Imprimis

The Constitution and American Sovereignty

Jeremy Rabkin
George Mason University School of Law


Jeremy RabkinJeremy Rabkin is professor of law at George Mason University School of Law, having been for 27 years previous a professor of government at Cornell University. He holds a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University and a B.A. from Cornell. He has published widely in newspapers and journals, including the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, the Stanford Law Review, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, and the Claremont Review of Books. He has also written several books, including Why Sovereignty Matters, The Case for Sovereignty, and Law Without Nations?



The following is adapted from a lecture delivered on June 5, 2009, in Washington, D.C., in the “First Principles on First Fridays” lecture series sponsored by Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship.


Where does this trend away from the sovereignty of national constitutions lead? I do not think the danger is a world tyranny. I think that idea is fantastical. Rather what it will lead to, I think, is an undermining of the idea that national governments can protect people, with the result that people will start looking for defense elsewhere. We saw this in an extreme way in Iraq when it collapsed into chaos before the surge, and people looked for protection to various ethnic or sectarian militias. A similar phenomenon can be seen today in Europe with the formation of various separatist movements. We’re even hearing loud claims for Scottish independence. And it’s not surprising, because to the extent that Britain has surrendered its sovereignty, Britain doesn’t count for as much as it used to. So why not have your own Scotland? Why not have your own Wales? Why not have your own Catalonia in Spain? And of course the greatest example of this devolution in Europe is the movement toward Muslim separatism. While this is certainly driven to a large extent by trends in Islam, it also reflects the fact that it doesn’t mean as much to be British or to be French any more. These governments are cheerfully giving away their authority to the EU. So why should immigrants or children of immigrants take them seriously?

At the end of The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton writes: “A nation, without a national government, is, in my view, an awful spectacle.” His point was that if you do not have a national government, you can’t expect to remain a nation. If we are really open to the idea of allowing more and more of our policy to be made for us at international gatherings, the U.S. government not only has less capacity, it has less moral authority. And if it has less moral authority, it has more difficulty saying to immigrants and the children of immigrants that we’re all Americans. What is left, really, to being an American if we are all simply part of some abstract humanity? People who expect to retain the benefits of sovereignty—benefits like defense and protection of rights—without constitutional discipline, or without retaining responsibility for their own legal system, are really putting all their faith in words or in the idea that as long as we say nice things about humanity, everyone will feel better and we’ll all be safe. You could even say they are hanging a lot on incantations or on some kind of witchcraft. And as I mentioned earlier, the first theorist to write about sovereignty understood witchcraft as a fundamental threat to lawful authority and so finally to liberty and property and all the other rights of individuals.