The Problem of Political Authority   —   Part I: The Illusion of Authority

1. The Problem of Political Authority

  1. A political parable
  2. The concept of authority:
    a first pass
  3. Actions versus agents:
    the need for authority
  4. The significance of coercion
    and the reach of authority
  5. The concept of authority:
    a second pass
  6. A comment on methodology
  7. Plan of the book

1.1 A political parable

Let us begin with a short political story. You live in a small village with a crime problem. Vandals roam the village, stealing and destroying people’s property. No one seems to be doing anything about it. So one day, you and your family decide to put a stop to it. You take your guns and go looking for vandals. Periodically, you catch one, take him back to your house at gunpoint, and lock him in the basement. You provide the prisoners with food so they don’t starve, but you plan to keep them locked in the basement for a few years to teach them a lesson.

After operating in this way for a few weeks, you decide to make the rounds of the neighborhood, starting with your next door neighbor. As he answers the door, you ask, ‘Have you noticed the reduction in crime in the last few weeks?’ He nods. ‘Well, that is thanks to me.’ You explain your anticrime program. Noting the wary look on your neighbor’s face, you continue. ‘Anyway, I’m here because it’s time to collect your contribution to the crime prevention fund. Your bill for the month is $100.’

As your neighbor stares at you, making no apparent move to hand over the money, you patiently explain that, should he refuse to make the required payment, you will unfortunately have to label him a criminal, at which point he will be subject to long-term confinement in your basement, along with the aforementioned vandals. Indicating the pistol at your hip, you note that you are prepared to take him by force if necessary.

Supposing you take this tack with all of your neighbors, what sort of reception could you expect? Would most cheerfully give over their assigned share of the costs of crime prevention?

Not likely. In all probability, you would observe the following. First, almost none would agree that they owe you anything. While some might pay up for fear of imprisonment in your basement and a few might pay up out of hostility toward the vandals, almost none would consider themselves duty bound to do so. Those who refused to pay would more likely be praised than condemned for standing up to you.

Second, most would consider your actions outrageous. Your demands for payment would be condemned as naked extortion, and your confinement of those who refused to pay as kidnapping. The very outrageousness of your conduct, combined with your deluded presumption that the rest of the village would recognize an obligation to support you, would cause many to question your sanity.

What does this story have to do with political philosophy? In the story, you behaved like a rudimentary government. Though you did not take on all the functions of a typical, modern state, you assumed two of its most central roles: you punished people who violated others’ rights or disobeyed your commands, and you collected nonvoluntary contributions to finance your activities. In the case of the government, these activities are referred to as the criminal justice system and the tax system. In your case, they are referred to as kidnapping and extortion.

On the face of it, your activities are of the same kind as those of a government. Yet most people’s evaluations of the government are far more lenient than their evaluations of you in the story. Most people support the state’s imprisonment of criminals, feel obligated to pay their taxes, and consider punishment of tax evaders both desirable and within the rights of the state.

This illustrates a general feature of our attitudes toward government. Governments are considered ethically permitted to do things that no nongovernmental person or organization may do. At the same time, individuals are thought to have obligations to their governments that they would owe toward no nongovernmental person or organization, even if nongovernmental agents behaved similarly to a government. This is not simply a point about the law, nor is it about what sorts of actions one can get away with. The point is that our ethical judgments differentiate sharply between governmental and nongovernmental actions. Acts that would be considered unjust or morally unacceptable when performed by nongovernmental agents will often be considered perfectly all right, even praiseworthy, when performed by government agents. Hereafter, I shall use ‘obligation’ to refer to ethical obligations rather than mere legal obligations; similarly for ‘rights’.[1]

Why do we accord this special moral status to government, and are we justified in so doing? This is the problem of political authority.

1.2 The concept of authority: a first pass

What is it in ordinary moral thinking that differentiates your actions in the above story from the actions of a government? Broadly speaking, two sorts of explanations could be given. One type of explanation is that, despite appearances, the two behaviors are different, that the government is not really doing the same thing as the vigilante. For instance, suppose one thought the crucial difference was that the vigilante (you in the story) does not give the vandals fair jury trials, as the government (in some countries) does to those it seeks to punish. That could explain why the vigilante’s behavior is less legitimate than that of the government.

