The Secession Solution

A data-based plea for the Independent States of America


Elly Walton /

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Aristotle declared that there should be a limit to the size of states. But really, what did he know? He lived at a time when the entire population of the world was somewhere around 50 million—about the size of England today. Athens, where he lived, would have been under 100,000 people. He couldn’t even imagine a world (ours) of 6.8 billion, or a city (Tokyo) of 36 mil­­lion. How is he going to help us?

He, at least, knew this much:

“Experience shows that a very populous city can rarely, if ever, be well governed; since all cities which have a reputation for good government have a limit of population. We may argue on grounds of reason, and the same result will follow: for law is order, and good law is good order; but a very great multitude cannot be orderly.”

So political units, Aristotle said, have to be limited. And it is with that understanding that we now may start contemplating what in today’s world would constitute the ideal, or optimum, size of a political state.

This is not some sort of idle philosopher’s quest but the foundation of a serious reordering of our political landscape, and a reordering such as the process of secession—indeed, only the process of secession—could provide. The U.S. provides abundant evidence that a state as large as 310 million people is ungovernable. One scholar recently said that we are in the fourth decade of the U.S. Congress’ inability to pass a single measure of social consequence. Bloated and corrupted beyond its ability to address any of the problems it has created as an empire, it is a blatant failure. So what could replace it, and at what size? The answer is the independent states of America.

Let us start by looking at modern nations to give us some clue as to population sizes that actually work.

Among the nations that are recognized models of statecraft, eight are below 500,000—Luxembourg, Malta, Iceland, Barbados, Andorra, Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino.

Of the 14 states generally reckoned freest in the world, 9 have populations below Switzerland’s, at 7.7 million, and 11 below Sweden’s, at 9.3 million; the only sizable states are Canada, the United Kingdom, and Germany (the largest, at 81 mil­­lion).There are other national rankings. Literacy: Of the 46 countries that claim a literacy rate of 99 or better, 25 are below 7.5 million. Health: Measured by the World Health Organization, 9 of the top 20 are under 7 million. In 2009 rankings of happiness and standard of living, the top countries were Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Austria, and Finland; all but Canada and Australia have small populations.

Enough of that. The point, I trust, is well and simply made. The figures seem to suggest that there is an optimum size of a successful state, somewhere in the range of 3 million to 5 million people.

Surprisingly, a great many countries are also modest in geographic terms—underlining the point, often missed by critics of secession, that a nation does not have to be self-sufficient to operate well in the modern world. In fact, there are 85 countries out of the 195 counted by the United Nations that are under 10,000 square miles—that is to say, the size of Vermont or smaller.

And if we measure economic strength by per capita GDP, small countries prove to be decidedly advantageous. Seventy-seven percent of the most prosperous countries are small. And most of them are quite small indeed: under 10,000 square miles.

Administrative, distribution, transportation, and similar transaction costs obviously rise, perhaps exponentially, as geographic size increases. Control and communication also become more difficult to manage over long distances, often to the point where central authority and governance become nearly impossible.


I propose that, out of these figures and even more so out of the history of the world, results a Law of Government Size, and it goes like this: Economic and social misery increase in direct proportion to the size and power of the central government of a nation.

The consolidation of nations into power­ful empires leads not to shining periods of peace and prosperity and the advance of human betterment, but to increasing restriction, warfare, autocracy, crowding, immiseration, inequality, poverty, and starvation.

Small, then, is not only beautiful but also bountiful.

How does all of this apply to the United States today?

Of the 50 states, 29 have populations below 5 million people. Eight states and a colony in the 3 million to 5 million population class would be ideal secession candidates: Iowa, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Kentucky, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Alabama. Twelve—Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Idaho, Nebraska, West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Kansas, and Arkansas—have between 1 million and 3 million people, and seven, including Vermont, have fewer than 1 million people but more than Iceland.

The argument for secession need not focus exclusively on population or geographic size—one might factor in cultural cohesion, developed infrastructure, historical identity—but that seems to be the sensible place to start in considering viable states. And since the experience of the world has shown that populations ranging from 3 mil­lion to 5 million are optimal for governance and efficiency, that is as good a measure as any to use to begin assessing secessionist potential and chances of success as independent states.

The only hope for reenergizing American politics is to create truly sovereign states through peaceful, popular, powerful secession.


Kirkpatrick Sale is director of the Middlebury Institute and the author of Human Scale. Excerpted from Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (Oct. 2010) 

jan-feb-2011-cover-thumbnail This article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

james boyd
1/28/2011 11:19:09 AM

As a resident of New Mexico, I can safely say that this will never happen (at least, not without violence). My state has two senators, just as many as California does. Why should a net recipient of federal funds be at all interested in splitting up the union? Furthermore, what would limit the inevitable possibility of war over natural resources, space, or people between states? Normally I expect rather astute reporting and analysis from Utne reader, but this is pure bile, no doubt printed in order to solicit the reflexive comments in favor of this hare-brained plan from solipsistic Northern-Californians (and, to be fair, cranky Southwesterners like me).

1/17/2011 3:38:31 PM

I really liked to see this article. It says exactly what I've been thinking about for a long time. We in San Francisco, as a progressive (leaning towards liberal) city, have always been saying that Northern California should be a separate state from Southern California. We are totally opposite in thinking and politics. However, if you are basing this on population size we would be very small. I would like to see Washington, Oregon and Northern California together as a separate state or country.

1/17/2011 10:58:36 AM

The idea sounds logical on the surface but there are serious flaws in the concept. How would states that split divide the "assets" and infrastructure (state parks, state road systems, etc)? How would those that merged combine differently managed ones? The process could lead to some very messy relationships--not unlike disfuncional marriages or hostile divorces.

pete hart
1/17/2011 9:32:12 AM

I didn't thoroughly read the article, but: 1. I didn't see any mention of Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia (1975) 2. And following in the footsteps of Callenbach, I would hope that Northern California would split from the rest of the state to join Washington State and Oregon. Finally, I don't think that many Oklahomans would enjoy hooking up with Texas.

bob bennett
1/17/2011 8:38:14 AM

I am all for forcing California to secede. From my experiences there roughly 20 years ago, the U.S. constitution is routinely ignored there, unless of course you have lots of money to afford a good attorney. When security for the elites over rides everything else, as it does in California only trouble can result. Of course, part of California's problems ... and the nations are the result of the short-sighted Miranda decision. Among other things this decision required all counties to provide an attorney to all defendants who face six months or more imprisonment. Most states, including California, have a one year possible sentence for misdemeanors, which means that everyone gets an attorney, and the plea bargain system which has resulted to avoid the costs of trials effectly does not allow those who believe themself innocent to come to trial. Meanwhile minor crime is rewarded by the attorney's stock phrase "Plea no contest and I can get you out of jail by tomorrow." Some states, like Nevada, have 6 month possible sentence for misdemeanor, but still require attorney as it is one day more than Miranda lets a person face a judge him or herself.