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.

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4 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    A small quibble: selling military service used to be relatively common in the Western world — and remains so in some places, e.g. Singapore. Providing a substitute for one’s own service is even mentioned by Hobbes as one of the few legitimate liberties of a subject of a sovereign, in Leviathan II.21. The fact is that even today in the US many people enlist in the armed forces as a way to earn a living, and yet this is rightly seen as honorable. So I’m not sure there’s an “intuition” involved here, rather than a recent, culturally-determined prejudice among some, based on how the issue is framed (well-deserved compensation for military service vs. “selling” one’s service).

    A fortiori I doubt that many people have deep moral intuitions about something so arcane as a sale of sovereign territory — even trolley problems probably grab peoples’ imaginations more. Few people have deeply emotional feelings about state borders. For the same reason, the analogy to “taboo trades” of body parts may be a bit overwrought. Political reasons maybe don’t deserve the scare quotes, or the skepticism, after all.

  2. Joseph Blocher says:

    They weren’t meant to be scare quotes, nor am I skeptical about political explanations. I was just trying to signal that some of the reasons I’d lumped together aren’t what many folks would think of as political.

    You’re absolutely right, of course, about paid military service being historically common, and still extant in some form throughout the world. What I had in mind was the practice of buying substitutes to perform conscripted service, e.g. in the American Civil War. There’s an interesting discussion in Sandel’s Tanner Lectures, beginning at about page 109 here:

    When you say that “[f]ew people have deeply emotional feelings about state borders,” I assume you mean about *selling* them, right?

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    Sorry to have been unclear. What I meant in the first two full sentences of my earlier comment was indeed accepting payment to be a substitute for someone else’s mandatory service (such as the Singapore example). Then I spoke of how “selling ” one’s service encompasses even service in the US armed forces of today, for which most people have respect. So intuitions, if any, against “sale” of this service may be quite contingent on how the question is presented. On the emotional feelings issue, I mean feelings against adjusting borders, but when considered in the abstract — as distinguished from one’s own state’s borders, esp. when living close to the losing side. By this proviso I mean to distinguish self-interest from the “intuition” you suggest. I don’t think such an “intuition” exists among most people, unlike possible intuitions against selling body parts and pushing large people over railings in order to stop a trolley.

  4. A.J. Sutter says:

    BTW: Silly of me to have forgotten about a current case, but that’s what happens when you’re too busy for a couple weeks. The Senkaku islands (尖閣諸島, senkaku shotou, a/k/a Diàoyútái Qúndǎo, in Chinese, and Pinnacle Islands, in English), are a small group of rocky islands in the Ryuukyuu chain, administered by Japan since being handed over by the US in 1971. Four of the five islands are owned by the Kurihara family, private citizens living in Saitama Prefecture (which neighbors Tokyo to the north). The central government has been paying the family rent for three of the islands, one of which is used by the US Air Force as a practice bombing range. The Senkakus are under the civil administration of Ishigaki-shi, a city (more like a US county) in Okinaka Prefecture.

    After the return of the Senkakus to Japan, China and Taiwan started to claim ownership. Recent Japanese governments have been rather weak to assert Japanese ownership of the islands, in the face of diplomatic rumblings from China.

    So Ishihara Shintaro, the right-wing governor of Tokyo-to (the political unit that includes central Tokyo and many other small cities) with a flair for the dramatic, decided that Tokyo-to would buy the four islands owned by the Kurihara family, and later donate them to the central government. The family is reportedly relieved at the prospect of a Japanese government entity owning the territory; I’m not certain, but I vaguely recall that they approached Ishihara, best-known in the US as author of The Japan That Can Say ‘No’ (『「NO」と言える日本』) and a huge celebrity here, rather than the other way around. Ishihara’s move has had wide support across the political spectrum — pace any intuitions to the contrary — with members of the public having so far donated over ¥1.1 billion (about US$13 million) in just a couple of months’ time. Most of this is comprised of small, Statue-of-Liberty-like donations. Embarrassed by Ishihara’s initiative, the DPJ government now claims it is considering to purchase the islands directly, while its own ambassador to China is maladroit enough to express his worries about a purchase publicly. A recent update on the story is here.