Has America Become Two Countries?

“By overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court has created a situation where different parts of the country are going to have completely different laws about abortion, and people are going to start migrating to states that have laws they prefer!” Very likely; and wasn’t that essentially the intention and glory of the founding concept of The United States of America?

A country so vast, with geographical, religious, and historical differences so significant, could not, and therefore should not, be forced to conform in all matters to a single top-down model of society, with one universally applied set of moral and social norms. Beyond the basic premises and precepts established in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, specific customs and legislation related to complicated issues, changing attitudes, and developing scientific knowledge should be debated and decided primarily at the state level, in the name of maintaining the central republican principles of individual sovereignty and representative government. And if that results in your local community moving in a direction you do not like, then you are free to find a region of the country, if possible, where the prevailing attitudes and moral principles are closer to your own, a freedom of choice which, among other benefits, provides a practical safeguard against authoritarian impositions upon the popular will. Isn’t that a lovely idea? Isn’t that what a constitutional republic should look like?

Tribalism is rife in America these days, with all the ugliness that brings. But the rhetoric of “two Americas,” so prevalent at the moment, is merely the lament of each of the two most powerful (and least legitimate) tribes bemoaning the existence of the other. In a sense, there are and should be fifty Americas, some more alike to one another and some less so. And even those relative similarities and differences are shifting all the time in both proportion and intensity. This is as it must be, given the imperfection and general ignorance of humans. The hope, never completely realizable of course, is that over time, through the discussion and experimentation intrinsic to social existence, one might find greater unity of belief and sentiment over a widening array of issues, as the natural search for ultimate goods tends to bring rational men and women closer together. In the meantime, however — and with respect to the goal of complete unity in the truth, it will always be “the meantime” — the differences of local laws and beliefs from region to region ought not to be regarded as a terrible flaw, or evidence of national collapse, but rather defended as the proper working model for a republic of over three hundred million people, spread out over thousands of miles of land, and with radically different climates and historical trajectories.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, along with the Bill of Rights and its implications, the system of government, and the concept of equality before the law, are properly national premises, in accordance with which all regional decisions must be made. But with regard to subtler interpretations of those premises, basic social customs, and moral and educational beliefs, it is appropriate and preferable, all things considered, that the states be left to work things out in their own ways — not because truth is relative, but on the contrary because the ultimate truths we all believe to be out there are so elusive. In light of this, mankind’s best hope is to air our semi-rational differences in such a way that the most sincere and earnest among us may gradually begin to distinguish the reasonable from the untenable, the natural from the unnatural, and the ultimately desirable from the temptingly convenient, whether with regard to abortion or anything else.

Men turn to coercion and violence precisely when they abandon reason — and tribalism, the blind certainty that has long forgotten its own arguments, let alone anyone else’s, is the surest means to the general abandonment of reason. The attempt to nationalize all opinions and judgments beyond those basic principles upon which a nation depends as its founding ideas — to impose an artificial “national consensus” where none exists — is just tribal violence masquerading as legislation.

Roe v. Wade was illegitimate and authoritarian in part because it attempted to force a contentious moral view about matters of extreme emotional importance upon an entire nation, regardless of local beliefs or traditions. It was in that sense an attempt to forestall the living “national debate” that is regional difference, by arbitrarily imposing one side of a charged and divisive question as the official moral truth trumping all other contenders, with the effect of artificially normalizing one point of view by peremptorily marginalizing and delegitimizing all others. When someone insists on using universal coercion to compel a largely disagreeing or undecided populace to abide by his view, you have good reason to question his confidence in his capacity to support that view with reasoned argument.

Similarly, if people wish to live in a socialist community, they ought to feel free to do so. Most decently functional families operate on largely socialistic principles, for example; and if a larger collection of families or individuals wish to “spread the wealth” amongst themselves, more power to them. But they ought not to feel empowered to impose structural, legalistic socialism — that is, the coercive abolition of private property — on the majority of their fellow citizens who prefer not to distribute the fruit of their efforts in accordance with a community model they reject. 

If liberty is the goal, then by and large and as far as possible, liberty ought to be the means. In political terms, liberty, at least on the very successful American model, means self-government, and self-government, in political practice, requires the greatest possible deference to local control, which is to say local decision-making based on local beliefs and attitudes. This is never more important than with regard to those issues upon which there is both a wide span of contemporary disagreement and a vast array of mutually incompatible historical precedent. In a society that alleges to honor current scientific evidence and to hold the notion of a natural right to life as a founding principle, those who oppose abortion on precisely these grounds would appear to have the logical upper hand, inasmuch as even the ancient historical examples of legal abortion seem to have been largely dependent on the best understanding of the point at which “life and sensation” (Aristotle’s phrase) begin, a point that has been radically redefined by modern scientific theory and methods of observation. Those communities, therefore, which prefer to structure their laws on this basis — the constitutional understanding of rights plus the scientific understanding of life — ought to be free to do so, and if some individuals within those communities wish not to be restricted in their sexual behavior by such laws (which of course is primarily what the “abortion debate” is really about, all rape examples being little more than an emotional smokescreen), then they ought not to be prevented from trying to find another region where the concept of life, in the context of applying the natural right to life to humans born and unborn, is defined differently in local law. And if, in the vicissitudes of time and the free exchange of ideas, there become ever-fewer such regions — that is, if it becomes harder to find states where abortion on demand remains legal in accordance with prevailing beliefs among the local citizenry — then so be it. Lord knows we all live in communities which fail to accommodate our preferences and principles on many issues, leading to many frustrating curtailments of life as we would prefer to live it. The inability to gain access to “safe, legal abortions” would merely be one of those, for people who prefer to pursue their sexual pleasures without consideration of potential consequences. No one should have to endure universal authoritarianism merely to support and protect someone else’s pleasures. 

Let the states decide, and may the national discussion (and migration) play itself out as it will. That’s what a free republic would do about such a thorny and divisive issue. And America was founded as, and should soon remember how to be, such a republic.

You may also like...