A New Strategy For Liberty - Part 2: Secession in Three Easy Steps

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May 18, 2009

Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.

"I cannot go in these," he said to Saul, "because I am not used to them." So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd's bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine. -- First Samuel 17: 38 - 40

In How David Beats Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell shows that underdogs significantly tip the scales when they refuse to play by Goliath's rules. From the article:

'The political scientist Ivan Arreguin-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants [one side was at least ten times as powerful as its opponent]. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. What happened, Arreguin-Tof wondered, when the underdogs acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? In those cases, David's winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6.'

The article focuses on a junior girls basketball team in Redwood City , California . They were inexperienced, short, and not particularly talented. Their coach, a recent 'migr', knew almost nothing of basketball before taking over the team. Having an outsider's view, the coach didn't understand the conventions of National Junior Basketball and had his team adopt the unusual strategy of an aggressive full court press.

Week after week, their unique approach changed the parameters of the game and took away natural advantages of their opponents, whose teams were built and trained to play the half-court game.

"What that defense did for us is that we could hide our weaknesses...We could hide the fact that we didn't have good outside shooters. We could hide the fact that we didn't have the tallest lineup, because as long as we played hard on defense we were getting steals and getting easy layups."

In the battle between libertarians and statists, there is no question who is David and who is Goliath. There also is no question regarding who continues to win.

One more time, David's winning percentages in conflicts with Goliath: David plays by conventional rules: 28.5% success. David acknowledges his weakness and adopts an unconventional strategy: 63.6% success.

In Part 1: An Open Letter To Ron Paul Supporters, I argue that libertarians have thoroughly tried the conventional strategy, and it has failed us.

So how do we get to that 63.6% success number? According to the research, the first step is to acknowledge our weakness. In the game of electoral politics, where candidates compete for one vote per citizen, our team has a huge and fatal weakness that we rarely acknowledge at all.

The statist politician tells corn farmers that he'll score them millions in free money. Our candidate tells them he'll take it away. The statist politician tells senior citizens he'll pay for their prescription drugs. Our candidate tells them the entitlements are bankrupt.

The statist politician leads us to war, and finds his campaign coffers full of cash from a few defense contractors who were made rich. Our candidate pushes non-intervention and must hope that enough Peaceniks will be impressed to donate a few bucks. The statist politician raises government funds through debt and uses those funds to shower extravagant favors on special interests. Our candidate must hope that people will learn and care enough about the debt burden to vote against it in the face of intense engagement from powerful special interests who stand to gain million dollar windfalls.

The statist politician goes to Washington with the understanding that his purpose is to get a piece of the pie for his constituents. Our candidate goes to Washington hoping to shrink the pie as small as it can go. Our candidate usually loses, and in the rare cases when he wins, he finds that to win again, he too must start bringing home pie, meaning even when we win, we lose.

Just as the rules of basketball favor those who are tall, strong, and have a good jump shot, the rules of democracy favor those who want to grow the government. For decades, we have been playing by Goliath's rules, the very rules that allowed Goliath to rise to power in the first place.

The only way we can play away from our weakness is to get out of the electoral politics game altogether.

This brings us to the first step in a new, more unconventional strategy.

Step 1: Stop voting in Washington 's elections.

If we refuse to participate, we initiate a strategy that plays away from our inherent weakness and also neutralizes Goliath's greatest strength: popular consent. The politicians' greatest advantage is the ease with which they can take money from your pocket and promise it to someone else, someone whose vote they need. They are able to do this because, like it or not, they have your consent. Take away that consent, and you've chipped away at their advantage. You consent to this madness every time you pay Washington 's taxes or comply with one of their illegitimate laws. And yes, none of us can safely stop complying with federal laws, but we can tell the world that we intend to try. We can also take a simple, legal action toward that end by staying away on Election Day, and making some noise about our choice to do so. Choosing not to vote, telling your friends and family why you made that choice, announcing on the Internet and at large that you deny Washington 's legitimacy is a much, much more powerful statement than "Vote for my guy." Choosing to abstain from Washington 's elections, not because you don't like the candidates, but because you don't believe in the system, is an act of secession, and the idea of secession loses some of its radical fringe when regular people around the country start doing it. Heck, the idea of secession is losing its radical fringe already. Last month Cato Unbound hosted a conversation about "Starting From Scratch" and kicked it off with an essay by Patri Friedman encouraging libertarians to colonize the ocean. Later, Jason Sorens, founder of The Free State Project, chimed in and outlined the growing success of the movement he started. Peter Thiel, creator of PayPal and one of the richest men in the world, wrote his own entry, saying this:

I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual....But I must confess that over the last two decades, I have changed radically on the question of how to achieve these goals. Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.

