Scales of Sovereignty (part 2)

State control is control by the whims of individuals and the fickle furors brought on by activists with megaphones. Market control, on the other hand, is control by an aggregate of individuals and interactions at distant and varied scales that are not human at all.

We are talking about ‘control’ here in both its diffused and concentrated senses, but mostly in its diffused sense: I am ‘controlled’ insofar as my behavior is constrained or dictated. All life, especially human life, is controlled. In and of itself, this fact is neither a negative nor a positive thing. It is what it is. Can we even imagine a universe without constrained behavior? In Bondage of the Will, Martin Luther argues that, contra the humanists, free will is an illusion; and yet Luther’s point, often overlooked, is that absent free will we still have a will. It is simply a bound, constrained will—constrained by sin, in Luther’s case; constrained by multiple scales of sovereignty, in ours.

My behavior was constrained from the moment I was conceived. Genetic constraints are perhaps the most basic form of sovereignty under which humans live. Geographic constraints are another: we don’t think about it in our globetrotting age, but for most of us, the ecosystem into which we are born exerts a serious influence on our development. Genes and geography—as close to a divine sovereignty as we’ll ever see imprinted on our lives. (And both are, naturally, linked.) We might put time into this category of divine sovereignty, as well.

What else constrains my behavior? While growing up, family constrains it. So do various actors in the social networks that I am allowed to inhabit in youth: friends, friends’ parents, teachers, pastors. As I grow older, these social networks expand, and in any one of them, I will find my behavior constrained or dictated, my will bound, in various ways at various times.

We work our way up the chain: from the genetic sovereignty which dictates that I am a white male who will never play in the NFL, to the family sovereignty which dictates that I am the product of a conflicted Catholic (mother) and Protestant (father) upbringing, to the federal sovereignty which dictates that I must relinquish some of my pay each month in taxes.

Sovereignty is scaled. Each scale has different properties and represents a different type of power, a different type of control that constrains or dictates behavior. Sometimes there are similarities from one scale to the next; sometimes there are not.

The most obvious—and most important—power elements that change from one scale to the next are:

(1) the number of people who are controlled

(2) the degree to which the sovereignty is implacable

The higher the measure given to (1), the higher in ‘scale’ the sovereignty is, while (2) measures the qualitative nature of the scale. In the case of my genes, only one person is controlled directly—me—but the sovereignty of my genetics is thoroughly unyielding. Great effort and advanced technologies are required to overcome my DNA.

In the case of families, only a few individuals are controlled. Depending on the family, the control may be yielding or unyielding, depending on the behaviors being controlled or dictated.

In the case of state or federal governments, millions of people are under control. The nature of that control—implacable or not—is probably varied, again, according to the behaviors being controlled or dictated. In principle, however, governmental prescriptions and proscriptions are necessarily implacable and always enforceable.


Sovereignty is an emergent property of life on earth. Meerkats have their matriarchies; lions have their prides; wolf packs have their alphas and their betas. We can be sure that some form and degree of sovereignty—some way to constrain and control the behaviors of individuals in groups—has been found necessary and optimal for human and non-human life to flourish.

But what are the limits to that sovereignty? Which types of control have emerged naturally, which are beneficial, which are harmful, and which are recent innovations that are in the process of proving themselves beneficial or harmful?


In Conservatism for Seculars, Razib Khan writes:

When speaking of politics, one must distinguish between organized institutional politics and politics as organized citizenry on a more human scale of interpersonal relations. Terms like Republican, Democrat, conservative, and liberal have valence as monikers that represent the tribes of organized politics, but too often when engaging in partisan discourse the principals forget that these high-level policy disputes have little meaning when stripped away from their mundane, even banal, interpersonal implications. One can have the politics of personal life without the politics of high-level policy, but one cannot have the politics of high-level policy without the politics of personal life.

Therefore, to begin any exploration of political ideology as it is lived in the world, one must start at the individual level and work up. In particular, one must keep in mind that individuals are embedded within social units: family, circles of friends, civic associations, and the like.

Towards the end of the essay, Khan argues that these ‘lower-scaled’ units have proven themselves to be more important to human flourishing than the ‘higher-scaled’ units of mass political organizing:

True flourishing begins at home with the understanding that the politics that truly matters is that of the family, of the neighborhood. This is politics that allows you to grow and develop as a human. It involves people one sees day to day, who will be there for you across the cycles of elections and even the rise and fall of nations. Instead of wondering how to reorder the lives of others, it would behoove us to look to see how we can order our lives properly and realize who we are in our proper context.

We can re-purpose Khan’s essay to argue that, if these lower-scaled units of human organization have demonstrated their importance and durability throughout history, then the hierarchies and degrees of sovereignty found within them should be trusted and affirmed. Sovereignty at these scales is the kind of sovereignty necessary—at least, seemingly necessary—for human flourishing.

The sovereignty of the nuclear family aligns thusly: Father to Child(ren), Father to Mother, Father/Mother to Children. These sovereignty relationships have worked well for much of the Western world. Similar family sovereignty alignments (with grandparents and various uncles or cousins added) have worked well for humanity in general. Therefore, this is a scale of sovereignty whose ordering we shouldn’t mess with too much. Attempts to undermine, re-order, or usurp the sovereignty operating at this scale should be viewed with extreme suspicion.


