MSNBC reports that beginning on January 9th the “Southern Sudanese will cast ballots … to decide whether or not to split Africa’s largest country in two.” Democracy promises — even if it doesn’t completely fulfill its promise — that we have a decision about our government, and Sudan is enabling that promise to reach a question that is typically decided for us.
“Most analysts,” the report continues, “believe the south will vote to secede from the north and create a new independent nation.” Political boundaries, especially in colonially-ravaged places like Sudan, are often arbitrary, failing to account for differences in culture, language, etc. The case for smaller polities rests on the idea that it’s better and more efficient for laws to express the customs and culture of communities defined more locally than broadly.
Sudan is about to show that people can vote to divide one state into two, reflecting the assorted interests of the people living within the area, so why not allow people to “vote” themselves into even still more numerous governing systems? Maybe people could even allow those systems to function within the same region, their differing laws and regulations overlapping and even testing one another.
Such a wild idea would seem to flout our most basic assumptions about the nature of law and about democracy, but the history of law bears witness to that idea’s viability. In his classic For a New Liberty, Murray Rothbard observed that, in many specialized areas of the law, “the State was not interested,” using the example of “shippers [who] themselves took on the task of not only applying, but working out the whole structure of admiralty law.” Not only is some overarching, final judge unnecessary in practice, but even in the state’s monopoly system of law such a judge can hardly be found.
The enforceability of judgments in law has never really depended on there being a singular, ultimate authority in an area to deliver them; it has instead turned heavily on less tangible features of a society like its deference to the legal system itself, which in turn hinges on the amalgamation of individual assessments about it.
“We would not expect,” argues philosopher Roderick Long, “to achieve objectivity in science by putting all research into the hands of a single monopoly insulated from criticism; on the contrary, it is through competition among different theories and research programs that truth emerges.” Analogously, we can think of prices in a genuine free market as determined by “votes,” by our individualized decision-making processes that choose between competitors in the same or similar goods or services.
The prices produced by such free market operations — as opposed to those determined by central planning or by a monopolist — more accurately reflect a thing’s true value because they reflect the blend of data that the value represents. The argument that we get objectivity from the mere fact that there is a single or dominant source of a kind of information, whether price, law, or something else, confuses objectivity for something other than what it is: Some statement about fact or reality.
These arguments take decree by force, just because it is a method not subject to pressure from external competition, to be more authoritative and more capable of delivering objective standards. But as Professor Long has shown, the opposite is true, the lack of competition leading everywhere to arbitrariness and subjectivity. To break one sovereignty into two may be an improvement, but to make each individual his own sovereignty — to establish self-government — should be the ultimate goal.
It wouldn’t be, in the old expression, to make each person an island. Instead it would be to allow people to interact in a better way, one where individuals could trade and cooperate on fair terms, free from the coercion of the state.