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…


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.