Joseph R.


December 14, 2001

Who Let the Dogs Out?


The dogs referred to above are, of course, the dogs of war. More to the point, they are the dogs of unlimited state "sovereignty," a topic on which we lately touched from the standpoint of John Taylor of Caroline. Without the notion of sovereignty, as understood in Europe anyway, it might have been harder to get the average fool to sacrifice himself for emergent nation-states in their rather endless wars.

The dogs of war, in other words, were partly a consequence of the dogs of asserted sovereignty, as well as the other way around.

Wars reinforced the prestige and claims of successful states, and this in turn made their "sovereignty" seem both reasonable and inevitable. This was a complex process from about 1450 A.D. on, but I shall focus on ideology, the first form of power. (The others are political-military power and economic power. See my third Old Cause column.)


Among those who first theorized states' claims to unlimited power we find Thomas Hobbes, Jean Bodin, and, many would say, Nicolo Machiavelli. Military historian Martin Van Creveld credits Hobbes with "inventing" the modern sovereign state.1 A useful perspective on these things comes to us from a French reactionary classical liberal, Bertrand de Jouvenel. His Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good (1957) still repays serious reading.

De Jouvenel noted that the notion of sovereignty is entirely modern. It did not exist in the allegedly hateful Middle Ages. Now if modernity involves sovereignty, as presently understood, we are all doomed and I should quit writing this essay. I therefore hasten to add that there have been two roads to modernity. One was the Continental-bureaucratic road and the other was the British North American exceptional road, actually realized this side of the water more than in the old country.

The old sovereigns – and the word itself (from Latin superanus) merely meant "the highest" political level, with no built-in judgment about the extent of its legitimate authority – had only "a limited right standing guard over other rights."2 Ambitious kings, locked into competitive military struggles with one another, in time asserted "absolute" claims, i.e., their sovereignty, and wielded revived Roman law in their favor.

The claim made was thus essentially imperial and unrestricted in nature. Each king aspired to the Roman mantle. This "presupposed the complete subversion of the existing social order,"3 which rested on specified rights and duties on manifold levels. In the old order, the king lived off the rents of his own lands and had, in effect, to plead and beg for additional revenues from his subjects. Parliaments were the bodies to whom this pleading and begging were directed.

The kings' wish for "an ideal entity, a plenitude of authority"4 was taken over by parliaments, once the bourgeois classes threw in with royal power to offset the petty exactions of local feudal magnates. This bourgeois royalism may have been one of the greatest long-run mistakes in Western history. With the French Revolution, "sovereignty" was transferred to the "people," that is, in practice, to politicians and bureaucrats speaking in the name of the people.

England was a partial exception to this trend. It was also a partial example of it. To the extent that England followed the bureaucratic path to modernity, North American Englishmen opposed it. Hence the American Revolution, which opened up the other road, grounded on late-Medieval decentralization, the "rights of Englishmen," and the absence of any over-theorized dogma of sovereignty.

Before we go patting ourselves on the back too much, it must be conceded that within 80 or so years we began catching up with European developments both in theory and practice. The decisive moment was our so-called "civil war," which was, on the part of the South, a resistance (too late) to the claims of central sovereign power and, on the part of the North, the American version of the French Revolution. The victorious party emancipated slaves, to be sure, but the package deal that came with this necessary step ensured the long-range enslavement of everyone to abstractly sovereign state power.


War empowers the state. "Good" wars, bad wars, it doesn't matter. If you want to find the single most important contribution to aggravated statism in human history, you will need to look at war. For the most part, the Conservative rank-and-file don't seem to understand this. War-borne state-empowerment and the doctrine of sovereignty go hand in hand. All too many Conservative spokesmen are glad to serve as their propagandists.

The official leaders of Conservatism pretend that the problem does not exist. In real life, I suspect, they know full well how things work but do not, in fact, give a flying fornication about it (they're all right, Jack). That is, the Conservative establishment is made up of ideological footmen of the state-building process, the necessary effects of which they profess to oppose. What, then, are they actually conserving? Damned little, it would seem.

So beware the Derbyshire, my child, the buckleylowrous Goldberghanson, brillig as it is. There it sits, broad-bottomed, on the mead-benches of the great hall Hero-Rot, bragging and boasting with the best of Beowulf's rivals. Epic, they are. Burbling along in tandem are all the organs over which Neo-Conservatives hold sway.

Meanwhile, President Gilligan holds forth from the White House, Vice President Skipper moves from one place to another, on the road again, and the Minister of Aerial Bombardment – looking for all the world like the fellows Bob Dylan had in mind when he wrote "Masters of War" – talks out of the available side of his face, the better to hoodwink the alert gentlemen of the press. The latter don't need much hoodwinking.


In a letter of December 15, 1866, General Robert E. Lee wrote to Lord Acton that "the consolidation of the states into one vast republic, sure to be aggressive abroad and despotic at home, will be the certain precursor of that ruin which has overwhelmed all those that have preceded it."5 Those words have now the ring of fulfilled prophecy, whether or not the present military exercise has been a good idea or not. It hasn't been, but never mind.

The larger point is that states made wars and wars made states. If you wish to live under limited government, you should limit your wars. If you wish to live under tyranny and socialism, however genteel, you can follow the lead of the present "respectable" US governing and chattering classes to your heart's content.

Being the proud owner of a two hundred millionth part of the state's "sovereignty" will be small comfort, however.


  1. Martin Van Creveld, The Rise and Decline of the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 178-179.

  2. Bertrand de Jouvenel, Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1997 [1957), p. 203.

  3. Ibid., p. 208.

  4. Ibid., p. 217.

  5. Lee to Acton in J. Rufus Fears, ed., Selected Writing of Lord Acton : Essays in the History of Liberty (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, n.d.), p. 365 [my emphasis].

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Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on


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