With his volume The Problem of Political Authority Michael Huemer has made an important contribution to the debate on political obligation and political authority. The first part of the volume is devoted to considering a number of classic theories that attempt to justify political authority by grounding it in social contract, democracy, consequentialism and fairness. All these theories are found wanting by Huemer, who therefore concludes that political authority lacks justification and that there is no duty to obey the law.[1] The second part is devoted to elaborating an alternative way of organizing social interaction: one that revolves around a system of private agencies and arbitrators which, according to Huemer, could take over all of the most important functions normally monopolized by the state. This alternative arrangement would have two advantages: first, it would be grounded in genuine contractual obligations, which is rarely the case with states; second, it would be subject to genuine market competition, which is likely to lead to better services at a lower cost.

Although there is much I disagree with in the book, its value can hardly be overstated.  Both parts are a model of clarity and contain a wealth of arguments to which I cannot begin to do justice here. Most importantly, Huemer never takes a cheap shot.  He always presents the positions he intends to criticize in their strongest possible form, and rejects them only once he has considered several strategies that might be employed to rescue them from his objections.

Here I concentrate on one of the main arguments that Huemer develops in the first part of the volume, one that goes at the heart of his challenge to political authority. The argument concerns the alleged right of political authorities to coercively impose whichever laws they decide to pass,[2] independently of whether these laws are good or bad (what Huemer calls content-independence; see p. 12). How can this ever be the case? Consider a situation in which we are to decide whether to φ or not. Suppose that φ-ing would be unjust and thus, before the state issues any directives, we are under an obligation not to φ. Imagine now two possible scenarios. First scenario: the state requires that we φ. How can that make a difference? Whatever justification for political authority we might be tempted to subscribe to, that will not change the fact that φ-ing is unjust. The fact that we consent to the authority, for example, cannot change that (if I consent to kill your cat, that doesn’t change the fact that killing your cat is wrong and I ought not to do it); nor can the fact that, say, we all voted in favour of φ-ing (if most people voted to kill your cat, that wouldn’t change the fact that it would be wrong to do so). If φ-ing was unjust before we were required to do φ by the authority, how can it become permissible simply because the authority issues a directive to φ?

Consider now the scenario in which the state requires that we do not φ. Certainly in this case we should not φ. But what has this to do with the directive we have received from the authority, Huemer asks? After all we were under an obligation not to φ even before the authority issued its directive. The fact that the state requires that I do not kill your cat does not seem to make any normative difference with respect to what I ought to do, since I ought not to kill your cat independently of what the state tells me to do. To be sure, the state can coerce me to prevent me from killing your cat. It can also punish me for doing so and extract compensation from me. But so can anyone else, Huemer argues, as long the intervening party acts according to what justice requires. (There will be limits to what can be done to me in order to prevent me from killing your cat or in order to punish me if I do.) Thus, it looks as if I should φ or refrain from φ-ing simply by looking at whether φ-ing is right or wrong. Most importantly, there is nothing the state can do to coerce me to φ or refraining from φ-ing that cannot also be done to me by anyone else.

II.

The main problem I see with this line of argument is that it presupposes that there is always an independently correct course of action that agents can decide to take while acting “on their own”, i.e. outside any institutional arrangement. According to this view, we have a number of natural duties that we can discharge in what we might call the state of nature (i.e. in a pre-institutional condition) simply by refraining from violating others’ rights and by aiding others in need (at least when we can aid them at a reasonable cost to ourselves). It is because we can discharge these duties by acting on our own, that the existence of authorities or political institutions can make no difference, according to Heumer, as to what we should do. An example that he resorts to in discussion is, I think, revealing. He asks us to consider a lifeboat which is taking on water. The water needs to be bailed out if the passengers are to prevent the boat from sinking. Bob, who has been designated by some as the person in charge to devise a solution, starts issuing directives to all the passengers. Surely here we need not obey anything Bob orders us to do, Huemer argues. What we need to do is grab a bucket and start bailing water.

I think that this way of looking at the issue is problematic for a number of reasons. To begin with, fulfilling our natural duties and respecting others’ rights often requires that we do not act on our own, but rather that we coordinate with others. To illustrate this point, consider a slightly different version of the boat case. Suppose that lifeboat is not taking on water. Rather the problem is that we need to move the move the boat to the land (none of us can swim). In this case, if each passenger starts rowing as hard as she can, we will not be able to reach the land. Successfully reaching the land requires that we coordinate in a number of ways: we need to decide which rowing technique to adopt, where we should try to direct the boat, how to organize turns in taking rests, etc. In other words, we need to set up some sort of cooperative scheme. Only if we act together in this way will we be able to reach the land. Acting on our own is not an option.[3]

Here it might be objected that I’m running together two different things: the need to act together and the need to set up some sort of cooperative scheme in which someone like Bob issues authoritative directives to the other members of the scheme. Even if I am right that we cannot discharge our natural duties by acting on our own, but only by coordinating with others, why is there a need to have an authority? If what we ought to do is point in a certain direction, row in a certain way, rest at certain intervals etc., what need is there for an authority? Why cannot we just contribute to whatever needs to be done without Bob telling us what to do? The problem is that typically in this sort of case there is more than one way in which we can coordinate, and people tend to disagree about how best to do so. Sometimes the disagreement will be simply due to cognitive limitations affecting some of us, but other times the problem will be more serious. Sometimes, we will reasonably disagree in virtue of the fact that we hold irreconcilable and yet reasonable moral beliefs. For these reasons, even assuming that a) we hold sound moral beliefs about what our natural duties are, and b) we aim to always act conscientiously on these moral beliefs, we will fail to discharge these duties unless we enter some sort of authoritative cooperative scheme. Authority is required in order to determine which of the many possible ways in which we can structure our interactions should be adopted, and to make sure that everyone complies with it.