The other type of explanation is that the two agents are different.[2] That is, the government may be doing the same things as the vigilante, but who is doing it makes all the difference. You are to be condemned in the story, not because you are not faithfully imitating the government, but because you are acting like a government, though you’re not the government.

It is this second type of explanation that I characterize as an invocation of political authority. Political authority (hereafter, just ‘authority’) is the hypothesized moral property in virtue of which governments may coerce people in certain ways not permitted to anyone else and in virtue of which citizens must obey governments in situations in which they would not be obligated to obey anyone else. Authority, then, has two aspects:

  1. Political legitimacy: the right, on the part of a government, to make certain sorts of laws and enforce them by coercion against the members of its society – in short, the right to rule.[3]
  2. Political obligation: the obligation on the part of citizens to obey their government, even in circumstances in which one would not be obligated to obey similar commands issued by a nongovernmental agent.

If a government has ‘authority’, then both (i) and (ii) exist: the government has the right to rule, and the citizens have the obligation to obey.

The having of political obligations does not mean merely that one must do the things that the law or other governmental commands require.[4] For example, the law prohibits murder, and we have a moral duty not to murder. But this does not suffice to establish that we have ‘political obligations’, because we would be morally obligated not to murder even if there were no law against it. But there are other cases in which, according to popular opinion, we are obligated to do things precisely because the law commands them, and we would not be obligated to do those things if they were not legally required. For instance, most believe that we are obligated to pay taxes on our income in countries that legally require this and that we are obligated to pay the specific amount required by the tax code. Those who think taxes are too high do not feel entitled to evade a portion of their taxes. Those who think taxes are too low do not feel obligated to send extra money to the government. And if the law changed so that income tax was not legally required, then one would no longer be obliged to pay the government this portion of one’s income. So, in the popular mind, the obligation to pay income tax is a political obligation.[5]

Those who believe in political authority need not hold that political authority is unconditional or absolute, nor need they hold that all governments have it. One could hold, for instance, that the state’s authority is contingent on its respecting basic human rights and allowing citizens a certain level of political participation; thus, tyrannical governments lack authority. One might also hold that even a legitimate government may not command a person, for example, to commit murder, nor would a citizen be obligated to obey such a command. A believer in authority may thus believe only that certain governments have a certain limited sphere of authority.

Despite these limitations, the authority ascribed to some governments is an impressive moral property. As we saw in Section 1.1, this authority would explain an entitlement to perform actions of kinds that would be considered very wrong and unjust for any nonauthoritative agent.

1.3 Actions versus agents: the need for authority

Does one need this notion of authority to explain the moral difference between the vigilante in Section 1.1 and the government? Or can one explain the difference by appealing only to differences between the government’s behavior and the vigilante’s behavior?

In the story as I described it, there were many differences between the vigilante’s behavior and that of a typical government; however, none of these differences are essential. One can modify the example so as to remove any difference that might be thought relevant, and provided one does not convert the vigilante into a government, most people will still intuitively judge the vigilante much more harshly than government agents who act analogously.

Thus, consider the fact that many governments provide fair jury trials for accused criminals. The vigilante could do the same. Suppose that every time you catch a vandal, you round up a few of your neighbors and force them to sit through a trial. After the presentation of evidence, you make your neighbors vote on the guilt or innocence of the accused vandal, and you use the outcome to decide whether to punish the accused. Would this render your actions acceptable? Perhaps your treatment of the vandals would be more fair, but it hardly seems to legitimate your program as a whole. In fact, you have now added another offense to the list of your outrageous actions: your temporary enslavement of your neighbors to serve your ‘justice system’.

Consider another suggestion. Government agents generally arrest people only for infractions of explicitly published rules – the laws – whereas the vigilante punishes people only according to his internal sense of right and wrong. This difference, too, can be removed. Suppose that you write down a long list of behaviors that you consider unacceptable, along with accounts of what you plan to do to people who engage in those behaviors. You post copies of your lists on a bulletin board outside your house. Again, this hardly suffices to legitimate your behavior.

