socialism gained a foothold in the U.S. during TR’s reign (i.e., long before the passage of Amendment XIX to the Constitution), it’s important to note that women were prominent agitators and muck-rakers in the early 1900s. Among other things, women were the driving force behind Prohibition. That failed experiment can now be seen as an extremely socialistic policy; it attempted to dictate a “lifestyle” choice, just as today’s socialists try to dictate  “lifestyle” choices about what we smoke, eat, drive, say, etc. — and with too-frequent success. If socialism isn’t a “motherly” attitude, I don’t know what is. (Full disclosure, my Agreeableness score is 4th percentile. Just leave me alone and I’ll live my life quite well, without any help from government, thank you.)

Finally, there’s Neuroticism, about which Nettle says:

There are motivational advantages of Neuroticism. There may be cognitive ones too. It has long been known that, on average, people are over-optimistic about the outcomes of their behaviour, especially once they have a plan… This is well documented in the business world, with its over-optimistic growth plans, and also in military leadership, where it is clear that generals are routinely over-sanguine about their likely progress and under-reflective about the complexities….

…Professional occupations are those that mainly involve thinking, and it is illuminating that Neuroticism tended to be advantageous in these fields and not in, say, sales.

Neuroticism (also known as Emotional Stability) is explained this way by an organization that administers the “Big Five” test:

People low in emotional stability are emotionally reactive. They respond emotionally to events that would not affect most people, and their reactions tend to be more intense than normal. They are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening, and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult. Their negative emotional reactions tend to persist for unusually long periods of time, which means they are often in a bad mood. These problems in emotional regulation can diminish a ones ability to think clearly, make decisions, and cope effectively with stress.

Take a person who is low in Emotional Stability (my score: 12th percentile), low in Extraversion, but high in Conscientiousness and Openness. Such a person is willing and able to tune out the distractions of the outside world, and to channel his drive and intellectual acumen in productive, creative ways — until he finally says “enough,” and quits the world of work to enjoy the better things in life.

The Price of Government

UPDATED on 04/17/10, to include GDP estimates for 2009 and slight revisions to GDP estimates for earlier years. The bottom line remains the same: The price of government is exorbitant.

he federal government is mounting an economic intervention on a scale unseen since World War II. The excuse for this intervention is that without it the present recession will turn into a full-blown depression. Yet, with the Democrats’ and RINOs’ “stimulus” barely underway, the economy already shows signs of rebounding from an economic dip that bears no comparison with the calamitous gulch that was the Great Depression.

Despite the horror stories about a financial meltdown, what we have experienced since late 2007 is not much more than the downside of a typical, post-World War II business cycle. (For more on that score, see this post — especially the third graph and related discussion.) Would it have been worse were all failing financial institutions allowed to fail? I doubt it. Hard, fast failure leaves in its wake opportunities for the organization of new ventures by investors who still have money (and there are plenty of them). But those same investors are being shouldered out and scared off by Obama’s schemes for nationalization, taxation, regulation, and redistribution.

What we are seeing is the continuation of a death-spiral that began in the early 1900s. Do-gooders, worry-warts, control freaks, and economic ignoramuses see something “bad” and — in their misguided efforts to control natural economic forces (which include business cycles) — make things worse. The most striking event in the death-spiral is the much-cited Great Depression, which was caused by government action, specifically the loose-tight policies of the Federal Reserve, Herbert Hoover’s efforts to engineer the economy, and — of course — FDR’s benighted New Deal. (For details, see this, and this.)

But, of course, the worse things get, the greater the urge to rely on government. Now, we have “stimulus,” which is nothing more than an excuse to greatly expand government’s intervention in the economy. Where will it lead us? To a larger, more intrusive government that absorbs an ever larger share of resources that could be put to productive use, and counteracts the causes of economic growth.

Can we measure the price of government intervention? I believe that we can do so, and quite easily. The tale can be told in three graphs, all derived from constant-dollar GDP estimates available here. The numbers plotted in each graph exclude GDP estimates for the years in which the U.S. was involved in or demobilizing from major wars, namely, 1861-65, 1918-19, and 1941-46. GDP values for those years — especially for the peak years of World War II — present a distorted picture of economic output. Without further ado, here are the three graphs:

The trend line in the first graph indicates annual growth of about 3.7 percent over the long run, with obviously large deviations around the trend. The second graph contrasts economic growth through 1907 with economic growth since: 4.2 percent vs. 3.6 percent. But lest you believe that the economy of the U.S. somehow began to “age” in the early 1900s, consider the story implicit in the third graph:

  • 1790-1861 — annual growth of 4.1 percent — a booming young economy, probably at its freest
  • 1866-1907 — annual growth of 4.3 percent — a robust economy, fueled by (mostly) laissez-faire policies and the concomitant rise of technological innovation and entrepreneurship
  • 1908-1929 — annual growth of 2.2 percent — a dispirited economy, shackled by the fruits of “progressivism” (e.g., trust-busting, regulation, the income tax, the Fed) and the government interventions that provoked and prolonged the Great Depression (see links in third paragraph)
  • 1970-2008 — annual growth of 3.1 percent —  an economy sagging under the cumulative weight of “progressivism,” New Deal legislation, LBJ’s “Great Society” (with its legacy of the ever-expanding and oppressive welfare/transfer-payment schemes: Medicare, Medicaid, a more generous package of Social Security benefits), and an ever-growing mountain of regulatory restrictions.

Had the economy of the U.S. not been deflected from its post-Civil War course, GDP would now be about three times its present level. (Compare the trend lines for 1866-1907 and 1970-2008.) If that seems unbelievable to you, it shouldn’t: $100 compounded for 100 years at 4.3 percent amounts to $6,700; $100 compounded for 100 years at 3.1 percent amounts to $2,100. Nothing other than government intervention (or a catastrophe greater than any we have known) could have kept the economy from growing at more than 4 percent.

What’s next? Unless Obama’s megalomaniacal plans are aborted by a reversal of the Republican Party’s fortunes, the U.S. will enter a new phase of economic growth — something close to stagnation. We will look back on the period from 1970 to 2008 with longing, as we plod along at a growth rate similar to that of 1908-1940, that is, about 2.2 percent. Thus:

  • If GDP grows at 2.2 percent through 2109, it will be 58 percent lower than if we plod on at 3.1 percent.
  • If GDP grows at 2.2 percent for through 2109, it will be only 4 percent of what it would have been had it continued to grow at 4.3 percent after 1907.

The latter disparity may seem incredible, but scan the lists here and you will find even greater cross-national disparities in per capita GDP. Go here and you will find that real, per capita GDP in 1790 was only 4.6 percent of the value it had attained 218 years later. Our present level of output seems incredible to citizens of impoverished nations, and it would seem no less incredible to an American of 1790. In sum, vast disparities can and do exist, across nations and time. We have every reason to believe in the possibility of a sustained growth rate of 4.4 percent, as against one of 2.2 percent, because we have experienced both.

We should look on the periods 1908-1940 and 1970-2009 as aberrations, and take this lesson from those periods: Big government inflicts great harm on almost everyone (politicians and bureaucrats being the main exceptions), including its intended beneficiaries. Such is the price of government when it does more than “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, [and] provide for the common defence” in order to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Is Statism Inevitable?

In “Parsing Political Philosophy” I suggest that our descent into statism may continue indefinitely. The suggestion is based on years of observing American politics, which have brought me to the understanding that voters are profoundly irrational. They prefer statism to liberty, regardless of what they say. They (most of them) believe statism to be benign because it often wears a friendly face. But statism is not benign; it is dehumanizing, impoverishing, and — at bottom — destructive of the social fabric upon which liberty depends.

If statism — and perhaps something worse — is an inevitable product of our representative democracy, why is that so? One explanation invokes the slippery slope, which is

an argument for the likelihood of one event or trend given another. Invoking the “slippery slope” means arguing that one action will initiate a chain of events that will lead to a (generally undesirable) event later. The argument is sometimes referred to as the thin end of the wedge or the camel’s nose.

That is to say, once a polity becomes accustomed to relying on the state for a particular thing that should be left to private action, it becomes easier to rely on the state for other things that should be left to private action.

Another metaphor for the rising path of state power is the ratchet effect,

the commonly observed phenomenon that some processes cannot go backwards once certain things have happened, by analogy with the mechanical ratchet that holds the spring tight as a clock is wound up.

As people become accustomed to a certain level of state action, they take that level as a given. Those who question it are labeled “radical thinkers” and “out of the mainstream.” The “mainstream” — having taken it for granted that the state should “do something” — argues mainly about how much more it should do and how it should do it, with cost as an afterthought.

Perhaps the best metaphor for our quandary is the death spiral. Reliance on the state creates more problems than it solves. But, having become accustomed to relying on the state, the polity relies on the state to deal with the problems caused by its previous decisions to rely on the state. That only makes matters worse, which leads to further reliance on the state, etc., etc. etc.

More specifically, unleashing the power of the state to deal with matters best left to private action diminishes the ability of private actors to deal with problems and to make progress, thereby fostering the false perception that state action is inherently superior. At the same time, the accretion of power by the state creates dependencies and constituencies, leading to support for state action in the service of particular interests. Coalitions of such interests resist efforts to diminish state action and support efforts to increase it. Thus the death spiral.