States are in important ways analogous to the rowing scheme in my example. They are necessary for us to be able to fulfil our duties of justice and respect each other’s rights, because in order to do so we often need to coordinate our efforts. And despite acting with the best intentions, we will often reasonably disagree over what the best way to coordinate our efforts is, i.e. over which rules and principles should guide our attempts to act together according to justice. [4]

In fact, the problem goes deeper. The point is not only that people can reasonably disagree about what justice requires (which would be presupposing that there is a specific course of action required by justice, although we reasonably disagree about what this course of action is). Rather, the problem is that to some extent, justice in the state of nature is indeterminate. Not all natural duties of justice are as straightforward as “don’t kill cats for fun”. In some cases at least, it looks as if there is no pre-institutionally correct answer to the question of what justice requires until an authoritative decision has been made within a certain cooperative scheme. Think, for example, about the different sets of rules that could be adopted to effectively protect our interest in having private property (including rules whose function is to regulate market transactions, taxation or inheritance). Accepting that individuals have a natural right to property does not tell us much about which of these sets of rules we should adopt.[5] One of the functions performed by political authorities is to provide an answer to this question. As Joseph Raz puts it, ‘‘mediation through law serves the role of concretizing moral principles—that is, of giving them the concrete content they must have in order for people to be able to follow them’’.[6]

To be sure I am not saying that there are no duties that we can discharge by acting on our own in the state of nature. Our duty not to torture innocents and our duty not to kill cats for fun are good examples. My claim is rather that not all our natural duties are like this. If so, we should reject the assumption that we can discharge all of our natural duties of justice while acting on our own in a pre-institutional environment. The only way in which we can discharge some of our most important duties of justice is to leave the state of nature and enter a “civic condition”, in which we are subject to some sort of political authority. This is what justifies state legitimacy and political obligation.[7]

 

III.

But even if I am right about all this, have I vindicated the right of political authorities to coercively impose whichever laws they decide to pass, independently of whether these laws are good or bad? This might seem still doubtful for reasons that Huemer articulates in his volume. What if Bob in addition to ordering that we row in a certain direction, by using a certain technique etc., also orders that we flagellate ourselves to prove to him our loyalty, that we beat up children on the boat for his entertainment, that we dance for him or that we pay $50 to Sally who helped him to get elected?[8] Do I really want to say that Bob has a right to coercively enforce these commands? This view seems implausible. But isn’t rejecting this view tantamount to denying political authority? After all, one of the marks of authority –indeed, perhaps the most important mark of authority– is content-independence, i.e. the idea that authorities are entitled to enforce their directives independently of whether they are sound or inadequate.

To answer these questions we need to distinguish different ways in which the orders issued by a certain authority can be inadequate. Huemer tends to focus on cases in which a directive is inadequate because it is useless or unjust, but a directive can also be inadequate simply because it falls outside the scope of the authority. Indeed, this is the first thing to consider in deciding which obligations the authority is permitted to enforce, before we even start inquiring as to whether the directive is useless or unjust. My boss, for example, lacks the authority to decide which music I should listen to in my spare time or whom I should date. This has nothing to do with the fact that following his directives about which music I should listen to or whom I should date would be good or bad. We can imagine that my life would in fact go better if I were to follow his directives. The point is that even if this was the case, his directives would not be authoritative for the simple reason that they fall outside the scope of what my boss can demand of me. For the same reasons, Bob cannot successfully issue any authoritative directive that requires the other passengers to dance for him or to give Sally $50. Both of these actions fall outside the scope of his authority, which is primarily determined by the nature of the task that Bob has been appointed to complete (take the boat to the shore).

The scope of the authority is also delimited by obvious requirements of natural justice. For the same reason why we cannot acquire a duty to kill an innocent or beat up someone for fun (against his will) by promising or signing a contract, we cannot acquire a duty to kill an innocent or beat up someone for fun (against his will) as a consequence of the fact that we are so commanded by the authority. This is why Bob cannot successfully issue an authoritative directive that requires the other passengers to beat up children for his entertainment on the boat (p. 161).

But what about directives that do fall within the scope of the authority, but are wrong or useless? What if, for example, Bob chooses a route that is in fact longer than other routes available, thereby making us row for longer than it is necessary? (This is unjust, Huemer would argue, in that we are only under an obligation to row as much as it is necessary to take the boat to the land. Any extra rowing constitutes an unjustifiable interference with our liberty.) Or what if Bob comes to the mistaken conclusion that sitting in a particular way on the boat will make us go faster? My view is that in these cases Bob will retain his authority, despite the fact that he is requiring us to do unnecessary extra-work or to do something completely useless. Contra Huemer, I believe that authorities must be “accorded some leeway in the form of a content-independent entitlement to make rules as long as its rules are not too unreasonable” (p. 175. I suspect that the order to flagellate ourselves might be one that is too unreasonable). Authorities perform the valuable functions that justify their existence (described in section II above) despite the fact that they are not perfect. No authority is infallible. This is why infallibility should not be adopted as the standard of their justification.

