Liberalism and Sovereignty

More than a year ago I promised Jacques a post on sovereignty and while I am not always able to follow up very quickly, I tend to do what I promise. So here it is! Jacques’ main cri de coeur was why (classical) liberals should care about sovereignty at all.

When it comes to the theoretical discussion about sovereignty (the literature is huge), I think there is no better start than the work of international relations theorist Robert Jackson. Or better and broader: any thinking about international relations benefits from this Canadian, former Boston University professor, especially his magnum opus The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States (Oxford University Press, 2000). But this is a side step.

In his 2008 book Sovereignty: Evolution of an Idea (Polity Press) he argues that:

sovereignty is an idea of authority embodied in those bordered territorial organizations we refer to as states, and is expressed in their various relations and activities, both domestic and foreign. It originates from the controversies and wars, religious and political of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. It has become the fundamental idea of authority of the modern era, arguably the most fundamental.

Also in regions where other kinds of arrangements existed before Western imperialism.

It is at the same time both an idea of supreme authority in the state, and an idea of political and legal independence of geographically separate states. Hence, sovereignty is a constitutional idea of the rights and duties of the governments and citizens or subjects of particular states. It is also an international idea of multiple states in relation to each other, each one occupying its own territories and having foreign relations and dealing with others, including peaceful and cooperative relations as well as discordant relations and periodical wars.

Of course a lot of popular and academic discussion follows from this, for example about the particular form of sovereignty (popular, or not), the relation between power and sovereignty, sovereignty and globalization, or if and when sovereignty may be breached to protect others through intervention. Yet here I solely  focus on the relation between sovereignty and liberal political theory.

Concerning the domestic supremacy side of sovereignty a lot has been written by liberals. Most liberals (classical, social, and even libertarian minarchists, such as Ayn Rand or Robert Nozick; see my Degrees of Freedom for the precise definitions) realize some form of state is needed to protect individual rights. A state embodied with sovereignty. At the same time most liberals (social liberals less so, because they favor a relatively large state) recognize the state is also the largest danger to individual freedom. How to balance the two is the perpetual question of liberal political thought, one also without a definitive answer or solution, so far.

Less attention has been given to the international side of sovereignty. There are a number of libertarians, such as the anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard, or his intellectual successor Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who think there should not be states, hence no issues of sovereignty exist once their stateless world has materialized (they remain largely silent about how to reach that situation). Yet it seems to me the thinking should not stop there. These same thinkers romanticize the idea of secession, yet seem to overlook that those seceded groups or communities also need to deal with other seceded groups and communities. They are a bit lazy when stating everybody should look after themselves, and only defend themselves in case of attack by others. If everything would be nice and neat among people this might be ok. Yet of course history shows (also in those areas where sovereignty never played a big role before Western imperialism) that people interfere all the time in each others affairs, some rulers may have malign intentions, others belief some parts of the seceded lands belong to their community, let alone issues about religion, et cetera. In short, chances on a peaceful world with the occasional conflict that can be solved by self defense are zero.

Funnily enough, social liberals share the idea of the possibility of a world peace and cosmopolitan harmony. They also favor the abolition of sovereign states, not through secession but through the pooling of sovereignty at the transnational level, with the European Union as an example and a world federation as the ultimate end goal. This seems just as unrealistic, as even the EU is still mainly governed from the member states, as the current refugee crisis and the possible dissolution of the Schengen agreement illustrates. More generally, the pooling of sovereignty proves rather difficult, also in other parts of the world. ASEAN in South East Asia is an example.

More realistic are classical liberals, such as Hume, Smith, and Hayek, who acknowledged an emotional tie between the individual and his country, as well as the constant need to defend individual property rights against invasion by others, through standing armies, diplomacy, some international treaties, the balance of power, et cetera.  Human nature does not allow for starry eyed fantasies about international harmony, let alone international peace. Hence, it is rather normal to care about external sovereignty, as it is foremost a means of protection.  Not the sole means, but an important and fundamental institution of international relations.