A more initially plausible suggestion is that your behavior is impermissible because the community did not choose you to play that role. In contrast, in democratic countries, the citizens choose their leaders. (This account implies that only democratic governments are legitimate; so the great majority of the governments throughout history have been illegitimate, and the great majority of people have lacked political obligations. This is probably already a significant revision to common sense.) But notice that this account of the difference between the government and the vigilante is an appeal to authority. It does not claim that the vigilante is doing something different from what the government does; it claims that the actions in question may be performed by one agent and not another. The vigilante lacks the authority to punish criminals and collect taxes because he has not been authorized by his society. I examine this theory of authority in a later chapter. For now, the point to observe is simply that some account of authority is needed.

1.4 The significance of coercion and the reach of authority

The need for an account of political legitimacy arises from the moral significance of coercion and from the coercive nature of government. It is important to bring these principles clearly into focus so as to have a clear view of what needs explaining before trying to explain it.

First, what is coercion? Hereinafter, I use the term ‘coercion’ to denote a person’s use of or threat to use physical force against another person. When I speak of coercing a person to do something, I shall mean using physical force or the threat of physical force to induce that person to perform the desired action. I use ‘physical force’ and ‘violence’ interchangeably. I shall not define ‘physical force’ here; our intuitive understanding of the notion will suffice for the subsequent arguments, and I shall not rely on any controversial judgments about what qualifies as physical force.

My definition of ‘coercion’ is not intended as an analysis of the term’s standard use in English. It is a stipulative definition, intended to avoid repetition of the phrase ‘use of or threat to use physical force’. My use of the term differs from the ordinary usage in at least two ways: first, in the ordinary sense of the term, when A ‘coerces’ B, A induces B to behave in some way desired by A; but in my sense, A might coerce B by physically injuring B, whether or not A influences B’s behavior. Second, the ordinary sense counts a broader range of threats as coercive: in the ordinary sense, A might ‘coerce’ B using a threat to spread malicious rumors about B. This would not qualify as coercion in my sense, because the threat is not one of violence. The ordinary concept of coercion is useful in many contexts; nevertheless, I have introduced a stipulative definition because doing so enables consideration of some important and interesting arguments regarding political authority while avoiding unnecessary semantic debates.[6]

Government is a coercive institution. Generally speaking, when the state makes a law, the law carries with it a punishment to be imposed upon violators. It is possible to have a law with no specified punishment for violation, but all actual governments attach punishments to nearly all laws.[7] Not everyone who breaks the law will in fact be punished, but the state will generally make a reasonable effort at punishing violators and will generally punish a fair number of them, typically with fines or imprisonment. These punishments are intended to harm lawbreakers, and they generally succeed in doing so.

Direct physical violence is rarely used as a punishment. Nevertheless, violence plays a crucial role in the system, because without the threat of violence, lawbreakers could simply choose not to suffer punishment. For example, the government commands that drivers stop before all red lights. If you violate this rule, you might be punished with a $200 fine. But this is simply another command. If you didn’t obey the command to stop before all red lights, why would you obey the command to pay $200 to the government? Perhaps the second command will be enforced by a third command: the government may threaten to revoke your driver’s license if you do not pay the fine. In other words, it may command you to stop driving. But if you violated the first two commands, why would you follow the third? Well, the command to stop driving may be enforced by a threat of imprisonment if you continue to drive without a license. As these examples illustrate, commands are often enforced with threats to issue further commands, yet that cannot be all there is to it. At the end of the chain must come a threat that the violator literally cannot defy. The system as a whole must be anchored by a nonvoluntary intervention, a harm that the state can impose regardless of the individual’s choices.

That anchor is provided by physical force. Even the threat of imprisonment requires enforcement: how can the state ensure that the criminal goes to the prison? The answer lies in coercion, involving actual or threatened bodily injury or, at a minimum, physical pushing or pulling of the individual’s body to the location of imprisonment. This is the final intervention that the individual cannot choose to defy. One can choose not to pay a fine, one can choose to drive without a license, and one can even choose not to walk to a police car to be taken away. But one cannot choose not to be subjected to physical force if the agents of the state decide to impose it.

