On Sovereignty

Mencius Moldbug has argued that Sovereignty is conserved – meaning that constitutions are ultimately worthless, there will always be a sovereign, and nothing can stop the sovereign from doing what he likes, government cannot bind itself

This presupposes that government always exists, that it is easy to create and maintain government, easy for a large number of enforcers, of men with guns, to act as one.

I don’t think so.  I think anarchy is the natural and normal state of mankind, disorderly anarchy is easy, orderly anarchy difficult, government is a fragile illusion, that exists only because every everyone pretends to believe it exists, fearing what might happen should the illusion fail.  Fiat government is only real in the sense that fiat money is real.

Observe that in any place where you rely on the police to maintain order, that place is unsafe.

In practice, what respectable people do tends to trump what the law supposedly says they should do, as the book Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes shows.

The divine right of kings, and the British empire, were similar illusions.  If Kings did not rule by divine right, then any man might hope to make himself king, and the wealth of the kingdom, and frequently its blood, would be spent in struggle for political power, hence everyone piously endorsed the lie that the King ruled under God by the will of God.

Similarly, before world War II, it was widely believed among non white races, or pretended to be believed that the mere sight of a white face provided order and rule, perhaps because local rule tended to be disorderly and oppressive so purporting to believe in a white right to rule considerably improved the security of one’s property, much as pretending to believe in the divine right of Kings considerably improved the security of one’s property.

A constitution can rule if enough people believe it can, or pretend to so believe.

Suppose, however, the education system, the mass media, and all that lot, the Cathedral, tell us that the constitution is whatever the Supremes deem it to be.

Then they will, of course, deem it to give the government unlimited power, except for special privileges for judges and lawyers.

In most of the rest of the world, constitutions derive their power, and their interpretation, from the US government. If the US dislikes some regime, it will bring soft power to bear. If soft power is resisted, hard power is apt to follow, except, of course, for China and Russia, who can therefore resist soft power with impunity, though they do not always do so.

What happened in the US is that during and shortly after the civil war, the Cathedral did an end run around the constitution using the fact that president’s interpretation is difficult to resist. Since this was indiscreet, and contained the seeds of future violence, they proceeded to reinterpret what they had done, a reinterpretation that gave birth to the new deal and the supreme court as ultimate constitutional arbiter.

What happened in most of the rest of the world is that constitutions derived from the US army, and continue to do so. Thus, for example, the EU from time to time grants itself ever more power, and no one makes a fuss, though it does not seem to have any legal or ideological basis.  I keep expecting the EU to softly and silently vanish away, but so far this has not happened.  The EU exists by the power of the US State Department.

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40 Responses to “On Sovereignty”

  1. Foseti says:

    “In practice, what respectable people do tends to trump what the law supposedly says they should do, as the book Order without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes shows.”

    Then the practices of respectable people are sovereign instead of the law.

    It’s really no more complicated than that.

    Some mechanism determines what trumps what and someone controls the mechanism. Sovereignty is therefore conserved.

    To argue otherwise you must show that disputes are settled randomly under the control of no one.

    Note that a constitution can’t be sovereign. Someone must control it’s interpretation (and hence be sovereign).

    • Thrasymachus says:

      >>Then the practices of respectable people are sovereign instead of the law.<<

      That sums things up pretty well, but how exactly does this happen? There is some group of people in which an idea is floated, then either gets consensus support or not. If it does, it is promulgated as respectable opinion. But who exactly are these people? We have a general idea, but not a very specific one.

  2. jim says:

    The legend of the constitution can be sovereign, if enough people pretend to believe it. Unfortunately, it tends to be in the interests of the government to subvert this belief.

    • Foseti says:

      If two people disagree about what the legend means, who or what decides? Surely the document itself or its legend doesn’t speak. Something must decide – even if the participants resort to violence. Someone must be sovereign.

      • Red says:

        A constitution and it’s interpretation is a holy book and the interpretation of that holy book. When people agree about the interpretation it forms a bond between them that can then be used a group binder in warfare and politics. It has no power when it’s changed often or the interpenetration is always being changed.

      • jim says:

        Legends supposedly speak for themselves, or so everyone pretends, and to a considerable extent, legends really do speak for themselves.

      • jim says:

        The US constitution has been replaced in its entireity by Footnote four of United States v. Carolene Products Co.

