Conservation of Sovereignty

Nick Land wants us to get to the bottom of the Moldbuggian precept, “Sovereignty is conserved”.

The response has been a lot of wrangling about definitions. But it doesn’t look like being resolved, so I’d rather bypass it and get to specifics.

There are two things that Moldbug might mean. The first is that someone is always supreme: that if you attempt to limit the sovereignty of the nominal sovereign, someone else becomes sovereign in his place. (The second is that sovereignty can be divided but still “add up” — I will not address that here).

When he talks of the “Council of Nine”, the first meaning is what he appears to intend. The president is not sovereign: he is subject to law. Who decides what the law is? — The Supreme Court. Do they have untrammelled sovereignty? — in theory not, since they also are subject to law. But they decide what the limitations are on their own power, not only on the President’s. Therefore, in reality, they are sovereign.

Does this sovereignty mean they are all-powerful? Clearly not. Their power can only be exercised through the bureaucracy, the police, the army, and there are instructions they could issue that would not be obeyed.

Then again, that is true of every sovereign, up to the most absolute of monarchs.

Nevertheless there is a difference, in that an instruction of the Supreme Court might be defied because its subjects believe it has exceeded its legal role. A truly absolute monarch might be defied for other reasons, but not for that reason.

It is not clear to what extent historical monarchs were considered truly absolute in that sense. The question of whether a monarch was in theory subject to some law, though there was no formal body that could impose it on him, seems to have been an open one through British history, with arguments made on both sides. My impression is that the less absolute view generally had the upper hand, at least from Magna Carta on.

Note this is the position in favour of “sovereignty is conserved” — the conclusion is that the sovereignty that the US Supreme Court has is the same as the sovereignty that Henry VIII had. Not perfect or complete, but supreme over any formal rival.

At the same time, it makes the conservation of sovereignty less interesting. It means that a ruler still has practical limitations on his power, in spite of his sovereignty. The nature and scope of those limitations are matters of great interest, but are excluded from the question of sovereignty.

The question that follows is: what is the effect of denying legal sovereignty to the role of "leader". On one hand, it might be nothing: whoever has the legal sovereign is the leader, and a purported leader without sovereignty is an empty figurehead. On the other hand, it might be significant — the practical limitations on a sovereign who is supposed to be a judge rather than a leader are different from the case where the sovereign and the leader are the same person.