Thus, the legal system is founded on intentional, harmful coercion. To justify a law, one must justify imposition of that law on the population through a threat of harm, including the coercive imposition of actual harm on those who are caught violating the law. In common sense morality, the threat or actual coercive imposition of harm is normally wrong. This is not to say that it cannot be justified; it is only to say that coercion requires a justification. This may be because of the way in which coercion disrespects persons, seeking to bypass their reason and manipulate them through fear, or the way in which it seems to deny the autonomy and equality of other persons.

I shall not attempt any comprehensive account of when coercion is justified. I rely on the intuitive judgment that harmful coercion requires a justification, as well as on some intuitions about particular conditions that do or do not constitute satisfactory justifications. For instance, one legitimate justification is self-defense or defense of innocent third parties: one may harmfully coerce another person if doing so is necessary to prevent that person from wrongfully harming someone else. Another justification for harmful coercion is consent. Thus, if you are in a boxing match to which both participants have agreed, then you may punch your opponent in the face.

On the other hand, many possible reasons for coercion are clearly inadequate. If you have a friend who eats too many potato chips, you may try to convince him to give them up. But if he won’t listen, you may not force him to stop. If you admire your neighbor’s car, you may offer to buy it from him. But if he won’t sell, you may not threaten him with violence. If you disagree with your coworker’s religious beliefs, you may try to convert him. But if he won’t listen, you may not punch him in the nose. And so on. In common sense ethics, the overwhelming majority of reasons for coercion fail as justifications.

Modern states stand in need of an account of political legitimacy because modern states commonly coerce and harm individuals for reasons that would be viewed as inadequate for any nongovernmental agent. This can be illustrated by some embellishments on the story of Section 1.1.

Suppose you announce that you believe a neighboring town is building some very destructive weapons, weapons they might one day use to terrorize other villages. To prevent this from happening, you round up a few like-minded villagers and travel to the neighboring town, where you violently depose the mayor, blowing up some buildings and predictably killing several innocent people in the process.

If you behaved in this way, you would be labeled a terrorist and murderer, and calls for your execution or life imprisonment would likely abound. But when the government behaves in this way, its behavior is labeled ‘war’, and many support it. To be sure, there are many who reject the idea of preemptive war. But only political extremists describe soldiers or the government leaders who send them into battle as terrorists and murderers. Even among opponents of the 2003 Iraq war, for example, few went so far as to call George W. Bush a mass murderer or call for his execution or imprisonment. The notion of political authority is at work here: the feeling is that, whether its choice is good or bad, the government is the agent with the authority to decide whether to go to war. No other agent has the right to commit large-scale violence to achieve its ends in anything like these circumstances.

Suppose now that, amidst all your other unusual activities, you decide to start supporting charity. You find a charity that helps the poor. Unfortunately, you believe your village has not contributed enough to this charity voluntarily, so you take to forcibly extracting money from your neighbors and handing it over to the charity.

If you behaved in this way, you would be labeled a thief and extortionist, and calls to imprison you and compel you to personally repay those whose wealth you expropriated would be commonplace. But when the government behaves in this way, its behavior is known as conducting social welfare programs, and most people support it. To be sure, there are some who oppose social welfare programs, but even opponents rarely view the government agents administering the programs or the legislators who vote for the programs as thieves and extortionists. Very few would call for their imprisonment or their being forced to personally repay taxpayers. Again, the notion of authority is at work: we think that the government has the authority to redistribute wealth; nongovernmental organizations do not.

This should give some indication of the range of governmental activities whose justification relies on the notion of political authority. In Chapter 7 I will discuss further how far this range extends. But even from this brief discussion, it should be clear that, without a belief in authority, we would have to condemn a great deal of what we now accept as legitimate.