        This is not a disagreement about what the legend means.

        • Foseti says:

          Prior to that footnote, there was a civil about what it meant. A strange result for an un-interpretable legend.

          During the war, Lincoln did a bunch of stuff that was clearly unconstitutional. It was declared to be so at the time and later on. He did it anyway.

          Sovereign decisions must be made and executed. Paper can perform neither function. Only people can. From nothing more complicated than this, it follows that sovereignty is conserved.

          • jim says:

            The civil war was not about what the constitution meant. It was primarily about slavery. Some people wanted to remedy slavery at gunpoint, some people felt slavery should not be remedied. That the constitution allowed them to remedy slavery was no more believed than that the bible commanded them to remedy slavery.

            That the entire project was openly unconstitutional meant war. Lincoln could and did act unconstitutionally, but to do so meant war.

  3. Dystopia Max says:

    Government does not so much have power as it enforces other people’s decisions. Remember, the Cathedral model goes like this:

    1. The universities make decisions.
    2. The press manufactures consent.
    3. The government enforces the result.

    The real three branches of government! If someone in one institution goes off-script, there’s always plenty of people in the other two to bring their own forces to bear on the badthinking individual.

    The problem is not that the government is not governing, the problem is that ‘respectable’ people are taking their respectable opinions from the good authority of the universities, which supposedly did the work necessary to give Scientific Affirmation to their moral opinions.

  4. spandrell says:

    I think this piece is relevant to this discussion:

    http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Academic/Property/Property.html

    People respect books or legends because the meme works once, then the practice spreads out and it becomes ‘tradition’, i.e. a strong Shelling point.

  5. Johnny Caustic says:

    Do you have any citations or evidence for this statement?

    “before world War II, it was widely believed among non white races, or pretended to be believed that the mere sight of a white face provided order and rule, perhaps because local rule tended to be disorderly and oppressive so purporting to believe in a white right to rule considerably improved the security of one’s property”

    I’m pretty galvanized by this idea, and I want to know if it’s really true. (Not the bit about local rule being disorderly and oppressive, which is obviously true. I mean the rest of it.)

    • jim says:

      Lee Kuan Yew said so, though I cannot recall where and when he said it.

      • spandrell says:

        That’s surely artistic license. Lee Kuan Yew nor anyone of his time knew what non-white rule was like, and as so there were big movements for native rule all around the colonial world. We all know how that turned out, but natives in the 1930s didn’t have any references to compare it with.

  6. Alrenous says:

    If a population resists rule, it becomes too expensive to rule them. No group can afford to physically force everyone to obey. The state is best defined as a group with the monopoly on legitimzed coercion, as the subjects will reliably resist illegitimate coercion. For example, abolitionist campaigners are best seen as successfully attempting to change whether slavery is legitimate.

    Currently, enforcing marijuana and piracy rules on the middle class is considered illegitimate.

    Ordered anarchy is the situation where no coercion is considered legitimate.

    I haven’t addressed how curiously easy it is to get a thede to assent to rule.

    • peppermint says:

      Oh look, it’s another leftist who believes that terrorism can and should end colonialism.

      Here’s a hint, commie. What happened in Poland when the people wanted to no longer be a Soviet puppet?

      What happened after that guy stood in front of a tank in China?

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  8. Chevalier de Johnstone says:

    No. Utterly, completely, no. You are entirely wrong in your statements regarding “anarchy” and government.

    You must learn to reject this insane belief that the form of something defines its essence. It is a large part of the progressive liberal brainwashing which is demeaning your thinking.

    What is the meaning of life?

    • Chevalier de Johnstone says:

      The relative brilliance of your thoughts on design, Jim, are hindered by this refusal to sit down and really define why you bother.

  9. Callowman says:

    The EU exists by the power of the US State Department.

    In the 90s, when Sweden was in the process of joining the EC, I was told by a Swedish Social Democratic eurocrat that his confidential opinion was that the whole undertaking was basically an anti-American project, a bulwark against the US. Do you think he missed the point, or was he having a hard time distinguishing between State and Defense?

    • jim says:

      The left is the US Government, and has been ever since World War II, but loudly announces itself as the enemy of the US, as indeed it is.