Can we pull out of the spiral? Not unless and until resistance to state action becomes much stronger than it is. Nor can can it be merely intellectual resistance; it must be conjoined to political power. The only source of political power toward which anti-statists — and disillusioned statists — can turn is the Republican Party. And if the GOP does not return to its limited-government roots, all may be lost.

How can the GOP succeed in divesting itself of more of its Specters, while adding new blood in sufficient quantity so as to become, once again, a potent political force? Fred Barnes, writing in The Weekly Standard (“Be the Party of No,” vol. 14, issue 33, 05/18/09) is on the right track:

Many Republicans recoil from being combative adversaries of a popular president. They shouldn’t. Opposing Obama across-the-board on his sweeping domestic initiatives makes sense on substance and politics. His policies–on spending, taxes, health care, energy, intervention in the economy, etc.–would change the country in ways most Americans don’t believe in. That’s the substance. And a year or 18 months from now, after those policies have been picked apart and exposed and possibly defeated, the political momentum is likely to have shifted away from Obama and Democrats.

This scenario has occurred time and again. Why do you think Democrats won the House and Senate in 2006 and bolstered their majorities in 2008? It wasn’t because they were more thoughtful, offered compelling alternatives, or had improved their brand. They won because they opposed unpopular policies of President Bush and exploited Republican scandals in Congress. They were highly partisan and not very nice about it.

If Republicans scan their history, they’ll discover unbridled opposition to bad Democratic policies pays off. Those two factors, unattractive policies plus strong opposition, were responsible for the Republican landslides in 1938, 1946, 1966, 1980, and 1994. A similar blowout may be beyond the reach of Republicans in 2010, but stranger things have happened in electoral politics. They’ll lose nothing by trying….

Republican efforts to escape being tagged the party of no are understandable…. But no matter how restrained and sensible Republicans sound or how many useful ideas they develop, they’re probably stuck with the party of no label. They have more to gain by actually accepting the role and taking on Obama vigorously. If they come to be dubbed the party of no, no, no, a thousand times no, all the better. It will mean they’re succeeding.

In other words, Republicans might make some headway against the forces of statism if they will simply live up to their reputation for “meanness,” instead of apologizing for it — as they have been doing for decades. (Here’s how not to do it.) In order for that to happen, the Cheney wing of the party must prevail over the Powell wing. The good news is that the Powell wing — as represented by RINOs like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe — may simply choose to follow Arlen Specter’s cynical conversion to the party of statism.

If the GOP fails to revert to its small-government stance, all may be lost. Democrats will be free to spend and spend, elect and elect, until — somewhere down the road — voters finally rebel. But until that distant day, Democrats will have enacted so many more crippling laws and regulations, and appointed so many more lawless judges, that nothing short of a constitutional revolution could rescue us from our political and economic hell.

Having had one constitutional revolution, I doubt that we will be lucky enough to have another one. Only a wise (and rare) élite can establish and maintain the somewhat minarchistic state we enjoyed until the early 1900s. The existence of such an élite — and its success in establishing a lasting minarchy — depends on serendipity, determination, and (yes) even force. That we, in the United States, came close (for a time) to living in a minarchy was due to historical accident (luck). We had just about the right élite at just about the right time, and the élite’s wisdom managed to prevail for a while.

That we have moved on to something worse than minarchy does not prove the superiority of statism. It simply suggests that our luck ran out because statism was (and remains) inevitable in a representative democracy, where irrational voters fuel the power-lust of politicians, and politicians gull irrational voters.

But I have not lost all hope (because of this, in part). And so, I await with interest (and some hope) the outcome of the struggle for the Republican Party’s soul.

Related reading: Peter Ferrara’s The Strategy of Not-So-Smart Surrender

Secession

Rick Perry, governor of Texas, has expressed sympathy for proponents of the secession of Texas from the United States. “Liberal” commentary to the contrary, current secessionist sentiment arises not from a desire to own slaves, or otherwise to deprive certain groups of their constitutional rights, but from righteous and rightful opposition to the hell-bent-for-fascism-regime now ascendant in Washington.

The question then arises whether Texas could secede peacefully, under the Constitution of the United States. An argument for secession can be found in the Treaty of Annexation between the people of Texas and the United States of America (1844). Article II of the treaty reads as follows:

The citizens of Texas shall be incorporated into the Union of the United States, maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty and property and admitted, as soon as may be consistent with the principles of the federal constitution, to the enjoyment of all the rights, privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States.

