Rentiers of Sovereignty

I’ve had to deal with a situation this week that involves some complicated transactions over the title to a used car, on behalf of someone else. The mechanisms of title transfer are a hassle, but I’m also largely glad that we have them. This seems to me a function of a modern state that even a libertarian has to love: mechanisms ensuring that people who claim and transfer expensive property are entitled to those claims and rights, that the property they hold is in fact theirs.

If you read this morning’s New York Times you may have seen a story about Angola. Its details are familiar in their broad outline to many, conforming to the conventional wisdom that Africa defines the worst of the human condition in the 21st Century. I wouldn’t challenge that conventional wisdom in this case, or many others. Angola’s tiny governmental elite is raking in huge sums from smaller multinationals involved in pumping out offshore petroleum, and virtually none of that money is going to any public function of any kind. Even a small percentage of those revenues would suffice to revolutionize the water, garbage and waste disposal infrastructure of Luanda.

In all likelihood, none of it will ever be spent for that purpose in any meaningful way. International institutions will spend money studying the problem and making recommendations. Powerless or mendacious Angolan civil servants will pretend to implement those recommendations, handicapped by puny budgets or taking a hand in siphoning what little money actually flows to taking action. The people of Luanda will do what they can to survive, and many will not. There isn’t really much they can do in political terms: I don’t even see what kind of revolution might be possible in this case. The companies with investments will profit from the situation, and the companies which might invest more constructively in a different kind of nation and economy will prudently stay away.

Angola is the kind of situation that made me think very differently about sovereignty, and about the kinds of politics, both conservative and leftist, that mark the achievement of sovereignty as the initial and necessary condition of achieving prosperity and freedom. Sovereignty is the material resource that the Angolan elite controls and sells, not oil. They are rentiers who extract wealth from selling permission for extraction. But they’re no different than a car thief who hotwires a car parked outside a suburban home, drives it fifty miles, and then sells the car on eBay. The difference is not in what they do, but in the legal and governmental mechanisms that permit what they do. The car thief is going to run into trouble establishing a title that can be transferred legitimately. The Angolan elite has no such difficulty.

All the international institutions which exist recognize them as possessing title to sovereignty. They’re the ones who send representatives to the United Nations. They’re the ones who fill embassies around the world. They’re the ones that the World Bank or NGOs speak to and reach agreements with. That’s not a conservative or liberal thing, not a failure of the United Nations or of the Bush Administration. It’s an indictment of the entire interstate system built up over the course of the 20th Century, in all its parts and particulars. That system gives titles and ownership to thieves, and allows thieves to sell their goods to supposedly legitimate businesses.

I’m profoundly skeptical about the kind of quasi-governmental aspirations embedded in a lot of international development efforts, about the desire to govern local communities in quite profound ways in accordance with visions and plans sketched out a thousand miles away from the places where they will be implemented. But why not ask that the interstate system of the 21st Century, including non-governmental organizations, serve a few of the most minimal functions of government with regard to property and commerce? I can’t buy a hot car and expect the government to sanction my ownership. If I pass cash under the table to get the car, the car stays hot, and I can expect it to be taken from me at any time to be returned to its rightful owner. All the petroleum that comes out of Angola today is equally stolen. The people who peddle Angola’s sovereignty have no right to sell it, and those who buy it know that perfectly well. We need some kind of global system that refuses that transfer of title.

I still feel, for all the water that has flowed under this particular bridge, that this is one case where dissatisfactions with sovereignty on both the right and the left ought to be able to meet productively. The problem of Angola and the problem of Iraq before the war have some real resemblances, and in both cases, passive defenses of sovereignty are unacceptable answers. The war in Iraq wasn’t the right alternative; neither would be an extensive ambition to govern Angola through international institutions in productive ways that its own elite will not. The gut-wrenching truth of the human condition in the 21st Century is that some suffering cannot be easily abated or forcibly relieved. But we should imagine what we can do, not merely accept what we cannot. I think that the beginning of a new era of action involves a steady contempt for sovereignty and the claims made in its name, and the construction of a new international system that reflects that contempt. Let’s call Angola’s elite what they are: thieves. Let’s call the companies pumping oil out of Angola what they are: the purchasers of stolen property. Let’s make it as difficult as we can for thieves to fence stolen sovereignties, and for purchasers to buy the same.

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13 Responses to Rentiers of Sovereignty

  1. martinwiener says:

    Tim – Wont you get complaints that you’re justifying a return to colonialism? It is a dilemma isn’t it? Certainly the rationale of “civilizing mission” was in large part a cover for exploitation, but it would appear that at least in Africa what replaced colonialism is even worse (at least colonialism did do some good, even if much less than colonialists claimed – have the successor regimes done any?)

