Would the North be Better Off Without the South?

The New York Times has a review of a recent book by travel writer Chuck Thompson which argues that the rest of the country would be better off if the South seceded. In the nineteenth century, the main advocates of secession were southern supporters of slavery, though a few northerners flirted with the idea too. In recent years, ironically, those supporting the idea are almost as likely to be northern liberals as southern conservatives.

Whether Thompson’s argument is correct depends in part on your political ideology. If your overriding objective is to have a more left-wing federal government, it’s hard to deny that southern secession would accomplish that goal for the remainder of the United States. The nonsouthern electorate is significantly to the left of the present total US voting population (which of course includes the South).

Otherwise, Thompson’s position is dubious at best. In recent decades, the southern states have had higher economic growth and income growth than the North, and many northerners – including even many African-Americans – have voted with their feet for the South because of its greater economic opportunities, lower taxes and regulations, and much cheaper home prices (caused in large part by looser zoning restrictions in southern cities).

Without the South, the US would lose a great deal of its economic dynamism. And unless there was free migration between the two nations, northerners would lose a valuable foot voting option. In fairness, the South would never have achieved its recent economic successes but for the federal government-led abolition of Jim Crow segregation, and investment by northern and foreign business interests. But the issue is not whether southerners are solely responsible for the region’s revival since the 1960s, but whether southern secession today would leave the rest of the nation better off.

Thompson is right that many southern voters are politically ignorant, and some southern politicians venal and corrupt. But widespread political ignorance is a nationwide problem that isn’t confined to any one region or party. And for every egregiously corrupt jurisdiction in the South (e.g. – Louisiana), one can point to similar cases in the North, such as Illinois.

Like Thompson, I am no fan of the 19th century southern secession movement, or of recent efforts to whitewash its record by pretending that it wasn’t principally motivated by the desire to protect slavery. No one can deny that the region’s record on racial issues was atrocious for most of American history. I am also not fond of the South’s relative social conservatism. Finally, I am not opposed to the idea of secession on principle, and there are cases where it might be the best course of action. This, however, probably isn’t one of them.