David Thunder (University of Navarra) argues that many modern political theorists, from Hobbes to Rawls, overstate the importance of state sovereignty. He envisions an alternative, polycentric form of social organisation that can support one’s freedom to flourish. Tune in for his argument in this episode of the Governance Podcast led by Billy Christmas (King’s College London).

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The Guest

David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer in political and social philosophy at the Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra. Prior to his appointment to the University of Navarra, he held several research and teaching positions in the United States, including visiting positions at Bucknell and Villanova Universities, and a stint as Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Princeton University’s James Madison Program. David earned his BA and MA in philosophy at University College Dublin, and his Ph.D. in political science at the University of Notre Dame. He is currently preparing two book manuscripts, tentatively entitled May I Love My Country? In Search of a Defensible Patriotism; and Sovereign Rule and the Still-Birth of Freedom: A Preface to Confederal Republicanism. 

David’s academic writings include Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014), The Ethics of Citizenship in the 21st Century (edited volume, Springer, 2017), and numerous articles in international peer-reviewed journals such as the American Journal of Political SciencePolitical TheoryThe Journal of Social Philosophy, and the Journal of Business Ethics. His writings cover a wide range of questions including the pros and cons of individualism, the ethics of financial trading, the complicity of citizens in collective injustice, the concept of moral impartiality, and the scope of duties of beneficence. He writes occasionally for The Irish Times and RTE’s Brainstorm page. For more information, see www.davidthunder.com

Skip Ahead

00:59: What is sovereigntism? Why are you so critical of it?

2:18: Is your criticism of it primarily in terms of as a theory of political organisation, as an approach to justice in normative political theory? Or is it a critique of empirical reality? Is it that you think this is the system we do in fact have, and it’s bad for a number of reasons?

4:06: Could you say a bit more about how this aspiration to sovereignty is so harmful to these kinds of associations?

5:58: What do you think is worth protecting about associational life? What would you say to someone who takes the opposite approach and says that these small associations are undermining the authority of the national government and that undermines our sense of national identity, a more cosmopolitan and open ended form of human cooperation and really these associations are just old fashioned things which we can now do away with now that we have nation states.

8:47: So you start off with this tentative defense of associational life that, while any kind of associational life is not always good, it is a necessary condition that we are able to form and live in associations. And the aspiration of the sovereign state is parasitical or cannibalistic upon that. If the goal of associational life is this common flourishing, friendship and knowledge, generational solidarity, is there a need for external regulation of associational life in order to, not guarantee, but certainly regulate and offer some predictability that associational life will not go to the worst case scenario?

12:35: It sounds like you do want there to be political institutions to provide that kind of regulatory framework for associational life, but it’s important that it be fragmented perhaps in a federal way. Do you see federal systems such as Switzerland, the US, Germany, I suppose also India and Nigeria, are those viable models for what you would call a polycentric polity?

15:24: You mentioned that fiscal authority is particularly important. Could you say why it has particular importance?

17:15: So the emphasis on localised fiscal authority is not necessarily a claim about entitlement to wealth– it’s not a libertarian claim. It’s more based on an empirical worry that more centralised and distant authorities, when they have fiscal power, they are able to squander that money to engage in clientelism or bad forms of redistribution. Whereas at the local level, when people observe corruption or clientelism, they are able to quickly exercise some voice in the matter.

20:24: So the extent to which the polity is decentralised, it’s always going to be a matter of degree- it’s not the case that a state is either fully sovereign or fully polycentric.

23:19: You want to see these units in competition with each other or engaging in some kind of bargaining or negotiation and that would be a healthy symptom of the system.

26:03: So your image of how constitutions ought to be is that they should be open-ended in a way, open to re-negotiation and revision from sources of authority which the constitution may not recognise. I suppose the question that a constitutional theorist in the mindset of a sovereigntist imagination would say, that sounds perfectly nice but who maintains the open-endedness of the constitution?

28:51: A good example of polycentric authority is private arbitration, which is a very common practice. Some may argue that it already takes place against the backdrop of an already monopolised legal order that says if you sign contracts where you nominate third parties and you renege after that, we will then come after you.

32:04: The reputational cost of reneging on contracts definitely induces compliance in a lot of scenarios, but typically, I think we should expect that disciplinary power of repeated dealings and reputational effects to occur with business people — economic actors that have an interest in securing long-term cooperation to yield predictable income flows. What about in cases where you’re not interested in making money, you’re interested in committing genocide, say?

36:55: When we talk about polycentric governance and you mention that it’s very important to localise fiscal control, an argument for that is when you shrink down the size of jurisdictions… you make exit less costly… an important part of your work previously has focused on citizenship and democratic participation which emphasizes that rather than just your ability to vote with your feet, it emphasizes the ethical importance of participation. How do you see that work speaking to your current work on the critique of the sovereign state?

40:57: You referred to your views as a form of republicanism, or consociational republicanism. In my background, contemporary political philosophy, republicanism refers usually to neo-Roman republicanism, which sees the most important goal of the polity as liberty as non-domination. I take this view to be suspicious of group life, associational life; it sees the republican state as something which liberates you from these kind of parochial forms of domination. How does your view of consociational republicanism relate to the neo-Roman republicanism of someone like Pettit?

47:40: A separate strand of your critique of the sovereign state — I’m not sure how much of the book is dedicated to it, but you’ve mentioned in your talk that the notion of a sovereign state to protect freedom was a kind of deduction of the ontological or moral individualism of the Enlightenment. Could you say a little bit more about why you think ontological or moral individualism is problematic and why you think it entails the ideal of sovereignty?

52:55: You said in your talk that you take that your case for a polycentric form of governance to be a perfectionist one; it’s grounded in the ethical good of persons. You don’t describe it as a liberal case and you don’t make too much mention of protecting freedom. It’s more about protecting valuable forms of life. Perfectionism is not a fashionable position in contemporary political philosophy- everyone goes out of their way to show that their view is a form of liberalism. Do you take your perfectionism to be illiberal or at odds with a liberal anti-perfectionism?