Yesterday’s Washington Post carried a short piece about “The Once and Future Republic of Vermont,” in which a publisher and a political science professor explain why a considerable number of people in Vermont are actually working toward secession from the United States. I wonder how much irony The Post intended to communicate by publishing this particular op-ed on April 1. But this is not a joke. A couple of years ago, I heard a lecture by an advocate of the Second Vermont Republic, and to my surprise the arguments advanced in favor of the proposal were not entirely crazy. (In case you’re wondering, the first Vermont Republic lasted from 1777 until 1791; Vermont was the fourteenth state rather than one of the thirteen original colonies, though part of present-day Vermont seems to have been part of the Province of New Hampshire.)
Certainly up until the time of the Civil War, the arguments in favor of a right of secession were considered quite strong, stemming from a background understanding that the several states were the pre-existing communities and it was the states rather than the people who called the Union into being by voluntarily joining it. We are perhaps inclined to associate secessionist thought exclusively with the South because of later events there, but here is James Fenimore Cooper of New York, one of America’s leading men of letters in the first half of the nineteenth century, writing in his 1838 book, The American Democrat:
The government of the United States was formed by the several states of the Union, as they existed at the period when the constitution was adopted, and one of its leading principles is, that all power which is not granted to the federal authority, remain in the states themselves, or what is virtually the same thing, in the people of the states. . . .
. . . The notion that the people of the United States, in the popular signification of the word, framed the government, is contrary to fact, and leads to a wrong interpretation of many of the distinctive features of the system. The constitution of the United States was formed by a convention composed of delegates elected by the different states, in modes prescribed by their several laws and usages. These delegates voted by states, and not as individuals, and the instrument was referred back to conventions in the respective states for approval, or ratification. . . . [I]t is not easy to establish any thing more plainly than the fact, that the constitution of the United States was framed by the states then in existence, as communities, and not by the body of the people of the Union, or by the body of the people of the states, as has been sometimes contended.
Naturally, the Civil War changed the political realities, though it may be doubted whether anything happened legally to take a right of secession off the table. But the practical Vermonters featured on yesterday’s op-ed page have a more realistic short-term goal than full secession anyway: They want to achieve “local economic vitality” by attracting
farmers, entrepreneurs, bankers, merchants, lawyers, independent media providers, construction workers, manufacturers, artists, entertainers or anyone else with a stake in Vermont’s future — anyone for whom freedom is not just a slogan.
That seems like a good idea with or without secession, of course.
I’m not holding my breath for an independent Second Vermont Republic, but the op-ed hit me just after I did my taxes for 2006. I had noticed that, taking income taxes, real estate taxes, and (estimated) sales taxes into account, I probably paid three or four times as much to the federal government as I paid to the state government. And that sent me off on a somewhat different train of thought, which I invite you to board. The question is, which would you notice more: the collapse of your state government, or the collapse of the federal government?
I live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., so I may not be qualified to answer, but it seems to me the state of Maryland wins rather easily. Without trying very hard or looking at any memory-joggers, I credit the state with schools, roads, police protection, fire protection, public utilities, courts of law, prisons, libraries, and even some desirable health and safety regulations for businesses like buildings and restaurants. The federal government has national defense, the minting of money, USDA inspections, social security and medicare for what they’re worth, some helpful regulation of travel and communications, and then drips and drabs of some of the other things states do (i.e., comparatively few roads and comparatively few prisons).
Doing without either set of government services would be what in the vernacular is often called a bummer. If the state government collapsed, the effect would be immediate and unmistakable, particularly in cities where it seems to me that “survival skills” fall into two categories: buying or stealing. The post-Katrina stories from New Orleans are what I imagine when I think of the collapse of state government. The collapse of the federal government would create a longer-term vulnerability in the area of defense, but in the near term I doubt much would change. And perhaps more to the point, I think the state and the private sector could step into the federal government’s shoes more easily than the federal government could step into the state’s.
So even though this is the time of year I usually spend aghast about taxes in general, I’m forced to conclude that my state government is a bargain right now, at least relatively speaking. Maybe these Vermonters are onto something.