Political Authority?

An underlying assumption of much debate on this blog is that the government has the right to boss people about and the question at issue is merely which bit of bossing about the government should be doing. Despite the fact that the left are obviously very keen on bossing people about, this assumption is one I have always seen as rooted in a certain kind of right wing political philosophy, a philosophy based in the idea that people are necessarily subjects of a sovereign. To be is to be ruled.

An originating thought underlying republicanism is that one man cannot legitimately rule over another. Taken all the way, this thought will take you  to anarchy. So, must you obey the bossing about and if you refuse may they make you?

Michael Heumer has just published an interesting book on this question:  The Problem of Political Authority. His answer is no.

Political authority, as he defines it, is the right of the government to coerce conformity to its rule and the duty had by those subject to the government to obey. He points out that what governments do would obviously be grotesquely immoral if you or I did it and asks what makes it OK for governments. Consider for example that if I police the neighbourhood and lock up thieves and vandals and demand money from you for the cost of this service we would call it kidnapping and extortion but if the government does it it is called the criminal justice system and taxation. It can’t just be that we got together and agreed to do it because a conspiracy to kidnap and extort is even worse.

I haven’t got very far with the book yet so I’m not going to try to say much more now, but I think he has set it up with the right question: The very foundation of government is coercion. Coercion is wrong, systematic coercion is wronger and systematic coercion with killing is wrongest. There is therefore the heaviest possible burden of proof on those who would justify government. Political philosophers have generally been far too sanguine in their belief that they have satisfied that burden. I look forward to his analyses of their arguments.

 

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20 Responses to Political Authority?

  • Right-Wing Hippy says:

    Finally, a post about ethics. I knew if I just waited long enough…

  • Nickolas Schaffer says:

    “It can’t just be that we got together and agreed to do it because a conspiracy to kidnap and extort is even worse.”

    Aha, there’s your problem. You said: “(if an unelected individual) does it we call it kidnapping and extortion”, but then you retained those terms for a collective consenting context without offering any justification for doing so. Clearly most people do see very significant distinctions between “criminal justice system and taxation” and “kidnapping and extortion”. The criminal justice system and taxation involve coercion, but it’s a coercion institutionalised for the sake of public welfare, with the consent and indeed the insistent demand of the majority of the democratic electorate, as their voting habits reveal.

  • Nicholas Shackel says:

    So if we get together and most of us agree that you should be forced to give me all your money that makes it OK and moreover you consented to it?

    • Nickolas Schaffer says:

      “So if we get together and most of us agree that you should be forced to give me all your money that makes it OK and moreover you consented to it?”

      Why would we do that? Does that actually happen anywhere, except in situations where a court finds that someone owes someone else sums of money or is required to pay compensation for having wronged them etc? It’s only by ignoring such real-life moral dimensions that you can pretend that the criminal justice and taxation systems are on a par with kidnapping and extortion.

  • Owen Schaefer says:

    There are two separate questions Huemer discusses. The first is whether and why citizens have a particular duty to obey the edicts of their government as such, while the second is the question of whether and why governments are allowed to coerce citizens to follow its laws. Both have been deep concerns for political philosophers for centuries, if not millennia. And Huemer, of course, falls squarely in the philosophical anarchist camp. It’s impossible to adequately address the nuances in a blog post or response, but for my money, the first question (the duty to obey) is much more difficult than the second (the right to coerce). They’re often run together, but subtle differences turn out to be quite large in my mind.

    The duty to obey is particularly tricky because it is mysterious and often quite redundant. Take wanton assault. It’s unremarkable (so I shall assume, anyway) that assaulting someone with no provocation is prima facie impermissible. So, we have a reason (a duty, arguably) not to assault others in virtue of this impermissibility (itself grounded, most likely, in the harm caused or the gross violation of another’s autonomy). But governments claim an *additional* reason not to assault, namely, that it is illegal. Where did this reason come from? Various answers such as actual and hypothetical consent can be given, but they often seem relatively unsatisfactory (is the moral force of laws really just that people are generally OK with them? And why should the general will overrule my will?). For laws that are just, we don’t ‘need’ (from a moral standpoint) the law to ensure we have sufficient reason to avoid wrongful action. And for laws that are unjust, it is unclear why the law’s say-so should make an otherwise-permissible action impermissible, or an otherwise-optionl action a duty.