15 thoughts on “Liberalism and Sovereignty

  1. My question was this: How can libertarians be concerned with respecting the boundaries of states, of their sovereignty?

    They cry out like a tickled nun every time one state interferes in the affairs of another and every time a part of a state tries to secede. It seems to me they attribute to states a degree of religious sanctity.

    The question arises because, as you say, Brandon, “the state is also the largest danger to individual freedom.”

    You can’t have it both ways, ” States are the main or major threats to individual freedom and we must respect their boundaries.”

    Good start though.

  2. Just to clarify, you favor a world federation do you not? How do you reconcile that with, at least from how I read this post, your skepticism towards the EU and similar transnational organizations? Is it because your hypothetical world federation would be fully sovereign as opposed to having a pooled sovereignty?

    And I agree that market anarchists do need to address international relations and nationalism more. Even in an anarchist utopia there would be communities and disagreements between those communities. Likewise nations and other imagined communities do exist independent of states. Rothbard in his late life tried to address these issues, but in my view he ended up glorifying the state too much.

  3. @ Michelangelo: No, I do not favor a world federation at all, I consider myself a classical liberal, not a social liberal.I think individuals are emotionally attached to national states, even when these states were ‘made up’ in a conference room thousands of miles away, as happened in Africa. Of course I am not claiming this is the sole attachement, as people also have (stronger) bonds to their familiy, city or tribe, I do claim people will generally find it hard to get emotionally attached to transnational organsiations such as the EU, let alone bigger kinds of organisations at a world level. Yet for these transnational organisations to work, they need the emotional (as opposed to just the rational) support of the people. Hence they are ultimately doomed to failure.

    @ Jacques: I think there is a need to balance both ways you describe. In fact that is the whole liberal dilemma in this context: how to keep the state in check internally, while preserving its coherence externally. In my view sovereignty protetects more than it breaches individual rights. Surely, this does not exclude secession in all circumstances (the most important example is the independence of the countries that used to form the USSR), but the romantisizing of secessions of say groups of 300.00 people (which Mises claimed as a minimal amount) seems to cause more liberal problems than it is a solution to perceived injustices if these people have to remain within an existing state.

    • I thank you for your clarification.

      One additional question. Why do you believe the US has succeeded where the EU has failed in gaining the emotional support of the masses? Although the US has a common language its people are sufficiently varied that I feel confident in speaking of various nations existing.

      Is there reason to believe that the EU cannot learn from the US and adopt policies that would promote emotional attachment to itself?

    • Good question. I guess there are a number of factors in play. The formation of the country (build something new from colonies, instead of enforcing something from above on ancient civilisations); the common language (despite areas where spanish is also spoken, yet this the exception); the nationalist cult (such as the flag ceremonies and singing of the hymn, even at baseball games); the national political institutions, especially the president; and so forth.

  4. “[S]overeignty is a constitutional idea of the rights and duties of the governments and citizens or subjects of particular states.”

    To me, a constitution is like a contract. It’s close to set in stone and it lays out these rights and duties. But the idea of sovereignty Jackson is pointing toward in that quote would be better understood as laying out a sort of meta-prize; it’s a delineation of the commons that potential groups within that area may compete over or cooperate in. To be fair, a constitution is a similar sort of commons (especially when that constitution includes the right to collect tax and lead armies). The question of how to govern the commons is *the* question on the domestic side.

    On the international end of things, anarcho-capitalism calls for muddying the borders of these commons. This has obvious costs and benefits: it makes the emergence of a productive polycentric order easier, but it also opens access to what would have been relatively closed commons. I think the missing piece in the world governance question, whether from a classical liberal, minarchist, or anarchist perspective is the question of how a polycentric order would emerge and function (e.g. standards associations, norms of arbitration/dispute resolution, etc.).

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