Huemer tries to resist this conclusion by pointing at the fact that we do not seem to adopt the same view in relation to private agents. We do not expect private corporations to be perfect and yet we do not ascribe to them “a moral entitlement to periodically perform unjust or wrongful actions just as long as they are not too unreasonable. We recognize that a large corporation will sometimes do wrong, but we do not acquiesce in those wrongs. We condemn them when they happen and demand that the corporation make amends. In the same way, we should not acquiesce in wrongdoing by the state, however predictable it may be; we should condemn it when it happens and demand that the state make amends” (p. 175). I think Huemer is right about all this. We should not acquiesce in wrongdoing by the state, at least when they require that we do something profoundly unjust (i.e. something that goes beyond the margin of error discussed in the previous paragraph). When they do, we should certainly condemn them, and demand that they make amends. But this is all compatible with acknowledging that states do have political authority. After all, no matter how we understand the duties imposed by political authority, these duties will only be prima-facie, which means that they can be overridden by other moral obligations we have. This explains why we should not acquiesce in wrongdoing by the state. Although we have some reason to follow the directives issued by the state, we will have stronger reasons to disregard them whenever following them would require us to do something profoundly unjust.

Similarly, accepting the claim that states have a right to enforce directives that turn out to be unjust, at least when they are acting in good faith (as Bob when he chooses a longer route), does not prevent us from accepting the claim that we have the right to condemn state representatives and demand that they make amends when they are responsible for particularly serious injustices. One problem here is the tendency in the literature to run together the discussion of the legitimacy of states and the discussion of the legitimacy of governments. It seems to me that the two should be kept separate. A state might retain its legitimacy even when a particularly corrupt or inefficient government loses its own legitimacy. In that case, the government should be replaced and called to answer for its wrongs, without necessarily compromising the legitimacy of states.

Here it might be objected that while in principle the right to disobey, the right to condemn unjust and inefficient governments, and the right to require them to make amends can be preserved in the way I suggest, in practice we will rarely be in a position to exercise such rights. I agree. I also agree that many existing states are in fact so unjust that they cannot be considered legitimate in light of the justification I have outlined above. My disagreement with Huemer, however, is not so much about the legitimacy of existing states, but rather about the question of whether in principle states can enjoy legitimacy. Huemer argues that they cannot because no state can issue directives that are genuinely content-independent. I have tried to cast some doubts on this view.



[1] Three views are conspicuously absent, given their pedigree, from Huemer’s list: gratitude, associativism and Raz’s normal justification thesis.

[2] Huemer understands political authority as the state’s right to coerce its subjects. I disagree. Political authority in my view is primarily to be understood as the capacity to create new moral obligations. However, I will bracket this problem here.

[3] I used this thought example to justify political authority (for the minimal state) in my “State Legitimacy and Self-Defence”, Law and Philosophy (2011) 30: 575–601.

[4] For an argument along these lines, see Gregory Kavka’s ‘Why Even Morally Perfect People Would Need Government’’, in For and Against the State, ed. John Sanders and Jan Narveson (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), pp. 41–62.

[5] This line of argument goes back to Kant, and has been defend more recently by Jeremy Waldron, Anna Stiltz, Tom Christiano.

[6] Between Authority and Interpretation (OUP, 2009), p. 347.

[7] In my view this is the main, but not the only, justification for political authority. Elsewhere I defend two other justifications: one based on duties of fairness and one based on associative responsibilities.

[8] Two of the items on this list are taken from p. 97 (where Huemer discusses his own version of the boat case); one is adapted from another part of the book in which he criticises content-independence; one is added by me.

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  • j r

    Doesn’t this all beg the question a bit? If we could decide a priori what our natural moral obligations were, we would know what legitimate political authority is. One would flow from the other.

    In fact, in those areas where we do know what our pre-existing moral obligations are, there isn’t much dispute about the exercise of political authority. In even the most illegitimate corrupt authoritarian states, the sovereign maintains some prohibition against murder. And if that sovereign wants to murder someone, they at least have the decency to cook up some elaborate ruse so as not to admit that it is murder.

    Also, a question: when you talk about a pre-institutional condition, what are you counting as an institution? Do families and clans count? If they do, then we should start with the admission that pre-institutional does not and has never existed. If we are simply talking about the time before human beings lived under formalized state institutions, then families and clans and tribes ought to serve as our guide in talking about man in the state of nature. This is one of the problems of political philosophy, people want to talk about the state of nature while simultaneously ignoring nature.

    • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

      “In even the most illegitimate corrupt authoritarian states, the sovereign maintains some prohibition against murder. And if that sovereign wants to murder someone, they at least have the decency to cook up some elaborate ruse so as not to admit that it is murder.”

      This is only partially true, since it seems that most people regard it as acceptable for states (even western states like the US government) to commit murder of foreigners in war. Bryan Caplan brings this point up in a Cato essay ( http://www.cato-unbound.org/2013/03/18/bryan-caplan/case-murder ):

      “Nonlibertarians usually assume that some moral constraints that apply to other agents do apply to the state. What are those moral constraints? What line do states—even our own—have cross to forfeit moral legitimacy? There is only one clear-cut candidate: killing their own civilian citizens. States can kill civilians as long as they are citizens of other countries—and they can kill their own citizens as long as they’re combatants (e.g., rebel soldiers, terrorists, etc.).[1] But when state X deliberately kills noncombatants who are officially citizens of X, most nonlibertarians talk like libertarians: “That’s cold-blooded murder—even if you’re wearing a uniform and following the leader’s orders.””

