Political Sovereignty

Political Sovereignty: We here verge upon the political nature of sovereignty. What, fundamentally, is involved is the question of whether there ought to be, in any State, a power subject to no limits of any kind. But it is first necessary to remember that unlimited power is nowhere existent. Attention has always to be paid to the thousand varying influences which go to shape the nature of the sovereign will.

Here we are in the realm ,rather of fact than of theory  and the attempt to trace out the sources of any single decision would lead most to declare, as John Chipman Gray insisted, that the real rulers of a society are unrecoverable. A realistic analysis would probably content itself with saying that the will of the State is, for practical purposes, the will which determines the boundaries within which other wills must live. The will of the State, in fact, is the will of government as that will is accepted by the citizens over whom it rules.

Clearly, in such a background, the will of the State cannot be an irresponsible Will. It is no more than the judgment of a small body of men to whom, in an organized way, have been entrusted the reins of power. What they conceive to be right may clash with the community’s notion of right. It may be built upon assumptions controverted by historic experience. It may be a deliberate perversion of the end of the state. That is why it has been the judgment of most modern communities that the term of power enjoyed by any government must be subject to periodical renewal.

The community over which they preside must be given the chance to decide that it prefers a different body of men as governors. There is, that is to say, no permanent right to power. Every government must submit itself to the judgment of those who feel the consequences of its acts. The reason for such submission is the simple historical fact that unconditional power has always proved, at least ultimately, disastrous to those over whom it is exercised.

The notion of such periodical submission implies two things. It involves, firstly, a measureless importance in the method of submission. The way in which the popular judgment is elicited must be such as to secure a valid expression of public opinion. It involves, in the second place, the certainty that, in the period of office, a normal government will seek so to act that it keeps, so far as it can, the balance of the popular judgment in its favour. But that is in fact to say that its will is largely determined from outside itself.

Government for example, might in Great Britain confer a peerage on every butcher in the community but it would not do so, because it would be overwhelmed in the ridicule certain to be heaped upon it by its opponents. As soon, therefore, as we know that any government is largely controlled by the need to defer to wills outside itself, we have to ask two questions. We have to know what wills direct the will of government in any actual State. We have to know, further, what environment is urgent to the will of government if the end of the State is, in any large degree, to be attained.

It is better to take the second question first. Each individual, it has here been argued, is entitled to expect from the performance of the State an environment in which, at least potentially, he can hope to realize the best of himself. If power is exercised in any given State so as to differentiate, for this purpose, between its members, we have a denial of the condition which legitimises governments. It thus becomes necessary that the conditions of legitimacy be postulated as the primary limitation upon governmental power.

We postulate them by translating them into a system of rights by which is meant a set of demands which, if unrealized, prevent the fulfillment of the State purpose. We shall have, I later, to discuss the substance of those demands. Here, it is enough, for the moment, to say that every government in its working must seek to translate them into the daily substance of men’s lives. Every government is thus built upon a contingent moral obligation. Its actions are right to the degree that they maintain rights.When it is either indifferent about them, or wedded to their limitation, it forfeits its claim to the allegiance of its members.

When, of course, we turn from such a conception to the actual character of States, this notion may seem hardly less abstract than the legal theory of sovereignty itself. For a given right may be refused recognition. A government may, either honestly or dishonestly, doubt its wisdom and refuse to it statutory form and since any normal government is likely to dispose of the greatest amount of available force, it will probably be able, except in the event of successful revolution, to maintain its refusal.

That does not give its action validity. It means only that the preponderating material force of the community refuses to exercise its proper functions. The reasons for that refusal are usually of the most complex nature but, almost always, they are derived from a view of right which denies to all save a section of the State the opportunity of equal participation in its benefits. If the refusal is persisted in over any length of time, it results in the organization of an opposition which may grow until it is itself powerful enough to become the government. It is the  historic nature of ideal right to gather power unto itself that in the end, it may cease to be merely ideal

But a right, in the sense defined above, which is seeking realization his not the bare and empty thing such a refusal would seem to imply. Rights admit of organization in two ways and each of them is a limitation upon the acts of the government. They may, in the first place, be written into the constitution of the State. The sovereign power, that is to say, may be compelled to act in certain ways. It may, as in Belgium, be unable to limit religious, freedom or, as in England by convention, it may be unable to place its officials in a category different from that occupied by ordinary citizens.

