Saturday, November 26, 2016

Popular Sovereignty VS a Popular Sovereign

Since at least the late XVIII Century the nature of sovereignty has been changing in the world, particularly and starting in the western world. A dramatic example of this was seen with the creation of the United States of America. Having discarded the monarchy, and with it the concept of having a single individual as the sovereign, a personal sovereign one might say, the new Union of republican states instead embraced the concept of “popular sovereignty”. This meant that, ideally anyway, that everyone was sovereign. The people collectively were the sovereign of this new country rather than an individual person who sat on a throne and wore a crown. This is why, to this day, in legal cases on a national level, cases are known as “the People vs. John Doe” whereas in Canada or the United Kingdom such a case would be known as “the Crown vs. John Doe” because America has popular sovereignty whereas the British and Canadians have a monarch who is the sovereign, represented in legal terms by “the Crown”.

The United States, however, was not nearly so influential or had nearly so great an impact as many people today like to think, their perception being warped by either how powerful the United States has become or by their own exalted view of the country. For most of its early history, the USA was seen as a relatively minor collection of former British colonies on the edge of a distant wilderness, a sort of geopolitical oddity that was not likely to long endure. Much more significant and consequential was the larger, more radical and more horrific French Revolution which again saw a sovereign (King Louis XVI) replaced by popular sovereignty. That regime did not long endure but it had a huge impact and would come back again and again until the crowned heads of Europe began to feel compelled to make some sort of accommodation with its concepts. So it was that emperors suddenly became more popular and more numerous in the western world and there was, for a relatively brief time, a fascination with the concept of what is known as “popular monarchy”.

In a popular monarchy, while there was still an individual sovereign, that sovereign was the sovereign of a people rather than a particular piece of territory. So, King Louis Philippe was not “King of France” but rather, “King of the French”. Leopold I was not the “King of Belgium” but rather, “King of the Belgians” and one of the last to take such a tone was the Prussian Wilhelm I who, while remaining King of Prussia, did not become “Emperor of Germany” but took the title “German Emperor”. This change in titles was not, of course, in itself all that significant. The King of England had previously been known as the “King of the English”, the official title of the Kings of Sweden had been, “King of the Swedes, Goths and Wends” and so on, however, it symbolized a change in attitudes and a new and major shift in the nature of how countries or peoples are ruled which was the rise of what is known as “representative government” to a higher status and more widespread status than the world had probably seen since before the fall of the Roman Empire. As a result of this, even in countries where the titles did not change, the system effectively did. The United Kingdom, as mentioned, has a sovereign but it behaves in a similar fashion to countries with popular sovereignty, even to the point of referring to the people as “citizens” rather than “subjects” now. That is because the UK just like the US and most other countries, whether in name or in fact, have embraced the liberal concept of representative government.

Now, if these two concepts; popular sovereignty and representative government, are not one and the same, why address them both together? I address them both together because it seems to me, in light of current events and recent history, that they have come together to create a ‘perfect storm’ of thoroughly bad government. Representative government, particularly after the French Revolution and the rise of mass involvement in government by the populace through the franchise, gave rise to politics as we know it today. It led to the creation of political parties and competing ideologies that formed warring tribes struggling to dominate the levers of power, none of which had existed before. This, in my view, has been extremely detrimental to civilization. However, representative government was able to make a good case for itself and that in accordance with traditional authority and what became known as popular monarchy or constitutional monarchy more broadly. Representative bodies, such as the Westminster Parliament in England or the Estates-General in France or the Imperial Diet in Germany were meant to be, originally, advisory bodies. They were to assist the monarch in the governing of the country by putting forward ideas, refined by vigorous debate and examination, as well as to provide a mild reflection of popular sentiment so that the boundaries of what the public would be willing to tolerate would be known. This could be, and at times was, quite beneficial.

Ultimately, however, the rise of liberalism, illustrated by the embracing of popular sovereignty, began to change the nature of this relationship. Power shifted and the change can be seen quite clearly in Britain today where the monarch is said to advise the government whereas in the past it was supposed to have been the other way around. With no individual sovereign to owe allegiance to, allegiance was instead given to rather vague concepts or to “the people” as a whole. This did not last long and has quickly degenerated. Sovereignty has become another example of what is known as “the tragedy of the commons” (something libertarians most often talk about). What does that mean? It means that if everyone is sovereign then, really, there is no sovereign. Just like land that is supposed to belong to everyone, effectively doesn’t belong to anyone and so falls into disuse and neglect. If “everyone is special” then effectively no one is special. This seems to be happening today and I do not think it would be much of a stretch to say that the shift from individual sovereignty to popular sovereignty has had something to do with what is going on right now.

Take, for example, the ongoing problem of mass movement of peoples. Be it waves of people from the Middle East and Africa coming into Europe or the rush of people from Central America coming into the United States, there is a great deal of this going on across the so-called First World group of countries. This actually has a great deal to do with sovereignty and brings up some fundamental questions about the very concept of representative government which, unfortunately, I have yet to see any prominent person ask or address the issue in any way. It comes down to the observation that the politicians in countries like the USA, Germany or Sweden do not seem to feel themselves limited to representing the people who put them in office but rather that they must represent the interests of various and sundry peoples all around the world.

