An important part of modern culture wars is the unresolved conflict between the idea of the individual’s sovereignty and the state’s sovereignty. The United States was founded on the principle of the sovereignty of the individual: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The United Nations, on the other hand, was founded on the principle of the sovereignty of the state: “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.”1UN Charter, Article 2, Section 1. While the preamble to the UN Charter recognizes “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and nations large and small,” it begins “We the peoples…,” indicating groups of people, not individuals, are the foundation of the organization. Historically, sovereign states have been ruled by force, by kings and dictators, while democracies are based on the concept of the sovereignty of individuals.2Many early democracies, as in Ancient Greece, were heads of “households” and not individual persons.
The difference between the sovereignty of the individual and the sovereignty of the state can be seen between the individual liberty promoted by the US Declaration of Independence and the lack of freedom in Soviet-style communism. The sovereignty of the individual stems from the protestant idea that all individuals are “temples of God.” Individuals are accountable to a transcendent Being before any other human being or social institution. The sovereignty of the state was promoted by the German philosopher Hegel, who argued:
The state is absolutely rational inasmuch as it is the actuality of the substantial will which it possesses in the particular self-consciousness once that consciousness has been raised to consciousness of its universality. This substantial unity is an absolute unmoved end in itself, in which freedom comes into its supreme right. On the other hand this final end has supreme right against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be a member of the state.3G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, Part 3: The Ethical Life, Section iii: The State, No. 258 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 155.
For Hegel, the state was the embodiment of the march of the Absolute (God) in history. Hegel was writing 200 years after the rise of the modern nation-state in Europe. The state was viewed by many as a panacea for saving the world, replacing the ideas of salvation in traditional religion. Unfortunately, uncontrolled state leaders do not usually behave ethically towards their people, nor towards each other. Millions of individuals have been killed by states asserting uncontrolled power and by groups within states attempting to seize the power of the state to play a god and control others.
While the idea of the state is an evolutionary advance over the concept of empire, It should not be seen as a god that will save people. If a state is to serve its citizens and not pursue war, its sovereignty needs to be limited by definition and mission.
An International State System based on Sovereign States
The concept of state sovereignty arose with the concept of the modern state that originated with the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648.4https://www.britannica.com/event/Peace-of-Westphalia This followed the defeat of the Spanish Empire and the birth of the modern nation-state system. The rulers who signed this treaty were guaranteed that other states would not invade them, and this guarantee was ethically backed by the just war theory developed by Hugo Grotius in On the Law of War and Peace.5De iure belli ac pacis libri tres, Paris: Buon, 1625; reprinted and translated many times since. Although Grotius’ principles referred to both individual and state sovereignty, in practice state sovereignty became an absolute principle in the international community. Rulers, whether tyrant or benevolent, asserted absolute power to govern their own territories. One of the first acts of the kings and princes of states was to declare official state religions–imposing their culture on their citizens. State churches mean that culture is controlled by the government and individuals are limited in their pursuit of truth or their ability to criticize the state.
In modern just-war theory, one state cannot invade another state for any reason, but each state has an absolute right to defend itself. Further, if attacked, a state can only respond in proportion, using enough power to repel the invader but not to conquer them. While just war theory was culturally accepted in Western civilization, unethical rulers have ignored it and still waged aggressive wars of conquest. The Peace of Westphalia was only as good as the word of those who signed and inherited the treaty.
The Hague conferences were the first attempt to hold state leaders accountable to the world. In 1899, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia opened the first Hague Conference on his birthday. Several international conventions were adopted by the conference. The most prominent was the establishment of a Permanent Court of Arbitration, ratified by 26 states: all major world powers and several smaller states. Participation in the Court was voluntary. Voluntary participation was necessary to avoid violating state sovereignty. Disputing states had to both agree to accept the verdict of the Court. Other conventions adopted regarded rules of war and arms, but the US, UK, and China did not ratify all of them.
A second conference was held in 1907 at the urging of US President Theodore Roosevelt, who had won the Nobel Prize in 1905 for negotiating the Treaty of Portsmouth between the Russians and Chinese.6The Treaty considered the two major powers, but not the rights of the independence-seeking Koreans, who ended up under the Japanese. The 1907 Conference expanded the 1899 conventions and is today a convention in the United Nations further expanded by the Geneva Conventions today ratified with further provisions by over 100 states.
In the first decade of the 20th century, the world was full of liberal optimism. Many believed that arbitration would bring world peace, but the liberal ideal that states would obey treaties was dashed by the real abuses of state power. WWI broke out with a fury in 1914. After the First World War, the League of Nations, influenced by Immanuel Kant’s book On Perpetual Peace, was founded by members who agreed to abstain from war.
