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Spruyt: The sovereign state and its competitors

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Spruyt. 1994. The sovereign state and its competitors. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

See also

A much briefer version of the same argument is presented in Spruyt's 1994 article, "Institutional Selection in International Relations."

Theoretical Analogy: An Evolutionary Theory

Gould's version of evolutionary theory argues that evolution occurs in a two-step process. First, a variety of new forms emerges; second, some environmental pressure selects the fittest for survival. Spruyt's method is identical. He seeks to answer two logically distinct questions. First, why did a variety of new institutional forms emerge in medieval Europe? The old forms (feudalism, the church, and empires) were suddenly supplemented with new forms (kings, city-leagues, and city-states). Second, why is it that territorial kingship emerged as the dominant form? Note that this model implies punctuated equilibrium: One institutional form will be dominant until environmental changes lead to the emergence of several new forms, one or two of which will become the new dominant institution.

He acknowledges that the evolutionary analogy may have problems. In particular, human institutions are deliberately designed to meet environmental changes. Still, these designs are generally with short-term intentions, so Spruyt argues that "the causes behind their emergence are different from the causes of their demise" (p 24). And since people aren't likely to make major adjustments to their institutions unless they have to, the punctuated equilibrium model seems apt.

Chapter 8:

This chapter seeks to explain the process that led up to the establishment of the modern states system at Westphalia.

  • In jargon: The process "can...be seen in micro-macro or agent structural terms. In the first phase the variety of units form the elements of a system. Because of competitive pressure between these dislike units, and through mutual empowerment as well as individuals' choices, the system imposes structural limits on the type of units that are possible and will be recognized by the other actors...". (180)
  • In English: It is too simplistic to claim that sovereign states became dominant just because they killed off their competitors. Although the Thirty Years War devastated the Hanseatic League, "it was not the war that led to the demise of the Hansa.". (178) Instead, sovereign states came to dominate the international system because: 1) they were "more effective and more efficient in curtailing freeriding and defection, and hence they were better at mobilizing the resources of their societies"; 2) they supported other sovereign states by preferring to deal with them rather than alternative institutional forms; and 3) they were imitated by unlike entities that recognized the advantages of (1) and (2). (155) These mechanisms of selection may be described as: 1) "Darwinian survival of the fittest"; 2) "mutual empowerment"; and 3) "deliberate mimicry and exit". (158)

I. The sovereign state and alternatives

Political entities can be classified along two dimensions: a) internal sovereignty; and b) territorial demarcation. The sovereign state is characterized by a domestic monopoly on violence and justice, and by distinct borders. The main alternatives in the three centuries before Westphalia were the city-state, as found in Italy, and the cityleague, of which the Hanseatic League of German and Dutch towns is the best known example. The former had recognized borders, but was internally fragmented. The latter lacked both borders and consolidated internal politics. (154)

Spruyt suggests that territorial integrity is more essential to the sovereign state than a consolidated domestic hierarchy. City-states were integrated into the states-system after Westphalia because they were more like sovereign states than the leagues (177). The Hanseatic league, by contrast, fragmented into its constitute parts, the larger and more important of which (eg Danzig) survived as city-states, while other elements recombined as lordly mini-states.

II. Advantages of the sovereign state

  1. Survival of the fittest
  • Sovereign states could provide public goods like standardization of weights and measures, standardization of coinage, tariff-free trade areas, binding regulation on trade, and an internal juridical hierarchy. A system of enforceable rules supported the development of a uniform and vigorous national policy on a wide range of issues including, crucially but not solely, the prosecution of wars.(163-7)
  1. Mutual empowerment
  • Identifiable sovereignty makes negotiations easier. One knows whom to talk to and what the decision is. Thus the city-leagues were ill equipped to compete for trade with sovereign states, who preferred the security of doing business with each other. The issue here is territorial juridiction as well as the ability to make credible commitments. Even when the Hanseatic League did develop common policies, it was unclear precisely to whom and where they applied. (170-1) In the vital commerce with England, many cities cut independent deals at the expense of their fellow members. (168) Hamburg, for example, acted like sovereign state when it applying special trade rules to its own ports. City-states had strategic as well as economic ambitions. They behaved no differently in pursuit of these than sovereign states (175) But the volatility of their internal politics made it difficult to for them to govern territory that was indispuitable theirs. When sovereign states recognized the city-states as members of the international system, it was almost always as weaker powers. The more consolidated their internal politics, they more they resembled miniature sovereign states. (176)

III. "institutional learning"

The advantages outlined above were no secret. Thus the Hansa "tried to copy institutional forms that were more successful," including a plan for a tighter association with a government modeled on the Dutch Republic. "[But] the idea failed because of the towns disparate interests. In short, the Hansa could not be transformed into a territorial states with a sovereign." As it was, towns defected from the league, preferring to join local principalities already acting as minor sovereign states. And the larger cities tended to strike out on their own upon the city-state model.

Because they already looked something like sovereign states, the city-states were not forced to adapt immediately to the new conditions. Over the next several hundred years, they slowly evolved into sovereign states � helped along by centralizing reforms like those imposed in Italy by the Napoleonic occupation. (177)

In fine, "over time some...institutional choices proved to be better than others, and the lesser ones were structurally weeded out by competition and the process of mutual empowerment", while ay the same time "political entrepreneurs [in the weaker alternatives] copied the more successful institutional logic". Thus "the evolution of the state and the development of a state systems were mutually reinforcing processes." (179)

IV. A remark

This is a nice argument, but the chapter assigned sheds no light on the essential question: why did sovereign states get started in the first place? If structural pressures got the ball rolling, then the specific process of development is of primarily historical interest. But if the idea of the sovereign state inspired a fundamental reordering of political preferences, it seems possible that the decline of this idea may permit a similar process of systemic change in the future. Spruyt appears to lean in this direction, but it is not clear from this chapter alone assignment.