Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – Here’s a quote from Prof. Livingston about the legality of secession, be sure and check out the rest of the interview in today’s transcript, “What happens with secession in America, if it’s constitutionally done, a state, being a sovereign political society, has a convention of its people and they vote an ordinance of secession to withdraw the compact with the United States and to secede. Of course, if they do that, then they have to deal with their share of the public debt and other obligations they incurred in the union. Once they’ve done that, they’ve seceded. The Supreme Court has no say over this. After all, they’re an independent country. Whatever the Supreme Court says, if you secede and are a different country, you don’t have to recognize it.”
Mike: Let us introduce to you — if you’re a new listener, you may not have heard Professor Livingston before — Professor Donald Livingston, who is the editor and wrote the foreword for the phenomenal book Rethinking the American Union for the 21st Century. Don, it’s been a while since we had you. Sorry you had to wait through all that, but I appreciate you being on the show, my friend. How are you?
Professor Livingston: I’m fine. I’m glad to be here, Mike.
Mike: Professor Livingston, I only have five copies of your book that you signed August 8, 2012 left. After we’re done with our conversation today, we’re going to blow through those. How is your signing hand?
Mike: We’ll send you some more. Professor Livingston, you contacted me last week and said you had heard some great things. People are out talking about the “s” word, about secession again. You were encouraged by that. What have you heard and why are you encouraged?
Livingston: Your listeners probably know a number of states, 27 or so, have signed petitions requesting the right to leave the union. I think that’s misconceived in many ways. What’s good about this is not simply that petitions are going forward but that the media has taken notice of this. There are blogs all over the place, articles and newspapers. I’ve been interviewed by major newspapers, by Russian television and other sources who are really interested in this.
If you look at the big picture, what’s interesting about it is, for the first time since 1860, a number of Americans are turning their face away from the central government. They’re paying attention now to their state as a place for protection. They’re wondering whether their states can interpose and protect them from this runaway centralization. They’re using the language of secession to do that. If this continues, if this debate in public continues as to whether secession is constitutional, whether it’s a good thing, whether it’s prudent, whether it can be done or not, if that debate continues, that will do a lot in weakening the moral authority of this bloated, over-centralized regime.
Mike: Professor Livingston, one of the things I think we need to do is explain why, even if secession is not the order of the day, as your friend Kirk Sales writes — his essay is in Rethinking the American Union — that scale still has to be reestablished. You explain human scale and the scale of things better than anyone I’ve ever heard. Give the listeners a Don Livingston / Kirk Sales dissertation, in layman’s terms, on why human scale matters, and why it especially matters in government.
Livingston: Aristotle taught that everything in nature has a size beyond which or below which it becomes dysfunctional. If your eyes were much larger than they are they simply wouldn’t function, or if they were smaller they wouldn’t function. The giant in the story “Jack and the Beanstalk,” if there were a being that high, he couldn’t walk. His legs would crack because he would be out of scale. The same is true with a jury. A jury of twelve people will work, but a jury of 100 or larger, even though everybody is well qualified, would not work merely because of its size. This is especially true of republican government. Republican government is government where the people make the laws they live under. They have to know each other. There has to be a limit to how large a polity can be and still claim to be representative government. It’s a very simple notion. The republican tradition for over 2,000 years has maintained that a small scale is necessary and the size is determined by the function of government. Representative government needs a small scale. We can talk about what that size would be but that’s the basic idea.
Mike: Just so folks can get a grasp of this, this also applies to things you use every day. I’ve heard you give the example before of bedrooms. Bedrooms have not changed appreciably in size since the days of Caesar, have they?
Livingston: No. Some are larger than others, but none of them are as large as a basketball court. It just doesn’t function. And doorways, streets — streets are about the same width around the world. If you want to appreciate the buildings on either side and be able to see the detail, you can’t be too far away and can’t be too close. The size of plazas around the world is relatively the same. Throughout all of human life, we’ve forgotten it in politics.
Mike: Folks, when you hear me talking about scale and how we’re out of scale, this is what we’re talking about. I think it’s time to end the use of the term “maybe” and to make the positive statement that having one central government for 309 million people is out of scale. Wouldn’t you say?
Livingston: Oh, yes. One thing you can see is the framers, one of the ideas they had was there should be one representative for every 30,000 people. When you consider that males are the ones voting and that sort of thing, you have a human scale representation. If we had that ratio today, there would be something like 10,000 members in the House of Representatives. That would just be too large for a lawmaking body. That would be more like a little town than a legislative body. If we had the founders’ ratio of 1:30,000, that’s what we would have. Put another way, our ratio is something like 1:720,000 people. If that ratio existed at the first Congress, there would have been only five members in the House of Representatives. You see scale matters in representation. Would the founders have tolerated a House of Representatives with only five members? No.
Mike: Let’s do one more part of the exercise. Professor Donald Livingston is on the Dude Maker Hotline. His latest book is a masterwork, Rethinking the American Union for the 21st Century. It has essays in it from various authors, Dr. Marshal De Rosa, mutual friend of ours, Kent Masterson Brown, Dr. Thomas Di Lorenzo, you have an essay in here, Kirkpatrick Sale, Rob Wilson and Yuri Maltsev. Maltsev is an interesting character, isn’t he? Maltsev has actually lived under tyranny and then lived to witness a secession that kind of freed him.