      • j r

        I don’t know how contrary that is to what I said. After all, most wars are elaborate ruses.

      • martinbrock

        A state never kills anyone who is not a “rebel soldier” or a “terrorist” or the like, so I’m not sure what these exceptions add to the argument. Caplan seems unduly optimist regarding most people here. Most people will cheer a death march of civilians to concentration camps if properly conditioned.

        • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

          Of course states kill non-terrorists. What kind of word games are you playing? Either you’re claiming that all hundred million plus people killed by states in the 20th century were “terrorists” or else you are claiming that the organizations that killed these people were not states, or both. In either case, you are using at least one of the terms “terrorist” or “state” in a very uncommon sense. Yet elsewhere you said, “Words mean only what people commonly mean by them” so I’m convinced you’ve made a false statement.

          • martinbrock

            I’m playing the word game that states routinely play, but I don’t think the game uncommon at all. People commonly think libertarians “unpatriotic” or something similar.

          • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

            It sounds like you’re trolling me, but of course I can’t be sure.

          • martinbrock

            I’ve never understood what “trolling” means beyond “saying things disagreeable to me”.

          • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

            That’s not what I mean by trolling. I mean when someone tries to mess with the other person by saying things they don’t really believe, or otherwise being insincere, etc, rather than trying to have an honest serious discussion and help the other person understand what they don’t understand. So, for example, you could intentionally keep flip-flopping on what you are saying and mix up your language to make it difficult for me to try to make sense of your positions (which wouldn’t really even be your positions). This would be a mean thing to do and a waste of my time, yet some people find enjoyment in messing with others like that. I label them trolls.

          • martinbrock

            I believe everything I say here. If I seem to flip flop, possibly an idea I try to express is more complex than you imagine or possibly my thinking evolves as I communicate with you.

          • martinbrock

            A “state” is an organization claiming a monopoly of coercive force in a territory.

            A “terrorist” uses violence for political ends. Typically, a state exempts its own violence for political ends. “State terrorism” is nonetheless a common usage, but insofar as “terrorism” describes a crime, “state terrorism” is a contradiction in terms as states define the terms, and I consistently use “crime” referring to whatever the state decrees. A Japanese-American refusing to report an internment camp during the second world war was a criminal, because the state said so and for no other reason.

            States typically claim that anyone they kill is a “terrorist” or otherwise criminal, except when they’ll concede “collateral damage” or “criminal abuse of authority”, which isn’t often. For example, the United State routinely claims that anyone killed in a drone strike is a “terrorist” by presumption, and overcoming the presumption, particularly for an adult male, is extremely burdensome as a matter of official state policy.

            But some states will uses the terms on rare occasions, particularly when discussing other states, either in the past or on other territory, so I should not have written “never”; however, in my defense, when I wrote “states never kill anyone who is not a ‘rebel soldier’ or a ‘terrorist’”, I wasn’t thinking of killing that the state disavows or declares accidental.

    • Massimo Renzo

      I think that knowing what our natural moral obligations are does not automatically tell us what legitimate political authority is. I am not sure I can see why that would be the case. In fact, arguably when we know what our natural duties are is when we might be tempted to do without political authorities (as we could discharge our natural duties without their help)

      Yes, in talking of pre-institutional condition, I am referring to political institutions.

      • j r

        This whole conversation tends to understate the difference between doing with or doing without political authority. All groups of people united by a common purpose or affinity (whether it be a sports team or a family or the Holy Roman Empire) have some set of norms that guide their behavior, sometimes those norms are codified and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are enforced through violence and sometimes they are not.

        You can have a society where political authority is enforced mostly through consensus and you can have a society where non-political authority is enforced violently.

        My point is that the likelihood of consensus increases in cases where moral obligations are clear and relatively non-controversial.

        • martinbrock

          Consensus exists among a group of people precisely when moral obligations are clear and non-controversial. Clear, non-controversial moral obligations define a consensus. The organization of people into cohesive groups defined by a shared sense of morality is rule by consensus. If only people were free to organize themselves this way, the most civil organization possible seems practically inevitable, but conventional states do not organize people this way. Conventional states forcibly subject people to other people, like masters to slaves.

          No state ever subjects all but one person absolutely to one person, even in a nominal “monarchy”, because such a state is not possible, and even if it were possible, it would not survive challenges to its authority. A stable state is necessarily responsive to its subjects to some minimal extent. This minimal responsiveness is a necessary characteristic of any stable state, so it does not distinguish one stable state from another. North Korea is so responsive to its subjects, but it is not a state governed by consensus. No existing state is.

          Rule by consensus is an unrealized ideal, as modern “liberal democracy” was once an unrealized ideal, but it seems realizable to me.

          • j r

            If people are free to organize themselves this way, the most civil organization possible seems practically inevitable, but conventional states do not organize people this way.

            This is exactly the sort of thinking that I find problematic. Rule by consensus is certainly realizable, but for how many and for how long?

