Sovereignty Does Not (Necessarily) Mean Liberty – The Right Engle


Observing the comments sections of Being Libertarian articles is frequently enlightening. Over the past few weeks, I was particularly struck by the responses to my articles endorsing the election of French President Emmanuel Macron and supporting the institution of the European Union.

Criticisms of both articles tend to boil down to a question of sovereignty: Membership in the EU and other supranational federations steal the sovereign authority of countries. The logic essentially boils down to the notion that an organization, like the EU, which pools the sovereignty of states and can wield authority over national governments on a range of subjects, is somehow, a priori, an enemy of individual liberty. That line of reasoning is fundamentally flawed. Here’s why.

The Right Kind of Federalism

Champions of the American Constitution, from both left and right, laud, at least rhetorically, the value of checks and balances. But, they usually focus on the traditional checks of the three co-equal branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial.

Yet there is another vital check against tyrannical rule, namely the check of the smaller governing units against the power of the center.

Most activists on the right, as well as many in libertarian circles, see the overriding value of the states or provinces of a country to offer better, more responsive, and accountable government than can a distant unipolar government.

For example, US states would benefit a great deal from being let off the federal leash on a number of matters, from education to healthcare.

Rather than centralizing these functions in one massive, unresponsive bureaucracy, individual states and communities would be able to experiment with different ways of doing things.

Unfettering the states can unlock that most powerful advantage of federalism – to experiment as laboratories of democracy or, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis put it, “[a] state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country”.

That is the great boon of the American system, one that has been diminishing in the face of ever growing centralization of power in Washington, D.C., by both Democrats and Republicans. Allowed to experiment, states and societies could find novel ways for coping with economic and social issues, often that reflect cultural and socio-economic factors distinct from the rest of the country.

America isn’t even the best country for federalism.

Canada’s provinces and territories are far freer to set policy on a host of issues that are the exclusive or near-exclusive purview of the Federal government in the American system.

Germany is another interesting example, with an education system that is controlled almost exclusively by the constituent states. It has been, at least in part, because of the light federal control over education that the German system has managed to thrive. State governments watch each other and see what works, adopting best practices and jettisoning those that do not work. In a centralized system, that incentive to adapt, change, and grow is radically diminished.

The Value of the Central Government

Federalism is certainly a powerful tool for producing better, more representative, and less wasteful government. It provides a check against an overweening federal government and can allow people who live in more diverse polities to have that diversity recognized in the manner they are governed.

I am a firm believer in small government and believe that smaller governing units can be more responsive to and representative of the people they serve. But advocates for greater state and local autonomy sometimes fail to acknowledge a vital corollary of this system, namely that the central government can also apply a set of universal principles to ensure that individuals are not discriminated against or that civil liberties are not unduly curtailed among members.

There are a multitude of examples to choose from, but the obvious one, the treatment of black Americans in parts of the United States for much of the 20th century, immediately springs to mind.

The group will of the powerful white elite was able to systematically discriminate against a race of people for no other reason than the color of their skin.

If we were to imagine a Southern state being allowed to secede in the 1960s, it might seem at first glance that the new country was freer, with a government more responsive and representative of the interests of its citizens. Yet, for the black population, that would obviously not be the case.

For another, more recent and international example we could look to the Shetland and Orkney islands.

In 2014, when Scotland held its independence referendum, the islands sided with the majority of other Scottish voters, opting to stay in the union with Britain. The reasoning was, at least in part, the belief that their local autonomy and interests would be better reflected by the salutary neglect of the far-off central government in Westminster than by the nearer Scottish government.

It seems the voters of the islands took to heart the admonition of the 18th century American clergyman Mather Byles when he said,  “Which is better – to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away or by three thousand tyrants one mile away?”

These examples should serve to illustrate the two-sided case of federalism. There is a strong case for a weak central government. But it ought to be strong enough to ensure that the rights all champions of liberty will agree need to be upheld at all cost: the right to life, liberty, property, and equal treatment under the law. That cannot always be guaranteed in a smaller polity, where localized prejudice, or outlook, may serve to undermine the rights of individual citizens.

Libertarian Federalism

A pro-liberty outlook on life has to take into account liberty for all people. That means thinking in less binary terms than a zero-sum game between a central government and constituent states. Countries are diverse places with a multitude of interests and values at play. Yet, there are also specific rights we can agree are universal.

Having a central government, with the delineated function of preventing abuses at lower levels of social organization, is every bit as important as the states standing up to the federal government when it overreaches its mandate.

The Path to Self-Sovereignty

We can extend this logic to newer federations than those of the United States and Canada, such as the EU.

The eventual fate and structure of the EU remains a matter of debate, with some advocating for greater alignment and unifications, while others would have the relationship loosened further.

Libertarians tend to get caught up by a fetishization of national sovereignty, rather than thinking in terms of what will promote individual liberty for people. States are not people, and as libertarians, it is ultimately the freedom of individuals, not states or nations, that concerns us. We care about that ultimate, sometimes seemingly unattainable goal – sovereignty of the self – as absolute.

But the path to achieving self-sovereignty does not lead exclusively down a road of smaller and smaller state units. Not if we care about the protection of rights and liberties for all people, anyway.

Indeed, backing out of federal bodies can reclaim a kind of hollow sovereignty. Just look at the British election forthcoming. The choice is between a big government conservative party and an even bigger government socialist party. They may be “free” of the EU, whatever that means, but the individual citizens of the United Kingdom look set to face a progressive degradation of their individual liberties. That can hardly be called a victory in the generations-spanning battle for a freer world.

As libertarians we should think twice before obsessing over sovereignty and national borders.

Whether you support strong immigration laws or want to throw open our doors to all comers, the questions about how a society governs itself and what checks can ensure maximum freedom for all people are the same.

We need to start thinking about individuals, not flags, anthems, or borders. After all, it is people who we are fighting for.

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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.