    But the state’s right to coerce can generally avoid these issues, because it is not so mysterious or redundant (as long as one only claims the state’s monopoly on violence is contingent, not deep). Take punishments for wrongdoers. Typically, justifications for such punishments are based in retribution, deterrence and/or restraining dangerous individuals (indeed, they frequently avoid talk of political authority entirely). If you find any of those justifications compelling, then at least some (corecive) punishments will be justified. Indeed, I’m generally persuaded by the Lockean notion that under the right conditions in a state of anarchy, it would be quite acceptable for individuals to unilaterally punish wrongdoers. But individuals are quite fallible, biased, untrustworthy, etc. – best to have institutions that mete out punishments that avoid all these problems, rather than vigilantes running amok. So the state derives its coercive authority in such cases from the fact that it is, in practice, the most reliable and trustworthy agent of coercion. This will legitimate some vigilaniism in failed states, but that doesn’t seem so problematic to me. Taxation is more problematic, especially if one is strongly libertarian, but as long as one accepts some degree of permissible imposition of harm to generate greater benefit I think you can get there too.

    This latter line of thought is consequentialist in nature, and Huemer has a chapter on consequentialist justifications for political authority. I’m afraid I haven’t read Huemer’s book, so I don’t know whether he demolishes thoughts like the above, but for me anwway that’s generally enough to distinguish the government from a hoodlum’s protection racket.

    • Nicholas Shackel says:

      I agree with what you say about the duty to obey. On the right to coerce, states are also fallible, biased, untrustworthy and run amok. The statement that states are the most reliable and trustworthy agent of coercion is to my mind nothing more than a speculative claim. Many people find it plausible but I don’t see why. There is even a literature documenting the extensive and systematic failures built into states. Yes, some states are not awful but the question at issue is why a state is justified in doing what, at least on common sense morality, no individual or other institution is justified in doing. The justification you offer strikes me as justifying non-state institutions just as well. Some people take Machievelli to have asserted that what is right for the Prince is not what is right for the commoner but I think he was just describing what was necessary to stay in power, not to justify it.

      • Owen Schaefer says:

        Indeed, states are quite fallible. But as Stuart notes, this is an issue of relative desirability. So, we might rephrase Winston Churchill: ‘Government is the worst way to protect people’s interests – except for all the rest.” Anarchists may disagree, and think that non-coercive institutions can do the job even better. In an ideal world, I too would be strongly inclined to avoid coercive institutions (why coerce when everyone is motivated to act rightly anyway?) – but given that people are not so purely motivated, coercive institutions play an important role. One of the more important is that they help internalize externalities – in the absence of a coercive system of law enforcement, the successful robber (say) may reap great rewards and no penalt, while imposing significant harms and rights violations on society. A coercive system of punishment redirects (a portion of) those harms back to the robber, disincentivizing him or her from causing harm to society (roughly, one hopes, in proportion to the harm/wrong caused to society).

        So yes, if a non-coercive (or non-state) institution comes along and does the job of organizing society/protecting people’s interests much better than the state, I’d jump on board. And contra Machiavelli (but again, in line with John Locke), governments do *not* have rights that exceed what individuals could do in the state of nature; anything the state could do, individuals would have the right to do (under similar or analogous circumstances) in the absence of any state or institutions. When there is a relatively successful state, though, individuals lose (or abrogate) those rights, as a system of vigilantiism and personal justice is much less reliable and fair than institutionalized justice, courts, etc.

  • Stuart Armstrong says:

    >There is therefore the heaviest possible burden of proof on those who would justify government.

    Consequentialist comparison with the alternative seems ample. Since the practical alternative to government coercion is coercion by armed gangs, this seems an easy choice.

    • Nicholas Shackel says:

      This seems to me a good example of the excessively sanguinary belief that the burden of proof on those who would justify government has been satisfied. Indeed, it strikes me as question begging since part of the challenge is to explain why the government is something other than an armed gang.

      • Stuart Armstrong says:

        I used armed gang in the usual colloquial sense, to denote the kind of groups that indulge in large scale violence and thoughtless/unpredictable exploitation that we picture when we hear the term.

        Anyway, the theoretical case for government is pretty simple. Organised gangs can easily triumph over disorganised or non-militant groups and take their stuff (a general tragedy for humanity as a whole). However exploitation by a stationary bandit is generally better than a roving bandit – the roving bandit takes everything, the stationary bandit has to leave you with enough to create more stuff he can take later. Also a stationary bandit tends to be predictable – loosing 90% of your crops is better than loosing 80% or 100%, at random.

