Concepts / Sovereignty

Sovereignty relates to the national possession of supreme or ultimate power. It encompasses the right to be obeyed (see legitimacy). A nation state is a territory ruled in the name of a community of citizens who identify themselves as a nation, and the ‘ruler’ may take many forms and hybrids, e.g. monarch (aka sovereign), authoritarian, parliament of democratically elected representatives.

The latter constitutes a form of popular sovereignty, an idea that emerged during the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries). John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau theorized that the state is based upon a formal or informal compact of its citizens through which they entrust a government to do the best by them.

The American Declaration of Independence in 1776 (“We the people …”) is a manifestation of popular sovereignty. Fifteen years later the French constitution asserted:

Sovereignty is one, indivisible, unalienable and imprescriptible; it belongs to the Nation; no group can attribute sovereignty to itself nor can an individual arrogate it to himself.

The situation in the US differed somewhat, as James Madison wrote:

In Europe, charters of liberty have been granted by power. America has set the example . . . of charters of power granted by liberty. … [The government’s authority is] derived not from the usurped power of kings, but from the legitimate authority of the people.

The authority to propose and approve constitutional changes was vested not only in Congress but also in states and in special conventions called for that purpose. Sovereign powers that remained undelegated by the constitution remained with the individual states / with the people.

The idea of broader allocation of power was taken further in the 20th century in the concept and form of pluralistic sovereignty (see pluralism) whereby governance powers are distributed amongst various political, economic, social, and religious groups. The state is but one form of social solidarity and possesses no special authority in comparison to others.

Perhaps inevitably such decentralized allocation might be taken to the logical extreme of individual / personal sovereignty, and by the mid-20th century this was effectively Ayn Rand’s thesis. Her law of identity states that “A is A,” meaning that everything that exists has a specific identity and that its identity is what it is, regardless of anyone’s wishes, beliefs, or feelings. She claimed that her idea that individuals are sovereign and independent gives them the right to think, act, and pursue their own happiness.

Such extrapolation is flawed. While Rand was one of many following the Enlightenment’s emphasis of individual rights, the idea of individual sovereignty is a category error in light of multiple disciplinary conceptualizations and evidence to the contrary. We don’t, for example, think alone. In which language (a social construct) might that be?! Our noteworthy actions typically involve or impinge on others. And happiness is often found in identifying as and with rather than differently from. We are a social and predominantly cooperative species. (See agency and mind.)

Rand called her philosophy Objectivism but it appears her attribution of sovereignty to the individual was entirely a subjective inclination. Nevertheless, in the Newtonian mode of computer science, her legacy is kept alive across numerous web3 projects, not least so-called self-sovereign identity (SSI).

Daniel Schmachtenberger’s attempt to redefine individual sovereignty in terms of sentience, intelligence, and agency is most welcome, but one might easily consider it quite distant from the original concept as to hardly resemble it at all.

Sovereignty is too simplistic a notion at the individual level, and indeed it is increasingly curtailed (circumscripted in the lexicon) at the level of nation states as international law and such efforts as European integration testify. In layman’s prose: we all have to find ways to work together and every nation state claiming supreme power isn’t going to help.


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