Why do we care so much about sovereignty?

by on January 26, 2011 at 7:24 am in Music, Philosophy, Political Science | Permalink

IVV, a loyal MR reader, asks:

With all the talks about sovereign debt and default, the various EU problems, libertarian rumblings and increasing globalization, I'm mightily curious about one thing:

Why do we care so much about sovereignty?

Why are we trying so hard to declare this patch of land one place or another, and not neither nor both? Why are we trying to identify the people on that land as under one or another jurisdiction? What does being under a jurisdiction mean, and why must that choice be kept out of the hands of individuals? What's the economic value of all this?

We need units which produce public goods and we need people willing to declare their income and pay their taxes and, sometimes, fight and die for those units.  Therefore we need some amount of irrational belief in the idea of sovereignty, nation, and the like.  (Read Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities.)  Today's distributional pattern of nation-states probably isn't ideal (I would prefer smaller units on the whole), but when it comes to OECD nations it works well enough.  We also don't know of good transition paths to something better, though within an overarching framework such as the EU such paths may be possible. 

Arguably the whole thing is sustained by evolutionary programming.  We cling to small groups, because we once needed to for purposes of survival.  Political entrepreneurs piggyback upon this sentiment to give us a largely illusory attachment to a bigger unit than just a band of hunter-gatherers or however it worked.  The large is made to feel small, through radio, TV, and local organization of political groups, among other methods.

At the margin, policies which "slip out" of sovereignty, without wrecking the entire superstructure of the nation-state, are usually a good idea.  Such as more immigration.  Diverting $1 million from Medicare to a helicopter drop over Haiti is also a good idea, although it cannot be made politically incentive-compatible on a larger scale.  So we have a simple formula for massive gains: subvert sovereignty, at the margin, without subverting belief in sovereignty.

Elsewhere, here is Bryan Caplan on "the stranger":

What fraction of your "fellow citizens" have you actually met?  Virtually zero.  The vast majority of your countrymen are, in fact, utter strangers to you.  When you tell your kid "Don't take rides from strangers," you don't make an exception for anyone who happens to share your citizenship.  Modern government – and most of political philosophy – is just a massive effort to pretend otherwise.

Bryan's right, but he's not facing up to the need for a certain amount of false belief, even though his rhetoric brings him very close to recognizing it.  If we all regard ourselves as nothing more than "strangers," what will happen to "the cement of society"?  The price system does not suffice and in fact the price system itself requires legal and cultural foundations.  Those foundations arise, and are sustained, only when people believe in something, and it can't be just anything they believe in.  Some of those beliefs have to consist of a loyalty to a workable political unit, even to some irrational degree, compared to true cosmopolitanism.

1 Rahul January 26, 2011 at 3:47 am

The desire for Sovereignty is asymmetric. In a economic sense, "sovereignty" is a argument the "haves" use to justify their having privileges over the "have-nots". Islamic immigration might raise fears of sovereignty in the EU but hard to resonate that sentiment in the other direction.

In the absence of Sovereignty one might divide the world's (public) resources over the global population almost evenly. And most of us wouldn't like that.

2 Gene Callahan January 26, 2011 at 3:58 am

If this attachment leads one to, for instance, fight and die for one's country, in what sense is it illusory? If it is necessary for social life, why is it irrational?

3 Rahul January 26, 2011 at 4:04 am


Even for two countries playing with an identical set of rules I suspect sovereignty would still matter unless the per-capita "wealth" (GDP, std. of living etc.) were the same.

4 Andrew L January 26, 2011 at 4:27 am


Why would per capita "wealth" be different?
Even when the two countries would have different natural resources, when playing under the same rules, trade would equalize the differences, presumably.

When measuring economic metrics, the units are for sovereign states, ie, you would measure the per capita wealth of US vs UK, or NY vs NJ. You wouldn't measure the per capital of a region that crosses boundaries. It wouldn't make sense because a portion of the people are playing by different rules.

The rules matter to the people living in each sovereign state because people value different things.

5 fugstar January 26, 2011 at 4:42 am

the indignity of having your agency denied and your knowledge undermined…. and your areas of attachment threatened/stolen?

6 bastiat January 26, 2011 at 4:55 am

Expected reciprocation and equity in the current structure is a big component. This strikes me as a academic argument that is ignoring obvious causes. Social order requires property rights, functioning courts, and viable governing institutions. These require a set of people to agree to abide by laws. The optimal size of these units is probably not the entire human population. It would be more odd for us to have one worldwide government. Yielding liberty to a government is not a small choice, and the farther away that government, the less i feel compelled to do it.

7 crass January 26, 2011 at 5:24 am

Caplan doesn't want to recognize citizens' rights to decide who else should be citizens. He doesn't accept that contract. But he doesn't seem to realize that this then holds true for the property rights he holds dear. Why should anarchists or socialists accept the initial contract that granted him rights to his home or possessions? If he won't honor American rights to say who is an American, others can choose to ignore his right to property or even selfhood. And since he won't defend himself and advises running away…

8 Ron Potato January 26, 2011 at 5:24 am

That's the same thing as asking Why do we care so much about government?

9 Eivind January 26, 2011 at 5:35 am

We can argue about the optimal size. Yet clearly, one-person-islands is obviously not the ideal organization, and I think a world-government is also not. If we agree on that as a premise, it follows that some intermediary size is optimal.

I think the ideal size has grown. The modern world is complicated – it's hard to for example apply law to large company, if the state itself is too small. And the same goes for modern healthcare and education.

I think the ideal size for a country is in the 5-15 million range.

