The Odysseus Problem
Moldbug’s insistence that ‘Sovereignty is conserved’ surely counts as one of the most significant assertions in the history of political thought. It is arguably the fundamental axiom of his ‘system’, and its implications are almost inestimably profound.
Sovereignty is conserved says that anything that appears to bind sovereignty is itself in reality true sovereignty, binding something else, and something less. It is therefore a negative answer to the Odysseus Problem: Can Sovereignty bind itself? If Moldbug’s assertion is accepted, constitutional government is impossible, except as a futile aspiration, a ‘noble lie’, or a cynical joke.
In addition to Moldbug’s powerful arguments, we know from the work of Kurt Gödel that the Odysseus Problem is at least partially insoluble, since it is logically impossible for there to be a perfect knot. However well constructed a constitution might be, it cannot, in principle, seal itself reliably against the possibility of a surreptitious undoing. In a sufficiently complex (self-referential) constitutional order, there will always be permissible procedures whose consequences have not been completely anticipated, and whose consistency with the continuation of the system cannot be ensured in advance.
Yet it would be obviously misleading to assume that such concerns were not already active during the formulation of the American Constitution. It is precisely because some quite lucid comprehension of the Odysseus Problem was at work, that the founders envisaged the grounding principle of republican constitutionalism as a division of powers, whereby the component units of a disintegrated sovereignty bound each other. The animating system of incentives was not to rest upon a naive expectation of altruism or voluntary restraint, but upon a systematically integrated network of suspicion, formally installing the anti-monarchical impulse as an enduring, distributed function. If the republic was to work, it would be because the fear of power in other hands permanently over-rode the greed for power in one’s own.
The American Constitution was, of course, destroyed, in successive waves. After Lincoln, and FDR, only a pitiful and derided shell remains. USG has unified itself, and the principle of sovereign power has been thoroughly re-legitimated in the court of popular opinion. Democracy rose as the republic fell, exposing yet again the essential political bond of the tyrant with the mob, Leviathan with the people.
Does this ruin refute the constitutional conjecture? Is there really nothing further to be said in defense of imperfect (but perhaps improvable) knots? This one came horribly undone. Might there be other, better ones? Outside in remains obstinately interested in the problem …
ADDED: Many relevant speculations and insights are to be found in this article on the practicalities of secession (especially section XI J, XII, XIII, and XIV). “Since it is important that the AFR [or proposed American Federal Republic] function as a constitutional republic, one of the first things it should do is to hold a constitutional convention. We anticipate that the resulting document will be similar to the present American constitution, but not identical.” It includes some (very modest) recommendations to curtail democracy.