Authority Issues—Is There Sovereignty Beyond the State?

July 15, 2008

Multiple Pages
Authority Issues—Is There Sovereignty Beyond the State?

This essay is the first in a three-part symposium on the problem of sovereignty.

Even at this late date and with the term—like so many other words in our political lexicon – utterly corrupted, I still cling to the thought of myself as a conservative in areas other than politics. Murray Rothbard was always at pains to note that libertarianism was a political philosophy only, dealing exclusively with the proper use of violence in society, and as such had nothing to say about aesthetics, culture, sexual morality, or any other subject. That was why Rothbard rejected Frank Meyer’s “fusionism”: someone whose political philosophy is antistatist, regardless of his views on the spectrum of other issues of concern to conservatives, is a libertarian, period.

In politics, after several years in the wilderness, I am indeed a libertarian. That scandalizes some people, I know, even as it strikes me as a morally serious view. A glance at the 20th century, and at American history in particular, reveals no practical reason to be sanguine about the state—and I am referring to a state in this world, as it has come to exist in the West and around the world, and not as it exists in the pristine abstractions of those who continue to plead with me that this most destructive of institutions really can be made right.

We need government to uphold the norms of morality, I am told by people who specialize in the unintentionally funny. If the moral condition of society has reached a level at which we would look for relief to the kind of men who can succeed in a political system like ours, then the patient is terminal.  On the other hand, had the churches not turned their attention these past 45 years to lettuce boycotts and excited pronouncements about the wondrous prospects of the modern world, they might have done more to arrest the moral decline for which we are now told we need the state.

Ron Paul, I need hardly add, is the honorable and unspoken exception to all the claims I make here.  The Ron Paul phenomenon brought to light a great many people who are still capable of independent thought, and I think his Campaign for Liberty, with its Old Right statement of principles, holds genuine promise. Whether anything comes of political action or not, though, our goal should not be the hopeless one of erecting an improved structure on the ruins of the system. It must be to dismantle. Anything and everything, and as swiftly as possible. The more we roll back, the easier it will be for prosperity and civilized life to re-emerge.

Society has managed rather well without slavery, an institution that at one time was taken for granted by nearly everyone, and which many Christian thinkers thought could be purged of its worst abuses but probably never eradicated. I am likewise confident that individuals and communities would not only survive but flourish without being taxed and harassed by an apparatus of exploitation that does nothing but consume wealth and ruin people’s lives, here and around the world; that punishes what is excellent, productive, and decent; and that successfully propagandizes the public into blaming private scapegoats for problems government itself creates. That a supposed lack of regulation could seriously be proposed as the cause of the mortgage crisis was as predictable as it is idiotic.

A robust defense of this political position is a subject for another time. Right now, I’d like to take up a more fundamental question—who or what is sovereign?

Sovereignty, a modern notion, is a direct challenge to the decentralized political order of the Middle Ages. As proposed by Jean Bodin, sovereignty involves a social authority whose judgments and declarations necessarily override, and are immune to challenge by, those of any other sector of society. Associations below the level of the central government possess what privileges they have not by right but by the generosity of the sovereign.

We should not caricature Bodin’s views—a reading of his work reveals a strong sympathy for human associations between the individual and the state, a sympathy far less in evidence in the writing of later thinkers. Bodin also seeks to protect the household from the sovereign’s undue interference. These are important caveats.

Still, Bodin’s legal monism set the stage for the continued erosion in Western countries of competing sources of law and allegiance besides the central government. Robert Nisbet observes the clearly modern implications of Bodin’s work: “The political, rather than the religious or the economic power, is made foremost. Legal pluralism is replaced by legal monism. Only that authority is legally binding which stems from, or is countenanced by, the king.”

Nisbet’s work is of the greatest importance for conservatives and libertarians, and his book The Quest for Community, whose soporific title is most unfortunate, is on my list of the ten most important books for someone of our persuasion to read. Its argument is that “the single most decisive influence upon Western social organization has been the rise and development of the centralized territorial state.” Nisbet sets out to examine “the conflict between the central power of the political State and the whole set of functions and authorities contained in church, family, gild, and local community.”  One of the book’s chapters is titled, appropriately enough, “The State as Revolution.”

Over the years I have had urged upon me, by friends and strangers alike, a great many visions of how political authority might be exercised in order best to safeguard what might loosely be described as conservative values.  Each such blueprint accepts the modern notion of sovereignty, envisioning a leader (often a king) whose powers would have been unthinkable in the age of Christendom to which these armchair theorists aspire. 

