It seems that the theorists have presented, with variations and combinations, only three possible sources of sovereignty - Man [generic], Nature, or God. Of the three, I have chosen to focus on Man.
Sovereignty is an idea, and inanimate Nature cannot think or traffic in ideas. If we say, on the one hand, as the original theorists did, that God has placed law within man and the rest of His Creation, then we are declaring God to be the actual source, not Nature. If, on the other hand, we say, as all sorts of political existentialists do, that there is Law in Nature without there having been a Lawgiver who placed it there, then, in actuality, we are declaring the approved human interpreters of Nature, to be the source.
This is not to dismiss the thoughts of Hegel-Marx-Lenin, or other political evolutionists and historical determinists, or the nontheistic Environmentalists. Iit is simply to insist that in a world of many voices, the interpretation depends upon the interpreter. If we ask, "Who speaks for coral?", we can be sure that the answer will not be, "Coral itself." Likewise, if we ask, "What does History teach?", we can be sure that the answer will depend upon who it is that interprets History.
At this point in time, though it could be interesting, I am not sure there is an audience for what might appear to be a medieval discussion of God and government. So I limit myself to the question of whether or not Man, individually or collectively, can be the source of sovereignty.
A great variety of modern theorists have believed that sovereignty comes from Man, either as an individual or in collective society. These would include those who believe in the supremacy of Reason, since it is Man's Reason they believe to be supreme.
If we determine what the theoretical sovereign must be like, we can easily consider whether or not Man qualifies. There seem to be four attributes that the theorists agree a bona fide Sovereign must posssess.
1. His word is Law. No other power can annul his word. He is above the law.
2. His will is absolute and infallible. His authority and power do not depend upon the will of another. No other power can thwart his will.
3. His authority can be delegated, but not divided or alienated. Nothing can remove his sovereignty.
4. He is the highest authority over a geographical territory, its inhabitants and resources.
Can Man, individually or collectively, possess these four characteristics of sovereignty? Looking at each characteristic one by one is a good enough way to find out.

