The magic of symmetric sovereignty

Readers who find all this political theory interesting—perhaps there are four or five—may enjoy some of the debates I’ve been having with Nick Szabo in the comments of these posts. It’s always a pleasure to cross swords with a master, even when all you get is a ghastly facial wound.

One of the issues—perhaps the main issue—that Nick and I differ on is sovereignty. Nick, like all other political thinkers, at least all those to the left of Attila the Hun, believes that sovereignty should be limited—that is, the sovereign has no right to infringe the basic legal rights of citizens.

My view is that the concept of limited sovereignty is self-contradictory and informalist. In fact, I think this limited sovereignty (of which “popular sovereignty” is one case) is one of the chief misconceptions in the Enlightenment’s political toolbox. This innocent and appealing idea, in my opinion, is substantially responsible for the appalling chaos of our era.

Rather, I hold what Nick would call the totalitarian theory of sovereignty. While it’s often fun to embrace the pejorative, this is an awful big word to swallow. I think a better word is symmetric—that is, for me sovereign property is just like any other.

I define sovereignty as an independently secured, or in other words primary, property right. This is in contrast to a dependently secured, or secondary, property right. The symmetric theory of sovereignty proposes that the same principle applies to both—the extent of the property right is defined by the actual powers secured.

Of course, this has the same results as Nick’s “totalitarian” theory. But I think it sounds a lot nicer—don’t you? Let’s look at how the symmetric theory works out in practice.

Imagine I am a respectable white person who enunciates properly and is maybe a little portly, and I own a house in the suburbs. If a bunch of boyz from tha hood showz up with Tec-9s and say “out, you fat muthafucka, this our house now,” my first call will be to Officer Friendly, who will arrive in some kind of an armored vehicle and enfilade the hoodlums.

This means my property right is secondary, not primary. In a sense, all I really own is an agreement with the township of Whiteville to protect my house, which is my castle, against the depredations of these colorful and militant delinquents. In fact, in the primary sense, I really own nothing at all, because Officer Friendly can just as easily confiscate the piece of paper that is my title, leaving me yelling in an undignified and pathetic way on the front lawn that used to be “mine.”

So we see that primary property is very different from secondary property. In fact, the number of primary properties in the world may have peaked about 1500 years ago, and has been decreasing for quite some time. If you follow the thinking of some internationalists, there is only one primary property in the world: the United Nations, all mere nations being secondary. Of course, if Bush decides he really is Hitler, those guys will be on Riker’s Island like that, so perhaps this model is a little simplistic.

However, one way to evaluate a political design is to consider its worst possible result. The worst possible result of symmetric (“totalitarian”) sovereignty is an evil dictator who takes over the world and decides to torture and murder everyone in it, replacing us with his gesticulating, mustachioed clones.

Okay. I’ll admit that this is not a desirable result (unless I get to be the evil dictator, in which case I at least need to start working on my mustache). So let’s modify this slightly and instead look for the worst possible rational result. That is, let’s assume that the dictator is not evil but simply amoral, omnipotent, and avaricious.

One easy way to construct this thought-experiment is to imagine the dictator isn’t even human. He is an alien. His name is Fnargl. Fnargl came to Earth for one thing: gold. His goal is to dominate the planet for a thousand years, the so-called “Thousand-Year Fnarg,” and then depart in his Fnargship with as much gold as possible. Other than this Fnargl has no other feelings. He’s concerned with humans about the way you and I are concerned with bacteria.

You might think we humans, a plucky bunch, would say “screw you, Fnargl!” and not give him any gold at all. But there are two problems with this. One, Fnargl is invulnerable—he cannot be harmed by any human weapon. Two, he has the power to kill any human or humans, anywhere at any time, just by snapping his fingers.

Other than this he has no other powers. He can’t even walk—he needs to be carried, as if he was the Empress of India. (Fnargl actually has a striking physical resemblance to Jabba the Hutt.) But with invulnerability and the power of death, it’s a pretty simple matter for Fnargl to get himself set up as Secretary-General of the United Nations. And in the Thousand-Year Fnarg, the UN is no mere sinecure for alcoholic African kleptocrats. It is an absolute global superstate. Its only purpose is Fnargl’s goal—gold. And lots of it.