            In any realistic historical understanding of the state, one has to realize that it is almost never just an artificial structure imposed from above. Rather it’s a naturally emergent phenomenon that results once individuals start to formalize pre-existing relationships.

          • martinbrock

            Consensus is necessarily fluid. Rule by consensus can only persist while people remain free to leave one group bound by a particular consensus for other groups similarly bound and while any group of sufficient size may constitute a community bound by a particular consensus. Communities must continually be born, grow, shrink, evolve and die in this context, like organizations of capital in a free capital market.

            I agree that no state is simply imposed from above, but an established state typically does not grow in this fluid manner. It rather grows toward greater rigidity, toward a more crystaline structure characterized by the specific bonds that it imposes among its constituents.

  • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

    “Even if I am right that we cannot discharge our natural duties by acting on our own, but only by coordinating with others, why is there a need to have an authority? …. The problem is that typically in this sort of case there is more than one way in which we can coordinate, and people tend to disagree about how best to do so. Sometimes the disagreement will be simply due to cognitive limitations affecting some of us, but other times the problem will be more serious. Sometimes, we will reasonably disagree in virtue of the fact that we hold irreconcilable and yet reasonable moral beliefs. For these reasons, even assuming that a) we hold sound moral beliefs about what our natural duties are, and b) we aim to always act conscientiously on these moral beliefs, we will fail to discharge these duties unless we enter some sort of authoritative cooperative scheme.”

    I disagree; it need not be an ***authoritative*** cooperative scheme. Even if coercing some people were necessary to make some cooperative scheme successful, it does not follow that the person doing the coercing has political authority. Instead, it may be the case that the coercion they are using is justified by independent morality and the obligations that the other have to obey the plan is also not a political obligation, but a requirement of independent morality.

    The episode “Kind Smurf” from the television show “The Smurfs” illustrates this point well. The smurfs live in a libertarian anarchist society. They have to work together to build a dam to stop a river from flooding their town, so they all listen to the wise Papa Smurf and follow his plan and directions. In the show they all choose to follow his plan and no coercive threats are made, but suppose the story were different:

    There may be other plans that they could follow to save the town from the river other than the plan Papa Smurf provides, and there may be reasonable disagreement over which plan is best, but the fact that they need to somehow agree on one plan in order to successfully stop the river does not mean that they have to grant someone (e.g. Papa Smurf) political authority.

    Instead, we can say they all of the smurfs have the natural duty to come to a consensus on some plan to save their town from the river. If you are a smurf who thinks that Plan X is best, and yet you see that the most popular plan is Papa Smurf’s Plan, then you are obligated to go along with Papa Smurf’s Plan if you fail to persuade the others in time that Plan X is best, even though Papa Smurf’s Plan is less efficient.

    If for some reason you continue to disagree and insist on Plan X, and your help in Papa Smurf’s plan is necessary to implement the plan successfully, then we could say that it is justified for someone to coerce you into following Papa Smurf’s Plan–not because that person has political authority, but because you failed to perform your natural duty.

    For an analogy, in the version of the Drowning Child example from Heumer’s book in which there are two bystanders watching a child drown and only one is able to help the child with minimal cost, but is unwilling to fulfill his duty to help the child, the unable-bystander who is unable to save the drowning child can permissibly coerce the able-bystander to save the child not because the unable-bystander has political authority, but because the able-bystander has failed to perform his natural duty to save the child at minimal cost. Similarly, when coercion is used against those who fail to perform their natural duty to participate in a cooperative scheme, such as following the popular Papa’s Smurf’s Plan (or following the most popular working plan to row the lifeboat to shore), the coercion used against them to force them to help is justified by independent morality, not by political authority. And they are obligated to follow the most popular plan (Papa Smurf’s Plan), not because the coercer said for them to, but because independent morality requires that they come to a consensus with everyone else on some plan and help implement it to save the town from the river. Specifically they had a natural duty to stop supporting Plan X and go with the more popular Papa Smurf Plan even though it was less efficient, since coming to a consensus on some plan was necessary to successfully implement a plan to save the town from the river.

    Note that I do not actually believe that there is a natural duty to participate in a cooperative scheme to save the Smurf’s town from the river. Any Smurf who wanted to abandon their property in the town and leave should be permitted to do so, unless bound by explicit contractual obligations that tell them to do otherwise. However, for the sake of argument, I suppose such a natural duty exists. When natural duties that require participation in cooperative plans do exist (assuming they do as Renzo claims), enforcement of these natural duties by a coercer is legitimate because of independent morality, not because the coercer has a special moral status called political authority. And the coercee is required to obey not because the coercer said so, but because independent morality requires they fulfil their natural duty to go with the most popular plan.

    • Matt

      (I don’t have much background in libertarian or anarchist theory, so I apologize if this response is naive.)

      I found this remark to be interesting:

      “Note that I do not actually believe that there is a natural duty to participate in a cooperative scheme to save the Smurf’s town from the river. Any Smurf who wanted to abandon their property in the town and leave should be permitted to do so, unless bound by explicit contractual obligations that tell them to do otherwise. However, for the sake of argument, I suppose such a natural duty exists.”

      Isn’t this where political authority becomes necessary? If individuals cannot agree on their natural duties, then coercion will appear justified to some and unjustified to others. And resisting that coercion will appear justified to the latter group and unjustified to the former. Political authority serves to pave over differences in opinions of what we ought to do for the sake of coming up with concrete rules of action; as the author quotes Raz: “mediation through law serves the role of concretizing moral principles.”