1. His word is Law. No other power can annul his word. He is above the law.
"Hobbes asserts that...the sovereign can himself commit no breach of covenant, and hence cannot forfeit his right to the people; the sovereign can do no injustice (though he may commit iniquity); the sovereign cannot be punished; he is judge of the means necessary for the defence of the state; has the right to decide what doctrines can be taught among the subjects; the law-making power; the judicial power; the right to carry on war; the right to appoint officers; the rewarding and punishing power." 5
Austin claimed that, "every supreme government is free from legal restraints, or (what is the same proposition dressed in a different phrase) every supreme government is legally despotic." 6 The Massachusetts Proclamation of Jan.23, 1776 declared that, "It is a maxim that in every Government there must exist, somewhere, a supreme, sovereign, absolute and uncontrollable power..." 7
Whoever makes the law that must be obeyed is the sovereign. "In the seventeenth century Locke's Of Civil Government stated in chapter thirteen that, 'there can be but one supreme power, which is the legislative, to which all the rest are and must be subordinate.' Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan stated in chapter twenty-six that 'the legislator...is...the sovereign.' " 8
This assumes, of course, that the Law is always enforced. Legislators and legislatures, however, come and go; and so do their laws. While their laws stand, they are only obeyed by those who obey them. Laws are often disobeyed by criminal gangs, black market operators, and ordinary people who choose to pay less tax than they should. Most crimes go unpunished, as if the law did not exist.
There is a very serious problem with believing that sovereignty emanates in some way from man. Man, then, is the existential Lawgiver. He can, and must, determine for himself what is permissible and what is impermissable, what is just and what is unjust, what is good and what is bad. This is also what Nietzsche proclaimed before, we are told, he went insane.
If sovereignty resides in man, then there is no difference between what is justified and what is just. Whatever man justifies is just. This is how Tolstoy described Napoleon: "It was clear that he had been long convinced that it was impossible for him to make a mistake, and that to his mind whatever he did was right, not because it conformed to any idea of what was right or wrong, but because it was he who did it." 9
Man, using his Reason, can justify any action, be it the slaughter of the most innocent and helpless; the slaughter of a class of people; or the slaughter of an entire people. Such actions and justifications are not inconsistent with the claim that the sovereign is not subject to the law he imposes.
On the other hand, if Man collectively is sovereign, then who is subject to law? By definition, the sovereign is above the law. Are only parts of the sovereign subject to law?
2. His will is absolute and infallible. His authority and power do not depend upon the will of another. No other power can thwart his will. He is almighty.
A human being is a limited creature. He cannot rule himself, not his own body or mind, not even his own breath or heartbeat. He cannot make himself what he wants to be, unless his ambitions are quite small. He cannot keep his life, or rebuke his death.
Most would grant that no individual human could be so powerful as to need nothing from any other power, but the theorists seem to think that collective political Man is different. "Independence is, then, the characteristic mark of the state, and this independence is, in Haller's theory, the equivalent of sovereignty." 10
Even an isolated China, whether Middle Kingdom or Worker's Paradise, found it necessary to recognize the existence of other powers, limiting the areas in which any nation has a right, to use a metaphor, to swing its fists. There is an interdependence of unequal states, with even the most powerful having its limits.
"Pradier-Fodéré says that metaphysically there ought not to be half-sovereign States, but historically, there have been and there may be again." 11 Perhaps all states are half-sovereign, or one-fourth, or nine-tenths sovereign.
By what standard could the will of a human sovereign be considered infallible? Only by measuring that will by itself, rendering the claim meaningless. All individual humans are fallible. By what logic or calculus could all humanity, or a select group of it, become infallible?
3. His authority can be delegated, but not divided or alienated. Nothing can remove his sovereignty.
How do we reconcile a sovereignty that emanates from man with the death of Alexander the Great and the consequent division of his empire? If anyone has ever been sovereign, surely Alexander the Great was. Didn't death remove and divide his sovereignty?
How do we reconcile an inalienable sovereignty with the protracted, excruciating demise of a paralyzed Lenin as he sought to keep Stalin from gaining power? What if we look at 1917 with its three different Russian sovereigns - the Tsar, Kerensky and the Duma, Lenin and the Party? Did they have a common source of sovereignty, or are there many equally sufficient sources?
Is there such a thing as unauthorized government? Or does sovereignty only mean, "Obey those in charge?" Even that becomes difficult to do in times of disintegration, when no one, or everyone, is in charge.
Bodin spoke of "The absolute and perpetual power of a commonwealth," 12 but commonwealths, empires, kingdoms, and countries come and go. If the authority of the sovereign can neither be divided, delegated, nor removed, then it must always remain intact. However, as the syllogism tells us, "All men die." So do all empires. The dead do not claim or exercise sovereignty.
Once sovereign, always sovereign? The sands of time have a way of burying such pretensions. Nations destroy themselves and each other Does that mean sovereignty never really existed?
If the authority of the sovereign can neither be divided, delegated, nor removed, then there can never have been a time when that sovereignty did not exist. But every human sovereign, individual or state, has had a beginning, before which it did not exist. Every state has gained its claim to sovereignty by conquest, actual or inherited, i.e. by taking over what belonged to another.
If, as some theorize, the people as a whole are sovereign, then the state is not. The people have the right to remove those to whom authority has been delegated. Anything which inhibits that right is illegitimate. Every state inhibits that right as best it can, and removes supreme power from the people, bestowing it on itself.
There are many ways in which supreme power is alienated and divided. "The great authorities on International Law have not failed to find in this division of sovereignty a logical contradiction, even an apparent absurdity, but in view of the perplexing conditions to be interpreted and construed, no other way of escape seems open." 13
4. He is the highest authority over a geographical territory, its inhabitants and resources.
In Bodin's view, "It is necessary that those who are sovereigns should not be subject to commands emanating from any other and that they should be able to give laws to their subjects, and nullify and quash disadvantageous laws for the purpose of substituting others; but this cannot be done by one who is subject to the laws or to those who have the right of command over him." 14
All people and states are subject to the patterns and vagaries of nature. Think of the importance of the fog at Dunkirk or upon the Delaware River when Washington crossed; the Black Plague, the winter in Moscow, the Irish potato famine, and on and on. These are events that are beyond the control of Man, and they demonstrate how limited his power is. Natural resources and topography, the basics of state existence, are also beyond his power.
Some would say that such natural phenomena are not political, but clearly they play a great part in the political course of individuals and nations. It may well be that natural events, i.e. events over which men have no control, play a greater part in the determination of political affairs than all the parliaments that have ever sat or armies that have ever marched. Nature must be relevant to Natural Law.
In this world, the claim that Man can be the highest authority over a geographical territory seems farfetched. The only place where it was ever true was on Broadway, where the lyricist described the virtues of Camelot: "By order, summer lingers til September. By eight, the morning fog must disappear...."
Nature, it seems, teaches that any concept of human sovereignty is a fantasy.

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(go back)
What is National Sovereignty?
Where Does Sovereignty Come From?

Hobbes Reconsidered
Realpolitik Morality

One World, One Sovereign
Notes & Bibliography