A case can be made (if not won) that the federal government has abridged the “rights, privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States,” including Texans, through various unconstitutional actions. (I will not attempt to detail those actions here, for they are legion. I have written about some of them in many of the posts listed here. Robert Levy and William Mellor have analyzed the most egregious unconstitutional actions of the U.S. Supreme Court in their book, The Dirty Dozen: How Twelve Supreme Court Cases Radically Expanded Government and Eroded Freedom.)

There is, moreover, a general case for secession as a constitutional act. I begin by referring to an anti-secessionist, one Timothy Sandefur of the blog Freespace. Sandefur — a lawyer of wide-ranging abilities and interests — has written “How Libertarians Ought to Think about the U.S. Civil War,” which also instructs us how to think about secession. He avers that “the Constitution does prohibit secession.”

Sandefur’s argument that the Constitution prohibits secession is an inferential one that rests on his conclusion that the action of a State (qua State)

cannot change the nature of the federal Constitution as adopted in 1787: it is a binding government of the whole people of the United States. No [S]tate may unilaterally leave the union.

Actually, Sandefur (and other federalists) to the contrary notwithstanding, the people of each State adopted the Constitution, not the whole people of the United States. And the people of each State were at liberty not to adopt the Constitution. In evidence, I introduce Article VII of the Constitution:

The ratification of the conventions of nine [S]tates, shall be sufficient for the establishment of this constitution between the [S]tates so ratifying the same.

Note, first, that ratification was accomplished State-by-State, not by the people of the United States as a whole. Note, second, that although the Constitution could have gone into effect upon being ratified by the conventions of only nine of the thirteen States, it would have been binding only upon the States whose people ratified it, that is, “between the [S]tates so ratifying the same.”

That all thirteen States did, eventually, ratify the Constitution is beside the point. Four of the States could have remained outside the Union; that is, they could have “seceded” preemptively. I therefore draw the following inference: If a State has the right to decline membership in the Union, it must have the right to withdraw from membership in the Union, inasmuch as the Constitution nowhere proclaims membership to be perpetual.

My inference, unlike Sandefur’s, finds support in the Constitution. I begin with the Tenth Amendment (ratified only three years after the original Constitution), which says:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

The original Constitution contemplates that the government of the United States might have to suppress insurrections and rebellions (see Article I, Section 8), but it nowhere addresses secession. Secession, in and of itself, is not an act of insurrection or rebellion, both of which imply the use of force. Force is not a requirement of secession, which can be accomplished peacefully.

Therefore, given that the Constitution does not require a subscribing State to pledge perpetual membership in the Union, and given that the Constitution does not delegate to the central government a power to suppress secession, the question of secession is one for each State, or the people thereof, to determine, in accordance with the Tenth Amendment. The grounds for secession could be, as stated above, the abridgment by the United States of the “rights, privileges and immunities”of its citizens.

What about Texas v. White (U.S. Supreme Court, 1868), in which a 5-3 majority anticipated Sandefur’s arguments for a mystical bond of Union; for example:

When…Texas became one of the United States, she entered into an indissoluble relation. All the obligations of perpetual union, and all the guaranties of republican government in the Union, attached at once to the State. The act which consummated her admission into the Union was something more than a compact; it was the incorporation of a new member into the political body. And it was final. The union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and as indissoluble as the union between the original States. There was no place for reconsideration, or revocation, except through revolution, or through consent of the States.

Considered therefore as transactions under the Constitution, the ordinance of secession, adopted by the convention and ratified by a majority of the citizens of Texas, and all the acts of her legislature intended to give effect to that ordinance, were absolutely null. They were utterly without operation in law. The obligations of the State, as a member of the Union, and of every citizen of the State, as a citizen of the United States, remained perfect and unimpaired. It certainly follows that the State did not cease to be a State, nor her citizens to be citizens of the Union.

It would have been bad — bad for slaves, bad for the defense of a diminished Union — had the South prevailed in its effort to withdraw from the Union. But the failure of the South’s effort, in the end, was owed to the superior armed forces of the United States, not to the intentions of the Framers of the Constitution.

In any event, the real jurisprudential issue in Texas v. White was not the constitutionality of secession; it was the right of the post-Civil War government of Texas to recover bonds sold by the secessionist government of Texas. Moreover, as Justice Grier noted in his dissent,

Whether [Texas is] a State de facto or de jure, she is estopped from denying her identity in disputes with her own citizens. If they have not fulfilled their contract, she can have her legal remedy for the breach of it in her own courts.

The majority’s ruling about the constitutionality of secession can be read as obiter dictum and, therefore, not precedential.

Perhaps the good people of Texas, if sufficiently riled, will give the Court something more substantial to chew on.