        There’s also the issue of justice. Without governments, the only way to deter aggression is to be ready and willing to respond in kind, leading to escalating vendetta cycles. Central governments don’t like this (vendettas cost them too much of their tax-payers and diverts them to unproductive activities), so they impose justice systems that break the vendetta cycles (see S. Pinker for more on this thesis).

        Fast forward to modern democracies, and you now have people having a measure of control over the governments, leading to further improvements (for instance the fact that most of the cash seized from private citizens goes towards health care for these citizens, and pensions, rather than gilded palaces for the people taking the taxes).

        Anyway, that’s enough of a theoretical case – it’s laid out in enough details that we need evidence to sort out the discussion. We lack good examples of non-government situations in the modern world, but the basket case of Somalia is at least a data point. A look through Atrocitology (http://www.canongate.tv/atrocitology.html) shows that governments are certainly capable of immense violence (Mao/Stalin/Hitler, anyone?) but that periods of anarchy are always associated with catastrophes (see most of the Chinese regime change examples). On the other hand, we lack examples of mass atrocities by democratic governments against their own voters. And in the modern world, living under governments is certainly getting better, while we have no indication that anarchy has solved its perennial violence problem (Somalia again).

        I would reverse the burden of proof – the best situations in all of human history, have occurred under (democratic) government. There are no large scale non-government setups with anything like that level of wealth, health, and even happiness. Therefore those suggesting life without government would be better have a huge mountain to climb (best place to start: with some successful examples. Large scale seasteading or something like that).

        Of course, this should not be interpreted as a defence of more government, or applying government to new situations like the web – that’s a separate question. But it seems to me that the case, that governmental taxation and monopoly of violence leads to better outcomes, is very solid.

        • Nicholas Shackel says:

          “the kind of groups that indulge in large scale violence and thoughtless/unpredictable exploitation “. And you say this as a contrast with governments!

          A stationary bandit is still a bandit. The ways to deter aggression don’t vary with whether they are used by a government or some other institution. What you call a theoretical case includes a sequence of empirical claims about the necessity or benefit of government for various outcomes, claims that may or may not be true. I’m afraid I find myself smiling at ‘rather than gilded palaces for the people taking the taxes’. Modern governments take enormously higher amounts than governments ever have, both proportionately and absolutely, and spend a great deal of it on gilded palaces for the very people taking the taxes (government employees, of course). So it is no great achievement if they do more good than previous governments: it has to be proved that they do more than what would otherwise happen with that GDP.

          The reason the burden of proof is the way I put it is because we already agree that what governments do is wrong when done by others so the exception must be proved. I agree that if government were the only way to deter aggression and gain the benefits of peace and cooperation that would contribute to such a proof. As I said, I’ve only looked at the first chapter in Heumer’s book yet and I look forward to seeing what he has to say about consequentialist justifications.

          • Stuart Armstrong says:

            >Modern governments [...], and spend a great deal of it on gilded palaces for the very people taking the taxes (government employees, of course).

            Define “a great deal”, backed up with budget figures. Civil servant salaries are considerably lower than comparable jobs in the private sector, and most do jobs that would have to happen anyway (healthcare, teachers, administrators of the above, etc…). One minor data point is the comparison between the US medicare system and private health insurance; the first is much more efficient than the second, so people save a considerable amount of money by having their taxes coerced from them and spent on healthcare (the NHS is even more efficient, and has comparable outcomes).

          • Stuart Armstrong says:

            But let’s focus on the important question: why is government taxation grouped in with gang violence? If a gang invades and takes your stuff, you’re going to have a lot bad things going on. The risk of physical violence or death, humiliation, the loss of security, the arbitrary loss of items you hold dear at the whims of the gang members, probably pointless damage to other stuff, and no chance of seeing your stolen stuff again – and this happens unexpectedly or erratically.

            Contrast that with taxation under democratic governments. Here you are to lose money (not cherished objects, arbitrarily chosen), are aware of this well in advance, following an impersonal procedure. If you resist, then at the end of a long and surprisingly dull process, you may lose your liberty, or may have the money directly removed from your bank account. And then the government will return to you some portion of the value taken, through the services they provide (under most theories of the purpose of government, you gain back a lot more than was taken, simply through the legal system and contract enforcement).