Every government may, in this fashion, be placed under the rule of laws which it is in actual fact powerless to change. And the more such laws lie at the root of social cohesion, the more powerless will be the government to alter them. Whether that ought to imply, as in the United States, a difference legally recognized, between constitutional and ordinary statutes, the government being hampered in its ability to alter the former, is a nice point of historical interpretation.

Certainly freedom of speech has been more amply Protected in England, where no such difference obtains, than in the United States, where it does what seems to be the fruit of historical experience is that the more directly government is related to a public opinion accustomed to self expression in political terms, the more difficult it will be to avoid observance of the standard of conduct expected by the citizen a body. Legally, for example, the King in Parliament may outrage public opinion practically, it can do so only on the implied condition that it ceases, as a consequence, to be the King in Parliament.

Wherever legislation, therefore, is d g the sphere which other wills than that of the government may occupy, it is doing so upon the terms that it wins sufficiently the assent of those wills as not to provoke them to rebellion.

But, in the second place, to think of the attitude of a government to rights in terms of their acceptance is to imagine that it is in fact more free than is, as a rule, the case. Men are members of the State but they are members also of innumerable other associations which not only exercise power over their adherents, but seek also to influence the conduct of government itself.

All voluntary societies are seeking to make solutions peculiar to themselves general solutions accepted by the State. They are minority wills seeking, through the channels of legislation, to become the legally declared will of the majority Things like the Trades Disputes Act of 1906 stand out as examples of what they can achieve or, in another sphere, the way in which a small body like the Workers Educational Association has won from the State the recognition of its principles, is an extraordinary example of the power of opinion to organize its way to success.

That is not true of England alone. The National Consumers League of America has driven State after State into the acceptance of the limitation of the hours of labour and the establishment of a minimum wage for women. These are instances in which the will of government has been altered by direct action upon it. But not less important as a limitation upon its power to determine itself is the control exercised over their own sphere of activity by different associations.

For it is integral to the proper understanding of any given society that it should be regarded as essentially federal in its nature. It has activities of which the nature interests every member of the society, it has activities also that are primarily specific in their incidence. General activities of the first kind belong to the State, though that does not imply an identical form of organization. Activities of the second kind interest the State only in so far as their results bear upon the rest of the community. No State, in such a background, has the right to interfere with the dogmas of churches.

The Roman Catholic Church, for example, may deny that all outside of its communion are deprived of their title to external salvation, but unless it acts, as with the Inquisition, Upon the thesis that they are damned also in an earthly existence, that belief is outside the power of the State to alter. It is, in short, outside the competence of the State to interfere with any conduct from which general consequences do not flow.

If the Quakers preach the moral wrong of military service in a society where conscription is the rule, the State has the right to punish the individual recreant, but it has not the right to punish the Society of Friends. If foreign Jews resident in England seek to live by the divorce law of the Bible, the State has the right to punish individual offenders against its marriage laws, but it has not the right to punish the Jewish synagogue.

Associations of this kind are as natural to their members as the State itself. What, of course, they lack, and wherein their difference from the State consists, is the power to inflict corporal punishment , upon their members. They may assess them for lines they may inflict spiritual penalties they may expel from the given society. Herein their power is, and ought to be, as original and complete as that of the State itself.

Interference with them by the State almost always fails to win either the right consequences or the consequences that are expected. For these associations are, in their sphere, not less sovereign than the State itself  with, of course, the implication that their sovereignty is similarly limited by the refusal or willingness of the individual member to accept their decisions.