      • Les Kyle Nearhood

        Yes, yours is a consequentialist approach, of which I agree with.

      • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

        “If individuals cannot agree on their natural duties, then coercion will appear justified to some and unjustified to others.”

        This is true, but it doesn’t account for political authority. It doesn’t attempt to explain why some agents should have the right to use coercion for certain purposes under certain conditions, while other agents (lacking political authority) shouldn’t have the right to use coercion for the same purposes under the same conditions. Instead, it just says that people disagree about common sense morality.

        “Political authority serves to pave over differences in opinions of what we ought to do for the sake of coming up with concrete rules of action; as the author quotes Raz: ‘mediation through law serves the role of concretizing moral principles.’”

        It seems that you’re claiming that people disagree about moral principles and then believe that governments have political authority for the reason that the laws they create are consistent with other peoples’ moral principles, but not their own.

        So, for example, suppose there are 10 possible ways to use coercion: 1-10. You believe that uses of coercion 1-5 are justified and 6-10 are unjustified. However, some of your neighbors believe that uses of coercion 2-6 are justified, while 1 and 7-10 are unjustified. A government in your society uses coercion 1-6. Even though you believe that coercion 6 is unjustified and even though your neighbors believe that coercion 1 is unjustified, you both believe that it is justified for the government to use coercion 1-6 since the government “serves to pave over differences in opinions of what we ought to do for the sake of coming up with concrete rules of action; as the author quotes Raz: ‘mediation through law serves the role of concretizing moral principles.” You thus believe the organization has political authority.

        The problem with this is, what if some non-government agent lacking political authority also used coercion 1-6? Why would you stick with your independent morality judgement and say that this non-government agents use of coercion 6 is unjustified and yet not stick to your independent morality judgement when it comes to the government agent using coercion 6?

        It seems to me that if your believe that you should sometimes regard it as morally permissible to do X even though you personally believe it is morally impermissible to do X for the reason that other people disagree with you and regard it as morally permissible to do X, then you should do this way for all agents who do X, not just some agents. In other words, you should hold that all agents, not just agents of the state, have political authority. If all agents have political authority, than what they have is no longer political authority, since it is no longer a special moral status.

        I thus don’t see how even this limited political authority can be accounted for in the way you describe.

        • Les Kyle Nearhood

          Well that is because, like in all philosophical discussions, you are looking at everything as an absolute. But the real world does not work that way. In the real world we use compromise, we go with best choices not always the perfect ones.

          I am a libertarian but I believe that some government is needed. A government which is limited in scope, and which attempts to garantee basic human rights will not always act perfectly. But I am willing to put up with it because the alternative could be a lot worse.

          And because it is not perfect, that does not mean it lacks authority. It gains this authority from the people themselves who act in acquiescence to this authority.

    • Christopher Morris

      I like the example. It seems to me that the Grand Schroumpf (“Papa smurf” in the US) is a coordinating figure. As such his suggestions have a salience, we might say, that leads the other Schroumpfs to follow them, even when so doing does not lead to the best outcome. Some might say that the Grand Schroumpf has authority (in Raz’s sense). This world might be an example of a political authority with no coercive power.

      • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

        I’m not familiar with Raz’s sense of authority. However, I would say that Papa Smurf has no political authority since he has no special moral status. He is just someone who is wise and knowledgeable. The other Smurfs know this and know that they will most likely be better off if they follow his advice, so they do. But I think all the other Smurfs have the same rights to use coercion as Papa Smurf, so he has no political authority. Any coercion that he is justified in using is justified by independent morality and the other smurfs also have the right to use the same coercion for the same purposes.

        • Christopher Morris

          Yes, what you say is possible. But I think it’s also possible that the Grand Schroumpf is wise and that his directives are taken by the others as reasons to act. This would suggest that he has authority (of the Razian sort [excuse the pedantry, but it's one common analysis of authority]), even though he has no special moral status (not needed for political or legal authority) and even though he has no special right to coerce. This would be an example of a political authority with no special coercive power. But the example is not yours, so you are right to protest.

          (I grew up reading the stories of the Schroumpfs and I can’t bring myself to call them Smurfs.)

          CM

          • Massimo Renzo

            Thank you both! I think that part of the disagreement here depends on the fact that Chris and I tend to think about authority in terms of the power to create new reasons for action, whereas PRA and Huemer tend to think about it in terms of justified coercion. I tried to bracket this difference as much as possible in my post, but to some extent which conception we adopt will affect the way we look at the problem.

            PRA: if you accept that the dam can be successfully built only if we follow the directives of one individual (to avoid coordination problems etc.), then that explains why once the best person has been chosen, no one else’s directive should be followed. Before the choice is made this individual may be Papa Smurf or someone else. But once it is made, only Papa Smurf’s directives are authoritative (either in the sense that they give us reasons for action or in the sense that they can be enforced).

            [BTW In my reply to PRA's original comment I have tried to distinguish more clearly between the natural duties we have to enter a cooperative scheme and the duties that we have qua members of the scheme once we have entered it.]

