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.