Opinion Columns & Blogs

Ben Boychuk: Could nothing succeed like secession?

Tim Draper is a clever fellow. A third-generation venture capitalist with a knack for picking winners, cutting through cant and focusing on the bottom line, Draper embodies the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that made California the Golden State. He’s even founded a university for entrepreneurs.

Draper worries, with reason, that the state is no longer hospitable to men and women of his ilk. He’d like to bring some of his entrepreneurial know-how to bear and do something about it.

“We’re simply too big and bloated,” Draper explained at a news conference Monday. Which is completely true. California is a study in political, economic and social dysfunction. Yes, we’re a great big state – once again the eighth-largest economy in the world – with vast resources. We’re also overregulated and overgoverned, badly schooled and beset with the highest poverty rate in the nation despite pockets of enormous wealth.

Maybe we’re too big for our own good?

Draper last week filed papers with the attorney general’s office proposing a ballot initiative that would split California into six states. If approved, we might one day see the states of Jefferson, North California, Central California, Silicon Valley, West California and South California.

It sounds far-fetched – Draper will need to spend some money to get the 1 million signatures he needs to put the measure on the ballot – but secession isn’t a novel idea in California. The state came close to splitting in half in 1859, less than a decade after entering the union. But Congress never got around to voting on the enabling act – something to do with another secession crisis elsewhere.

In 1941, there was a serious effort among several counties along the California and Oregon border to create the state of Jefferson. Pearl Harbor sank the idea.

A couple of years ago, Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone made a lot of noise about splitting the state in half, carving a new conservative state out of southern and central counties and promising – as the fledgling effort’s website put it – “a business-friendly environment, a part-time legislature, and secure borders and public pension reform,” not to mention a balanced budget amendment, no term limits and a ban on spending tax dollars on services for illegal immigrants. It, too, went nowhere.

What’s most appealing about all these secession schemes, of course, is the idea of being free from ... well, just name your political pet peeve. Tired of those decadent yahoos in the Bay Area shoving their leftist agenda down your throat? Worried about inland reactionaries kneecapping your hard-won environmental protections and labor laws? Let those people govern themselves into oblivion and leave the rest of us alone.

With that in mind, does anyone else find it odd that Draper imagines a free and minimally regulated state of Silicon Valley that includes San Francisco? One of those things is not like the other.

Draper also bets that six states would be more economically vibrant than one. His initiative would give counties the option to switch states, “thereby creating competition which will lead to more responsive governance.”

And there you have a clue as to why Draper’s proposal will end up as another bullet point on the Wikipedia entry for quixotic political fads. Competition? Responsive governance? Apparently, he also expects Californians to “crowd-source” ideas ranging from the design of new state flags to policies governing water rights. What kind of techno-utopian guff is this?

The problem with these schemes to make government more “entrepreneurial” or “business-like” is that fundamentally government isn’t about competition or responsiveness, but force.

Draper is clever enough to make billions investing in companies, but he’s no less susceptible than any old average guy to the “if only” fallacy of politics. Stated simply, our politics would be orders of magnitude better “if only” some grand reform – or reformer – were put into place.

If only the bureaucrats and corrupt politicians in Sacramento and Washington would quit meddling in business, California and the nation would be really booming again.

Never mind that the U.S. Constitution requires Congress to approve the formation of new states. Does anyone really think a Democratic Senate would welcome two or three “red” Californias? Would a Republican Senate relish the thought of more Boxers and Feinsteins?

“The status quo is just not going to work,” Draper told reporters other day. “The existing breadth of industry and various interests in California is untenable.” If only we could sweep away the system and start over with something smaller and leaner.

The Golden State may be a dysfunctional mess governed by fools and knaves, but six Californias won’t necessarily be an improvement. The more difficult work is persuading Californians to rebuild and restore what they already have. If only!