10 Eric Rasmusen January 26, 2011 at 5:38 am

I have a different answer. As it happens, I was just teaching something like this yesterday in my regulation course: the question of "What is a government?" Weber's classic answer is that what is special about government is that it has a monopoly on violence. The "monopoly" part isn't quite right, since we in the US have federalism, where the state and the nation both have the right to use violence. But the basic idea is correct: we set up a system to restrict the use of violence to particular people called "governments". We do this carefully, using separation of powers, or using education and tradition to constrain the government from misusing its power.

A society could also authorize a group of foreigners to use violence. The problem then becomes that the foreigners must be trustworthy. They are harder to incentivize, tho, and to monitor, and to control. Being as a result inefficient, the authorization of foreign intervention is therefore less common.

It is by no means unheard of, though. In fact, today's nationalism might be a relatively uncommon form of government. The Hapsburg Empire worked reasonably well, with the Austrian emperor providing government for Italians and Slavs. The British empire worked so well that apparently (for caveats see http://rasmusen.org/special/cameroon.g406.txt) other countries requested takeovers (consider also Texas and Santo Domingo 1871):

Dear W. Gladstone,

,,, As we heard
here that you are the chief man in the House of Commons,
so we write to tell you that we want to be under Her
Majesty's control. We want our country to be governed
by British Government. We are tired of governing this
country ourselves, every dispute leads to war, and often
to great loss of lives, so we think it is best thing to give
up the country to you British men who no doubt will bring
peace, civilization, and Christianity in the country….

King Bell and King Acqua
of the Cameroons River, West Africa

6 November 1881

11 Right Wing-nut January 26, 2011 at 5:45 am

Texas never requested a British takeover. They stepped up negotiations with Great Britian when the US was dragging its heels. Worked like a charm.

12 TGGP January 26, 2011 at 5:51 am

Sorry, that should have been Colin Ward.

13 Roland January 26, 2011 at 5:55 am

Sovereignty is THE source of stability in world affairs (this requires occasional war). This stability is highly desirable for all kinds of transactions. Much derided from a variety of political directions, its value is usually underestimated. It allows many to live as they wish in proximity to others of a different kind. War is often the result of lack of, or contested, sovereignty.

14 Michael Caton January 26, 2011 at 7:50 am

Couldn't one argue that people in our own sovereign state are more likely to hold the same values that we do, so it's more important to each of us to cooperate with people within the same political unit in order that those values fluorish and spread? It's the behavioral equivalent of a selfish gene argument. Of course there is a big discontinuity in the amount of cooperation when we progress beyond the national unit, and why is the national unit the size it is (who should I cooperate with? the West as a whole? The Anglophone world? Or just California?) but if I want to encourage the spread of my values, it's still better than picking random people.

Questions like this are important problems for rationalists: there seem to be false beliefs which are net benefits to the believer. Another one is optimism, since optimists tend to have a less accurate view of their own skills and attractiveness than depressed people do.

15 Robin C January 26, 2011 at 8:14 am

"If we all regard ourselves as nothing more than "strangers," what will happen to "the cement of society"? The price system does not suffice and in fact the price system itself requires legal and cultural foundations. Those foundations arise, and are sustained, only when people believe in something, and it can't be just anything they believe in. Some of those beliefs have to consist of a loyalty to a workable political unit, even to some irrational degree, compared to true cosmopolitanism."

Tyler, please consider expanding on this. What are the legal and cultural foundations without which the price system on eBay will not operate? What do you mean by cultural foundations and why are they required as well as legal ones? For legal institutions to arise, why do people need to believe in anything other than the value of legal institutions? I wouldn't describe myself as having loyalty to any political unit, yet I don't think I stop any markets from functioning, so is it only necessary for some percentage of people to believe?

For anyone like me (and Bryan Caplan, I think) who thinks that borders are immoral, "the cement of society" has an awful lot of heavy lifting to do for a phrase that comes with quotation marks. That leaves the idea that we need units willing to produce public goods, but what are these public goods that are important enough to justify the imposition of sovereignty? To what extent could we solve the co-ordination problems associated with "public" goods by other means, if we all agreed that it was highly desirable to do so?

16 josh January 26, 2011 at 10:45 am

sovereignty is a fact of nature. formal sovereignty is just that, a formality.

17 Ryan Vann January 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm

I don't

18 R Richard Schweitzer January 26, 2011 at 12:52 pm

It IS an important concept.

First, for the composition of the Sovereignty; that is, WHO is "sovereign."

Next, for the functions of Sovereignty in any particular social order and how those functions are effectuated (or not).

For the serious (non-chattering): "Sovereignity" by Bertrand de Jouvenel (Chicago 1957) Liberty Fund Reprint 1997.

19 Steve Sailer January 26, 2011 at 3:42 pm

The alternative to national sovereignty is rule by Davos Man.

20 Philo January 27, 2011 at 9:10 am

"Some of those beliefs have to consist of a loyalty to a workable political unit, even to some irrational degree, compared to true cosmopolitanism." There's not much difference between patriotic loyalty in a nation of 300 million and cosmopolitanism in a world of 6 billion: if I am capable of fellow-feeling toward the former, smaller, number of people, why not toward the latter, larger, one?

Of course, we could debate whether the whole world is "a workable political unit"–and, indeed, whether the United States is such a unit. But both the U.S. and the world seem to be rubbing along all right.

21 Ryan February 3, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Welcome to the United States of America, where the people have been individually sovereign for 235 years. The law exists to protect our liberty as self-governing individuals.

> as is true in our Republic, the people are sovereign, then the people must show a sober understanding and a sane and steadfast purpose if they are to preserve that orderly liberty upon which as a foundation every republic must rest.

-Teddy Roosevelt

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