Sovereignty: Individuals versus Governments

July 1, 1998 • Commentary
This article appeared on free​trade​.org on July 1, 1998.

The ongoing globalization of economic life leaves many Americans nervous and suspicious. Pat Buchanan has played to this anxiety with his book, The Great Betrayal, a root‐​and‐​branch rejection of free trade in favor of a “new nationalism.”

In this series, Cato Center for Trade Policy Studies scholars take issue with much of what Buchanan writes, and offer an alternative perspective to Buchanan’s protectionist analysis.

Buchanan on national sovereignty: “Like a shipwrecked, exhausted Gulliver on the beach of Lilliput, America is to be tied down with threads, strand by strand, until it cannot move when it awakens. ‘Piece by piece,” our sovereignty is being surrendered.”

The question “Who should be sovereign over particular decisions?” does not usually require a choice among federal, state, and local governments or some international organization. Most decisions in a free society should be left to the sole, sovereign discretion of individuals. An owner’s use of his or her property belongs solely to the owner as long as the use does not materially harm someone else or another’s property. The decision over whether two parties should exchange goods or services should require only the mutual consent of the parties involved, not of government officials or bureaucrats.

Some protectionists such as Pat Buchanan argue that America should not mix its economy with that of Mexico or other countries. But that is a collectivist premise, which one would expect to be rejected by supporters of free markets. The economy is not owned by some entity named “America” nor by the U.S. government. It is owned by millions of Americans, in the form of private property. Trade restrictions limit the sovereign right of individual Americans to use their property as they see fit.

Protectionists argue that Mexicans, Chinese, and other foreigners should not be allowed to sell their products freely in America. But that is simply another way of saying that willing, individual Americans should not be free to purchase products from a willing merchant. Trade restrictions limit the sovereign right of individual Americans to enter into voluntary contracts with others.

The Object of Treaties

Many international treaties and agreements concern relations between governments as they perform their proper roles. For example, neutrality, mutual defense, or extradition treaties concern the functions of national defense and criminal prosecution that generally are exclusive government functions.

Trade agreements, however, regulate commercial exchanges between private individuals and enterprises. Such commercial transactions should be at the sole discretion of individuals. The only exception might be cases of a clear and present danger to national security. Supplying weapons to a military enemy thus could be ruled out.

Unfortunately, governments historically have restricted international trade. The exercise of that power by national governments does not sacrifice a country’s sovereignty. Rather, it restricts the sovereign rights of individuals. Thus, any agreement that frees up trade should be considered, prima facie, a valid restoration of freedom.

Indeed, the best trade course for the United States would be to remove unilaterally all of its trade barriers, whether other countries do so or not. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen soon. Still, any move short of total trade liberalization should be welcomed as a step in the right direction, not a sacrifice of national sovereignty.

For a general overview of The Great Betrayal, see Brink Lindsey’s review, which appeared in the July 1998 issue of Reason magazine.

More in‐​depth analysis of The Great Betrayal:

About the Author