Within a decade, Italy and Germany violated this agreement without consequence. The Kellog-Briand Pact was negotiated but was soon violated. World War II drove home the realism that power had to be checked by power. The United Nations updated the League of Nations by adding an International Security Council of great powers. These powers would protect smaller states invaded by aggressors. However, this system required (1) the neutrality of the members of the Security Council and (2) the obedience of Security Council members to just war conventions. Again, this did not happen. The powers on the Security Council formed alliances and vetoed attempts by other members to curb their aggression.
The United Nations was also more than an international security arrangement. It became a global government involved with economic and cultural development. An unwanted consequence of this was the rise of an international order that rewarded dictators and tyrants. Technical and Financial Assistance from the UN for less-developed societies had to be given to state governments. Such aid increased the power of those state governments and reduced their need to rely on citizens. It stimulated the rise of dictatorships. Money intended for development often ended up in the Swiss bank accounts of these dictators. Peace researcher Johann Galtung called this “the center within the periphery.”7Galtung, A Structural Theory of Imperialism The United Nations’ policy, in the name of doing good, stimulated instability and even civil wars within states. UN Peacekeeping missions were not very successful in policing within-state problems because citizens within states viewed it as occupation and a violation of their sovereignty.
Today, the great powers of the UN Security Council are divided. There is no common principle that enables the United States, Europe, China, and Russia to cooperate in UN Security operations. Rather, these powers have become competitors violating just war rules in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine, justifying invasions and “preemptive wars” that violate state sovereignty. These violations cause other states to fear invasion and escalate arms production for their own defense. State resources that could be used for infrastructure are redirected to military development. The principle of absolute state sovereignty has proven unenforceable and detrimental to world peace.
Individual Sovereignty as the Starting Point of Peace
People are not happy as servants of their governments, instead, they desire their government to serve them. Human beings are biologically driven to pursue their own survival, family, and property. They resist slavery to other people or social institutions. They will voluntarily join and serve social institutions that enable the pursuit of life, liberty, and property. As life is necessary for liberty and property, security is a prerequisite for peace. This means that individual sovereignty comes prior to state sovereignty and that it is preferable for individuals to control their own destiny rather than to expect states or other social institutions to make them happy.
The idea of democracy is that individual citizens create their own government, but the idea of absolute state sovereignty conflicts with the idea of democracy. State sovereignty is a remnant of rule by kings, princes, and dictators who controlled geographical territories like states. And the idea of the “nation-state” implies that the citizens monolithically adopt the official culture of the state. While good rulers allowed citizens freedom and property, tyrants could appropriate all property and treat citizens as enslaved people. Thus the ideal of democracy is in direct conflict with the notion of state sovereignty.
Does this mean that states should not exist? No. It means that states are not the primary sovereign units. They are to be composed of sovereign individuals–citizens. However, for individual citizens to be sovereigns, they must be self-sufficient, relying on their own productive efforts to give them autonomy.
Individual Sovereignty and Institutional Stability
The Middle Class would better be defined as productive, self-sustaining citizens than people earning a certain level of economic income. Ownership of property is the foundation of the self-sufficiency citizens require to govern their own lives before they can participate in the governance of a larger society. For example, a citizen earning $10,000 per year who owned their own home, generated their own electricity, and raised their own food, would be more capable of contributing to democracy than someone earning $100,000 per year working for the government and living paycheck to paycheck. The second person could be fired at a moment’s notice and left with nothing.
Proponents of the “Great Reset,” who promise “you will own nothing and be happy,” are denying individual sovereignty and treating human beings like cattle they own. It is doubtful that many would be happy letting those people plan their lives. This is the fundamental argument explained by Michael Greaney and Dawn Brohawn in their book The Greater Reset.8Greater Reset: Reclaiming Personal Sovereignty under Natural Law (TAN Books, 2022). This book argues the concept of personal sovereignty from within the Catholic tradition, but the concept has universal validity for the pursuit of human happiness and peace. The Great Reset9COVID-19: The Great Reset as proposed by Klaus Schwab is a false promise that will lead to slavery, if not genocide because it places the masses under the control of elites who will treat them according to their own pleasure. This is inimical to the idea of individual sovereignty in the US Declaration of Independence.
Levels and Spheres of Society
Society is not made up of just individuals and states, but a complex array of social institutions in three social spheres—cultural, economic, and governmental—and several levels—individual, family, community, city or county, state, regional federation of states, and global. In political science, this is referred to as “levels of analysis.”
