From the Comments: Sovereignty, the Commons, and International Relations

There have been a number of excellent discussions in the ‘comments’ threads these days. Dr Khawaja adds more depth to the discussion on Iran and foreign policy. Me and Chhay Lin are in the midst of a debate on democracy and libertarianism. Michelangelo’s post on splitting up California generated a good discussion. You can see what’s hot in the threads by looking to your right, of course. I wanted to highlight this ‘comment’ by Rick in the threads of Edwin’s recent post on liberalism and sovereignty:

“[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.).

More discussion is needed on this point…


3 thoughts on “From the Comments: Sovereignty, the Commons, and International Relations

  1. (Jesus Christ. What the hell happened here? Remember the good old days when the ‘comments’ threads were trolled by Notewriters on a regular basis?)

    Rick’s point about “the question of how a polycentric order would emerge and function” in a world order is spot on, and I wish more people had honed in on this. I’ve been trying to chip away at this question for years now here at NOL, and Barry, Michelangelo, Jacques, and Edwin have all pitched in to help me out, but success has been very limited.

    My answer to this question begins with the US constitution. I know it’s counter-intuitive because it has a centralized governance aspect to it, but hear me out. If we follow Rick’s conceptual split between a domestic and an international view, the US constitution can be viewed in two lights: as a contract between individuals and a central government (“domestic”) and as a contract between several states and a central government (“international”).

    When viewed in this way, the US federation becomes an attractive option for an emergent polycentric order. There needs to be a mechanism for allowing potential “states” to join the federation, and for allowing them to leave. I think the US constitution is the best option available for this because it is so simple. Many constitutions in democracies (or “democracies”) are too complex. They are complex because they are not really constitutions. That is to say, they didn’t arise out of agreements between states or polities, but instead are products of one powerful regional polity imposing its will on several weaker polities in a pragmatic manner. (For example, Prussia creating the German federation. Prussia was powerful enough to coerce weaker polities into joining its German federation, but not powerful enough to impose itself completely on these other polities so it had to incorporate some representational aspects into a constitution.) This is different from the American experience because, once the British left, no regional hegemon was apparent. Virginia was close to being a regional hegemon (so boxing it in to a federation is a major reason why the other states joined the federation), but it wasn’t one yet.

    While I realize the US constitution has grown to incorporate more and more roles over the years, and thus serves as a reason to be skeptical of its potential as a vehicle for polycentric order, implementing a mechanism requiring it to be open to applications for “statehood” (and for leaving) will weaken the administrative apparatus that has grown much too too powerful. (Ask me how.) The Madisonian republic offers an alternative where we have both a weakened administrative state and a more fluid, and hence stable, international order.

    • I think you’re right to emphasize exit. The ability to exit (and everyone needs to believe it’s really possible) is what would keep a federation from getting out of hand. The trouble is that if we end up with a small handful of federations we could easily fall into some us-and-them mess where our tribal instincts lead to conflict. A larger number of federations might be preferable… basically the nation-states we’ve got now plus the ability of regions to peacefully exit. That actually seems like a reasonable goal to achieve along the way to an-cap utopia.

Please keep it civil

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