  2. texter says:

    This is a fascinating and difficult topic. I commented briefly on a NYTimes essay by Nuruddin Farah in which he protests Somalia’s status as property owned by international business interests (waste companies, for example). I think, Farah in that essay argued that Somalia – with no functioning govt – did not really own their own country. However, I’m sure some of the higher ranked warlords benefited from multinational commerce etc. It is tricky, indeed.

  3. withywindle says:

    Thesis: all undemocratic governments (where we assume the modern West is democratic) are illegitimate rentiers of sovereignty. They are all thieves–including, for example, the rulers of Russia, China, and Saudia Arabia. Query: to be consistent–and not give China a free ride when we’re going after Angola–shouldnt we be enforcing these rules on the producers of somewhere near, or over, half the world GDP (by PPP), and isn’t this unenforceable? Or do you have a consistent rule to distinguish Angola from Saudia Arabia and China?

  4. pxib says:

    Allowing my inner leftist a brief departure from pragmatism…

    Those legal hurdles you’re jumping to transfer the car are only meaningful because the car is property. It is owned. It is titled and maintained, indeed it exists, solely for the use and benefit of specific people. Anybody else using that car must have its owners’ permission, probably in a legally binding form should they run afoul of law enforcement, or they will find themselves treated as criminals.

    Libertarians and other free-market theorists prefer a broader defintiion of property. They include a category that I shall call “resources”: The land, minerals and water (and oil) below, the air above, the living people, plants, and wildlife. The capitalist, and the lawmaker, understand situations best when resources have owners, but that distinction is weak until the resource becomes a commodity. Water in a stream flows over my property. Water in a jar belongs to me.

    Western Civilization has, for at least three centuries, strived to make commodities — to make property — out of everything. Functionally, a massive legal framework has been constructed around the ancient divine right of warlords: If you conquer it, you are its master and may do with it as you please. Today we arrange such transfers by signature rather than by sword, and refer to conquerors as “owners”.

    Angola’s elites are not thieves, they are 21st century warlords. Although corporations may own the platforms which pump the oil, the tankers which carry it, and the refineries which process it… the elites own the land on which the platforms sit, the soil in which the oil rests, and the human beings who extract it.

    A stream of free people flows over our planet. People within my conquered nation belong to me.

    Should politicians or pundits declare “That oil belongs to the people of Angola!” they will be making a moot point. If oil is a commodity controlled by the people of Angola, “The people of Angola” is a commodity controlled by the elites. Divine right only applies to the unconquered conqueror, ownership rights only apply to the unowned owner…

    …and human rights are fundamentally at odds with free market capitalism. And more pragmatically, no international law will ever address the former at the cost of the latter.

  5. mandrewa says:


    There are two lines of reasoning for believing that
    free markets are coupled with human rights. One is
    to empirically observe you never find states that
    both lack free markets and respect human rights.

    The second is to explore as a matter of logic why that
    would be the case. That alternative to markets is ownership
    by the state. This is what, I think, in all cases what
    other economic ideologies boil down to. In most of human
    history this has been the dominant ideology, limited
    free markets only emerged in those circumstances where
    sectors of these economies escaped from complete control
    because of practical limitations on the ability of the
    state to control everything — certainly not any lack
    of desire.

    The state, or its rulers, owning the economy goes
    hand and hand with the state owning the people, which
    naturally couples with an anti-human rights attitude.

    Even if we might imagine a state that is both throughly
    anti-market and an enthusiastic advocate of human rights,
    by the same logic we should suspect that such a situation
    would be unstable and not last long because there is no
    counterforce to maintain those human rights. All power is
    in the hands of the rulers. In the first context
    where those human rights become inconvenient to the powers
    that be — and we can easily imagine a scenario involving
    criticsm of the dominant ideology — they’re likely to be

  6. texter says:

    But, again, how about Somalia: “economy without a state” as peter little titles his book?
    free markets, no?
    human rights?

  7. pxib says:

    One will never finds a state which adopts fully free markets because there is no such thing. If a state were to enter the market on equal footing with other players, it would cease to exist as anything other than a name and a few crooked lines on a map. Only third world nations approach such an ideal. It doens’t matter whether their elites run the government or simply bully it into submission. All power falls into the hands of the owners. The government is just another market player, and it’s probably for sale.

    The other end of the spectrum, and it is a spectrum not a pair of magnetic poles, are the functionally socialist oligarchies and dictatorships. They too destroy human rights for all the reasons you mentioned.

    In the vast middle are states like the USA, Japan, Brazil, Finland, and India. Their regulated markets stand beside their governments but are, to differing degrees, independent from them. The state protects people from the market, and the market protects people from the state. Within a national context, that is the only environment in which human rights have any meaning.

    The international market does not depend on states. It is the freest market in the world.

