On National Sovereignty

by Lindy Davies

It’s become a convention, on the news, to refer to the Jihadist force that’s been gaining ground in Iraq and Syria as the “so-called” Islamic State. This seems to be a requirement. Sure, they call themselves a state — but they’re not! States are sovereign. They have governments, and ambassadors and such; they have seats in the UN General Assembly — like Syria, for example.

What is it, really, that constitutes a sovereign nation?

To begin with, it has to do with authority and control; we think of it as “where the buck stops.” It may be comforting to think of this as an absolute thing (i.e., Israel absolutely has it; the Palestinians absolutely don’t). But it is not all-or-nothing, of course; there are degrees. The “national sovereignty” of a place like “The Republic of South Vietnam” (or post-Dubya Iraq) is an evanescent thing, crafted on the fly to suit the interests of a larger power. Nevertheless, international diplomacy rests, however shakily, on the concept of national sovereignty. So far in human history, is nations that make and enforce laws. International law is an ad hoc matter. It is enacted by means of treaties, and only enforced at the national level, if nations choose to do so. (Has the International Criminal Court ever compelled the United States to do anything?)

Nations have various degrees of power, and various degrees, alas, of legitimacy. If the nation is not powerful enough, it may fall to conquest by external powers. But what if it is not legitimate enough? The (so-called!) Islamic State’s legitimacy is bestowed by Allah — the same Deity that confers legitimacy, via the Queen, to land tenure in Great Britain. (It has to be the same Deity: both faiths believe there is only one.) The classical Chinese concept of national legitimacy was called “The Mandate of Heaven.” It was thought possible for a ruling dynasty to lose this, become illegitimate, and become deposed. If a nation is not legitimate enough, therefore, it may succumb to internal revolutionary forces.

Eventually, Divine bestowal of sovereign power came to be vested in hereditary monarchs. In the minds of the Enlightenment philosophers, however, sovereignty came to rest in the incontestable, and infallible, will of the people. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote that governments are instituted to secure the people’s inalienable rights, and that their powers — if they are just — are derived from the consent of the governed.

This raises questions. Who are “the governed”? How is their consent ascertained? How, and where, and in what ways are they to be “governed” — presumably through the exercise of the sovereign powers of a “government” which the people have chosen? According to Jefferson, a governments just powers are derived from the consent of the governed — and it wields those powers through the process of creating and enforcing laws. Does this mean that if a majority of a nation’s citizens decide, through some representative process, that slavery is OK, then slavery is OK? Well, it’s legal, anyway; fee-simple private ownership of human beings was legal in the United States for 75 years.

“Nation is a verb.”

Furthermore, the idea of government cannot be separated from the question of jurisdiction. Over what area does sovereign control extend? There is no global government. Our concept of sovereignty is inextricably bound up with the idea of nationhood. Now, sometimes we might speak of a “nation” in spiritual or cultural terms — a holy covenant? a community brought together by its victimhood? a romantic generational consciousness, such as the “Woodstock Nation”? But, in stark political terms, such notions are frivolous. In the “real world,” nationhood is a matter of jurisdiction over a defined portion of the planet: a territory — a piece of land.

Job #1 for any nation is the administration of its territory: its boundaries and their defense; the duties and prerogatives of states, municipalities and other lesser jurisdictions; and — most important — what people can do with that territory: what rights they have to its possession and use. This has obvious economic implications, because all economic activity must use land in some way. It is incumbent upon a sovereign nation to set rules concerning how people use the land: to make stuff, to live on, and to dump their garbage in.

Fine, OK — all of this sounds so commonplace as to hardly be worth mentioning. But, when we start to think about how these issues play out, we find some astounding breaches of logic.

Many smart people have told us that international trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, dangerously erode national sovereignty. Democratic societies have repeatedly chosen to implement regulations deemed necessary to protect health, safety and the environment. Pacts like the TPP seem to be taking these powers away from governments.  I wonder how many citizens in struggling, export-dependent poor countries have any inkling what prerogatives their “sovereign governments” have given away in order to stave off trade sanctions.

But it’s not just the poor countries that are “yielding up their sovereignty” to multinational corporations — oh, no! Lots of people in the Great and Powerful USA are exercised about the increasing ease with which corporations reconfigure their profits into other jurisdictions to avoid paying “their fair share” of US taxes. Have the governed given their consent to that? Perhaps not, but the Emperor, in any case, has made it legal.

If Job #1 of a nation is to administer its territory, what can we say of a country that allows private investors to hold hundreds of thousands of hectares of that territory entirely idle, while its people have no place to make a living? Hasn’t that nation’s sovereignty been seriously degraded?

Furthermore, if a corporation is making “obscene” levels of profit in the United States and then paperworking them into another country to avoid taxes, well — did it not need land, locations and natural resources, to undertake the activities that created those profits? Did it fully compensate the community for the privilege of using that land?

Questions like these have a way of making one’s head swim. They seem to sudden, too sweeping. One is tempted to back-track to see whether some key factor has been left out. That impulse is both understandable and necessary — because in today’s discussions of economic policy a key factor is left out.

So let’s back-track. We’ve said that the most vital task of a nation is the administration of its territory. It defends against invasion, creates and enforces laws, and provides all kinds of infrastructure, both civil and physical. To the extent that nations do these things effectively, they become pleasant and prosperous places to live and do business. And to the extent that they become pleasant and prosperous places, the land in them — most of which is held in fee simple by private interests — increases in value.


Any nation that allows fee-simple ownership of land has already — long since — yielded up its sovereignty to private interests. These recent “sovereign giveaways” are just minor embellishments. We can close the barn door if we like, but the horse is long gone.

One of the many things this means is that, while the TPP will exacerbate a number of problems, the solution to those problems is not to be found in protectionism. “Local self-sufficiency” will only make the local landlords a bit less rich.

There was a West African nation that took a series of effective steps to assert its own rightful sovereignty — have you heard of it? It began with a military coup — nothing very noteworthy in that; there are lots of military coups — but this one set out to implement a novel program of reform. The country defaulted on its foreign debt. It proceeded to abolish all income taxes, VATs and tariffs, and to collect the value of land for its public revenue. And what happened? It no longer needed exports, or foreign loans, because its domestic markets were strong, its employment full. The most serious policy problem it had to deal with was the large numbers of people who wanted to immigrate. This country’s name is Alodia — but, alas, it is fictional. So far.



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