Popular Sovereignty v National Sovereignty

As King Canute knew, sovereignty always has its limits.

Sovereignty is not about what we want to achieve. It is about what is possible. If a king degrees that the waves should retreat, or a parliament decides that the moon should shift it’s orbit, no sovereignty will be exercised.

Sovereignty is about a capacity to do things, and not just a desire.

Let’s illustrate this. Imagine you live in a country that shares a long, porous border with a neighbouring state. Then imagine two different scenarios:

  1. At least one of the two states places the most value on doing things their own way, independently of what their neighbours do. If one state tries to haggle the other into sharing an approach to a problem, this is likely to be resisted with arguments about national autonomy.
  2. the two states co-operate deeply in achieving shared goals, adopting common approaches to big problems, sacrificing some autonomy into the bargain.

In the case of option one, if one of the pro-autonomy states in question is not much of a democracy, it is possible that this approach could possibly increase it’s national sovereignty. The question of popular sovereignty will be moot because of the wider absence of democratic practices and institutions.

If it is actually a democracy, and it has been clearly established that the people of that country don’t wish to have the option to vote for….

  • enforceable taxation
  • enforceable consumer protection
  • enforceable labour laws
  • enforceable commercial laws and contracts
  • enforceable policing and security measures
  • enforceable cross-border protections (convergence on travel rules, justice, trade, etc)

… then it is also possible that option one increases popular sovereignty. The word “option” is the key though. In reality, this is unlikely to a point of being almost unthinkable because citizens will always want to have these options even if they don’t exercise them.

In all other cases (with an important caveat I will come to later), option one diminishes popular sovereignty. Option two increases it, because a state improves its capacity to do all of these things if it co-operates with geographical neighbours.

Remember, if most citizens are currently very libertine in their disposition — they may be anti-police, anti-tax, opposed to strong citizen or employment protection, etc, they still don’t have popular sovereignty if they don’t have the option to change their mind on all of the above.

The key to sovereignty is the capacity of a ruling body to exert its will. As King Canute found, there will always be areas in which it will inevitably be limited.

Tax and sovereignty

For avoidance of doubt, lets zoom in on the question of tax.

If you live in a state where the people often wish that tax laws and practices were fairer and more enforceable, but large groups of people were able to avoid taxes, then that state has a poor quality of popular sovereignty.

Even if, in this instance, you personally are in favour of low, voluntary taxes, you are still not in a state in which democratic institutions are sovereign. You are just living in a state where your preference is unfairly being prioritised for some reason.

Let’s go further. Even if that state has made a democratic decision to make taxes low and voluntary, while retaining the capacity to enforce a more demanding tax system if the democratic mood changes, then you are in a state that enjoys popular sovereignty.

The capacity to levy the tax system that democratic institutions wish to use is the key here. A democracy should ensure that everybody has equal influence over the design of a tax system (with all of the democratic caveats about a need to deliberate to find a consensus where it’s possible, and a requirement to avoid a tyranny of the majority, etc).

If it does this, and it can be confident that everyone will abide by the decisions made by democratic institutions, then its citizens live in a state that is a democracy, and one that enjoys popular sovereignty.

If those citizens can decide to change their policy on tax without any fears that they will not be able to enforce their new policy, they enjoy a very high level of popular sovereignty.

National sovereignty is dishonestly used to damage popular sovereignty

Going back to our two scenarios. I hope we have seen that it is incredibly unlikely that any democratic body of citizens would want to remove all options to have protections around tax, consumption, business, security etc, even if they’re not currently interested in exercising them.

There is no question that people of one political persuasion — small state libertarians — would wish to argue for low levels of tax and regulation. They would achieve everything they politically set out to do by persuading everyone else to agree with them. Alternatively, they can take a dishonest short-cut and exploit the popular misconception about national sovereignty being the same thing as popular sovereignty.

Strong national autonomy would suit them down to the ground. Perhaps some of them would, politically, spare nothing to achieve it. In refusing to co-operate with neighbouring states, they would lose a lot of their capacity to tax and regulate, and they would regard this as a political triumph. They will gather to their democratic institutions all of the sovereignty that Canute exercised over the waves.

If anyone argued that this was a democratic triumph, it would be because they don’t understand what democracy, or popular sovereignty is.

The counterargument

This is where the head-hurt sets in.

If option two (mutual co-operation) applies, and the states impose mutual restrictions on each other which stop their states from democratically choosing (for example) to abolish taxation for the time being, then we could say that popular sovereignty is diminished. With one hand, option two gives us a greater range of options tax-wise, but it takes the option to decide what it is away with the other.

The problem with this argument is that, if your state abolishes all taxes, it would make it impossible for neighbouring states to collect their taxes. Their tax-dodgers would all move to, and trade in your jurisdiction. Co-operation would be unsustainable in the first place. It’s a circular argument.

To make the case for breaking co-operation, those advocating it would need to show that they had worked hard with their neighbours to reach a consensus if it were possible, and they would need to demonstrate that the attitudes to taxation (in this instance) were radically different on different sides of the border.

They would also need to demonstrate that the value of uncompromising autonomy on the issues in question clearly outweighed the wider upside that co-operation brings — the ability to exercise policy choices on a wide range of issues that are not available to very autonomous states.

You would expect the people who are arguing for breaking co-operation to be the most actively engaged political interlocutors with their neighbouring states.

If they fail to do these things, then all they are really doing is arguing against popular sovereignty under the guise of arguing for national sovereignty.

Obviously, the issue that this question has been tested on the most recently (in the context of the UK planning to leave the EU) is immigration.

I think that’s enough for now though. It’s an interesting jumping off point, isn’t it?