Ethical Limits on a Market for Sovereign Territory
Let me say again that I am extremely grateful for the thoughtful feedback I’ve gotten from so many of you on the idea of an interstate market for sovereign territory. By floating the idea, I obviously don’t mean to endorse it without qualification, and many of you have raised serious objections in comments or emails. Many are what I think of a legal limits on the market. A greater proportion are what I’ve called “political” reasons, including the general conclusion that the market is inactive because it’s not in anyone’s interest to participate.
But even taken together, those two sets of arguments don’t seem sufficient to explain the total (so far as I can tell) absence of monetary transactions between states for sovereign territory. Would the constitution or politics really prevent the Carolinas from settling their relatively minor border dispute with a cash transfer, as a commenter on my first post suggested? Maybe major sales — stretching California to Lake Erie, as another commenter put it — would be constitutionally or politically infeasible, but what about smaller, marginal adjustments?
A final set of answers — inspired, I should say, by my colleague Kim Krawiec and her work on taboo trades — lies in the concept of market inalienability. That is, even if sovereign territory can be “given,” or traded for other territory (as it essentially is, in some border negotiations), it cannot be sold. Again, the question is why.
There is no simple way to break down arguments about the proper reach of markets. An enormous amount of subtle and important scholarship addresses the subject, including Kim’s, Margaret Radin’s, and most recently Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy. And though the literature is diverse, a few main themes seem to reoccur.
One prominent set of concerns focuses on the difficulty, and perhaps impossibility, of obtaining valid consent to such a sale. Perhaps states would often find themselves coerced into selling territory (think gunboat diplomacy), in which case it might make sense to ban such sales altogether — a line of reasoning that might also explain bans on the sale of sex or body parts.
But what really seems to be animating Sandel — and, I suspect, many others — is the feeling that market forces corrupt certain things they touch. (The Midas Touch, after all, ended up being something of a curse.) This is not a concern than can be addressed by obtaining proper consent. For example, many citizens might wish to voluntarily sell their votes or their military service. And yet people seem to share the intuition that, even where completely voluntary and well-informed, such sales are ethically suspect. If individuals can’t sell aspects of their civic identity, one might ask, why should states be any different?
I’m still not sure how (or if) to tie these threads together — whether the absence of an interstate market for sovereign territory is a detective story, a normative puzzle, or simply an obvious result of a nation (and perhaps world) whose borders have effectively sunk into the ground. But I truly appreciate everyone’s thoughts so far, and would love to hear more of them.