The Cato Unbound conversation made secession the topic of choice in the libertarian blogopshere last month. And libertarians aren't the only ones buzzing about this topic.

After Rick Perry's now infamous secession remarks (remarks he was pushed into saying by a crowd chanting "Secede!"), a poll of Texas GOP members found them evenly divided on whether Texas should drop out of the union. Since then a new poll shows 43 percent of Georgia Republicans would prefer their state be independent of the USA . In Montana , a state sovereignty resolution included strong language about the rights of Montana to consider its contract with the USA broken. One of the resolution's authors said of secession, "That is the big stick in the room that we have to occasionally display." Even the big names in Republican talk radio are getting in on this. From Glenn Beck on April 14:

"You can't convince me that the Founding Fathers wouldn't allow you to secede. The Constitution is not a suicide pact, and if a state says: 'I don't want to go there, because that's suicide,' they have a right to back out. They have a right -- people have a right to not commit economic suicide..."

From the May 7 edition of Rush Limbaugh show, spoken by guest host Mark Steyn:

"The strength of this country is in trusting its people and in trusting its -- the natural competition of a federalist system....If somebody in South Dakota, or somebody in Idaho, or somebody in Alabama, or somebody in Maine wants to try a completely different way of governing, that is between them and their electorate. Where it all gets very dangerous is when you have a president and a Democratic Congress who are essentially committed to federal annexation. Federal annexation -- ensuring that there's a kind of one-size-fits-all model across the country is going to put a big question mark over America ."

Amidst all this secession chatter, Ron Paul himself made this statement:

[Perry] 'really stirred some of the liberal media, where they started screaming about: 'what is going on here, this is un-American.' I heard one individual say 'this is treasonous to even talk about it.' Well, they don't know their history very well, because when you think about it... it is very American to talk about secession. That's how we came in being. Thirteen colonies seceded from the British and established a new country. So secession is a very much American principle. What about all the strong endorsements we have give the past decade or two to all the republics that seceded from the Soviet system? We were delighted about it.'

Imagine if this conversation continues to pick up steam. Imagine if some more big names got on board. Imagine if, by this time next year, a million people across the country gather for a second round of "Tea Parties" but don't aim to reform Washington, but rather announce their intent to leave it. It isn't much of a stretch. Six months ago, secession was a pipe dream. Now it's a topic of conversation. And we haven't even tried to push it yet.

Some of you might protest that last sentence. Some of you have been pushing secession all your life.

Good job to you. Keep it up.

But the vast majority of Americans who want smaller government are trying to accomplish it from within the system. It is to these Americans I speak. We need you to stop banging your head against the door and start trying to open it.

Whether it be Seasteading, Freestating, Cambrian Exploding, Panarchy Chasing, or just gold old fashioned Seceding, if we fully abandon our strategy of getting in and instead focus all that wasted energy on dropping out, we'll be playing our own game rather than Goliath's. It starts with not voting. But it doesn't stop there. What if all the money and effort that in the past went towards political campaigns instead when towards a true secessionist effort? What if all the volunteers who canvassed for Ron Paul in 2008 instead set up alternate voting stations on Election Day, where people didn't go to cast a vote for office, but went to be counted as one who wanted to secede? What if the door hangers, mailbox stuffers, Youtube videos, money bombs and passionate support that once went to a candidate instead went to the idea of abandoning Washington ?

What if an organization like Campaign For Liberty was repurposed, so that instead of being yet another voice in the already large choir spreading the free market gospel, it became our mainstream mouthpiece on behalf of dropping out? What if we made enough noise about our desire to be done with Washington that we made the politicians nervous about what might happen? At this point, it wouldn't be that hard to get the politicians scared. In addition to playing away from their own weaknesses, successful Davids also attack Goliath where he is weak. And right now, Goliath is exceptionally weak. In addition to the massive tax burden we have always paid, each one of us is also on the hook for about $200,000 in future debt (or by other numbers, well over $300,000 per person). It was this explosion of new debt more than anything else that caused growing anger at government to boil over into last month's Tea Parties, where half a million Americans gathered to scream, Who is going to pay for this? Secessionists are the only ones with a viable answer to that question. Secessionists can answer, "Not me." Step 2: We make clear to the world that as soon as we're able, we will stop funding Washington 's madness, and we have no intention of ever paying back Washington 's debt. For years, Washington has grown in strength by pitting us against one another, promising to hand out money to one favored group while quietly stealing it from another. They've now over-extended their hand, and put themselves in a position of weakness that we must exploit if we're ever going to shake them loose. Americans already give over half their income to government; now they're on the hook for at least $200,000 more per person! What if some of the energy and money that in the past went towards winning our place in Washington instead went to spreading the word that anyone who wants out of this ridiculous downward cycle of national debt can get out if they join us in secession? If enough of us start talking this way, it will most certainly hamper the already crippled Treasury market. If we hamper the Treasury market, we'll have cut off Washington 's most valuable income source. And then things get interesting. Another characteristic of successful strategies against Goliath is that David so thoroughly abandons the old rules that Goliath calls foul, and is surprised into making mistakes. From the coach of the team in Gladwell's article:

