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The Problem with Political Authority
An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey
Michael Huemer, Palgrave, Macmillan, New York, 2013

"In overcoming the illusion of political authority,
it is important to see why it might seem to us that there is political authority,
even if in fact no state has ever had genuine authority."

This book addresses the fundamental problem of political philosophy:
the problem of accounting for the authority of government.

Why should 535 people in Washington be entitled to issue commands to 300 million others?

And why should they obey?

There are NO satisfactory answers.

Nearly all political discourse ... presupposes that the government has a special kind of authority to issue commands to the rest of society.

For example, when we argue about the best tax policy, we presuppose that the state has the right to take wealth from individuals.

If, as I hope to convince you, these presuppositions are mistaken, then nearly all of our current political discourse is misguided and must be fundamentally rethought.

The questions addressed herein are relevant to anyone interested in politics and government.

Is this a book of extremist ideology?

Yes and no. I defend some radical conclusions.

But although I am an extremist, I have always striven to be a reasonable one.

I reason on the basis of what seems to me common sense ethical judgments.

I do not assume a controversial, grand philosophical theory, an absolutist interpretation of some particular value, or a set of dubious empirical claims.

This is to say that although my conclusions are highly controversial, my premises are not.

Furthermore, I have striven to address alternative viewpoints fairly and reasonably.

I consider in detail the most interesting and initially plausible attempts to justify governmental authority.

My aim is to persuade those who have kept an open mind regarding the problem of political authority.

Chapters 2 -5 discuss philosophical theories about the basis of stare authority

Chapter 6 discusses psychological and historical evidence regarding our attitudes about authority.

Chapter 7 asks the question, if there is no authority, how ought citizens and government employees behave?

It is here the most immediately practical recommendations appear.

A political parable
Arresting a criminal

This illustrates a general feature of our attitudes toward government.
Governments are considered ethically permitted to do things that no nongovernment person or organization may do.

At the same time individuals are thought to have obligations to their government that they would owe toward no nongovernmental person or organization.

Why do we accord this special moral status to government, and are we justified in so doing?

This is the problem of political authority?

Political 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 government in situations in which they would not be obliged to obey anyone else.

Authority, then, has two aspects.

(i) 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.

(ii) 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.

(Even with) limitations,
the authority ascribed to some governments is an impressive moral property.

Actions versus agents: the need for authority

The need for an account of political legitimacy arises from the moral significance of coercion and from the coercive nature of government.

What is coercion?
'Coercion' denotes a person's use of or threat to use physical force against another person - using physical force or the threat of physical force to induce that person to perform the desire action.

Coercion involves actual or threatened bodily injury or, at a minimum, physical pushing or pulling of the individual's body to the location of imprisonment.

One cannot choose not to be subjected to physical force if the agents of the state decide to impose it.

p.12 The concept of Authority

Five Principles of Authority

1. Generality: The state's authority applies to all citizens generally.
The state is entitled to coercively impose rules on at least the great majority of its citizens, and the great majority of its citizens have political obligations.

2. Particularity: The sate’s authority is specific to its citizens and residents of its territory.

3. Content-independence: The state's authority is not tied to the specific content of its laws or other commands.
The State is entitled to coercively impose whichever laws it chooses, and its citizens will be obligated to obey them.
The state is entitled to enforce laws even if the laws are bad, and the citizens are obliged to obey them.

4. Comprehensiveness: The state is entitled to regulate broad range of activities, and individuals must obey the state's directives.

5. Supremacy: Within the sphere of action that the state is entitled to regulate, the state is the highest human authority.

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.

Are governments really entitled to do the things we usually take them to be entitled to do?

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.

If the social contract means anything, then state must have some obligation to do some things for the citizen.
The courts held that the government owed no duty to protect the citizen.

The gap between procedural acceptability and substantive correctness

Individuals have a preexisting prima facie right not to be subjected to coercion. Deliberation, however fair and reasons, does not by itself eliminate that right ... the deliberative process does not constitute a reason in itself for suspending individuals' prima facie rights.

The fact that a majority or persons favor some rule does not justify imposing that rule by force on those who do not agree to it nor coercively punishing those who disobey the rule.

The obligation to respect others' judgment does not have sufficient force to override individual rights, such as an individual's right to property.

Democratic authorization can account for neither the obligation to obey the law nor the right to impose the law on unwilling persons by force.

One must examine the content of a particular law to determine whether the behavior it enjoins genuinely contributes to the provisions of political goods before one can say whether one has any fairness-based reason to follow the law.

The state has the right, at the most, to coercively impose correct and just policies to prevent very serious harms. (The state will lack even this right if the state is not necessary for the provision of any vital good.)