Nor must we forget that when we speak of “the will” of the government we are postulating, especially in a democratic State, an artificial unity which has no existence. For no government attempts to take into the hands of a single group of men the whole direction of affairs. Centralization may vary as with the two extremes of France and America but it is becoming generally recognized that efficient administration is impossible unless the diffusion of power creates a wide sense of responsibility.

Men who do no more than carry out the will of others soon cease to be interested in the process of which they are part. It is only when they can themselves , shape the will that is to be applied that it becomes in any real measure creative.  A local authority that has the power to make mistakes is more likely to do useful work than a local authority which merely carries out the will of a central body.

It is necessary indeed, to pick out the subjects in which  mistake can be made. It is, for example, legitimate to allow a town to decide whether or not it desires municipal Electricity. It is illegitimate to allow it to decide whether it desires an the educational system. In services, that is to say of which the incidence of interest is almost entirely local, the right of the central government to intervene is the better exercised the less it exists.

What is required is rather advice and comment and investigation than actual direction. In concrete terms, the question of whether the tramway service of Manchester is adequate ought never to engage the attention of the King in Parliament. The interest of its proper functioning touches a specific, and not a general, sphere. Practically, that is to say, we can lay down a system of territorial functions in which a final devolution of powers by the central government upon the authorities of local areas is the best method known of securing responsible government.

That is true not merely of territorial areas. It is possible to entrust to functions of a non territorial kind the control of their internal life. That is true in England of such professions as the Bag and medicine. They are allowed to regulate their own qualifications and, thereby, the rule of admission to the trade. They create their own standards of professional conduct. They elect, along predetermined lines, those by whom their rules are to be administered over a given period. And it is fundamental to this method of organization that there should be no way of appeal from decisions at which they have arrived.

If, for instance, a candidate for the Bar has failed in one of his examinations, the courts of the State Will not lie open to him save for inquiry into some abnormal circumstance. The area covered by such functional self-government is constantly increasing. Every trade has come to have its customs worked out by those engaged therein. It is even possible to conceive of industries to which would be confided the power to legislate for themselves over a vast variety of subjects, the State accepting as final the results of such legislation. Functional devolution in fact has exactly the same case for itself as territorial decentralization. It create a corporate sense of responsibility. It is a training in self-government. It confides the administration of powers to those who will feel most directly the consequences of those powers

It is, of course, both true and important that at the back of this delegated authority there should be the ultimate reserve power of the State. But it is not less urgent to realize the circumstances under which that reserve power is brought into play. It is not a will exercised against an inferior will, merely as an exhibition of legal competence.

It is a will exercised because those who urge the need for reform in the control of some delegated authority have been able to persuade the government either to undertake inquiry or tb attempt deliberate change. But here, again, the will of government is very largely a compromise between Opposing views  and that compromise rarely involves the direct control of the given function by the government.

It rather means that the social interests of the community are not held by those upon whose counsel the government relies to be adequately protected under some existing scheme and the direction of change is towards a new experiment in which, as it is thought, that social interest may be more fully realized.

In such a perspective as this, the theory of sovereignty in its political aspect begins to assume a very different shape from what its orthodox claims imply. It becomes clear that if the State is to be a moral entity, it must be built upon the organized acquiescence of its members. But this demands from them the scrutiny of government orders and that, in its turn, implies a right to disobedience.

Such a right is, of course, reasonably to be exercised only at the margins of political conduct. No community could hope to fulfill its purpose if rebellion became a settled habit of the population. But, at least equally no community could hope to fulfill its purpose unless the will of its government were limited in a variety of ways. It must answer at stated periods to those from whom it derives its powers.

It must be powerless to touch certain fundamentals of which freedom of speech is the supreme example without which the benefits of social life will not, as a matter of history, be widely shared among the mass of men. It must be legally responsible for its mistakes. Its officers, that is to say, must be personally suable in the courts and where they have clearly acted as agents the party whom they have unduly injured ought to be able to secure compensation from public funds.