Has sovereignty operating at the scale of the nation-state proven to be as beneficial to human flourishing and advancement as the sovereignty operating at the level of the family? I think we can tentatively answer “yes,” but with qualifications, especially in light of the other question we’ve just introduced: is the ordering of state sovereignty—its alignments—optimal? Bizarre things have seemed to emerge from this scale in recent decades. Something about the way that power and control operate at this scale has led to its spiraling out of control. This Sovereignty Scale has grown tentacles that are reaching into and interrupting the lower scales. Things no longer seem to be ‘in their right place.’

Humans will always be under control, their wills always bound. How many people are controlled? How implacable is the control? Framing questions of sovereignty with the ‘scale’ metaphor makes these vital questions more approachable. However, scales of sovereignty are not always mutually exclusive or operating in non-overlapping domains. The addition of a ‘network’ metaphor is perhaps appropriate, but I don’t want to multiply metaphors, so it’s enough to recognize that the scales are nested. ‘Corporate boards’ or ‘federal government’ are still comprised of individuals, who are parts of families, parts of intimate friendships, parts of social networks, et cetera. Just because an individual finds himself in some sense sovereign at a very distant scale does not mean that he has resigned his role as a father, a son, a friend, a lover: the CEO of a major corporation, the president of a nation, or the sole heir of a billion-dollar philanthropic organization, though he has more power than most, is still embedded within more lowly scaled sovereignty relationships. He is still a father, or a son, or a husband, or a friend, or an employee, or a . . .

As Khan, Spandrell, and I have pointed out, these sovereignty roles and relationships at lower scales are more salient in peoples’ lives than the higher scaled roles and relationships in which they find themselves. Had Paris and Menelaus been merchants, their exertions of control over each other’s lives (over Helen) would not have affected very many people. However, as a king and a prince, they were able to send lots of men to their deaths—to exert control at a high scale—in order to sort out their lower-scaled penis envy. Just because you possess sovereignty at a higher scale, in other words, doesn’t mean the lower-scaled sovereignty struggles, the attempts to control or dictate other peoples’ behavior at a more personal or local level, are no longer in play. They are very much still in play. And if the latter bleeds into the former, high-scaled sovereignty becomes a liability issue for the millions of people under its implacable control.


7 responses

  1. Pingback: Randoms | Foseti

  2. Excellent topic — roughly how far are we into this series, do you think?

    One complicating factor is the ease with which we confuse two tightly inter-connected but conceptually distinct ‘scaled’ orders. There’s a series of emergences, or their reciprocal reductions, which correspond to the structure of the complex sciences, with biology at the base, rising through levels of social organization (anthropology, micro-economics, political economy, international relations). The higher levels of this series, which rapidly lose scientific exactitude, are a kind of ascendant mirroring of the rigorous reductive series, down through biochemistry to sub-atomic physics. Then there are scales of a more strictly quantitative kind, which correspond to the size of complex systems, from specific intra-cellular chemical reactions, through physiology, population biology, and into ecologies of ever larger scope, eventually melting into terrestrial geophysics, and out into extremely under-developed forms of concrete cosmology.

    The relevance of this is that it leads to some fuzziness about what is meant by the ‘lower’ or ‘higher’ scale. Is the difference one of systemic scope, or of relative institutional abstraction (and perhaps ‘dominion’ or ‘sovereignty’)? For instance, the ‘interior’ processes of the human genome seem on one hand to be clearly operating at a ‘lower’ scale, but they are also involved in massively extended biochemical systems, which might include lateral transference of gene segments by retroviruses, perhaps within multi-species assemblages. Many kinds of emergent complex phenomena might be expected to arise within these larger systems, but they would not be distributed within an axis culminating in ‘high-level’ socio-political organization. Expanding perspective in this direction is quite different to an ‘advance’ from, say, physical to cultural anthropology. It might also be expected to disrupt our sense of the natural ‘order of being’ through various epidemiological, bacteriological, population genetic, and other effects of obscurely extended micro-biology.

    There’s a radicalized Hayekian spin off from this. Cultural concentration does not coincide with an accumulation of adequate knowledge concerning the large-scale dynamics of the system in its real details. The opposite (and false) assumption is best exemplified by macro-economics, which aligns institutional concentration with a presumption of theoretical oversight. In contrast, the recognized social hierarchy is just one, semi-arbitrary slice through the real order of emergences. (Ultimate ‘sovereignty’ might inhere in a viro-bacterial gene-processing machine that human science has yet to tag, let alone comprehend.)

    September 4, 2013 at 1:52 am

    • Posting this mini-series, I knew that the ‘scales’ metaphor needed further elaboration, which you have provided here, and then some. I have two more posts, but like I did before posting this one, I’m waiting for some enlightening comments before I finish re-writing and posting. I’ll save interaction with this brilliant elaboration for the next part.

      September 4, 2013 at 2:17 am

  3. Just to be clear: I’m not criticizing the scales language — it’s hugely valuable in this context. The discussion it has triggered has moved the discussion forward already.

    September 4, 2013 at 2:20 am

  4. Nikolaj

    Sovereignty is a theological term, an attribute of Christian God, appropriated by political progressives and statists such as Bodin and Hobbes since the 16th century in order to aggrandize the power of the state. There has not been ‘sovereignty’ in Ancient Greece and Rome, and there has not been ‘sovereignty’ in the High Middle Ages. That;s a modern the people who substituted worshiping of the State for worshiping God.,

    September 5, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    • Semantics. Substitute “sovereignty” with any synonym for “authority” you like.

      September 5, 2013 at 4:41 pm

  5. Pingback: Scales of Sovereignty (part 3) |

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