"My girls were all blond-haired white girls...One time, we were playing this all-black team from East San Jose . They had been playing for years. These were born-with-a-basketball girls. We were just crushing them. We were up like twenty to zero. We wouldn't even let them inbound the ball, and the coach got so mad that he took a chair and threw it. He started screaming at his girls, and of course the more you scream at girls that age the more nervous they get."

Already, the word "treason" is getting thrown at the large and growing secessionist movement. A particularly ugly post at Alternet compared secessionists to Timothy McVeigh. MSNBC's Chris Matthews called talk of secession 'whack-job stuff,' calling Rick Perry a 'bozo' saying, 'You don't have a choice, buddy.' Rachael Maddow called secessionist talk 'flirting to the point of adultery.' We should take all of this as evidence that we're on the right track. We should know and be ready for the statist's insults to get much, much worse. This leads us to the third step. Step 3: Even as the State and its cheerleaders grow increasingly hostile toward us, we remain entirely peaceful. At its core, secession is the most peaceful way to solve any political conflict. And if we follow steps 1 & 2, we're likely to see Washington 's language grow ugly, and their tactics grow desperate. It is crucial that when this happens, we remain non-violent. The guns in your garage might be itching to defend your freedom, but you need to leave them there until the next turkey shoot. If there is one thing Washington loves, it's a violent fight. If we engage in one, we're right back to playing their game.

When Washington really starts to lose its cool towards secessionists, if we remain peaceful, Washington 's credibility will wane even further, and our position will grow stronger.

Eventually, this new approach becomes a positive feedback loop. Step 1: We stop voting altogether and proclaim as loud as we can that we're not participating because we have no confidence in the current system. The State's continued decline becomes their problem, not ours, and strengthens the argument in favor of secession. Step 2: We proclaim ourselves as secessionists both in public forums like the Internet and in our own communities. As the number of proclaimed secessionists grows, so does the chorus to repudiate the debt. This makes domestic and foreign creditors nervous. The already tanking Treasury market will tank even more, depriving Washington of its most powerful source of funding. Step 3: As the strength of our position grows through steps 1 & 2, an increasingly threatened state will lash out at us, but we will remain peaceful. The nature of Washington will be laid bare for all to see, our position will grow stronger, and the number of people willing to engage in Step 1 will grow. As with all positive feedback loops, all it takes is enough energy on our part to get it started. Eventually, it will have enough momentum that it can't be stopped. In the Soviet Union , it took less than a decade to go from a tyrannical central state to widespread, successful secession. And whether the first big leap to freedom happens in New Hampshire , in San Francisco Bay , or outside of any geographical boundary, once the first group secedes, it will be much easier for others to follow. We shouldn't worry if the first step is less than perfect (say, if Medicare is replaced with "Texicare"). If any single group in America pulls off real secession, the game is permanently changed. Secession is the great equalizer that counterbalances the dreadful incentives in a democracy. It's been against the rules for 150 years. We need to put it back into play. To do so, we'll need the courage to recognize that our current strategy has failed, that defeating Goliath can only happen if we play our own game. So, my friends, put down your sword, and pick up your stones. We have a giant to fell.

This essay is Part 2 in a two-part series. Read Part 1: An Open Letter To Ron Paul Supporters.

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Stewart Browne's picture
Columns on STR: 5

Stewart Browne is the initiator of Scarecrow For President, a project that encourages libertarians not to vote. 


voluntaryist's picture

I worked for change within the Libertarian Party (1972-1980) and came to the same conclusion that Stewart did. After 28 years of not voting I registered Republican so I could vote for Ron Paul in the Primary. I donated $300. I was a fool. I knew better, but I wasted my time & money. I am not influential with many but I do advocate secession. I moved to WY to be freer. If our society survives the coming economic collapse I will stay in the U.S. If the giant wins I will leave.