Justifying the state

If I murder someone, I can be imprisoned by the government. However, it is only the government that is allowed to imprison me – if you do it, that is called false imprisonment and is itself a criminal offence. Why is it that governments are allowed to lock people up for the good of society and individual citizens aren’t?

Given that using overwhelming force to get people to do what you want them to do (e.g. remain in an 8×10 room for the next 20-25 years) is generally speaking not acceptable for individuals or corporations to do, one might think there should be a reason why governments are allowed to. Let’s review a few candidates:

1) You expressly consented to the government having such a right.

In terms of giving an argument for the legitimacy of actual states, this is a non-starter. No such consent has been given, except maybe by those who acquire citizenship by choice.

2) You tacitly consented to the government having such a right.

It isn’t necessary for consent to expressly say ‘I consent’. Sex is an obvious example; non-consensual sex is illegal, but there are (mercifully) a number of uncodified ways of signifying consent. Even if we assume that such tacit consent would legitimize government coercion, there do not exist the kind of uncodified ways of tacitly signalling consent to government coercion as in the case of sex. Proposed acts of tacit consent to such coercion – voting, not voluntarily leaving the territory – do not have the necessary link between the proposed act and the understanding on the part of the actor of what it is they are consenting to by performing that act in order for the analogy with express consent to go through.

3) The principle of fair play

Another non-starter. The principle of fair play essentially this: if a community engages in a mutually beneficial enterprise that requires co-operation, then if you benefit from the enterprise you shouldn’t be allowed to free-ride on the cost of producing that benefit. It is a non-starter because it fails to explain why the enterprise of government generates a strong enough claim to allow coercion when other co-operative enterprises do not. It may account for a moral obligation to co-operate, but simply demonstrating the existence of a moral obligation is insufficient for legitimizing coercion as an instrument of ensuring the fulfilment of that obligation.

4) Natural Duty of Justice

The gist of this line of thought is that we have an obligation to support just institutions. If the state is just, then we should do what it says. But again, this only speaks to a moral obligation – that I ought to obey the rules of a just state does not speak to the right of that state to coerce me into following those rules.

5) Hypothetical Consent

Medical procedures, in the ideal world, are consented to. However, sometimes we are not able to consent to things that we would – I cannot consent to surgery after being involved in a motorbike accident where I am left unconscious, but the doctors are quite permitted to perform the surgery because I would grant the permission if given the opportunity. The hypothetical consent tradition in political philosophy says it’s fine that people don’t actually consent to government coercion, it’s enough that they would if asked. Why would they do so? Because it is way better that we have a government than not. However, hypothetical consent (when it comes to government) proves far too much. If it legitimizes all government coercion where having such a coercive authority is better than having none, then if anarchy is really really bad – as those in the hypothetical consent tradition are inclined to think it is, cf Thomas Hobbes – then just plain ol’ bad tyrannical government passes the hypothetical consent test. Furthermore, it might be better to allow coercion by both the government AND (say) me. If having government is better than anarchy, then probably so is having government and a few select individuals locking people up in their basements.

We can generalize the considerations I have briefly and flippantly adduced by saying that any theory of why it is OK for the government and no one else to engage in certain coercive practices should meet two constraints: it should cover at least the vast majority of people who can be subjected to such coercion, and most crucially it should explain why we reserve this right exclusively to the government. The second constraint has (to my knowledge) been ignored by all the literature on the subject, despite its being such an obvious and important feature of the modern conception of the state.

Now, I am not by any means a political anarchist. Indeed, I think these considerations point somewhat in the other direction, politically speaking. For example, suppose you are a hard-line libertarian who thinks it is the job of the government to enforce contracts entered into by consenting, mentally capable adults and nothing else. The government in such a contract is, in effect, an unnamed third party who the contracting parties agree to have settle a dispute and execute that settlement – by force, if necessary. But why, on this hard-line libertarian position, can’t consenting adults name some other third party? Why can’t the parties say in the event of a dispute or breach of contract that Mr T be brought in to settle it*? Even the most extreme of libertarians are incapable of accounting for why only government is allowed to use coercive force.

The lesson I take from this is that politics, like ethics more broadly speaking, involves us trading off against each other all sorts of things we find valuable. For example, there is a long and tedious debate amongst political philosophers as to what ‘freedom’ means. Does being free mean not having people interfere with what you want to do, or having the ability to do the things you want to do? The answer is: both matter, and both taken to the extreme lead to highly undesirable outcomes. If we want to feed everybody, then we may have to take stuff from one person and give it to another – stuff they might not give up otherwise (this is also known as ‘taxation’). That a homeless person might be ‘free’ to eat but unable is a simple demonstration that many things other than freedom from coercion are valuable. Deciding what a government or anyone should and should not be allowed to  do is essentially trading off the value of not being coerced against whatever it is that can be achieved by the coercion.

* I pity the fool who would agree to such an arrangement

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  1. November 3, 2011 at 7:18 pm
  2. April 12, 2012 at 10:35 am

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