A stable society is a pyramid structure, where members of one level create another institution to provide for common goals, like security. A stable society is bottom-up. This means that membership is voluntary, and the right to secede should be guaranteed. Higher levels serve as a coordinator or referee providing a service to the members, and it does not extract resources from members beyond what they voluntarily offer in exchange for membership. The Catholic Church has referred to an inversion of this hierarchy as the principle of subsidiarity.10Subsidiary means that the lower level subsists or is devolved from the higher, as opposed to being built up from the lower. Yet, in Catholic doctrine, all social bodies exist for the individual. In either formulation, responsibility should fall on the lowest level of society possible.
This principle applies to levels in all social spheres. For example, in the economic sphere, the economy will be more stable if each house produces its own electricity. It will be less stable if it requires on a power grid or supply controlled by others. In the case of solar panels, on which the sun falls everywhere, this would mean solar panels on each house should take a priority over solar farms in which the individual’s access to energy depends on others. Having energy produced by each home protects individuals from grid failures, sabotage, and supply line shortages at the higher level. Thus, the principle of individual sovereignty will give personal energy production a higher priority than state or community energy production.
State sovereignty gives states responsibility for things individuals and communities could do. It encourages consolidated power and ever-expanding bureaucracies to take responsibility for things that are not appropriate. For example, the education of children, which belongs in the cultural sphere, is an inappropriate activity of the state. The state is both the wrong social sphere (governance) and the wrong social level (removed from personal attention to children). Education is personal, states are impersonal, and therefore incapable of delivering individual needs. The family, the next social level above the child, is the most responsible and best producer of personalized education. Nevertheless, parents who are often working while children could be learning can voluntarily organize schools and hire teachers but should have the right to withdraw children from schools and place them in another. It is the nature of state education bureaucracies to acquire larger budgets and expand the bureaucracy first. It is also the nature of monopolistic bureaucracies to ration services, rationing the expenditures reaching the students. It is the purpose of a school to educate. And, a state bureaucracy will ask for more funds for this purpose, but likely fail to solve the problems of education with the funds they receive. This is because the institutional purpose, educating children, is assigned to the wrong level and wrong sphere of society.
In the case citizens agree that the state can be used to create greater opportunity for all children to receive an education because some areas are impoverished, the principle of subsidiarity would dictate that the impersonal level of the state provide an impersonal service. Rather than trying to educate children in poor areas directly and impersonally, it would be more effective to provide school vouchers that will impact all children personally. Vouchers allow parents and guardians to send children to the safest and most personally enriching social institutions. The bottom-up economic pressure of vouchers stimulates schools to compete for children and provide more education for the dollar. It puts pressure on schools to serve their primary mission. On the other hand, lobbying by schools for impersonal tax dollars from a higher-level bureaucracy changes their mission to serve the state instead of children. This top-down flow of school funding is a perverse incentive to redirect the school’s mission and causes institutional dysfunction.
One of the most severe problems of dysfunction in all spheres and at all levels of society is the failure of social institutions to be structured for their mission. Incentives for all actors should serve the institution’s mission. The state is a social institution of governance, not a cultural institution,11The article on this topic is here. Its job is to govern a specific territory of smaller units, counties. It does this by serving counties that should have the right to join or leave depending on whether the benefits of joining outweigh the costs.
This voluntary principle of counties organizing into a state from the bottom-up will ensure that the state doesn’t waste money by creating new missions for itself and taxing the counties, or their citizens, for the pleasure of doing what the bureaucrats want. As Ronald Reagan famously said, “nothing lasts longer than a temporary government program,”12Goodreads and,
No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth!13Brainyquote
The inability to control social institutions stems from the failure to organize them at the proper social level, in the appropriate social sphere, and with a precise and limited mission statement maintained by checks and balances. For example, the Great Depression was preceded by banks speculating in the stock market with individuals’ savings. Banking can be defined as “an institution that provides a service to its savers and borrowers and living off the interest margin.” When bankers want to use the savings for other purposes, like investing in the stock market, their mission changes from serving savers and borrowers to coopting the livelihoods of savers and borrowers for gambling with their money. The Glass-Steagal Act, passed after the collapse of the banking system (1930-1933), was to limit banks to this fundamental purpose. Further, the FDIC was created to protect individuals, not the banks, in the case of bank failure. Social institutions are resilient when they stick to their mission and treat the individuals they are meant to serve as sovereign.
The repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 so that Citibank could merge with Travelers Insurance allowed the bank to overstep its mission. This was followed by scandals such as Enron and WorldCom and another banking collapse from gambling with subprime mortgages. Unfortunately, in 2007, big banks—the culprits—were bailed out at the expense of the smaller community banks trying to abide by traditionally sound banking principles. Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank legislation did not fix the problem because they imposed rules that made traditional banking too expensive. The control and operation of banking moved from the community level, where it serves citizens best and is most resilient, to elites at the Federal level. This made the system unstable and defeated the purpose of providing a return on savings to sovereign citizens. The current system fails in this most fundamental mission of banking.
Social Viruses and the Hijacking of Instutions
The example of elites hijacking the purpose of banking applies to all social institutions—states, churches, schools, businesses, utilities, hospitals, and charities. The hijacking of social institutions, or their infection with viruses (parasites), is analogous to viruses in the human body or a computer: resources meant to serve a specific purpose get diverted to serve another purpose. Without an immune system response or anti-virus software, the infection will weaken or kill the host.
We have made significant advances in the study of the human immune system and anti-virus software, but we have not learned how to create resilient social institutions. The infectious diseases of social institutions are running rampant and out of control. They are wreaking havoc on human beings, from causing wars, genocides, financial collapses, food and supply shortages, and human trafficking. In all of these social problems, we find social institutions that fail to serve their missions due to hijacking, viruses, or incompetence.
The emerging study of Institutional Value Transmission (IVT) and Institutional Relisence14Don Trubshaw,”Institutional Resilience and Ecological Threats as Factors in Societal Peace and Conflict,” International Journal on World Peace, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4 (December 2021), pp. 11-37. by Don Trubshaw and others is beginning to shed light on this problem. Social institutions are founded for a purpose or mission that generates a set of values and an institutional culture. These values should underpin the core mission of workers, managers, and elites. They serve as a basis for the rules, checks, and balances, and other institutional structures that produce the desired product or outcome.
Trubshaw states that “all institutions face three external threats: long-term viability, susceptibility to risk-taking, and ideological capture.”15Ibid., p. 28. I would add to “ideological capture,” which is cultural, “economic capture,” and “governmental capture.” An example of an economic takeover would be a merger or acquisition. In this case, a restaurant whose purpose is to serve the best food to customers can become a cash cow for a parent company to extract as much profit as possible. This new ownership value will conflict with the original purpose of the restaurant, whose goal was to make customers happy. The new purpose is to make stockholders more wealthy, instead of customers more satisfied. Poorer quality food and service might be viewed, in the short term, as a way of increasing profit. Institutional Value Transmission would be lost, and if the customers feel they are no longer well-served, the restaurant will go out of business.
If one restaurant or one community bank fails, the hardship on the entire society is minimal. However, if all the branches of one industry are under the control of one monopoly or government department, a failure will be catastrophic, causing the entire society to suffer. In the first case, we have an ownership pyramid structure as in Figure 1 above. In the second, we have an inverted pyramid structure, as in Figure 2, that is highly unstable and could cause great harm to all individuals in the society when it collapses. Thus, the principle of subsidiarity applies to institutions in all social spheres. If higher levels
Limiting the State to Its Purpose
States are not a panacea for human salvation. They can provide common security and serve as a referee among civil disputes. As a referee, governments should not create truth, nor should they produce or acquire economic goods. Those are in the province of the cultural and economic spheres, where individual citizens pursue happiness. When governments are used for cultural and economic purposes, they cease to be a referee and become a player with monopoly power that crushes individual sovereignty.16See my earlier article on this topic.
A state is made up of a complex set of its own institutions. Each of these institutions should be held to their original social purpose and the institutional values that derive from that purpose. Further, metrics can be applied to determine the improvement of the institution in the production of its product or service to citizens. I provided an example of this approach to the institution of the legislation of laws in the article on “Elites and Masses: Legislative Bodies for a Functional Society”17Elites and Masses: Legislative Bodies for a Functional SocietyLegislative processes have been hijacked in many ways, from concentrating power in party leadership rather than elected representatives to the passage of omnibus legislation that contains items that do not reflect the consent of the governed.
The sovereignty of a state should be limited to its specific social purpose: to provide security and act as a referee within a particular territory. Further, the size of that territory should not be determined by conquest, racial or ethnic background, or economic purchase, but by the voluntary bottom-up organization starting with sovereign individuals. A resilient society depends on keeping social institutions focused on their mission and preventing the expansion, hijacking, or infection that subverts that mission.
When the sovereignty of the individual exists, as the US Founders proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, human flourishing and happiness will follow. It will not automatically follow but will be allowed and encouraged. The flourishing requires that sovereign individuals, given their rights, assume their responsibilities. Human happiness, peace, and well-being occur when social institutions recognize the sovereignty of the individual, remain true to their particular mission, and the lowest possible level of society takes responsibility.