Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

The Borders Between US States Are Obsolete | Mises Wire

Posted by M. C. on January 9, 2023

It’s been more than 150 years since most state boundaries were drawn on the US map. That’s an eternity in political terms as can seen by consulting a map of Europe or Asia from 150 years ago. Since then, factors such as domestic migration, foreign immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and the rise of the federal welfare state have enormously changed population and settlement patterns across most states. The idea that today’s state lines drawn so long ago represent the “correct” borders should be regarded as absurd and obsolete.

Ryan McMaken

In recent years, we’ve seen the issue of changing US state borders come up repeatedly. For example, activists in some Colorado counties in 2013 proposed breaking off to form a new state. Since 2021, a similar idea has persisted in having Weld County, Colorado join the State of Wyoming. In 2016, California activists sought a vote on splitting the enormous state into 6 states. It failed to get enough signatures, but in 2018, a similar proposal for 3 new states did get enough signatures. A statewide vote was only avoided because the State Supreme Court panicked and pulled the measure form the ballot with little legal justification.

This year, voters in San Bernardino County in California approved a proposal to “study” secession as a first step in separation. Meanwhile, in Oregon, voters in 11 counties have voted to direct county officials to pursue “relocation of the state border.” In Illinois, activists in Madison County (near St. Louis) have led an effort in which voters in three counties have voted to “explore” secession from Illinois.

When activists propose changes to the current boundaries of US member states, a common reaction from supporters of the political status quo is to scoff. “Not gonna happen” is what they often say, and it’s assumed that such measures are both impractical and unnecessary. As usual, we’re told that “democracy” will somehow magically solve any conflicts that have been growing between the states’ metropolitan cores and their distant, outlying frontiers far from the seats of power.

The knee jerk opposition we so often encounter to such measures is rather odd given that the nation’s current state borders were drawn, in most cases, well over a century ago. In many cases state boundaries were drawn more than two centuries ago. During that time, changes in migration, demographics, and political institutions have re-drawn the political landscape in a myriad of ways. Nonetheless, state boundaries are often treated as if they were created by the hand of the Almighty, and that it would be an unspeakably radical move to simply allow modern state boundaries to reflect modern demographics and populations. 

This policy of clinging to the lines on a map drawn many decades ago is a recipe for political conflict and resentment.

State Boundaries Have Become Functionally Obsolete 

Functional obsolescence occurs when a something no longer serves the function for which it was originally designed. For example, a bridge can become functionally obsolete when it becomes too narrow or too weak to support the types of new vehicles most people now drive. A canal can become functionally obsolete when it is too narrow to allow passage for the types of ships preferred by merchants. Historically, houses could also fall prey to similar problems. For example, a home with asbestos, ancient wiring, or a coal furnace no longer is compatible with modern needs and realities.

Such is the case with many state boundaries as drawn decades or centuries ago. After all, we can see the arbitrary nature of state boundaries out west where many boundaries are simply straight lines drawn by committees. For example, when Colorado residents sought to form a separate territory—which would later become a state—the mapmakers more or less just drew a big trapezoid around the Denver area. Much of the boundary between California and Nevada is similarly arbitrary. And, of course, the state lines that are also international borders—such as the border between Arizona and Mexico—is simply the product of a treaty born out the US’s brutal war of conquest against the Mexicans.

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