Livingston: Gorbachev had a council of economic advisors when they were trying to shift from a command economy to a more market economy. Maltsev was one of these. He jumped ship shortly before the thing collapsed and came to America. He’s a very interesting fellow, a very charming, witty fellow.
Mike: Let’s talk for a minute with Professor Livingston. Folks, as you use the “s” word and as you rethink the American union, which I think is a philosophically and intellectually healthy exercise. There was hardly a generation of Americans until Lincoln put the bayonet down on it that did not rethink their union, was there?
Livingston: No. How large were republics? If you look at the history of republicanism from the ancient Greeks to the medieval and modern republics, up till the French Revolution, they hardly ever went beyond 200,000 people. They were very small: Florence, Athens, Rome before it became an empire, Venice. This is what republican government is. If you needed a larger scale, the republics would form federations. At time there would be a larger scale for defense, as the Greeks did when they fought off the Persians, and trade, forming trade pacts and so on. This worked quite well. The Greeks created an entire civilization made up of 1,500 tiny independent states. They were able to get together and fight off the Persians who had something like 40 million people and the Greeks had only 8 million. This is what republican government is supposed to be.
When America was founded, Americans thought that way. We forget how small the scale was. The largest city in 1775 was Philadelphia with 30,000 people. That was the largest. New York did not get to the size of ancient Athens until 1830. The scale in America was actually smaller, in many ways, than ancient Greece. Americans thought that way, so as the states filled up with population and got more people, they seceded: Kentucky secedes from Virginia, Maine from Massachusetts, Tennessee from North Carolina. This was supposed to continue. If a state got too large, it would split and divide. Jefferson thought eventually, if we went all the way to the Pacific, the union would split and divide. It would just be too large and you would have two or three unions on the continent, Jefferson thought. Not only Jefferson but the Jeffersonians thought this, North and South, who ruled up until 1860. Secession is a republican idea. Republics, if they get too large, they split and divide and refederate. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
Mike: One of the characters in my What Lincoln Killed docudramedy is John Lowell. John Lowell was a Massachusian who moonlighted using a pseudonym called the “Refederator.” My daughter asked the question: Dad, why was he called the refederator? Why does he want to refederate? I said: He’s a big secessionist. You have to unfederate before you can refederate.
Mike: Professor Donald Livingston is the editor of Rethinking the American Union for the 21st Century. By the way, when we started the interview today there were five autographed copies of his wonderful book left in the Founders Tradin’ Post. I suspect by the time we’re finished there will be none. Professor Livingston, one of the objections our fellow citizens have to even talk of secession is that it was made illegal. It was pronounced and made illegal by the War of Northern Aggression, by the surrender at Appomattox and then by the 14th Amendment. Could any positive statement of any legislator permanently make the act of secession illegal?
Livingston: It depends on what you mean by legal. If by legal you mean you can go to a federal court and get a decision, that’s what we usually mean by legality — secession is a political question not a legal question. There’s what lawyers call issues that are not justiciable. They are of a character such that no court can authoritatively rule for or against them. Secession is one of those things.
What happens with secession of America, if it’s constitutionally done, a state, being a sovereign political society, has a convention of its people and they vote an ordinance of secession to withdraw the compact with the United States and to secede. Of course, if they do that, then they have to deal with their share of the public debt and other obligations they incurred in the union. Once they’ve done that, they’ve seceded. The Supreme Court has no say over this. After all, they’re an independent country. Whatever the Supreme Court says, if you secede and are a different country, you don’t have to recognize it.
It then becomes a political question between that state and the other states and the congress as to what will be done. If the other states are paying attention to their constitutional tradition, if they’re men of honor who understand their tradition, they will acknowledge that this is a state and it can govern itself and should be allowed to leave. The only question is, what is a just settlement if it leaves? How much of the federal debt does it owe, etc., etc.?
Mike: Another question for Professor Livingston: talk for a minute about the comparison of Bellamy’s “Pledge of Allegiance.” “Pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands.” The United States was a federation, right? It never was a republic.
Mike: Will you explain that to those that have a question about this?
Livingston: Well, people talk today about the American Republic and our republic and we’ve lost our republic, have to save the republic and so on. In a way this is okay, but it really causes confusion. The Constitution in Article IV guarantees to every state a republican form of government. What we have is a federation of republics. A federation of republics is not a republic itself. The example I give is that a federation of country clubs is not another country club. It’s an artificial corporation that exists to serve country clubs but it is not itself a country club. The central government of the United States is an artificial corporation created by the states to serve their interests, commerce, defense and so on, but it’s not another republic.
What Lincoln did was he said the states are counties, not really states but counties, and there’s only one republic, this massive nation called America. If you call America a republic, you’re buying into that Lincolnian notion, which would exclude secession. If you call it a federation of republics, that’s another way of talking. The Canadians, for example, refer to their government as a confederation or federation, and the Swiss do, too.
We’ll be back later today with the rest of the interview, stay tuned….