No one has the right to coercively enforce counterproductive or useless policies nor to enforce policies aimed at goals of lesser import.
The state may not go on to impose paternalistic or moralistic laws, policies motivated by rent seeking, or policies aimed at unnecessary goods, such as support for the arts or a space program.

Because most individuals are willing to go frighteningly far in satisfaction of the demands of authority figures, institutions that set up recognized authority figures have the potential to become engines of evil.

What enabled Hitler to become one of history's greatest murderers was the socially recognized position of authority into which he maneuvered himself and the unquestioning obedience rendered him by millions of German subjects.

Very few Germans would have decided on their own, to go out murdering Jews.
Respect for authority was Hitler's key weapon.
The same is true for all of the greatest man-made evils.
With e the help of institutions of political authority, many such crimes have been carried out, accounting for tens of millions of deaths.

We must ask whether humans have too strong a disposition to obey authority figures.

The widespread acceptance of political authority has been cited as evidence of the existence of (legitimate) political authority. The psychological and historical evidence undermines this appeal.
When actually confronted by the demands of authority figures (to obey clearly illegitimate orders), the individuals in these situations felt the need to obey.

Philosophical accounts of political authority seem designed to bolster the image that we obey because we are conscientious and caring citizens, and we thus make great sacrifices to do our duty and serve our society.

'Social proof' convinces us that what others believe must be true.

Status quo bias convinces us that what our society practices must be good.
The most obvious and powerful demonstration of both forces is provided by the phenomenon of culture.

Many of the world's cultures include beliefs and practices that strike us as bizarre, absurd, or horrible, such as the practice of cannibalism.

Yet the members of those societies generally embrace their cultures' beliefs and regard their culture practices as obviously correct.

Human beings have a powerful tendency to see the beliefs of their own society as obviously true and the practices of their own society as obviously right and good - regardless of what those beliefs and practices are.

What does this tell us about political authority?
Government is an extremely prominent and fundamental feature of the structure of our society.
We know that people have a powerful bias in favour of the existing arrangements of their own societies.
It therefore stands to reason that, whether or not any governments were legitimate, most of us would have a strong tendency to believe that some governments are legitimate, especially our own and others like it.

The power of political aesthetics
Most government’s rely on a rich collection of nonrational tools, including symbols, itals, stories, and rhetoric, to induce in citizens’ sense of the government’s power and authority.

Lord Acton had the right of it: power corrupts.

Standard intuitions about authority are not to be trusted.
One ought not to place much weight on the mere fact that most people believe in political authority

We need to reflect on what moral illusions we might be subject to, keeping in mind that, by the nature of the case, they will not seem, on casual considerations, to be illusions.

Overcoming an illusion often requires seeing why things might appear as they do even if the way they appear is false.

Theories of authority devised by political philosophers can plausibly be viewed as attempts to rationalize common institutions about the need for obedience, where these institutions are the product of systematic biases.

In overcoming the illusion of political authority, it is important to see why it might seem to us that there is political authority, even if in fact no state has ever had genuine authority.

What if there is no authority?
The absence of authority means, roughly, that individuals are not obliges to obey the law merely because it is the law and/or that agents of the state are not entitled to coerce others merely because they are agents of the state.

There might still be good reasons to obey most laws, and agents of the state might still have adequate reasons for engaging in enough coercive action to maintain a state...If the arguments of the preceding chapters are correct, the circumstances and purposes that would justify coercion on the part of the state would just the circumstances and purposes that would justify coercion on the part of private agents.
If there is no political authority, then the vast majority of laws are unjust, because thy deploy coercion against individuals without adequate justification.

Moralistic laws prohibit some behavior on the grounds that the behavior is 'immoral', even though it does not harm anyone or violate anyone's rights.

The most obvious examples are the laws against prostitution and gambling.

Political authority is a special moral status, setting the state above all nonstate agents.

If we reject this notion, then we should evaluate state coercion in the same manner as we evaluate coercion by other agents.

For any coercive act by the state, we should first ask what reason the state has for exercising coercion in this way.

Paternalistic laws restrict individuals' behaviour for their own good.

The prohibition of drugs means that users and sellers are subject to coercive threats by the state.

Rent seeking is behaviour designed to extract wealth from others, especially through the vehicle of the state, without providing compensatory benefits in return.

Particular kinds of actions must be judged using our ordinary ethical intuitions and applying the general principle that it is permissible for the state to prohibit some action if and only if it would be permissible for a private individual to use force to prevent or retaliate for that sort of action.

There is no question of civil disobedience being wrong to defy unjust laws; civil disobedience is not ethically wrong.