1.5 The concept of authority: a second pass

In this section, I refine the notions of ‘political authority’, ‘political legitimacy’, and ‘political obligation’. The following five principles are implicit in the ordinary conception of the authority of government; this is what defenders of authority would like to defend:

  1. Generality. The state’s authority applies to citizens generally. That is, the state is entitled to coercively impose rules on at least the great majority of its citizens, and the great majority of citizens have political obligations.[8]
  2. Particularity. The state’s authority is specific to its citizens and residents in its territory. That is, a government is entitled to impose rules on those in its territory in a way in which it is generally not entitled to impose rules on those in foreign countries, and citizens have obligations to their own states of a sort that they do not bear to other states.[9]
  3. Content-Independence. The state’s authority is not tied to the specific content of its laws or other commands.[10] That is, there is a broad range of possible laws such that within that range, the state is entitled to coercively impose whichever laws it chooses, and citizens will be obligated to obey them. The range of acceptable laws need not be unlimited – perhaps the state is not entitled to make or enforce certain kinds of grossly unjust laws, such as laws enforcing slavery. But the state is at least frequently entitled to enforce laws even if the laws are bad or wrong, and citizens are obliged to obey.
  4. Comprehensiveness. The state is entitled to regulate a broad range of human activities, and individuals must obey the state’s directives within that broad sphere.[11] This range need not be unlimited; for instance, perhaps the state may not regulate citizens’ private religious practices. But modern states typically regulate and are taken to be entitled to regulate such matters as the terms of employment contracts, the trading of financial securities, medical procedures, food preparation procedures in restaurants, individual drug use, individual weapon possession, movement into and out of the country, the flying of airplanes, trade with foreign countries, and so on.
  5. Supremacy. Within the sphere of action that the state is entitled to regulate, the state is the highest human authority.[12] No nongovernmental agent may command the state, nor has any such agent the same right to command individuals that the state has.

In advancing conditions (1)–(5), I seek to faithfully characterize the ordinary, common sense conception of political authority. A satisfying account of authority should accommodate and explain these five principles. If no plausible theory comes close to accommodating principles (1)–(5), one should conclude that no state truly has authority.

These five principles are vague, employing as they do such concepts as that of a ‘broad range’ and a ‘great majority’. I shall not attempt to make the notion of political authority precise in these respects. The concept will be clear enough for purposes of evaluating the arguments in the remainder of the book. It is also vague how closely a theory must accommodate these principles. Again, I shall not attempt to make this precise. We should simply take note that if a theory falls very far from accommodating the intuitive conception of authority, then at some point it ceases to be a defense of authority.

A few words about what defenders of authority are not committed to: The idea of political obligation does not entail that the government’s commanding something is by itself sufficient for one’s having an obligation to do that thing. Those who believe in authority may hold that there are further conditions for the government’s commands to be binding; for instance, that the laws should have been made in accordance with fair and democratic processes, that the present government should not have usurped an earlier, legitimate government, and so on. They may likewise hold that there are limits to the government’s authority; for instance, that the laws may not be grossly unjust, that they may not invade certain protected spheres of privacy, and so on. So the idea that one must perform an action ‘because the law requires it’ may really mean, roughly, that one must perform an action because the law requires it, the law was made in an appropriate way by a legitimate government, the law is not grossly unjust, and the law is within the sphere of things the government may legitimately regulate.

To illustrate the above principles, consider the case of taxation. According to popular opinion, the state may impose taxes on any and all residents in its territory, and residents are generally obligated to pay the imposed taxes (the Generality condition). The state is not entitled to tax people in foreign countries, nor need foreigners pay if the state attempts to do so (Particularity).[13] The state is generally entitled to determine what activities in its territory shall be taxed and how much, and residents are obligated to pay that amount, even if the tax is unreasonably high or low (Content-Independence). No nongovernmental person or organization is entitled either to tax the state or to tax individuals (Supremacy). Thus, if popular views are correct, the case of taxation illustrates the government’s political authority.

1.6 A comment on methodology

The first part of this book is an exercise in the application of moral philosophy to politics. The central concern is the evaluation of our moral attitudes toward government: Are governments really entitled to do the things we usually take them to be entitled to do? Are we really obligated to obey governments in the ways we usually take ourselves to be obligated?

