On Sovereignty

The Oxford Online Dictionary succinctly defines sovereignty as “Supreme power or authority”[1]. As a discreet political theory, sovereignty emerged in the 17th century and had no better advocate, arguably, than Thomas Hobbes. In Hobbes’ view natural society was chaotic thus required individuals to surrender their basic prerogatives to one supreme authority, for the sake of security and order. This argument contrasted vividly with the polycentric and radically decentralised medieval Res Publica which Europe was then departing from. Previously no one source of authority could reliably claim universal jurisdiction over a polity as it had to contend with scores of competing bodies (guilds, towns, aristocracy, charters and most importantly Holy Mother Church). Later we come to see the rise to supremacy of ‘divine right’ monarchs, in England then Britain’s case, a sovereign parliament and later the whole ‘nation’ with Jacobinism. Under this schema the sovereign body was the ultimate authority and could not be gainsaid by another. England’s Civil War is commonly portrayed as despotic royalists on the one side with freedom-loving parliamentarians on the other – the truth is that both factions competed over the location of sovereignty, not its extent. The concept is inimical to a decentralised political order, as it presumes that smaller entities derive their existence from the sufferance of the sovereign entity (thus their autonomy can be justly abrogated). Sovereignty can be a helpful concept in ensuring that political decisions are not made more remotely than the level of the state (i.e. national sovereignty) and in the U.S. case where (according to the Compact Theory) sovereignty is to be located in the several states (i.e. the smaller associations ordinarily subjugated under the notion of sovereignty).  This is another case where a pre-modern approach to politics can yield favourable results for the liberty-inclined.

[1] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/sovereignty?q=Sovereignty

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