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Should We Party Like It’s 1938?

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In further demonstration that this is a forum for vigorous debate among friends: I strenuously disagree with Brother McGinnis’s post on Scottish independence. As usual he gets the analytics right: no matter how the vote turns out, it will embolden independence movements elsewhere. John is also right in suggesting that the EU has by design and institutional logic fostered such movements. It has done so by design (for example, through regional transfer payments) on the theory that anything that is bad for nation-states must therefore be good for the EU’s federalism project. It has done so by logic because the overall umbrella of free trade (by and large) reduces the expected price of secession. They’ve come a long way. There’s no longer a point in obsessing over a Belgium without a functional government because there is no longer a reason to have a Belgium in the first place.

John urges us to celebrate all that as an advance for cultural diversity, local autonomy, and constitutional federalism. Here are three reasons why we might not want to do that, in ascending order of salience:

  • Could somebody tell me the stopping point? Maybe you can draw the line between Scotland and England where Emperor Hadrian drew it; but Alsace-Lorraine? Tyrolia? The Basque “country”? The Balkans, for Pete’s sake? Wherever you draw lines over there, some folks will be trapped in the wrong ethnic jurisdiction; and the smaller the units, the less harmony there will be. The difficulty tripped up liberals (such as John Stuart Mill) in the 19th century; what’s changed since then?
  • John writes: “[C]onstitutional federalism likely has a greater future in Europe than in the United States where, with a few exceptions like Texas, geographical areas increasingly do not map onto very distinctive cultures.” Really? The truth is the reverse. “[C]onstitutional structures are matters not only of the intellect but also of the heart,” John says. Darn right. And if you want constitutional federalism, people’s hearts have to run to the Constitution, not some parochial attachments. Once you map statehood onto culture, constitutionalism becomes a bloodless abstraction. That’s why in our entire constitutional debate there’s a lot a burble about large versus small states but never a word about protecting local folkways or customs in Connecticut or Georgia; why the most brutal assault on the Constitution was preceded by a lot of romantic claptrap about a distinctive Southern “culture”; why places like Oklahoma and Alaska could not become states until they were no longer identifiable by culture, language etc; and why Puerto Rico and for that matter Indian reservations cannot ever become states. And that’s why constitutional federalism is (still) a reality here and a bureaucratic nightmare and an international law illusion over there.
  • Finally: “The security advantages from being part of a larger European nation state are also perceived to have declined.  … Russia’s recent incursion into Ukraine should be a wake-up call, but for most Europeans Ukraine is faraway nation of which they know nothing.  And others in prospective breakaways may think they can free ride on the many nations already in NATO that are closer to the Russian bear.”

Like I said: analytically right; wrong in every other respect. Incursion??? Invasion and annexation. Ukraine is far away. But then so is Estonia, to whose defense the EU and NATO are nominally committed. I wouldn’t hold my breath. The “Russian bear” can shoot 250 Dutch citizens out of the blue sky and the government’s “defense” of its own citizens is, “too bad.” But maybe the Catalans will defend Latvia, once they have their independence.

As Bret Stephens reminds us today in his “Memo to Wannabe Bravehearts,” when did we last see this joint celebration of local self-determination and airy legal abstractions? When lots of people also winked at “incursions” in faraway places. When Poland was a tripwire. And when America, barely emerged from a prolonged economic crisis, was a country with a depleted military force and an electorate in no mood for foreign adventures.

Let’s party like it’s 1938.

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