            These two experiences are not similar. I certainly know which one I’d prefer to endure (even if I lose more money to second process). But why are we grouping them together? Because they share a feature (you lose assets under coercion) even though they differ in many other relevant ways. And the evil of the first situation doesn’t come mainly from the loss of assets! So you can’t take the connotations of the first situations (“armed extortion”) and apply it to the second.

            The analogy “if this was done by a private individual, it would be bad” falls apart, because private individuals would not do it in the same ways as governments – and if they did, it would be a lot less objectionable. You need to construct a direct case against government taxation/coercion, without letting the flawed analogy do you work for you.

          • Nickolas Schaffer says:

            “The reason the burden of proof is the way I put it is because we already agree that what governments do is wrong when done by others so the exception must be proved.”

            I don’t agree that what governments do is wrong when done by others, because there aren’t any “others” that do what governments do.

  • Nathan says:

    I haven’t read this book, but the perspective reminds me of Murray Rothbard. For him, this insight on the inherent illegitimacy of government and its incompatibility with the Non-Aggression Principle and “natural rights” led to the development of a political philosophy of anarcho-capitalism which fed into the American Libertarian movement. His books and other writings are available for free online at mises.org if anyone’s curious.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    Thank you, Dr Shackel, for this post. I would like to compliment you on the rhetoric, but am less sure of the philosophy underlying it. Just to take your first paragraph as an example :
    “An underlying assumption of much debate on this blog is that the government has the right to boss people about and the question at issue is merely which bit of bossing about the government should be doing.”
    1. Does this “underlying assumption” really exist? It would be good to have an example or two.
    2. Do governments “boss people around?” It would be interesting to define what constitutes bossing and, again, have an example. I suspect that “bossing” is otherwise a rather subjective concept.
    “Despite the fact that the left are obviously very keen on bossing people about…”
    1. historically, it appears to me that “bossing people” (if bossing is defined roughly as arbitrarily telling people what to do) is not exclusively a characteristic of the left.
    2. the use of “obviously” is a nice piece of rhetoric which is designed to rally adherence rather than to analyse. What evidence is there that “the left” is more pre-disposed to “bossing” than anyone else?
    “this assumption is … a philosophy based in the idea that people are necessarily subjects of a sovereign. To be is to be ruled.”
    It would be good to have a quote or two to justify this belief that such a philosophy had ever been seriously proposed.

    I won’t go on…..

    .

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    My reply got truncated (certainly my fault).
    I intendedto conclude that none of this implied that the subject of Huemer’s book is illegitimate or uninteresting. Indeed, it is one of the fundamental questions of political philosophy, with lots of practical consequences depending on how you answer it. But it’s not new : my recall of Plato is very rusty, but I think that some of his questions were pretty similar…

  • Dave Frame says:

    Nick wrote: “Despite the fact that the left are obviously very keen on bossing people about, this assumption is one I have always seen as rooted in a certain kind of right wing political philosophy, a philosophy based in the idea that people are necessarily subjects of a sovereign.”

    I don’t think it’s meaningful to say that this idea is “right wing” as a piece of philosophy. Authoritarianism is neither inherently right wing, nor inherently left-wing – dudes on the street corner with guns and spies in your apartment buildings were employed by governments that were fascist/corporatist and governments that formed the actually existing revolutionary vanguard of international socialism. Authoritarianism is anti-liberal and anti-democratic, but neither the left nor the right have a monopoly on these.

    [Actually, i think whether your gut reaction is to label authoritarianism as left or right is just a reflection of your prejudices. And my prejudices have always been to think of authoritarianism as more a leftist thing than a feature of the right. I think it's probably because (in my adult lifetime) the political right in liberal democracies have been obsessed with shrinking the state rather than extending its tentacles; and the fact that (over the same period) there have been more left-wing authoritarian political regimes than right wing ones. I remember the first time I thought about this from the other angle - it was actually reading a quote from the great Cesar Luis Menotti - he claimed there was a right wing way of playing football (regimented, organised, disciplined) and a left-wing way (free expression, creativity, etc). I found it really jarring because my prejudices are the complete reverse of his - I've always seen the left being about the imposition of stultifying conformity, whereas the right are about liberty (hence creativity, etc). But then I didn't grow up in post-war Argentina...]

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