      So he is quite right: The EU was created to defeat and frustrate the US, and thus defend the USG against the US, created as an anti American project, and thus as a pro USG project.

    • spandrell says:

      The EU tried to outflank USG from the left, the USG shifted even further left. Eurocrat confusion ensues.

  10. peppermint says:

    A constitution can not rule, people interpreting that constitution can rule.

    That’s your central problem. You still believe, somehow, in a sovereign which is limited. The definition of sovereign is that he makes decisions that are unreveiwable.

    But let me ask you, in your orderly anarchy, what exactly prevents some guy from buying lots of weapons, hiring an army, and declaring himself warlord?

    Could it be some other person or group of people whose decisions are final?

    • But let me ask you, in your orderly anarchy, what exactly prevents some guy from buying lots of weapons, hiring an army, and declaring himself warlord?

      There’s always marginal ROI.

    • jim says:

      If one guy goes to war against everyone, will lose, if one group goes to war against all groups, will lose. The basic assumption ordered anarchy, anarcho capitalism, the natural order, is that honest peaceful people stick together, while criminals are prone to prey upon each other.

  11. Handle says:

    Isn’t it funny that Moldbug’s basically abandoned the reactosphere. I know he’s busy, but aren’t we all?

    I’m with Foseti on this one. It doesn’t help that people are using the word “sovereign” to mean different things. And there’s a whole foundation of vague legal / political science concepts and terminology – government, power, authority, dispute, force, coercion, etc. – that underlies such a notion as “sovereignty” and which people are also using to describe different things.

    My impression is that the Moldbug / Formalist / “Conservation of Sovereignty” position is a pragmatic and context-dependent answer to the question is something like “What framework of influences from other human beings is preventing this particular human being from doing what he wants in this particular set of circumstances?” Flesh out “Who, Whom?” with What, Where, When, Why, and How. That’s your structure of “sovereignty” in that context.

    And either someone shapes your behavior in some way, or no one does and you are sovereign over that subset of activity, that is, “free” to act and enjoy or suffer the consequences of your actions.

    Obviously, most human power is expressed in the manner of deterrence instead of actual force – and deterrence is a matter of high-probability beliefs about consequences. “Believing in Government” need not be anything more than this – which is perfectly real and rational.

    Moldbug’s statement of “the problem” is that there is a great deal of uncertainty and disagreement over who really has influence over whom – which creates both “friction” (including violence), and an endless, wasteful, zero-sum struggle trying to achieve a mind-control structure of influence over the voters – itself a form of “power” and “sovereignty” in our system, by definition.

    My impression is also that this is neither complicated nor controversial, and that most intelligent observers would agree with something like the above, if you explain out how you’re using words to mean something different and more limited / more precise than the notions which they usually affiliate with those terms.

    • Thales says:

      Indeed. My interpretation of “conservation of sovereignty” is simply that.

      Assume each person is inherently sovereign and can therefore do what they please. Government, via intimidation, culminates this sovereignty (e.g.: the “right” to do violence and get away with it) into itself. It’s been moved around, but it’s conserved.

      Now, let us say the government decides to deprive itself of some of its accumulated sovereignty via a constitution which, in theory, binds it. Moldbug says this is balderdash because it’s conserved — those powers either revert back to the people or are informally retained by the government.

      • jim says:

        As I understand him, powers do not revert back to the people. It is all fake.

        But what I say is that powers do tend to revert back to the people, and the government continually has difficulty in preventing powers from doing so, and that lots of powers that formally and officially belong to the government, have in fact reverted to the people, and the government is running a bluff that they have not.

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  20. thelostrenegade1967 says:

    The idea of sovereignty is derived from the idea that the king was king because it was the will of god that he be king. The king’s power flowed from god, therefore he was sovereign. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hans -v- Louisiana, 134 US 1 (1890). that the states were sovereign and could not be sued in federal court, not even to enforce the Constitution, the Supreme Court went on to say that Congress could change that with one stroke of the pen.

    Sovereign means “a person, body, or state vested with independent and supreme authority”. That would mean that the state’s power in not dependent on the will of the people, nor is it limited by the Constitution. The state’s power is derived from god, just like the king’s power was. The federal government’s power is also derived from god, and in not limited by any Constitution.

    If the Constitution was ratified than there is no way the states or federal government could be sovereign.

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