Say that you are a Somali who has entered Europe illegally and made your way to Sweden. You claim refugee status on the grounds that Somalia is too poor, violent and dangerous for you to live there. Usually, such claims are bogus because such a person, if actually fleeing imminent danger, would seek the nearest available haven and not keep going all the way to the northernmost reaches of Europe, but, nonetheless, Somalia has, since its independence, been an extremely unpleasant place to live where danger is certainly never far away. What should be asked, though, is what any of this has to do with the Kingdom of Sweden? For the Swedes to accept Somali refugees on the grounds that Somalia is too violent and chaotic to live in and so accommodation must be made for these people in Sweden is to accept that the Swedish people, that the Swedish government which is supposed to represent their interests, is also responsible for the interests and wellbeing of the Somali people. How can this be? The Somalis did not vote the Swedish government into power, the Somalis do not pay the taxes that Swedish officials spend and the Swedish flag does not fly over, nor has it ever flown over, Somalia. The hellish condition of that country has nothing to do with Sweden. So, again, one must ask why the representative government of Sweden, which is supposed to represent the interests of the Swedish people who put them in power, feels compelled to also represent the interests of the Somali people and assume responsibility for their safety and wellbeing?

This is a major problem for the concept of representative government in the world today, the very fundamental nature of the concept itself seems to be changing and no one is really talking about it or offering any explanation. I remember saying this when America was dealing with the flood of illegal immigrants, all claiming refugee status, from Central American countries like Honduras or Guatemala. I said at the time that if, as many are arguing including President Obama, the United States is responsible for these people, that they must accept them and care for them because their quality of life in Guatemala is so bad, you are effectively saying that the United States is responsible for how Guatemala functions, its security and its economy, in which case the Marines should be landed, the American flag raised, a Governor appointed and we should start teaching them all English because Guatemala is not really an independent country but belongs to the United States!

Obviously, if anyone important were to suggest such a thing, there would immediately be cries of imperialism or colonialism. Nor do I think that would be the ideal situation as I have no doubt Guatemala would be an even worse case than Puerto Rico, a territory that is a drain on the U.S. economy and which tends to resent or even outright despise the country they depend on for economic bailouts. However, the point is that for some reason there are politicians in America who feel as though they must represent the interests of the people of Guatemala even though the Guatemalans did not vote for them, do not pay their salary and do not even belong to the same country. This is not the same as normal immigration after all, these are cases of huge influxes of peoples from various countries who are claiming that they do not need to follow the rules and established procedures for immigration because their situation is particularly desperate and, for some reason, the people in Germany are responsible for providing a better life for Syrians or the people in Belgium are responsible for the quality of life of Algerians and so on.

Is this a result of the change in how we view sovereignty? I cannot say, but it is certainly a thought worth considering in my view because I think a good case can be made. Sadly, few people seem interested in pondering the point. There are, though, some cases one could point to that the issue of sovereignty in general is something that some people in some countries at least are willing to look at. In Europe, of course, this usually involves the European Union as people in Britain and more recently in France and Italy have begun to reject or at least question the authority of the European Union which contradicts the assertion that member countries are truly sovereign states. I have also been encouraged by recent events in Japan where the efforts to enact constitutional reform have included proposals to end the frankly bizarre status quo and reassert the status of the Emperor as Head of State, which His Majesty effectively is but legally is termed only as the “symbol” of the state since the post-war constitution brought the concept of popular sovereignty to Japan. If, as the conservative reformers wish, the Emperor is placed above the constitution rather than being subject to it, that will come extremely close to reverting back to the Emperor being the Japanese sovereign and away from popular sovereignty even if the change is not made specifically. I think that would be a good thing.

Too many countries have allowed their sovereignty to be watered down and I think all would be well served by taking the concept more seriously. Certainly in the case of the monarchies of the world, it should be clear and unequivocal that the monarch is the sovereign and all are expected to give that sovereign their unqualified allegiance. I cannot help but think that the shift, in fact or in name, toward popular sovereignty has led to the current situation. If everyone is sovereign, then no one is sovereign and if no one is sovereign there is no final focus of allegiance. I also cannot believe that it is entirely coincidental that this change in attitude has corresponded with the breakdown in representative government as the politicians who are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents, now see themselves as unbounded by any ties of loyalty, nationality or law to represent the interests of any people anywhere in the world they wish. That this is a damaging and unhealthy state of affairs is, to my mind, quite self-evident.


  1. The purely individualist perspective is (understandably) omitted from this analysis.

    The issue of colonialism presents an interesting contradiction. Many of these less developed countries have previously 'thrown off the shackles' of colonialism. Yet today these same people are seeking to immigrate to the lands of their former 'imperial overlords'. Now I am not saying the colonial era was all cake and candy, but in many cases the subject nations benefited immensely.

    There is a special irony when S. Asians decry colonial abuses in one hand and in the other create entire industries around fraudulent immigration documents.

    1. In the old days, the colonial power had to show, in some way, that it was being beneficial to the subject country. So, they would exploit the resources and labor of a place but would educate the locals, provide modern medicine, build ports, roads, rail lines etc. Exploitation is still going on today but it is done privately, out of public view and without anything being provided in return.

      The Chinese have been becoming an exception to this though as they have taken control of large swathes of Africa and Latin America and have done some infrastructure work to aid in their enterprise, all of which they make sure to get full credit for. So, an African in Mozambique will have a new highway to drive to work on and every on-ramp will have a sign posted saying 'This road is a 'gift' from the People's Republic of China'.

  2. I read your post this morning. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio. I find that your example of a Somali "refugee" and today's events at Ohio State University most prescient.

  3. Thank you for this fascinating article. I always get a bit annoyed when feminists act like women in the past were helpless, brainless ninnies; it seems like they only consider the sexes inherently equal (whatever that means) in the modern period.

    I don't suppose you would consider posting a few resources at the end of articles like these, which cover less-well-known figures? It would be nice to be able to do further reading, and to have some idea of where to start.


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