The Sovereign State and Its Competitors

Robin Hanson (
Mon, 24 Mar 1997 14:10:07 -0800 (PST)

I recently bought this book:

The Sovereign State and Its Competitors, by Hendrik Spruyt, 1994.

The abstract on the book says:

The present international system, composed for the most part of
sovereign, territorial states, is often viewed as the inevitable
outcome of historical development. Hendrick Spruyt argues that there
was nothing inevitable about the rise of the state system. Examining
the competing institutions that arose during the decline of feudalism
- among them urban leagues, independent communities, city states, and
sovereign monarchies - Spruyt disposes of the familiar claim that the
superior size and war-making ability of the sovereign nation-state
made it the matural successor to the feudal system.

This book recounts this history of how the city states of Italy and the
Hanseatic League of german cities lost their compeition with
neighboring sovereign states. This history is of course uniquely
relevant to the viability of decentralized political visions such as

I can't say this is a great book, just the first I've read on the
topic. Contrary to the encouraging abstract above, the book does
conclude that centralized states had these fundamental advantages:

1. Sovereigns were better able to encourage trade by overcoming local
political resistance to standardizing measures, taxes, and laws.
2. Leagues of cities had trouble committing their members to courses
of action. Defecting cities were hard to detect and to punish
regarding tolls, piracy, fraud, contributions to military campaigns, and
individual negotiations with foreign powers.

If this is a reasonable summary of this history, it suggests that
free-riding and coordination problems could doom decentralized
political systems. It seems important for fans of such systems to
take a closer look at this history.

Robin D. Hanson