19

This is more of a thought experiment, but can a government choose to list itself on the market and be bought? For example, if I somehow make a deal with a country's government, can I assume their sovereignty, have their seat on the UN, and make use of their military, economy, resources, lands, ...? Or similarly, they could still diplomatically retain their position (other countries will still acknowledge the incumbent government as legitimate) when I am the actual person who makes all the decisions.

There is no precedent on this, nor there are any specific provisions for this in any constitution, but I just want to know the most "technically" answer possible.

11
  • 2
    @user253751 the weird thing is that regardless of who owns the land, it's still part of a particular country, and subject to the laws and sovereignty of that country. You can sell your land to any individual but you can't say it's no longer part of the USA. On the other hand, the USA itself can so declare, and it does with regard to embassies, I think? – Ross Presser Mar 5 at 15:07
  • 12
    Yes, but you cannot afford it. – thedudehimself Mar 5 at 19:35
  • 4
    To a lesser degree, more or less, aren't governments kind of bought anyway? I mean indirectly. – adamaero Mar 5 at 21:29
  • 2
    Perhaps not directly on point, but 19 years ago VeriSign bought .tv from Tuvalu for 45 million. – Elliott Frisch Mar 6 at 2:29
  • 1
    Don't we call this bribery? – Joshua Mar 7 at 17:10
14

The closest historical precedent is that the Congo Free State, more or less coterminous with the contemporary country with the same name, which was the personal property of Leopold II of Belgium, as recognized by the General Act of the Berlin Conference, was sold to Belgium in 1908, whereupon it became a colony of Belgium, then later an independent nation.

5
  • 6
    "country with the same name" is possibly not the clearest description when there are two countries today called "the X of the Congo". Probably better to clarify that this is specifically the republic of the Congo, and not the democratic republic of the Congo – Tristan Mar 5 at 10:16
  • 3
    @Tristan: I think you have a typo -- the Congo Free State's territory was that of today's Democratic Republic of the Congo, not that of today's Republic of the Congo. – ruakh Mar 6 at 0:21
  • 2
    @ruakh is right. The point still stands: "country with the same name" is ambiguous. – Francis Davey Mar 6 at 0:58
  • I was about to post this as a short answer and found you'd beaten me by a day :-) – Russell McMahon Mar 6 at 9:55
  • @ruakh you're quite right. Either way, the current wording is ambiguous – Tristan Mar 9 at 10:28
13

What is a country and who that country’s government is is a matter of international consensus

For example, China is a country recognised by most of the countries in the world. For most of them, the government is the CCP and the capital is Beijing, for a small number, the government is the KMT based in Taipei.

Myanmar is recognised by most nations. Right now it is under the control of its military but most nations would not recognise them as the legitimate government.

Domestic law

In most countries today, the current legal system would not permit what you suggest. For example, in the UK, the government is Parliament under the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty. However, at some point in the past, the government was the King and, in theory, he could have sold his position.

It has happened in the past although things are usually a bit more complicated than “Here’s some gold, now I’m the King”.

6
  • 1
    Following Myanmar: nations don't recognize the military junta as the legitimate government and believe they do not have the right to rule. What I am curious about though: there is a difference between the right to rule a country, and the right to own a country. Ruling simply implies having authority over stately matters, but having authority over is not necessarily owning it. I am wondering can other nations recognized a private individual's ownership over a country, not just recognizing a government ruling over a country. – RobertPham Mar 4 at 21:01
  • 4
    @RobertPham I don't think there is any meaningful definition of "owning" a country. Ownership generally means things like rights to exclusive use of land or assets, right to profit from exploitation of a resource, etc. It's certainly possible for a ruler to declare any number of assets and resources as "state owned" or even re-allocate private ownership to themselves personally. If they did that with all the resources, would that meet your definition of "owning the country"? – IMSoP Mar 5 at 12:18
  • 2
    @RobertPham IMSoP is correct: ownership and sovereignty are distinct. Someone who owns a parcel of land in any country does not exercise sovereignty over that land, and buying up all of the real property in a country, were that possible, would not confer sovereignty over the country. Sovereignty is different from ownership, even though it could be sold (and has been in the past). As to other nations recognizing an individual's ownership of a country, part of recognizing a country's sovereignty is recognizing that country's power to regulate ownership of its territory. – phoog Mar 5 at 14:28
  • @IMSoP Yes, that would seem to be close to what I am thinking about. The closest example I would say currently is the Holy See in the Vatican (not the Pope, but the Holy See), but the Holy See has the advantage of being really old and people just come to recognize it as a sovereign entity, and there is no similar example, but where the sovereign entity bought its position from an already existing sovereign entity. – RobertPham Mar 5 at 18:45
  • 1
    "For most of them, the government is the CCP" While the CCP is effectively the government, there is a distinction between the two of them. – Acccumulation Mar 5 at 23:03
10

Wow, quite the question. Let's break it down into two parts: international law and domestic law.

International law. Well, there's plenty of autocratic governments that have seats in the UN and are recognized under international law, so I don't think there's an issue here.

