Arnold Kling

A Loss of Sovereignty?

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Benjamin Barber laments


the erosion of national autonomy—and, with it, the state’s monopoly over violence, the power to enact binding laws, and other essential aspects of sovereignty. Sovereignty, in turn, is an obvious precondition for democracy (which you cannot have without a state). When the sovereign state erodes, democracy erodes.

He argues that consumerism is eroding sovereignty from within. I guess he means that people care more about personal economics than government.

He argues that globalization is eroding sovereignty from without. Corporations can cross borders more easily than government laws.

I can mourn the demise of a strong democratic nation-state if you convince me that the alternative is warlords and criminal gangs. But if the alternative is consumers shopping for what they want, including government services, then a strong democratic nation-state is not a good thing.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (14 to date)
Chuck writes:

I don't think liberty and govt are opposites poles.

A sort of libertarian axiom is that bigger government is less freedom and ultimately totalitarianism.

Take a place like Myanmar. I don't imagine that is a big government. (Obviously, I don't have data on gvt. as % of gdp there, but on the other hand, I don't imagine their GDP is very large, and on the other other hand, I don't imagine their govt does a lot by way of social safety nets, healthcare, etc...)

I'd be interested to know what studies have been made between big govt leading to totalitirianism vs. non-transparent government vs. proper balance of powers between govt. and non-govt. institutions (ie, banks, labor unions, religous institutions, etc).

Adam writes:

@Chuck "I don't think liberty and govt are opposites poles."

Depends on how you define liberty and government. If you define liberty as the "freedom to do what the government allows" then you are correct.

Matt writes:

When the economy is determined by many more people making many more, but smaller transactions; then the wealth distribution will be low and spread wide, representing the greater variety of goods, and therefore wealth.

In time, aggregate output tends to be very stable.

Unfortunately, any wealth distribution must obey its limits, and that means there will be a trend toward fewer, but much larger transactions among more wealthy. Hence, incomplete markets on the right side of wealth.

We are a bit stuck.

Kurbla writes:

I do not think that consumerism and globalization "erode" the state sovereignty. These processes do not happen in despite of, but because of the state policies, and they can be reversed if states decide so.

Chuck writes:

@Adam

Depends on how you define liberty and government. If you define liberty as the "freedom to do what the government allows" then you are correct.

Oh so drole!

What if we define take a common libertarian definition of liberty, the freedom to do whatever you want as long as it doesn't interfere with other's freedom to do whatever they want.

In this scenario, the govt can be an agent futhering my liberty by allowing me to act without fear of murder. In a world without police, anyone's threat of violence carries greater inhibiting force than it would in a world where it is understood that violence is punished by a force greater than the victims.

Sinclair Davidson writes:

Gee, thought this was going to be a tirade against so-called international law and the United Nations.

James writes:

Chuck,

The type of government you postulate is unlikely to exist, at least if the last ten or twenty centuries can be considered a valid sample to work from.

Given the track records of actual existing governments, I'd be happy to know that warlords are the worst case.

Kurbla writes:

In many modern states police (and even police and army taken together) kills less people per year than street gangs or soccer hooligans do; hundreds of times less than drunk drivers.

Publius writes:

I'm with you Arnold, and I have a few relevant thoughts to share from a recent post (link in name):

The market economy erodes the value of the nation-state because the market economy thrives on cooperation both internally and externally, i.e., trading with a guy from Ontario or Detroit depending on who is giving you the better deal. Meanwhile, the value of the nation-state depends on high internal cooperation, and low external cooperation. If you don't differentiate between dealing in Ontario or Detroit, then what's the purpose of having a different nation-state for each location?

I argues that the "value-added" by the nation-state is declining, and in turn, the values of local governance and international institutions are growing. I argue that the historical experience (the past utility) of the nation-state has effectively "nationalized" popular understandings of fairness and self-interest, and that these understandings are increasingly inappropriate.


Let's say you're in charge of a business. The nation-state mindset would lead you to hire your family and friends, while the market mindset would prompt you to throw open your doors to the world, and hire whoever seemed like they would be most productive. Even though you share a kinship with your family and friends, you appreciate that it is not "fair" to pass over a hard-working, smart employee for your less talented, lazy cousin. Favoring your kin is neither fair nor in your self-interest, because your interests and sense of fairness are not "kin-based," nor tribal, nor ethnic, nor national.

Kurbla writes:
If you don't differentiate between dealing in Ontario or Detroit, then what's the purpose of having a different nation-state for each location?

Prevention of domination. It is much easier to organize free trade between two nations, say Estonia and Russia than to make Estonians trust Russians so much that they can accept living in the same state.

Adam writes:

@Chuck - In this scenario, the govt can be an agent futhering my liberty by allowing me to act without fear of murder. In a world without police, anyone's threat of violence carries greater inhibiting force than it would in a world where it is understood that violence is punished by a force greater than the victims.

Your implication that "no government" = "a world without police" is a non-sequitur. Regardless, though, a government run police force must be paid for involuntarily. So while it may allow you some sense of freedom from the fear of murder, it does so only at the cost of reducing everyone's liberty of property.

Which is why I said it depended upon your definition of liberty and government. If you define government as a group with a monopoly on the use of force, then it is by its very definition on the opposite pole of liberty.

Kurbla writes:

It is not quite true that government police must be paid involuntarily -- it is just like any other security agency: if one dislikes it, he can leave it. In that case, of course, he has to leave the territory of the state - not unlike one has to leave hotel or theater if he doesn't want to pay for respective security.

Kurbla writes:
Which is why I said it depended upon your definition of liberty and government. If you define government as a group with a monopoly on the use of force, then it is by its very definition on the opposite pole of liberty.

State has not monopoly on force - in many modern states only the small fraction of total murders are commited by police, army and similar agencies. The state has sovereignty, and that simply means it is the strongest one if disagreements are resolved by force. On this level of abstraction, it is neither good nor bad: in every point of the space & time, someone is the strongest one.

Is there any way people can organize themselves to have less total violence without state than with the best state possible at the moment? I think it is highly unlikely, because in many countries, police and similar state agencies are surprisingly non-violent already -- they commit nearly 1% or 2% of total murders in the country, and some, maybe most of them in self defense. It is especially surprising because police itself consist of the large number of young males who spend lot of their time in contact with people from criminal milieu; some amount of violence can be expected from these even if they are not members of the police.

It might even turn that in well ordered countries, average young male dentist, rock musician, football player, porn star, CEO, or university professor kills more people than average policeman. I don't know.

Chris Rasch writes:

Modern state actors (police, military) may not be directly violent that often.(1) That's because most people are smart enough to conform before violence becomes necessary. But that doesn't mean that harm has not been done. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost due to delays imposed buy the FDA alone.

(1) Though I would have to see actual numbers to believe that. The Iraq war, for example, has cost 4000 U.S. lives + (50,0000 - 1,000,000) Iraqi lives since inception. Approximately 17,000 people are murdered each year. So, in the 5 years since the Iraq war began, almost 2/3rds as many people have been killed during that conflict as have been murdered by all other actors combined.

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