The Market for Sovereign Territory
posted by Joseph Blocher
I’m thrilled to be back at Co-Op, and I look forward to blogging about a few rough ideas that seem to be shaping up as summer research projects. The first of them starts with a story.
Once upon a time, sovereigns bought and sold themselves to one another. Specifically, they purchased sovereign territory. The United States, to take the easiest example, looks the way it does not just because of military conquest, but because of bold real estate deals, including most notably the Adams-Onis Treaty, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Alaska Purchase. Occasionally such sales were tied up with military action, as with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, transferred the Mexican Cession, and committed the United States to pay Mexico $15 million “[i]n consideration of the extension acquired.”
Even within the United States, sales of sovereign territory were not unheard of at the time of the Founding. The Constitution’s Enclave Clause specifically refers to the federal government’s power to “purchase” and essentially govern “Places” within states. And the states themselves often altered their borders, sometimes for economic reasons. In 1784, for example, North Carolina ceded 29,000,000 acres to the federal government to help pay back the nation’s Revolutionary War debt–a generous but ill-fated gesture that led to the short, unhappy, and largely forgotten life of the State of Franklin.
Somewhere along the way, the market for sovereign territory seems to have dried up, at least as far as I can tell. To be sure, there is still an active market for proprietary interests in public land; the federal government, after all, owns approximately 30% of the nation’s land. But borders–sovereign territory, rather than property–do not seem to be for sale, especially domestically. Why?
One possible explanation is that there’s simply no demand, but that doesn’t seem quite right. It’s not hard to imagine situations in which some state-to-state Coasean bargaining might create mutual gains. California could shore up its budget by selling land to Oregon. Some of the dozens of major interstate metropolitan areas straddling state borders could be consolidated. Or when Martha’s Vineyard voted to secede from Massachusetts in the 1970s (yes, really), and Kansas expressed interest in acquiring it (yep), a deal might’ve been struck that would’ve left the Bay State richer and Kansas with … well, a bay.
I can think of at least three sets of reasons why such sales don’t happen, at least at the domestic level. (Things are more complicated internationally, and in fact some politicians have suggested – how seriously, I’m not quite sure – that Greece sell islands to settle help its debts.) First, the Constitution constrains the market for sovereign territory by prohibiting states from entering into “treaties,” requiring congressional approval for any “Agreement or Compact” among them, and generally discouraging state action that violates background principles of federalism or individual rights. Second, inter-state sales of sovereign territory might raise serious political concerns: the self-determination rights of the people in the territory being sold, the potential for corruption, and so on. Third, sovereign territory might simply be market inalienable–even assuming that they “own” it, perhaps states cannot sell their land any more than citizens can sell their votes.
I’ll try to address these over the next few days. What else am I missing? Any suggestions as to what I should be reading?