California Dreamin’ of Secession

Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone recently called for southern California to secede and form a new state:

Is the state of California about to go “South”?

Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone apparently thinks so, after proposing that the county lead a campaign for as many as 13 Southern California counties to secede from the state.

Stone said in a statement late Thursday that Riverside, Imperial, San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino, Kings, Kern, Fresno, Tulare, Inyo, Madera, Mariposa and Mono counties should form the new state of South California.

The creation of the new state would allow officials to focus on securing borders, balancing budgets, improving schools and creating a vibrant economy, he said.

“Our taxes are too high, our schools don’t educate our children well enough, unions and other special interests have more clout in the Legislature than the general public,” Stone said in his statement…..

Stone said he would present his proposal to the Board of Supervisors July 12.

The new state would have no term limits, only a part-time legislature and limits on property taxes.

Even if Stone succeeds in getting other southern Californians to support his plan, it faces very long legal and political odds. As Bill Whalen points out, the Constitution does not allow a state’s territory to be divided without its own consent. And the admission of a new state to the Union requires approval by Congress. Obviously, the California state legislature is unlikely to agree to the secession. And even if it does, congressional Democrats are unlikely to approve the admission of a state with two new Republican senators unless a new majority-Democratic state is admitted at the same time (e.g. – Puerto Rico or the District of Columbia).

Ironically, the Constitution is far more clear about making it hard for territories to secede from a state than about the secession of states from the Union, a subject on which it is conspicuously silent. No successful secession from a state has occurred since West Virginia broke off from Virginia during the Civil War. And that secession may have violated the Constitution, since the Virginia legislature did not consent to it at the time.

This is one of those areas where I think the Constitution gets things wrong. Seceding from a state should not be easy. But it also should not be as impossibly difficult as the Constitution currently makes it. Some of our present states are probably too big, and California is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon.

Normally, dysfuctional state policies are constrained by the possibility of “voting with your feet.” If a state imposes overly high taxes, adopts flawed regulations, or provides poor public services, people and businesses will tend to migrate elsewhere, thereby incentivizing the state government to clean up its act in order to preserve its tax base. For reasons I discussed in this article, foot voters usually have incentives to be better-informed and more rational in their decision-making than ballot-box voters.

In California’s case, however, this dynamic has been undercut by the state’s size and favorable geographic location. Because California is extremely large and controls most of the warm-weather coastal territory on the West Coast, people have been willing to put up with a lot of bad policies for the opportunity to live there. Competitive pressure on the state government would be much greater if there were three or four states occupying California’s present territory instead of one.

In recent years, conditions in California have gotten so bad that the state has finally begun to experience a net outmigration to other states of approximately 140,000 per year. And the state government has belatedly begun to reform itself, with Democratic governor Jerry Brown proposing to cut spending and abolish the state’s abusive redevelopment agencies. But these trends did not take hold until after the state had dug an extremely deep hole for itself that it will take years to dig out of. A smaller California that faced more interjurisdictional competition probably would not have become so dysfunctional to begin with. And if it did, it would have had to mend its ways sooner, since people would have started to leave earlier.

Obviously, given the existence of economies of scale in government, we would not want states that are too small. However, California and a number of other states have several times more people than many European countries whose governments function as well or better than those of other democracies, including Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, and Sweden. Indeed, California has many more people than Canada. No serious scholar argues that Switzerland and Denmark are missing out on important economies of scale. The same goes for states such as Virginia and Massachusetts, as well as the hypothetical new state of southern California.

It’s also worth noting that secession from a state doesn’t raise nearly as many difficult moral and political issues as secession from the Union. People who secede from a state would still be under the federal Constitution and would still enjoy its guarantees of individual rights. They will also still be subject to other federal laws. So even if you are more skeptical than I am about secession from nation-states, you can still favor loosening restrictions on the formation of new states within a nation.