Over a decade ago, Don Livingston organized a Liberty Fund Colloquium in Charleston, South Carolina.  One of the sessions examined whether any movement toward political decentralization was possible without at least the threat of secession to back it up.

On that subject, most of the attendees agreed: Whether one regards secession as good in itself, or as a tool that it may become necessary to use, it hardly seems possible to bring about political decentralization without being willing and able to use secession to force the hand of the central government.

But one thing troubled me: How realistic is the threat of political secession today, given the level of economic and cultural centralization in the United States?  If a state seceded today and President Obama decided to prevent it, would he send in the military?  Or would he simply pick up the phone and tell the CEO of Walmart that, if he wishes to continue doing business in the remaining 49 united states, Walmart should immediately shut down all of its stores in the newly independent one?

It’s a question many proponents of secession seem reluctant to consider.  Some see it as a nonissue, because they’re convinced that economic problems will always work themselves out.  Others simply compare the gross domestic products of the various states with the GDP of small countries around the world, forgetting just how much of each state’s GDP today is dependent on national and multinational corporations, not to mention state and local governments that are dependent on federal grants and loans.

None of this, of course, touches on the constitutionality of secession.  But threatening political secession while assuming, more or less, that the economic and cultural problems will work themselves out is putting the cart before the horse.

We see this in mirror image in discussions of Mexican irredentism.  Those who think that the American Southwest may someday break off from the United States and unite with Mexico argue that the cultural cohesion of recent Mexican immigrants to Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and their continued economic ties to family back home, will tip the balance.  The solution advanced by those who don’t want to see the Southwest leave the Union is Americanization—English-only education and baseball rather than Spanish and soccer, McDonald’s and Walmart rather than taco stands and family-owned Mexican stores.

At that Liberty Fund conference in the late 90’s, Professor Livingston predicted that, within a decade, secession would be a topic that could be discussed publicly.  He was right.  But that doesn’t mean that political decentralization, let alone outright secession, is any closer today.

Does that mean that all hope is lost?  Should we decide that greater centralization is inevitable and, in the words of onetime Texas gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams, “just relax and enjoy it”?

Not at all.  But we need to cast aside the assumption that big problems require equally grand solutions.

Wendell Berry famously responded to the fatuous environmental slogan “Think globally, act locally” by urging his readers to “Think locally and act locally.”  But many of the advocates of secession have swung past Berry.  They love the place where they live and the people they live among; and so they do “think locally.”  But they still feel compelled to “act globally” or, at least, to react against global trends in ways that are unlikely to bring about concrete change.

Such an attitude can justify complacency regarding the things over which we have the most control.  If I can save a few bucks by shopping at Walmart, why shouldn’t I?  Government is the problem, not big business.  If I don’t like what government policies have done to my city, why shouldn’t I simply move, so that I can continue to concentrate my efforts on Washington, D.C., without the distractions of daily life?

If someone suggests growing your own garden, planting a fruit tree or two, learning to love your neighbors, living close to where you work and shopping close to where you live, marrying and having children and rearing and educating them well, and preparing your soul to meet its Maker, he is accused of quietism or of failing to understand just how profound the crisis really is.  All of those things may have been well and good, in a different time; but today, such things must give way to political action.

But what if the best political action in the long term is decidedly unpolitical in the short?  Can we have political decentralization without first having vibrant local economies and cultures that are more than simply minor variations on the culture of New York and Los Angeles?

Might the answer, in fact, lie not so much with secession as with the building of true communities of faith, and hope, and love?