It has been here insisted that no man can be a good citizen unless he personally interest himself in the affairs of the State. That conception is important if we are to realize, in any organized way, the notion of an equal interest in the results of the political process. While it is too much to say that, minority action is always selfish action, it is beyond doubt that unhampered enjoyment of power by a minority will always result in a selfish use of power.

That is why the conception that authority not merely is, but ought to be, limited, is fundamental to political philosophy. For if we once admit that a body of men can enjoy unlimited power, we are, in geographical fact, exalting the local divisions of mankind above all other aspects of the human fellowship. That is an illegitimate exaltation. Logically, there is no reason to suppose that any one set of men is likely to be right as against any other.

The real constraining force upon ourselves is not the legal obligation to obey government, but the moral obligation to follow what we regard as justice. There is no a priori conduct implied by such a moral obligation. All that can be said is that the individual is, ultimately, the supreme arbiter of his behavior and that he most fully realises the purpose of the State when he offers to it the substance, whatever that may be, of his judgment.

This, it may be said is to push rationality to an impossible point. No Englishman will ever think that France is right as against England and no Frenchman will fail to surrender his dislike, say, of France’s diplomatic policy to her call for aid in the hour of supreme need. It would, of course, be folly to deny the emotional penumbra which surrounds allegiance to the national State. Men will die on the battlefield for England to whom the justice or injustice of its cause is hardly matter even for understanding. We must not evade the fact of such loyalty.

Rather we must seek a method of organization which can direct the power of sacrifice to an ideal into channels of use to society as a whole. For action built upon uninformed impulse is, always, at bottom antisocial action and policy which uses uninformed impulse for its purposes is always hostile to the well-being of society. That is why those who, for example, obey their government because it has declared war, cease to be moral beings.

The Germans who marched through Belgium, the Hungarian have watched the deliberate butchery of their liberal fellow citizens, have betrayed that With makes them men. Nor is it an answer to say that protest will involve severe Penalties. To perish, as Royer Collard said, is also a solution and that who, especially in a crisis, respond with passion to the Athanasius element in their nature are likely to be the true servants of civilization.

Externally, surely, the concept of an absolute and independent sovereign State which demands an unqualified allegiance to government from its members, and enforces that allegiance by the power at its command, is incompatible with the interests of humanity. If we are to have a morally adequate theory of political obligation, we must approach the problem from a different angle.

In a creative civilization what is important is not the historical accident of separate States, but the scientific fact of world interdependence. The real unit of allegiance is the world. The real obligation of obedience is to the total interest of our fellow men.  And granted that the discovery of where that interest lies is difficult, granted also that it is obscured by complex passions of every kind, that only makes the obligation more real and urgent.

Our problem is not to reconcile the interest of humanity with the interest of England. Our problem is so to act that the policy of England naturally implies the well-being  of humanity. If we are to achieve that end, we must regard society as a complex of functions none of which is, for its government, limited by the concept of final allegiance to a given State.

We may, indeed, assume that the larger the degree of self-government we can confide to a specific area within some given function, the better it is likely to be administered. But we have to assume also that no function can, in any final way, be entrusted with ultimate powers. At some point co-ordination in the interests of those who live by the results, as against the interests of those who live by making the results, of the function is essential. We cannot, to take a simple instance, leave the government of a Church solely to its priests, or the government of coal-mines solely to the miners. Nor can we, in the sphere of international facts leave England or France to decide in an absolute fashion upon the way in which each should live.

There are problems of which the impact upon humanity is too vital for any State to be left to determine by itself what solution it will adopt. The notion of independent sovereignty, for example, leaves France free to invade Germany when and how she pleases and the only retort that can be made is either a dissent which does not alter the fact, or a war which destroys civilization. Once we realize that the well-being of the world is, in all large issues, one and indivisible, the co-ordinate determination of them is the primary condition of social peace.

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