The Spanish secession

While there has been a good deal of grumbling about “secession” after the 2012 elections in the United States, culminating in a few high-profile symbolic petitions, things are much further along in the Catalonian region of Spain.  There, as Reuters reports, some real political energy for secession has coalesced around a group of four separatist parties, which looked on course to win a majority in the local parliament during Sunday’s elections.  The separatists didn’t do as well as some early projections of a two-thirds majority anticipated, however.

The president of the regional government, Artur Mas, actually “converted to separatism after huge street demonstrations in September.”  Before that, he was “a moderate nationalist who had pushed Spain to give Catalonia more self-governing powers.”  It is said that Mas wants to hold a referendum on secession from Spain, but won’t be able to get it off the ground without that two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Some of Catalonia’s complaints sound familiar:

With more people than Denmark and an economy almost as big as Portugal’s, Catalonia has its own language. Like Basques, Catalans see themselves as distinct from the rest of Spain.

[…] Annually, an estimated 16 billion euros ($21 billion) in taxes paid in Catalonia, about 8 percent of its economic output, is not returned to the region.

Home to car factories and banks that generate one fifth of Spain’s economic wealth, and birthplace of surrealist painter Salvador Dali and architect Antoni Gaudi, the region also has one of the world’s most successful football clubs, FC Barcelona.

Secession and disintegration are hot topics all around the globe.  Arguably they always have been, particularly since the bi-polar Cold War era ended.  Often, as in Catalonia, there are cultural elements contributing to a sense of “otherness.”  There’s a bit of that in the United States, too, as those “blue” and “red” states feel a growing sense of cultural alienation.  But it seems as if these cultural forces can be held in check, as long as the larger economic framework is functioning reasonably well.  And why not?  A prosperous, energetic government has little interest in stamping out internal cultural diversity.

But when the greater economic framework malfunctions, separatism can gain some real political energy.  The European Union is perpetually on the verge of falling apart, as is dependent national components angrily refuse to take orders from the nations that pay their bills.  The Greeks, for example, are happy to remain dependent upon the European Union… but become very unhappy when they feel the EU is encroaching upon their “independence.”  Stability would seem to require a certain degree of mutual independence for component regions.

Blogger Glenn Reynolds mentioned the Catalonian separatist movement in passing when he wrote a response to secession-minded Americans last week:

So what’s a solution? Let the central government do the things that only central governments can do — national defense, regulation of trade to keep the provinces from engaging in economic warfare with one another, protection of basic civil rights — and then let the provinces go their own way in most other issues. Don’t like the way things are run where you are? Move to a province that’s more to your taste. Meanwhile, approaches that work in individual provinces can, after some experimentation, be adopted by the central government, thus lowering the risk of adopting untested policies at the national level. You get the benefits of secession without seceding.

Sound good? It should. It’s called federalism, and it’s the approach chosen by the United States when it adopted the Constitution in 1789. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 45, “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”

It’s a nice plan. Beats secession. Maybe we should give it another try.

Reynolds is exactly right.  Mobility and local control combine to drain away the surly energies of secession.  National unity should be obviously preferable, even in post-election rhetoric from the most disappointed voters.

Governments should regard themselves as spirited competitors in a never-ending marketplace of citizenship.  They should strive to attract immigrants from other nations and states.  The threat of losing taxpaying citizens is a powerful incentive to avoid foolish government policy.  No state should expect others to pay for its failed policies.

That obviously isn’t the way it works now.  In the United States, federalism provides little protection for disastrous central planning.  There are far too many regulations that cannot be escaped through relocation, or voted down by organized local constituencies.  State governments aren’t laboratories of democracy; they’re lab rats.  And everyone is watching nervously as a few electorally significant states teeter on the edge of complete insolvency, dreading bailouts that our federal government cannot afford… but national politicians might be afraid to refuse.  And, unlike Spain or Greece, no foreign treasury stands by to bail out Washington; no one can afford to.  The combined wealth of the entire planet would be sorely taxed to cover our total federal and state liabilities.  The rest of the world can be forgiven for its reluctance to be sorely taxed.

Simply put, in a healthy republic, no one seriously talks about leaving, or giving anyone else the boot.  The advantages of unity are so obvious that questioning them is risible.  The current round of secession petitions in the United States are unfortunate, but only history will tell us if they were insignificant.  The Catalonian secession movement might only be an election or two away from getting that independence referendum, but it probably started with “insignificant” grumbling too.