dogs referred to above are, of course, the dogs of war. More to
the point, they are the dogs of unlimited state "sovereignty,"
on which we lately touched from the standpoint of John Taylor
of Caroline. Without the notion of sovereignty, as understood in
Europe anyway, it might have been harder to get the average fool
to sacrifice himself for emergent nation-states in their rather
dogs of war, in other words, were partly a consequence
of the dogs of asserted sovereignty, as well as the
other way around.
reinforced the prestige and claims of successful states,
and this in turn made their "sovereignty"
seem both reasonable and inevitable. This was a complex
process from about 1450 A.D. on, but I shall focus on
ideology, the first form of power. (The others are political-military
power and economic power. See my third
Old Cause column.)
WHO DID LET THE DOGS OUT?
those who first theorized states' claims to unlimited
power we find Thomas
Bodin, and, many would say, Nicolo
Machiavelli. Military historian Martin
Van Creveld credits Hobbes
with "inventing" the modern sovereign state.1
A useful perspective on these things comes to us from
a French reactionary classical liberal, Bertrand de
Jouvenel. His Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political
Good (1957) still repays serious reading.
Jouvenel noted that the notion of sovereignty is
entirely modern. It did not exist in the allegedly hateful
Middle Ages. Now if modernity involves sovereignty,
as presently understood, we are all doomed and I should
quit writing this essay. I therefore hasten to add that
there have been two roads to modernity. One was the
Continental-bureaucratic road and the other was the
British North American exceptional road, actually realized
this side of the water more than in the old country.
old sovereigns and the word itself (from Latin superanus)
merely meant "the highest" political level,
with no built-in judgment about the extent of its legitimate
authority had only "a limited right standing
guard over other rights."2
Ambitious kings, locked into competitive military struggles
with one another, in time asserted "absolute"
claims, i.e., their sovereignty, and wielded revived
Roman law in their favor.
claim made was thus essentially imperial and unrestricted
in nature. Each king aspired to the Roman mantle. This
"presupposed the complete subversion of the existing
which rested on specified rights and duties on manifold
levels. In the old order, the king lived off the rents
of his own lands and had, in effect, to plead and beg
for additional revenues from his subjects. Parliaments
were the bodies to whom this pleading and begging were
kings' wish for "an ideal entity, a plenitude of
was taken over by parliaments, once the bourgeois classes
threw in with royal power to offset the petty exactions
of local feudal magnates. This bourgeois royalism may
have been one of the greatest long-run mistakes in Western
history. With the French Revolution, "sovereignty"
was transferred to the "people," that is,
in practice, to politicians and bureaucrats speaking
in the name of the people.
was a partial exception to this trend. It was also a
partial example of it. To the extent that England followed
the bureaucratic path to modernity, North American Englishmen
opposed it. Hence the American Revolution, which opened
up the other road, grounded on late-Medieval decentralization,
the "rights of Englishmen," and the absence
of any over-theorized dogma of sovereignty.
we go patting ourselves on the back too much, it must
be conceded that within 80 or so years we began catching
up with European developments both in theory and practice.
The decisive moment was our so-called "civil war,"
which was, on the part of the South, a resistance (too
late) to the claims of central sovereign power and,
on the part of the North, the American version of the
French Revolution. The victorious party emancipated
slaves, to be sure, but the package deal that came with
this necessary step ensured the long-range enslavement
of everyone to abstractly sovereign state power.
IGNORE THE OBVIOUS
empowers the state. "Good" wars, bad wars,
it doesn't matter. If you want to find the single most
important contribution to aggravated statism in human
history, you will need to look at war. For the most
part, the Conservative rank-and-file don't seem to understand
this. War-borne state-empowerment and the doctrine of
sovereignty go hand in hand. All too many Conservative
spokesmen are glad to serve as their propagandists.
official leaders of Conservatism pretend that the problem
does not exist. In real life, I suspect, they know full
well how things work but do not, in fact, give a flying
fornication about it (they're all right, Jack). That
is, the Conservative establishment is made up of ideological
footmen of the state-building process, the necessary
effects of which they profess to oppose. What, then,
are they actually conserving? Damned little, it would
beware the Derbyshire, my child, the buckleylowrous
Goldberghanson, brillig as it is. There it sits, broad-bottomed,
on the mead-benches of the great hall Hero-Rot, bragging
and boasting with the best of Beowulf's rivals. Epic,
they are. Burbling along in tandem are all the organs
over which Neo-Conservatives hold sway.
President Gilligan holds forth from the White House,
Vice President Skipper moves from one place to another,
on the road again, and the Minister of Aerial Bombardment looking for all the world like the fellows Bob
Dylan had in mind when he wrote "Masters
of War" talks out of the available side
of his face, the better to hoodwink the alert gentlemen
of the press. The latter don't need much hoodwinking.
FORECAST ON THE MARK
of December 15, 1866, General Robert E. Lee wrote
Acton that "the consolidation of the states
into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad
and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor
of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have
Those words have now the ring of fulfilled prophecy,
whether or not the present military exercise has been
a good idea or not. It hasn't been, but never mind.
larger point is that states made wars and wars made
states. If you wish to live under limited government,
you should limit your wars. If you wish to live under
tyranny and socialism, however genteel, you can follow
the lead of the present "respectable" US governing
and chattering classes to your heart's content.
the proud owner of a two hundred millionth part of the
state's "sovereignty" will be small comfort,
Van Creveld, The
Rise and Decline of the State (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 178-179.
Bertrand de Jouvenel, Sovereignty:
An Inquiry into the Political Good (Indianapolis:
Liberty Fund, 1997 [1957), p. 203.
Ibid., p. 208.
Ibid., p. 217.
Lee to Acton in J. Rufus Fears, ed., Selected
Writing of Lord Acton : Essays in the History of
Liberty (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, n.d.),
p. 365 [my emphasis].