In other words, Fnargl is a revenue maximizer. The question is: what are his policies? What does he order us, his loyal subjects, to do?

The obvious option is to make us all slaves in the gold mines. Otherwise—blam. Instant death. Slacking off, I see? That’s a demerit. Another four and you know what happens. Now dig! Dig! (Perhaps some readers have seen Blazing Saddles.)

But wait: this can’t be right. Even mine slaves need to eat. Someone needs to make our porridge. And our shovels. And, actually, we’ll be a lot more productive if instead of shovels, we use backhoes. And who makes those? And…

We quickly realize that the best way for Fnargl to maximize gold production is simply to run a normal human economy, and tax it (in gold, natch). In other words, Fnargl has exactly the same goal as most human governments in history. His prosperity is the amount of gold he collects in tax, which has to be exacted in some way from the human economy. Taxation must depend in some way on the ability to pay, so the more prosperous we are, the more prosperous Fnargl is.

Fnargl’s interests, in fact, turn out to be oddly well-aligned with ours. Anything that makes Fnargl richer has to make us richer, and vice versa.

For example, it’s in Fnargl’s interest to run a fair and effective legal system, because humans are more productive when their energies aren’t going into squabbling with each other. It’s even in Fnargl’s interest to have a fair legal process that defines exactly when he will snap his fingers and stop your heart, because humans are more productive when they’re not worried about dropping dead.

And it is in his interest to run an orderly taxation system in which tax rates are known in advance, and Fnargl doesn’t just seize whatever, whenever, to feed his prodigious gold jones. Because humans are more productive when they can plan for the future, etc. Of course, toward the end of the Thousand-Year Fnarg, this incentive will begin to diminish—ha ha. But let’s assume Fnargl has only just arrived.

Other questions are easy to answer. For example, will Fnargl allow freedom of the press? But why wouldn’t he? What can the press do to Fnargl? As Bismarck put it: “they say what they want, I do what I want.” But Bismarck didn’t really mean it. Fnargl does.

In general, Fnargl has no reason at all to impose any artificial restriction on his subjects. He will impose laws only in order to prevent violence, which reduces gold production. He has no interest at all in “victimless crimes.” Since he can define failure to pay one’s tax as theft from him, Fnargl, the Vast And Pungent One, it turns out that he operates a very normal system of law.

It turns out that, except for the 30–40% of our economic output that disappears into his gold stash, Fnargl is actually an ideal ruler. Far from being “totalitarian,” the Fnargocracy is if anything remarkably libertarian. Does Fnargl mind if you light up a jay? Not in the slightest.

Why is Fnargl’s behavior so different from that of “totalitarian” dictators? What is the difference between Fnargl and the most powerful men of the 20th century, nasty pieces of work like Hitler, Stalin and Mao?

The difference is that Fnargl’s primary property, Planet Three, as secured by his magic powers of Invulnerability and Finger-Snap Of Death, is secure.

In fact, Invulnerability and Finger-Snap perform basically the same service for Fnargl that Officer Friendly did for me. The reason the Thousand-Year Fnarg is peaceful and free is that we’ve defined Fnargl’s primary right so that it works just like a secondary right. If one day, Fnargl tries to snap his fingers and it doesn’t work—“damn,” he says—problems will arise.

Hitler, Stalin and Mao, on the other hand, had enemies. Stalin and Mao, especially, basically operated under the assumption that everyone in the world wanted to kill them and take their jobs. After a while this was quite the self-fulfilling prophecy. Terrorist government—as in the Reign of Terror, a usage that’s unfortunately lapsed—is a consequence not of absolute primary title, but of insecure primary title. It is best understood as a form of civil war.

Unfortunately, Fnargl’s magic powers are beyond the reach of us earthlings. So how do we emulate the Thousand-Year (or, better yet, Eternal) Fnarg? Or is there some obvious problem with the whole idea of Fnargocracy? Readers’ opinions, as usual, are welcome…

(Update: readers have posed some very cogent objections. Please see the comments.)