Questions of this kind are notoriously difficult. How should they be approached? One approach would be to start from some comprehensive moral theory – say, utilitarianism or Kantian deontology – and attempt to deduce the appropriate conclusions about political rights and obligations. I, unfortunately, cannot do this. I do not know the correct general moral theory, and I don’t think anyone else does either. The reasons for my skepticism are difficult to communicate, but they derive from reflection on the problems of moral philosophy and on the complex, confusing, and constantly disputed literature about those problems. It is a literature in which one theory after another runs into a morass of puzzles and problems that becomes ever more complicated as more philosophers work on it. I cannot fully communicate the situation here; the best way of appreciating my skepticism about moral theory is for readers to delve into that literature themselves. Here, I shall simply announce that I will not assume any comprehensive moral theory, and I think one should be very skeptical of any attempt to arrive at sound conclusions in political philosophy by starting from such a theory. Nor, for similar reasons, do I start by assuming any general political theory, though I shall arrive at a political theory in the end.

What is the alternative? I shall start from moral claims that are, initially, relatively uncontroversial.[14] This seems an obvious plan. Political philosophy is a difficult and disputed field. One who hopes to make progress cannot begin from a contentious moral theory, still less from a contentious political ideology. One’s premises should be things that, for example, both liberals and conservatives would typically find obvious at first glance. One must then attempt to reason from these premises to conclusions about the contested questions that are of interest. Yet natural as it may seem, this approach is seldom taken up. Political philosophers more commonly argue for a position on some controversial issue by starting from a controversial general theory. For instance, a philosopher might seek to determine whether immigration should be restricted by applying a Rawlsian hypothetical social contract theory to the issue.[15]

Most of the moral premises on which I rely are moral evaluations of particular behaviors in relatively specific scenarios. The story of the vigilante in Section 1.1 is a case in point. It is reasonable to take it as a premise that the individual in that story acts impermissibly. The case is not a dilemma (like, say, the Trolley problem[16]), nor does it involve a moral controversy (like, say, a case of someone performing an abortion). To common sense, the negative evaluation is a straightforward, obvious verdict.[17]

Some philosophers believe that in doing moral philosophy, one should rely only upon abstract ethical principles, refusing to trust intuitive evaluations of specific cases.[18] Others believe, more or less, that only judgments about particular cases should be relied upon.[19] Still others think that no ethical judgments can be relied upon, and that there is no moral knowledge.[20] All of those views strike me as wrong. What seems right is that controversial ethical judgments tend to be unreliable, whereas obvious, uncontroversial ethical judgments – whether specific or general – tend to be reliable. I shall assume that we have some moral knowledge, and that our clearest, most widely shared ethical judgments are instances of such knowledge.[21]

Although my ethical premises will be relatively uncontroversial, my conclusions will not be. On the contrary, the conclusions I reach are so far from most people’s initial opinions that probably no argument could convince most people to accept them. I shall ultimately conclude that political authority is an illusion: no one has the right to rule, and no one is obliged to obey a command merely because it comes from their government. But while this may be counterintuitive to most people, I do not think it reveals any mistake on my part. Bertrand Russell has said, ‘[T]he point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.’[22] I do not believe that this is the point of philosophy, but nor is reasoning from intuitive premises to surprising conclusions necessarily a mark of bad philosophy.

My attitudes toward common sense might seem inconsistent. On the one hand, I consider the most widely shared ethical intuitions reasonable premises on which to rely. On the other hand, I claim that some very widely shared political beliefs are fundamentally mistaken. The claim that there are some legitimate governments is not very controversial; nearly everyone, whether on the left or the right of the political spectrum, takes that for granted. Why, then, do I not accept the existence of legitimate states as a starting premise, just as I accept common sense beliefs about personal ethics?

One reason is that I have never shared other people’s political intuitions, if that is what they are. I share most of the normative intuitions of my society, such as that one must not steal from, kill, or otherwise harm other individuals (except in certain special cases, such as self-defense); that one should generally tell the truth and keep one’s promises; and so on. But it never seemed to me that there were people with the right to rule over others, and it never seemed to me that anyone was obligated to obey a law merely because it was the law.