    • Massimo Renzo

      Thanks for your comment! We need to distinguish between two duties:

      a) the duty we have to enter a cooperative scheme (the passengers’ duty to enter my rowing scheme or your duty to be part of Papa Smurf’s plan)

      b) the duty to obey the directives issued within the scheme (for example, Bob’s directive to row in a certain way or Papa Smurf’s directive to choose certain material for the dam)

      You are right that the duty to enter the cooperative scheme (a) is a natural duty, and does not depend on the fact that Bob or Papa Smurf tell you to join. It’s the duty to obey the directives issued withing the scheme (b) that is created by the authority. Even if Bob or Papa Smurf issue a pointless directive (within the limits I spell out in the post), you have a duty to obey.

      • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

        “It’s the duty to obey the directives issued within the scheme (b) that is created by the authority.”

        I’d maintain that one’s duty to obey the directives issue within the scheme is still a natural duty.

        So, for example, the smurfs are only obligated to obey Papa Smurf’s directives insofar as obeying his directives is necessary to fulfill duty (a), i.e. insofar as obeying his directives is necessary to successfully build the dam to stop the river from flooding the town. (This means that Papa Smurf doesn’t have “authority” in Huemer’s sense.)

        If there is a directive issued (by Papa Smurf or anyone else) that one can disobey while still fulfilling natural duty (a), then I would maintain that one has no obligation to obey the directive (unless of course there is some other natural duty that one obey that directive (e.g. if the directive is “do not murder”)).

        So one is obligated to obey the relevant directives issued not because the “authority” said it, but because once a particular plan has been chosen, following the directives that spell out how to complete the plan is necessary in order to complete the plan successfully. which is the natural duty (a) that people have.

        • martinbrock

          Suppose Captain Smurf lives on a houseboat. He lives on a lake within the town and expects to gain more from the flood than he’ll lose, since the flood will kill or dispossess many other people while only raising his house boat a little higher. After the flood, Captain Smurf may claim resources claimed by others before the flood without the costly contests necessary before the flood. Does Captain Smurf have a natural duty to cooperate in building the dam?

          • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

            “Does Captain Smurf have a natural duty to cooperate in building the dam?”

            No, but I don’t think he did in the original unmodified scenario either. Anyway, what does this have to do with the discussion of political authority?

          • martinbrock

            I’m trying to determine what you mean by “natural duty”.

          • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

            I don’t normally use the term “natural duty”, but I was adopting it because Massimo Renzo was using it. It’s basically when you have a moral obligation to do something, rather than a political obligation. Throughout Part I of MH’s book he often points out that “independent morality” obligates us to obey certain laws (e.g. laws prohibiting murder). These moral obligations (not to murder, etc) are “natural duties”. Or at least that’s the meaning I’ve been assuming for the term.

          • martinbrock

            O.K. To be clear, morality is never natural in my way of thinking. All morality is artificial by definition. Political obligations are also artificial. By “artificial”, I only mean “man made”, and by “natural”, I mean the complement of “artificial” (everything that is not man made). In other words, I’m a humanist.

            I don’t know what “independent morality” is supposed to be independent of, but if you specify a moral tenet, we can discuss its history, “history” being an idealized record of the acts of men (not excluding females).

            “Murder” commonly describes illegal killing and is not a moral term in my way of thinking. For example, in my neck of the woods, people will say “he needed killing”. They don’t necessarily mean that a killing was lawful or not murder. They seem rather to mean that a particular murder is morally acceptable to them.

  • martinbrock

    I confess little patience with anarchism at this point. I accepted the label myself once, but the more I considered my own assumptions and the arguments of other nominal “anarchists”, the more I realized that none of us truly want anarchy. We want a minarchy enforcing particular rules and only these rules, but we don’t want anarchy.

    So for me, the more essential question is: what rules are sufficient for a state? Can we posit a state with strictly limited authority and expect this limited authority, and only this authority, exercised universally, to establish the justice we prefer? The search for this minimal state leads me to advocate something like Kukathas’ liberal archipelago.

    I’m satisfied with this minimal state only because I have no political goal beyond satisfying human preferences. If humanity constrained only this way slouches toward Gomorrah, I honestly don’t care. If free people don’t maximize the productivity of capital, I don’t care. If humanity free of some Green state drives the Earth toward a climatological catastrophe leading ultimately to human extinction, I don’t care.

    Perpetuating humanity, even life on Earth, for all time is not my goal in any sense. I don’t even consider these ends. Any human effort to achieve these ends, individual or concerted, emergent or imposed, seems delusional to me. Satisfying our preferences is the only end we can pursue, so we might as well pursue it and stop apologizing to imaginary gods for it.

    • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

      “[N]one of us truly want anarchy. We want a minarchy enforcing particular rules and only these rules, but we don’t want anarchy.”

      This isn’t true. Minarchies enforce the rule that they are allowed to extort money from citizens to fund rights-protection services. Minarchies also enforce the rule that competing rights-enforcement agencies are not allowed. I don’t want either of these rules, hence why I want anarchy.

      • martinbrock

        Yes, a minarchy requires some funding to enforce its rules, and since it enforces the rules universally, regardless of the consent of the governed, it presumably extorts this funding from some of the governed at a least, and it does not tolerate anyone enforcing contradictory rules.

        You don’t escape a minarchy by limiting enforcement agencies to enforcing only “rights”. You rather assume a state distinguishing “rights” which may be enforced from “wrongs” which may not. Imagining yourself the philosopher king of this state does make the state not a state.

        • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

          I don’t understand what you mean. Are you claiming that all agents are states?

