Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Self-Ownership for Nations

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 22, 2011

Individual liberty makes sense as a means to collective gain: allowing individual persons as much freedom as possible can benefit the greater good. How does the concept of individual liberty apply to countries?

First, let’s address what this question even means by defining self-ownership. Self-ownership means that nations have the right to address their own welfare and have no moral obligation to address the welfare of any other nation. Countries are free to act autonomously insofar as their actions do not harm other countries.

Now let us examine the merits of this idea with respect to Utilitarianism. Ideally, all nations would work towards the greater good of the world, valuing global humanitarian, animal or environmental issues over national interest (hmm, that sounds familiar). But it is unreasonable to expect that governments will want to act towards global welfare or that its citizens will want it to. In the real world, the situation is not so simple.

It is easier to answer this question if we apply a certain framework as explained in a previous essay, Morality in the Real World. For a given moral decision, let us answer the following questions:

1. How would the choice affect the nation?
2. How would the citizens of the nation react to the choice?
3. How would the involved nations react to the choice?
4. How would nations not involved react to the choice?

As an example, let us consider the United States’ invasion of Iraq. (1) The US was forced to spend a large portion of the budget on military, increasing the deficit. (2) Initially, public opinion on the war was divided; as it went on, more and more people began to oppose it. (3) Iraq is not a single entity, so it has no single reaction. The overthrown government was obviously unhappy; some citizens supported the American troops, while some opposed them. (4) Many other countries considered the war to be a poor decision on the part of the United States, the sort of poor decision that could persuade them to erect trade barriers and refuse to cooperate with the US.

We can now use these four questions to determine if it makes sense to give nations a moral obligation to help foreigners in cases where doing so would increase utility.

Currently, about 0.5% of the US federal budget is spent on foreign aid (a rather small portion), but it is the only major department where a majority of Americans support budget cuts. If the US were to dramatically increase spending on foreign aid, a great number of citizens would oppose the decision. The premise of a representative government is that the government does what the people demand; if this premise is violated on a large enough scale, a lot of people will have a serious problem with it and it will end up decreasing utility in the long run. Nations in which the government effectively represents the people have done consistently better than those where the government does not. If a nation were to use most of its available resources on foreign aid rather than domestic policy, there is good reason to believe that it would fail. (As far as I know, no such government has ever existed; in every instance where rulers ignored their people’s demands, they did so out of selfishness. It might be interesting to see a government that disregards its people’s demands in the interest of the greater good.)

Prioritizing worldwide good over national interest appears to work when it is only on a small scale (say, 0.5% of the budget), but it would almost definitely not work on a large scale. This gives rise to an interesting circumstance where countries practice mostly self-ownership. This would be unusual if self-ownership were an absolute thing, but it makes sense if self-ownership is only a means to an end (that end being the greater good of the world). The idea of self-ownership for government appears to have less merit than self-ownership for individuals, but it is still useful.

So far I have been discussing the first of the two principles of self-ownership that I mentioned above: that nations have the right to address their own welfare and have no moral obligation to address the welfare of any other nation. The other principle is the National Harm Principle: countries are free to act autonomously insofar as their actions do not harm other countries. If this second aspect were consistently followed, the world would probably be a better place. Unfortunately, it is violated every time a nation goes to war.

One reason why self-ownership has its advantages for individuals is that it is relatively easy to enforce. A government can create and enforce laws against violations of self-ownership. But for the concept of national self-ownership, there is no higher body to enforce the rules, which is part of the reason why countries so often violate each other’s sovereignty. The National Harm Principle is at this point in history a useless construct, since there is no way to enforce it and it is so frequently violated. Maybe if the UN or a similar intergovernmental body had more power, the National Harm Principle would be enforceable.

Some elements of the principle of governmental self-ownership are useful, and others are not. Its most powerful function is to determine how citizens may be expected to respond to foreign aid. It does not apply as effectively as the principle of individual liberty, but it has its merits.


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