One such person boasted that his revived Christendom would feature a ruler endowed with the power—exercised in light of Christian principles, you understand—to redistribute “a nation’s wealth.” Even leaving aside the fact that “a nation’s wealth” is an evil, stupid, and question-begging phrase, any medieval king attempting to exercise such a power would have found himself either bloodied or on fire.

Medieval historian Norman Cantor describes the Middle Ages this way:

In the model of civil society, most good and important things take place below the level of the state: the family, the arts, learning, and science; business enterprise and technological progress. These are the work of individuals and groups, and the involvement of the state is remote and disengaged. It is the rule of law that screens out the state’s insatiable aggressiveness and corruption and gives freedom to civil society below the level of the state. It so happens that the medieval world was one in which men and women worked out their destinies with little or no involvement of the state most of the time.


It was in the Middle Ages, in fact, that the concept of federalism—which had failed to develop in the ancient world—first appeared in the West. Although he wrote in the early seventeenth century, Johannes Althusius was setting forth a medieval understanding of political organization when he wrote his book Politica Methodice Digesta, Atque Exemplis Sacris et Profanis Illustrata, or simply Politica. Its starting point is not an undifferentiated aggregate of individuals, and its ending point is not a sovereign who is logically and temporally prior to all subsidiary groups in society. Althusius defies both of these modern assumptions, which have informed the thought of so many of the political philosophers who came after Bodin (even if Bodin himself could be ambiguous on these points).

Althusius begins with the family, which he takes to be the fundamental political unit. Groups of families, he explains, may organize to form villages. Groups of villages and towns may organize to form provinces, which in turn may group together to form a kingdom or state. An empire, in turn, is composed of these various states along with free cities (which are directly answerable to the emperor). To the extent that Althusius believes in or employs the concept of sovereignty, he seems to imagine it residing in the symbiotic relation of all these lesser groups as they unite for a common purpose. The individual or group exercising political power at the highest level merely reflects this concord.

If the larger bodies are formed by the voluntary decisions of the lesser, it seems plausible that these smaller associations retain the power to withdraw from associations they freely joined. “Families, cities, and provinces existed by nature prior to realms, and gave birth to them,” Althusius writes. And if this is the case, then one could, without doing violence to the overall theory, conclude that sovereignty (to the extent we wish to make use of this concept) in the final analysis resides in the family, the primordial unit of the Althusian apparatus. Whether Althusius would have thought about the matter quite this way is not so clear, but the conceptual apparatus he uses makes such thinking plausible.

But whatever the ultimate locus of sovereignty, Althusius is quite clear about where it does not reside: in the ruling individual or group who happens to occupy the seat of power in a central government. The society he envisions is far too rich and variegated for a single power center to dominate all others.

The predatory modern state against which Althusius theorized corrupts everything it touches. Its centralization of power was directly responsible for the atrocities, domestic and international, of the twentieth century. That centralization was excused by the Left on the grounds that only a strong central authority could liberate individuals from the oppressions of lesser social authorities.  It was welcomed by some on the Right who saw a convenient mechanism for overriding moral decisions it disapproved of on the part of local communities.  Both sides got more than they bargained for. This Frankenstein monster, it turns out, creates far more oppressions than it liberates us from, and consistently distorts or undermines moral virtues from filial piety and thrift to personal responsibility and hard work. In the American case, its extravagance and irresponsibility have brought the country and indeed the world to the brink of economic catastrophe.

The genteel F.A. Hayek included a chapter in The Road to Serfdom (1944) called “Why the Worst Get on Top.” It helps to explain why, in a country as expansive as the United States, the two major parties can offer the American population nothing better than a choice between John McCain and Barack Obama. The incentive structure that emerges in the modern state rewards and privileges people like this. That’s a practical reason that any decent people who manage to succeed in American politics should limit their ambitions to shutting down whatever part of Leviathan they can, in order to restrict the scope of society’s worst over the rest of us.

Grandiose plans for society and the world brought into effect by the modern state – “national greatness conservatism,” in other words – have nothing to do with conservatism as historically understood.  It is leftists rather than conservatives who have typically been unsatisfied with the prosaic pursuit of bourgeois life. As I wrote in a symposium for Modern Age last year, conservatives delight in and defend those finite but noble (and attainable) virtues we associate with hearth and home. That is all very mundane and uninteresting to those who would urge “greatness” upon us, but it is also much less utopian and yields far fewer corpses.

It was Don Livingston who first brought Althusius to my attention.  It was also Don who shared with me the telling verse, “Who in fields Elysian would dwell, do but extend the boundaries of hell.”

Thomas E. Woods Jr. is the New York Times bestselling author of eight books, including Sacred Then and Sacred Now: The Return of the Old Latin Mass, 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask, and, most recently, Who Killed the Constitution? The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush (with Kevin R.C. Gutzman).

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