Bryan Griffin: Our Precious Sovereignty
Two weeks ago, I attended the 2019 Warsaw Security Forum as a participant of the New Security Leaders fellowship. The gathering is an annual event that brings together NATO, European, and American political and thought leaders to discuss global security and the preservation of Western democratic institutions.
Many of the various panels were dedicated to the threats posed to these institutions and the international order by Russia, China, and Iran. Each of these countries constitute a non-Democratic state and have made either overt or verbal intentions of imperialism. Their citizens live largely under authoritarian rule and have few rights, which are frequently trampled upon. These actors want to expand their reach and bring their authority over more territory and more people.
Though I certainly hope it never comes to it, the West would win in military conflict with any of these opponents. It could be brutal and incredibly horrific, but Europe, America, and other allies have a far-superior defense capability combined. The armies of these countries don’t pose an existential threat. However, their ideologies are seeping into the very core of our society to our great detriment.
The most alarming comment, in my opinion, of the whole Forum was not made in a conversation about Russia, China, or Iran – but rather on a panel discussing Brexit, or the British exit from the European Union. The panel was a debate between two pro-Brexiteers and two people against it. A Brexit defender had just made the comment that the British people’s decision to leave the European Union was a decision by the citizenry to reclaim their sovereignty. A noble pursuit. A journalist on the anti-Brexit side chuckled and replied, in as condescending of a fashion as possible, “we have got to recognize that the notion of absolute sovereignty is outdated. Instead, we should embrace relative sovereignty.” Nothing alarmed me more the entire weekend.
What this man was trying to say is that our personal sovereignty, or our individual rights to live by a government we design and that is responsive to the democratic process, is an idea that can be trumped by other entities or necessities. To him, the sovereignty lost by the British people to unelected decisionmaking bureaucrats in the European Union is less important than the Union encompassing all of Europe. Taken a step further, sovereignty held by the individual can be infringed upon or retracted by authorities should a greater necessity arise—and they get to define “greater necessity.”
There are many noble endeavors that governments can undertake to address, such as protecting our environment, but we should be incredibly careful and incredibly guarded with our sovereignty. Our sovereignty is our natural born right to dictate our own lives. The Western conceptualization of sovereignty, unique and just, is that sovereignty is held by the citizens of each country. Contrast this to the single sovereign in a monarch or the elite group of sovereigns in an oligarchy like the Soviet Union. When sovereignty is condensed at the very top of society, the people are largely oppressed.
We don’t have to immediately start chipping away at our sovereignty every time we want to address something as a society, globally or nationally. Sadly, climate change activists seem to only advocate for extreme government action to tackle the issue when other solutions exist that cost none of our sovereignty, such as free-market incentives.
Those who want to see more people in America covered by healthcare or provided for in other fashions are almost solely focused on sovereignty-diluting government solutions. There is seldom conversation about incentivizing charity or other voluntary (sovereignty preserving) social-safety nets. The more of our lives that we cede to the government, the less we can later control of our lives or our society. And sovereignty forfeited can never easily be regained.
I think elite political leaders who advocate for endless government know the irreversible damage to and loss of individual liberty that they are suggesting, but they cloak it in noble intentions and speak as if it is the only way to succeed at creating change. As voting citizens, we must be incredibly protective of what we give up as we consider voting in larger government programs, more government bureaucratic elite, and fewer individual choices.
Here’s a concrete example of what I mean: America is a republic wherein decisions over the laws and statutes that we have to live by and the taxes we pay should be made by elected representatives of the people, I.e. the Congress. The executive branch is designed to enforce these laws, and in the process of doing so can hire and appoint unelected government workers (bureaucrats) to do these things. The founders of our country had a limited size of the executive branch in mind. Today, however, unelected agency workers in the federal government number around two million. That’s two million people that you didn’t elect and who you have no power to fire. How do they affect your life?
According to Reason magazine, “Federal agencies issue memoranda, notices, letters, bulletins, circulars, directives, and blog posts (among other things) to evade the rulemaking process established by Congress… Agencies euphemistically refer to these documents as ‘guidance.’ Guidance has been responsible for revoking permits to conduct business, barring Americans from working in their chosen occupations, prohibiting taxpayers from taking deductions, levying cost-conviction penalties for crimes, and seizing property, without statutory or constitutional authority and without due process.”
This is something the Trump administration has been particularly mindful of reducing. In 2017 Trump required that two regulations be removed for each new one put in place. Just this month, he issued two more executive orders gutting the power of agency “guidance.” Despite any other objections one may have, it must be acknowledged that Donald Trump has taken measures to significantly loosen the grip of the administrative state on all of our lives to all of our benefit.
Think back now to those living in the European Union. While there are some common benefits to membership, it’s certainly a valid concern of the British people that a multi-country legislative body, and their bureaucratic machine, are writing laws and issuing similar “guidance” about significant issues like immigration and national defense that each country must follow, whether they agree with it or not. A British citizen could be subject to statutes passed by an Italian or German or Romanian-led voting block and vice versa. Sovereignty becomes complicated and diluted in instances like this. Brexit voters were valid in their pursuit to reclaim it.
Sovereignty is precious. After millennia of mankind living under the whims of a handful of sovereigns in destitution, poverty, and slavery, it was only a couple hundred years ago that we began to acknowledge the revolutionary truth that sovereignty ultimately lies with each person, not some 1% elite. This incredible concept isn’t really threatened by a Russia or China or Iran. It is threatened from within. We will only lose our sovereignty by giving it up voluntarily. We must keep it sacred and we must keep it intact.
Bryan Griffin of the London Center for Policy Research is a lawyer and author who specializes in American policy in the Middle East.
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