    Angola’s problems do not arise from a surplus of state power, but from a deficit thereof. Nationally, they are plagued by entrepreneurs. Internationally, those same entrepreneurs operate in a virtually unregulated market. Any country which refuses their oil on the grounds that it was “stolen” is only hurting itself. Angola’s oilmen will find other buyers. Any country which punishes companies for buying Angolan oil is only hurting itself. Those companies will find somewhere else to incorporate.

    Only a stronger Angolan government will help the people of Angola, and only the people of Angola can create one. Enlightened colonialism, though martinwiener’s questions are quite apropos, is not a permanent solution. Denying sovereignty destroys the only chance the third world has to find political rather than economic legitimacy… and is no solution at all.

  8. Neel Krishnaswami says:

    texter, Somalia is a disaster. The horrible, amazing truth about Somalia is that it’s less of a disaster now, then it was before it lost its government. Mohammed Siad Barre was such a rapacious predator upon his people that their lot in life (as measured by best guesses of how it scores on UN human development metrics) improved after their state collapsed into violent anarchy. When Timothy waxes wrathful about kleptocracy, he’s not hitting libertarian talking points; he’s talking about states so dire that they fail the most primitive Hobbesian criterion of being any kind of improvement over the war of all against all.

  9. mandrewa says:

    Texter and pxib,

    Somalia has markets only in a minimal, accidental
    sense. Look how do you imagine things work in Somalia?
    Do you think it’s organized around economic entrepreneurs?
    It’s organized around gangs. It’s organized around
    warlords who excel at fighting and dominating and
    nothing much else. What’s their reaction to economic
    activity in their midst? They want their cut; in fact
    they want all the money. They take for themselves
    everything of value that they perceive. It’s a horribly
    anti-market situation.

    Markets do happen by themselves because they are natural
    human activity. Unfortunately tyranny is also a natural
    human activity. When I speak of “free markets” its implied
    that there is a government and a society that has an ideology
    of markets. Societies that deliberately support, encourage,
    and organize themselves around them. That’s what the
    United States is. That’s what the british empire was and is.
    That’s where the modern world came from.

    “Free markets” aren’t something that develop in the absence
    of government. They need strong governments. They need,
    to be even more specific, strong goverments that go out of
    their way to encourage and support free markets.

    Unfortunately such a posture isn’t the easist thing for
    a government to maintain. Unless there’s a popular ideology
    to support it, the more natural reaction of a government
    to economic activity in their midst is:

    “They want their cut; in fact they want all the money.”

    Or in a word: africa.

  10. dnexon says:

    Ever read Robert Jackson’s classic book, Quasi-States : Sovereignty, International Relations and the Third World? Similar argument vis-a-vis sovereignty.

  11. Tim,

    You talk about sovereignity, but it would have been nice if Angola had true sovereignity when it really mattered: i.e., 1975. To quote the NYT:

    Other diplomats and analysts say Angola’s ruling party is still trying to get on its feet after a civil war that raged almost nonstop from 1975, when Angola gained independence from Portugal, until mid-2002.

    And it was a pretty nasty civil war, with lots and lots of interference from outside powers such as the U.S.S.R, Cuba, the United States and South Africa. Of course it’s going to affect the country, with the educated elite leaving the country if they could help it. Feel wrathful if you like to the kleptocracy, but please don’t forget how kleptocrats get into power into the first place. It’s like a doctor who diagnoses lung cancer but forgets to investigate the patient’s pack-a-day addiction to the ciggies.

    What recommendations can I give? Bugger all, apart from forebearing to ignore “inconvenient” facts on the case. I do like the idea of freezing bank accounts for the thieves, and even locking them up when they appear, briefcase in hand. The problem is that you have to make the Swiss do that, and they may not like this invasion of their – “ahem” – sovereignity.

    Poor Angola. They’re less fortunate than East Timor – another ex-Portugal colony with sovereignity interrupted (this time, thanks to the Indonesians). At least ET is fortunate to be in Australia’s sphere of influence; we’ve got an army there at the moment.

  12. Neel Krishnaswami says:

    A counterintuitive suggestion: How about we pay every dictator who leaves office and holds free elections $1 million dollars cash and a chateau in Switzerland, and then pay him another $5 million if there’s a second set of free elections, and another $10 million if there’s a peaceful transfer of power within the ten years after he leaves office. Give them a cash incentive to leave office and leave reasonable institutions in their place.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Downandout, I guess what I’m questioning in part is whether the “interruption” of sovereignty that you describe is in fact the precondition of the present situation. I think that’s part of the fetishization of sovereignty, the assumption that it is the necessary condition of some kind of emancipation, progress, or relief from suffering. I think what is happening in Angola is a consequence of the conceptual framework we attach to sovereignty, in fact. What the Angolan kleptocracy is doing is sanctified by our conceptualizations of sovereignty, by our inherited framework for an interstate system.

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