My intuitions are not entirely idiosyncratic. In contemporary political discourse, there is a vocal minority who advocate drastic reductions in the size of government. Often, they defend their views in practical terms (government programs don’t work) or in terms of absolutist claims about individual rights. But I think these arguments miss the main issue. I believe the true, underlying motivation is a broad skepticism about political authority: at bottom, the advocates of smaller government simply do not see why the government should be permitted to do so many things that no one else would be permitted to do. Even if you do not share this skeptical attitude, I would caution against simply dismissing the intuitions of those with differing ideologies. Human beings are highly fallible in political philosophy, and clashes of intuitions are frequent. Objectivity requires each of us to give serious consideration to the possibility that it is we who have the mistaken intuitions.

Those who begin with an intuition that some states possess authority may be brought to give up that intuition if it turns out, as I aim to show, that the belief in political authority is incompatible with common sense moral beliefs. There are three reasons for preferring to adhere to common sense morality rather than common sense political philosophy: first, as I have suggested, common sense political philosophy is more controversial than common sense morality. Second, even those who accept orthodox political views are usually more strongly convinced of common sense morality than they are of common sense political philosophy. Third, even those who intuitively accept authority may at the same time have the sense that this authority is puzzling – that some explanation is required for why some people should have this special moral status – in a way that it is not puzzling, for example, that it should be wrong to attack others without provocation. The failure to find any satisfactory account of political authority may therefore lead one to give up the belief in authority rather than to give up common sense moral beliefs.

1.7 Plan of the book

The central thesis of the first part of this book is that political authority is a moral illusion. I show this through a critique of the leading philosophical accounts of authority (Chapters 2–5). I follow the discussion of these theories with a discussion of the psychology of our attitudes about authority (Chapters 6), in which I suggest that philosophical accounts of authority are rationalizations for attitudes with nonrational sources, sources in which we should place little trust.

Most people believe that government is incredibly beneficial, that without it society would collapse into an unlivable state of chaos. I would ask the reader to set this belief aside for the time being. The question of the first part of this book is not whether government is good or bad. The question is whether the government has certain special rights that you and I do not have and whether we have certain special duties to the government that we do not have towards anyone else. A government, just like a private vigilante, could be highly beneficial and yet still lack authority in the sense I have defined. Most accounts of authority turn on more than the claim that the authoritative agent provides large benefits. For instance, the social contract theory claims that the citizens of some states have consented to their political system. The existence and validity of this consent can be examined independent of the magnitude of the benefits provided by the state. Of course, one might think that the large benefits provided by the state play a key role in establishing its legitimacy. That topic will be taken up in Chapter 5 and, in more detail, in Part II of the book. I ask the reader to leave that question aside until it is time to address it directly.

Questions about the necessity of the state and about how a society might function without a belief in authority are important. These questions will be taken up in Part II, where I address the practical consequences of abandoning the illusion of political authority. The central thesis of Part II will be that society can function and flourish without a general acceptance of authority.

My political philosophy is a form of anarchism. In my experience, most people appear to be convinced that anarchism is obvious nonsense, an idea that can be refuted within 30 seconds with minimal reflection. This was roughly my attitude before I knew anything about the theory. It is also my experience that those who harbor this attitude have no idea what anarchists actually think – how anarchists think society should function or how they respond to the 30-second objections. Anarchists face a catch-22: most people will not give anarchism a serious hearing because they are convinced that the position is crazy; they are convinced that the position is crazy because they do not understand it; and they do not understand it because they will not give it a serious hearing. I therefore ask the reader not to give up reading this book merely because of its conclusion. The author is neither stupid nor crazy nor evil; he has a reasoned account of how a stateless society might function. Whether or not you ultimately accept the account, it is very likely that you will find it to have been worth considering.

