Empty Sovereignty
Debating about sovereignty lost to climate regulations or trade pacts really amounts to squabbling about the crumbs that are left. No land means no sovereignty.
October 14, 2017
Lindy Davies

As president, Donald Trump may be on his good behavior when he addresses the United Nations. As a candidate, though, deriding the UN was one juicy hunk of red meat that he could fling to his base. "The United Nations is not a friend of democracy. It's not a friend to freedom," Trump said last year.

There's no surprise in that; Trump and his supporters support a strong "anti-globalist" agenda. They want nation-states to be resurgent; they laud Brexit, deplore the European Union and resist international trade agreements which "erode national sovereignty."

Indeed, anti-globalists recognize that effective action to curb global climate change requires international — even global — cooperation, and for precisely that reason, they can't let themselves believe that climate change is real!

There is an important point that must be made about this, and — oddly — Understanding Economics is one of very few places willing to talk about it.

Here it is:

Everyone agrees that the main thing about sovereignty — the primary task of a sovereign nation — is the defense and administration of its territory. Fundamentally, a sovereign nation has control over a bounded area of land. That is job #1: no land, no sovereignty.

Well, land has value. Its owner can demand a rent for its use, or a price for its transfer to a new owner. (Land's selling price is the capitalized value of that rent, or in other words, the value of being able to collect that rent in perpetuity.)

The worth of land is created either by nature itself, or by the activity of the surrounding community: people producing wealth, governments providing public services and infrastructure. Yet private land "owners" are allowed to collect that value. They can sell the land — whose value they did nothing to create — to other "owners." Indeed, those land-buyers might be foreigners, who are free to spend that rent or price of land in some other country.

The inescapable upshot of this is that these "anti-globalists" who worry about eroding sovereignty are struggling to keep a mouse trapped in the corner of the barn when the horse has long since run away. A nation's most important asset is the value of its land. When it gives that value up to private owners (whether or not they're foreign), it has already yielded up its sovereignty.

That's the big robbery. Debating about sovereignty lost to climate regulations or trade pacts really amounts to squabbling about the crumbs that are left.

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Lindy Davies

LINDY DAVIES was Program Director of the Henry George Institute and Editor of the Georgist Journal. He was the author of The Alodia Scrapbook, the fictitious story of how a struggling African nation used Geoism to set itself on the path to prosperity, and of the novel The Sassafras Crossing. He managed a successful campaign to get the Henry George Institute's distance-learning program approved by the National College Credit Recommendation Service. He passed away in 2019, and is lovingly remembered by the many people whose lives he touched.