The Boundaries of Westphalia

The Peace of Westphalia in the mid-17th Century established the idea of state sovereignty. Under Westphalian principles, each state has exclusive authority over its territory and domestic affairs.  That’s been pretty good for kings, ruling elites, and the lucky few who live in top-class democracies or benevolent dictatorships.

But Westphalia is on the way out. Individual sovereignty is coming in.

Territorial state sovereignty is just one way to organize human affairs. It was probably an improvement on constant tribal war, but it’s not the last step in political evolution. It’s exciting to see how the boundaries of Westphalia can be surpassed in favor of individual empowerment. People are increasingly able to conduct their intellectual affairs—speaking, transacting, and so on—without reference to nation-states.

I’m reminded of this far-sighted (or far-out) notion by a relatively practical observation from identity expert and former Utah CIO Phil Windley. In “Self-Sovereign Identity and Legal Identity” Phil says:

We’ve finally gotten to a place where self-sovereign identities are technically possible. This is a huge milestone. The next hurdle is getting organizations, including governments to allow the use of self-sovereign identities as the basis for their administrative identities.

Over the last few centuries, it has become the state’s acknowledgement of one’s identity that provides entree to the accoutrements of human society. Want to go to school? Check out a library book? Open a bank account? Buy a home? Drive a car? Get Internet access? Ride in a plane? Have a beer? You’ll probably need to show or have shown government-issued ID.

The dominance of government identification probably emerged because states have generally had the better administrative capability to fix identities to people. Has it strengthened the power of the state as a byproduct? Oh, yes. Identity is a linchpin.

But the administrative environment has changed. Government systems wil become less and less important. Anyone can create a secure digital identity, and systems will emerge to attach biography and reputations to such identities that are as good or better than what attaches to our government-sanctioned identities in the highly regulated credit reporting system.

That opens up new vistas for people to act without respect to the constraints of governments and government-approved systems—to speak, assemble, interact, transact. We’ve enjoyed felicitious and generally well-enforced rules that protect free speech in the United States (and not that many other places).That’s only one important dimension of freedom. Now not only identity but money and digital goods and services are ripe for a break from government (and corporate) control. Using Bitcoin as its payment rail, for example, the OpenBazaar software system allows people to buy and sell on their own terms.

Territoriality still matters. The Westphalian norm rules in situations where government agents can lay hands on you and your stuff. But in the intellectual realm, as distinguished from the physical, a new sovereignty of individuals is fit to emerge. The clear benefits of Westphalian ordering to political leaders and rulers may soon begin to fall away as individuals conduct their lives without respect to political authority, including politicians’ demands for control or a cut of the action.

Phil’s post is inspired by the ID2020 summit being held today at the UN’s headquarters in New York. The Westphalian system has failed to deliver usable identity to some 20% of the world’s people, it turns out, and that conference aims to get them some. The risk in a top-down identity enterprise, if that’s what results, is that such systems could nail humanity irreversibly onto government machinery rather than fostering freedom in all its facets. I’m heartened to see some participants there who I know from the Bitcoin world to be liberty-minded, among many who are at best indifferent.

“Descartes didn’t say ‘I have a birth certificate, therefore, I am.’” That’s Phil Windley again. Brilliant. I don’t know that he shares the vision unreservedly, but here’s hoping that technology can fulfill the promise that men and women will exist and live more fully on their own terms, and less on terms dictated by the state.