In the philosophical literature in recent years, it has become common to question the reality of political obligations. Skepticism about political obligation is now probably the dominant view. This surprising development is due mostly to the trenchant work of A. John Simmons, who tore down several leading accounts of political obligation in his Moral Principles and Political Obligation. I endorse most of Simmons’s arguments. Some readers will already be familiar with these arguments, but many will not; thus, in succeeding chapters I explain the most important arguments against political obligation, regardless of whether they have appeared in print before. At the same time, I believe contemporary philosophers have not gone far enough. Philosophers working on political obligation have mostly faced up to the inadequacy of extant accounts of political obligation. But they have not yet faced up to the inadequacy of accounts of political legitimacy.[23] And very few philosophers today give serious attention to political anarchism. Typically, arguments about political obligation take for granted that the state is vitally needed; the dominant view has it that even though we need government and even though modern states are justified in most of their typical activities, we still are not obligated to obey the law merely as such. I hope this book will induce a deeper reflection, both on the assumption of political legitimacy and on the assumption of the necessity of the state.


1 Some thinkers distinguish obligations from duties (Hart 1958, 100–4; Brandt 1964). Hereinafter, however, I use ‘obligation’ and ‘duty’ interchangeably to denote any ethical requirement.

2 I leave the distinction between characteristics of the agent and characteristics of the action at an intuitive level. ‘Characteristics of the action’ must be taken somehow to exclude such characteristics as ‘having been performed by an agent of such-and-such type’. Likewise, ‘characteristics of the agent’ must not include such things as ‘being such that he performs actions of such-and-such type’.

3 I use ‘authority’, ‘legitimacy’, and ‘political obligation’ in stipulated, technical senses. My use of ‘authority’ and ‘legitimacy’ roughly follows that of Buchanan (2002), but I do not require that political obligations be owed specifically to the state. The state’s alleged right to rule should be understood as a justification right rather than a claim right (Ladenson 1980, 137–9); that is, it renders it permissible for the state to do certain things rather than imposing some moral demand on other agents. My uses of ‘legitimacy’ and ‘authority’ differ from those of some other theorists (Simmons 2001, 130; Edmundson 1998, chapter 2; Estlund 2008, 2).

4 Political obligation may apply not only to laws but also to other governmental commands, such as administrative edicts and court orders. This point should be understood throughout, though I shall often speak simply of obligation to obey the law.

5 Klosko’s focus group research lends some support to this impression of popular attitudes (2005, chapter 9, especially 198, 212–18).

6 Edmundson (1998, chapter 4) argues that law is typically not coercive in the ordinary sense. My technical usage of ‘coercion’ is designed to avoid Edmundson’s argument while retaining the moral presumption against coercion.

7 There are a few exceptions, such as laws against suicide, some international treaties, and a government’s constitution.

8 This condition is articulated by Simmons (1979, 55–6).

9 Simmons 1979, 31–5.

10 Hart 1958, 104; Raz 1986, 35–7, 76–7; Green 1988, 225–6; Christiano 2008, 250; Rawls 1964, 5.

11 Klosko 2005, 11–12.

12 Green 1988, 1, 78–83.

13 An exception is tariffs, which are considered permissible because the state may set trade rules.

14 In philosophy, almost every claim is disputed by someone, so we cannot rely on entirely uncontroversial premises if we are to reach any interesting conclusions.

15 Carens 1987, 255–62; Blake 2002.

16 See Foot 1967.

17 Herein, I use ‘common sense’ for what the great majority of people are inclined to accept, especially in my society and societies that readers of this book are likely to belong to. This is not to be confused with the technical use of ‘common sense beliefs’ in my earlier work (2001, 18–19).

18 Singer 2005.

19 Dancy 1993, chapter 4.

20 Mackie 1977.

21 See Huemer 2005, especially chapter 5, for an account of moral knowledge and responses to moral skepticism.

22 Russell 1985, 53.

23 Simmons (1979, 196) denies that there are any ‘legitimate’ governments or that any governments have the ‘right’ to coerce or to punish their citizens. However, he seems to use these terms in a stronger sense than mine, because he goes on to accept that governments may be morally justified in their activities (199). This is confirmed by Simmons 2001, 130–1. Hence, Simmons’s apparent agreement with me is only verbal; in my terminology, Simmons accepts political legitimacy, whereas I reject it.

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The Problem of Political Authority

An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey

Michael Huemer




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