Amidst post-election secession talk fueled by disappointment with the results, the Christian Science Monitor‘s Washington Editor, Peter Grier, objected, “[F]or all practical purposes the Civil War did settle this question.” At U.S. News & World Report, Managing Editor for Opinion, Robert Schlesinger, fulminated, “Secession is a deeply un-American principle. It is a principle that posed the greatest existential threat to the United States of America and was vanquished by our greatest president.”
You hear less sniffy chiding now that the state considering withdrawing from the union is California (and Oregon, sort-of, though that state’s separatists quickly dropped their effort). Some Silicon Valley heavy-hitters including venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar and tech startup guy Marc Hemeon have pledged funding and support for the California independence movement—the latest movement that is since California, like Texas, split in the past from Mexico and Spain.
Whatever the final outcome of efforts by any state to go its own way, and no matter what snarky responses to the same, there’s little doubt that there’s enormous benefit to be had from secession–by smugglers. And there is nothing more American than smuggling. “Both limits on trade and the defiance of those limits are intimately tied up with America’s concept of itself and Americans’ understanding of patriotism,” I wrote last year in a review of a book about that long and storied history.
Secession means new borders, and borders represent the limits of authority for rival governments enforcing different laws. What’s legal in terms of goods and services on one side of a line on the map may be illegal on the other. That’s an opportunity for entrepreneurs who connect the frustrated customers on one side with suppliers across it. If California splits over its political differences with much of the rest of the country, it’s almost certain to exaggerate the already existing legal conflicts with its neighbors.
It’s impossible to document all of the smuggling potential in a jurisdiction that long ago traded a laid-back attitude for finger-wagging, but guns are an obvious entry on the list of goods restricted by law in California but desired by many residents. “Assault weapons”—basically, scary-looking semiautomatic rifles—are strictly regulated in the state. Only bureaucrat-approved handguns are available for legal sale. Magazines holding more than 10 rounds are banned. A California government unrestrained by the federal Second Amendment could be expected to take its restrictive urges even further.
Despite (or because of) the tight laws, demand for the firearms residents are still allowed to own has been rising. “Gun transactions have been growing in recent years, increasing 2.5 times between 2007 and 2013,” California’s Department of Justice reveals. “In 2016 more than 1 million guns are expected to be sold in California.”
That’s a lot of market waiting to be satisfied by creative operators in the import/export trade who nurse a healthy disrespect for border controls and prohibitive laws alike.
California is also a tad restrictive when it comes to what you put on your plate. Over a decade ago, food nannies pushed through a measure to ban the sale of foie gras in the state—apparently because it’s mean to force-feed birds instead of letting them nibble of their own accord before chopping their heads off and searing, roasting, or broiling their delicious body parts. That law was set aside by a judge—a federal judge—last year. No doubt an independent California would reassert its right to tell people what they can and can’t eat.
And the Californians who gleefully defied that ban when it was in force will likely go back to their scofflaw ways. That means plenty of demand to be satisfied by midnight delivery of forbidden delicacies.
Oddly enough, water might be a product with smuggling potential to markets in the California Republic. Yes, California has ocean views and a thriving agricultural industry. But it also has a deep thirst for the wet stuff largely satisfied by a priority claim on Colorado River water. Arizona has never been satisfied with the arrangement; Sen. John McCain called for renegotiating the deal in 2008 and Governor Moeur actually called out the National Guard in 1934 to challenge California diversion of river water.
An independent California might find that Arizona and other up-river states considered the Colorado River Compact to be null and void. Things might get a little parched on the other side of the new international line unless smugglers stepped in to meet demand. Yes, water is bulky and a few jugs in the trunk aren’t going to do the job. But we’re talking about smuggling to Californians—illicit dealers could probably peddle the stuff to them in dehydrated form.
That’s not to say that Californians would have nothing to send back across the border. Voters just legalized marijuana for recreational sale and use in the state, while a similar measure just fell short across the border in Arizona. Californians would have an opportunity to smuggle good weed to the disappointed 48 percent of voters who favored legalization and can’t get their supply on the medical market. Californians will have to compete for market share with dealers from Colorado and Nevada, though.
Despite much hand-wringing over access to birth control under President-Elect Trump, the incoming chief executive of the old United States actually wants to drop prescription requirements for oral contraceptives so that people can just buy the pills over the counter without asking permission. This should surprise exactly nobody given that the man has apparently lived his adult life in a way that would necessitate bulk purchases of birth control products. But Trump has made some militant noises about restricting access to abortion and appointing Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade.
Depending on how far future U.S. law deviates from the pro-choice culture of California, that potentially creates a market for morning-after pills and the like smuggled from the West Coast. Similar underground markets have already popped up in Latin America and even Texas.
And with the hostility toward privacy and encryption displayed by the old and new U.S. administrations alike, those Silicon Valley backers of California independence might well find a ready—if illicit–market across the new border for products designed to thwart surveillance. It would be the easiest sort of product to “smuggle” too, available through the click of a mouse and a disguised transfer of funds.
Just don’t get caught.
“I think he’s a terrible traitor,” Trump has said of domestic surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden. “And you know what we used to do in the good old days when we were a strong country, you know what we used to do to traitors, right?”
But California-based encryption smugglers would be well-advised to keep a close eye on their home-grown snoops—the Los Angeles Police Department, in particular, “Los Angeles and Southern California police…are expanding their use of surveillance technology such as intelligent video analytics, digital biometric identification and military-pedigree software for analyzing and predicting crime,” the LA Weekly warned two years ago.
Maybe they should base those encryption servers on another continent entirely.
Once borders start proliferating, though, why would it stop there? Is nearly solid-blue New England going to be content to remain in the United States once California’s liberal-leaning congressional delegation and 55 electoral votes go bye-bye? That may well be the impetus to hold a new Hartford Convention and consider northeastern states’ own exit from the union.
And, as Mel Gibson’s character notes in Edge of Darkness, “everything is illegal in Massachusetts.”
A Bay State finally freed to be itself will almost inevitably be a bonanza of opportunity for people willing to provide goods and services upon which local officials frown. OK, even more of a bonanza, given the existing black markets for cigarettes, guns, and other goods that make Massachusetts politicians sad.
Will Texas want to miss out on the secessionist fun? Sure, the state would be a political powerhouse in the absence of California, especially if New England follows. But if the country is coming apart already, an always independence-minded state might not want to be left to turn out the lights.
And while the legislature has considered marijuana legalization, the law has yet to change. The Lone Star State remains a profitable target for pot entrepreneurs willing to shrug at local prohibitions.
And who knows where it goes from there? Reuters conducted a for-the-hell-of-it survey in 2014 and found that one in four Americans want their state to secede from the U.S.
Will #Calexit happen? Maybe. More likely it’s just the latest political temper tantrum in a country grown so centralized that every election becomes a high-stakes contest between factions with incompatible preferences. Nobody feels like they can afford to lose—and half the country always does. So far, that’s meant protests, lots of bad feeling, and empty threats to redraw the border.
But, however unlikely an actual break is, it’s silly to call secession “un-American” in a country that was born by breaking away from Britain. It could happen again—and that means opportunity. Because there’s nothing contrary to the national ethos in bypassing authorities to take goods across borders old and new—and making a few bucks in the process.