The central premise of this book - the moral seriousness of coercion.

The resort to physical force is not always wrong. It is often justified for purposes of self-defense or defense of innocent third parties


In defense of jury nullification

When the law is unjust, the juror should vote to acquit.

Despite what they may be told, jurors certainly can nullify laws.

When I say that the drug law may be violated because they are unjust, I am not saying that the drug laws were made according to the wrong procedure.
I am saying that the drug laws are substantively unjust; they violate a substantive moral right, the right to control one's own body, that individuals possess regardless of the decisions of the state.
This would be true no matter how the law was made (except, of course, in the unlikely event of a unanimous consent to the law, which would render it no longer a rights violation).

Sometimes we do nit know what is substantively just.
But often we do know. ... I know that Jim Crow (segregation) laws were unjust.

When we know a law is unjust, or opposition to it can ad should be based on the fact that it is unjust, not on the fact that it conflicts with our personal opinion or preferences.

The state has only the right to make and enforce ethically correct laws.

Libertarianism is a minimal government (or, in extreme cases, no government) philosophy, according to which the government should do no more than protect the rights of individuals. (capitalistic anarchism counts as an extreme form of libertarianism.)

I reject egoism, since I believe that individuals have substantial obligations to take into account the interests of others. I reject ethical absolutism, since I believe an individual's rights may be overridden by sufficiently important needs of others.

Egotism, an excessive or exaggerated sense of self-importance
Ethical egoism, the doctrine that holds that individuals ought to do what is in their self-interest

The foundation of my libertarianism is much more modest: common sense morality.
I claim that revisionary political views emerge out of common sense moral views.

Libertarian political philosophy rests on three broad ideas:

i) As nonaggression principle in interpersonal ethics, roughly, this is the idea that individuals should not attack, kill, steal from, or defraud one another, and in general, that individuals should not coerce one another, part from a few special circumstances.

(The nonaggression principle is simply the collection of prohibitions on mistreating others that are accepted in common sense morality.)

ii) A recognition of the coercive nature of government. When the state promulgates a law, the law is generally backed up by a threat of punishment, which is supported by creditable threats of physical force directed against those who would disobey the state.

iii) A skepticism of political authority. This skepticism is roughly, that the state may not do what it would be wrong for any nongovernment person or organization to do.

These three ideas - the nonaggression principle, the coercive nature of government, and the skepticism about authority - together call for a libertarian political philosophy.

Most government actions violate the nonaggression principle - that is, they are actions of a sort that would be condemned by common sense morality if they were preformed by any nongovernmental agent.

In particular, the government generally deploys coercion in circumstances and for reasons that would by no means be considered adequate to justify coercion on the part of a private individual or organization,

Therefore, unless we accord the state some special exemption from ordinary constraints, we must condemn most government actions.

We would not ascribe to that agent {the state} anything like a comprehensive, content-independent, supreme entitlement to coerce obedience from other people. So we conclude that the proposed feature fails as ground for political authority.

When one group of people holds great power over another group, the strong will typically use their power to abuse or exploit the weak.

The horrifying lesson of history is that close to six million Jews were executed in Nazi Germany because the ruler hated Jews.

Fewer people realize that was only the tip of the iceberg of twentieth century mass murder.

The total number of people killed by their own governments in the twentieth century has been estimated at 123 million.

This raises the question of whether a strong government should be counted more a source of security or a source of danger.

The tyranny of the majority

The simplest problem with this (a democratic) system is that the majority may choose to abuse a minority.

If the majority of people have even a slight preference for some policy, however noxious or unjust it may be to the minority, the majority can implement their preference through the state.

This explains why gay marriage is not permitted in most of the United States. It explains the Jim Crow (segregation) laws prior to the (US) civil rights movement.

And this explains how the Nazis could become the largest party in the Reichstag by 1932, despite their evident hatred of various groups of people.

Predatory behavior does not occur merely because humans are selfish. It occurs because human are selfish and some humans begins are much more powerful than others.

Powerful, selfish people use their positions to exploit and abuse these much weaker than themselves.

The standard solutions to the problem of human predation all start by cementing the very conditions most likely to cause predatory behavior - the concentration of power - and only then do they try to steer away from its natural consequences.

The alternative is to begin with an extreme decentralization of coercive power.

Most of the objections raised against anarchy in fact apply more clearly and forcefully to government.

It is reasonable to believe that anarchy may come to the world in due time.
The most plausible transitional model is one in which democratic society move gradually toward anarcho-capitalism through progressive outsourcing of government functions to competing businesses.

For copy of this book, please see:

Notes by Edward B. Hudson
09 December 2013