Domestic law. Here's the much bigger issue. You'd have to examine the foundation upon which each state's government's authority rests (in the US, this is the Constitution) to see whether this is possible. It's certainly not in the United States. I think the only places this would be possible would be those states where the government in power's authority really is founded wholly on a takeover by force. The more unfettered power a leader has over a geographic territory, the more possible this becomes. To take an extreme example, if you own an island in the middle of the ocean, and you are solely in charge of it, and anyone who comes to live there has to assent to your complete rule, then...why couldn't you sell control of it? Now, where do you find recognized state's even marginally analogous to this in the real world? You look for states with brutal dictators, essentially.

NOTE: there are definitely some who think even the US gov is bought and paid for by corporate interest. That's a whole other discussion...

1
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Pat W. Mar 6 at 20:25
5

There are various ways to look at this, but they all boil down to "technically, yes":

From a domestic law point of view, the country's Constitution, written or unwritten, will likely have definitions of how power is transferred. That might be "elected by universal suffrage", or "whoever inherits the Crown has absolute power", or it might include multiple bodies holding each other in check. However, Constitutions can always be changed, either within their own terms (e.g. passing an Amendment in the USA) or simply by force (pieces of paper don't protect well against tanks). So, first you declare absolute rule, then you sell that absolute rule to the highest bidder.

From an international law point of view, things are actually pretty similar. There may be Treaties that you would have to break somewhere along this process, but just like the Constitution you just ripped up, they're only as strong as anyone willing to enforce them. If the country was a member of the EU, for instance, it would certainly be kicked out for violating the relevant treaties; but that wouldn't stop it being a country.

This leads on to the subtler question of international recognition. Other governments, and international bodies like the UN, might declare your rule "illegitimate", and might even go so far as to recognise some opposition organisation as the "real" government. They might impose sanctions of one sort or another which would be inconvenient; they're quite unlikely to actually invade. In practice, there are plenty of "illegitimate" governments which so clearly are in control of countries that the international community has no choice but to deal with them as such. It took twenty years, but the UN eventually reassigned China's seat to those with de facto power.

Which brings us, finally, to the internal reality of the country. If you have absolute power, you can declare that every piece of land, every factory, everything in the country, is now your personal property. If you already control the military, the government, and the judiciary, there's nobody left to dispute that claim. The reality on the ground will be that you can control and exploit those assets at will, unless and until someone challenges your rule. Whether you acquired that absolute power by birth, violence, or buying it from someone else, makes no difference that I can see.

1
  • I would add vote to the list of means of acquisition that don’t effect whether you have absolute power. – jmoreno Mar 7 at 0:16
2

You can buy a government (assuming it wants to sell) but there is no guarantee of international recognition of such a deal.

Ultimately, the government of a country controls the domestic law. There is no much point to speculate whether domestic law will approve such a sale as those who would sell will have all the powers to change it anyway (otherwise they're not the government).

So, if a group of people fully in charge of a country really want to quit with heaps of cash, they will take the deal, change the law if needed, and fly away.

Note that there would be no way to enforce such a contract if the government you are buying takes the money and refuses to go — unless you have an army capable to compel them.

Regarding international recognition, again, the UN may just reject to honour such a transition of power and deem that the people of the country are the real current government, not those big bucks guys who think they've made an acquisition.

9
  • The UN does not control the recognition of countries. – phoog Mar 5 at 14:33
  • @phoog The UN can condemn coups, so it could do so any other transitions of power that it does not see appropriate. – Greendrake Mar 5 at 14:41
  • Sure, but the UN condemning a coup (or any other transition of power) does not prevent any country from recognizing the perpetrators of the coup (or other recipients of power) as legitimate rulers. – phoog Mar 5 at 15:25
  • 1
    @phoog: There have been plenty of occasions on which two rival organizations both claim to be the rulers, most notably the Taiwan situation. – Charles Staats Mar 5 at 17:19
  • 2
    @user253751 did the US government legitimately obtain its control over its North American territory? Did the French Republic legitimately obtain sovereignty from Louis XIV? The point is that history is written by the victors, and "legitimacy" is often determined by force. The competing claims that arise in such situations usually cannot be judged in terms of truth or falsity. – phoog Mar 5 at 21:20
2

I believe there is a historical example (in the context of long history between the parties, not by an open auction): The Equivalent, a sum of 398,085 pounds sterling paid to Scotland by England to grease the Acts of Union 1707, which in fact melted the sovereignty of Scotland into the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It mostly went to pay off investors in the Darien Scheme, which had wrecked the Scottish economy in the decades before the Act of Union. The 1791 poem by Scottish poet Robert Burns concludes "We were bought and sold for English gold, such a parcel of rogues in a nation!"

3
  • An interesting point but not quite the extent I think the OP wanted. Besides creating the new Parliament there wasn't that much Scotland was giving up besides trade and free movement policies, and England was giving that up as well. The rest of the Act is mostly intended to cement the kingdoms under the current dynasty. Scotland kept its independent legal system and, since the Scottish government was weak anyway, most temporal power was still under local control until 1745. – gormadoc Mar 6 at 3:11
  • @gormadoc but this also points to a very clear answer: where the government is a monarchy, that monarchy can likely be sold. – fectin Mar 6 at 18:21
  • @fectin the monarchy was not sold; both kingdoms were already under one crown. – gormadoc Mar 7 at 1:51

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.