          • martinbrock

            Either all rights enforcing services are licensed by a state or the services don’t all enforce the same rights. If the services don’t enforce the same rights, then I may hire a service to defend my claim to a parcel of land that you also claim. My claim may be legitimate according the rules enforced by my service, and your claim may be legitimate according the rules enforced by your service.

          • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

            I’m still not sure that I understand what you mean. Let’s

            see if I’ve interpreted what you’ve said correctly.

            “If my service overpowers yours and imposes my claim on you and everyone else, then yes, it constitutes a state within the territory that it dominates this way if this territory encompasses many claims.”

            Suppose Agent A has 100 disputes with others over the course of several years. Agent A wins a vast majority of those disputes. Does this make Agent A a “state” since Agent A “dominates” at successfully enforcing it’s claims against all others whom it has disputes?

            And then alternatively, in a society with many agents (e.g. a thousand or million), if all the agents have 100 disputes each and all successfully enforce about 50 of them and fail to enforce about 50, then they are in an “anarchy” — a state of nature. Is this right?

            So if there exists an agent that successfully enforces nearly all of its claims, then we refer to this agent as a “state.” And if no such “dominating” agent exists then there is a state of nature. Yes?

            If I have interpreted you correctly, my question is, what counts as “dominates”?

            For example, while the US state may clearly dominate, since it wins the vast majority of disputes it has with people, it does not win every dispute. For example, it claims it owns Joe’s income taxes, yet Joe claims he owns the money and so he refuses to file and successfully keeps his money and uses it.

            Now imagine that there are a lot more Joe’s in society than there actually are. Imagine that a lot of people start successfully enforcing their claims that they own the tax money the US state claims it owns. And suppose this happens with disputes regarding all other property too, not just tax money. The US state’s successful enforcement rate thus starts to decline. Initially it was close to 100% of disputes, but now that percentage decreases. Once that number gets to 50% it clearly is no longer a state, since it clearly doesn’t dominate since it only does average in disputes. At what point does the US state stop being a state?

            Also, what happens if an agent chooses only to make claims that end up getting enforced? So for example, if I claim that “might makes right” and choose to enforce the set of rights that “might makes,” am I a state since I dominate at successfully enforcing (effortlessly, by the way) all of my claims?

            Or, is it the case that for an agent to be a state, that agent must be capable not only of enforcing the vast majority of its claims, but it also must be capable of enforcing the vast majority of the opposite of its claims?

            In other words, if Bob and George were neighbors and both believed they had the right to control the land between their houses and were both fighting to enforce their claims, would Agent A be a state only if Agent A had the power to be very likely to be able to influence the result of this dispute either way in favor of either Bob or George?

            This actually seems like a pretty good way to come up with a rigorous definition of a “state”. I don’t know if this is what you meant or not, but even if it’s not I kind of like this definition. So what is this definition?:

            A state is an agent capable of resolving disputes (i.e. ending conflicts) in some (large*) territory in favor of whichever party it wants a large majority of the time.

            * I say large, because if you define the territory as being the boundaries of my body, for example, then things may get strange. So I’ll stick to assuming this territory is some big geographic area like America.

            Actually, let’s refine this definition again. Because let’s say out in the US citizen 1 tells citizen 2 “I want you dead” and 1 say “no i want to be alive” and 2 then kills 1. The US government is basically powerless to prevent this. (But so is nearly everyone else,) Therefore:

            A state is an agent capable of resolving disputes (i.e. ending conflicts) in some (large*) territory in favor of whichever party it wants a much larger percentage of the time than all other agents.

            Is this a good definition? I’m not sure. I’ll assume it is and wait for your feedback before thinking about it further.

            Okay, so here’s the question: Am I a “statist” (one who wants there to be a state) or an “anarchist” (one who wants there to be no state (anarchy)) for this definition of “state”?

            At first glance it may seem that I would want there to be a state, so long as that state chooses to enforce the set of rights that I believe to be legitimate. So, for example, it may seem that I should love to be a state myself, since, with the power to resolve many disputes in whatever favor I wanted, I could choose to resolve them according to the set of rights that I believe are legitimate.

            But, by being a state I would also be in a position of great power. I would be a “nice dictator” in the sense that I would have the ability to do great evil yet I would instead choose to use my power to resolve disputes justly.

            Alternatively, in anarchy, I (nor any other agent) would not have the power to resolve disputes in whichever way I pleased, so I could not just choose to enforce the set of rules that I believe to be legitimate. However, this does not mean that the set of rules that I believe to be legitimate would not be enforced. They could be. It would just mean that I (nor any other agent) would not have the power to enforce the opposite of the rules.

            So going back to what you said a while ago:

            “[N]one of us truly want anarchy. We want a minarchy enforcing particular rules and only these rules, but we don’t want anarchy.”

            I still maintain that this is false (assuming that I interpreted your meaning of “state” roughly correctly). There is indeed a particular set of rules that I want to be enforced, but I don’t want these rules to be enforced by a state (“an agent capable of resolving disputes (i.e. ending conflicts) in some (large) territory in favor of whichever party it wants a much larger percentage of the time than all other agents.”).

            Rather, I want all agents to have equal ability to resolve disputes in the large territory in favor of whichever party they want. Specifically, I want all agents to have zero ability (or as close to zero ability as possible) to resolve disputes in favor of whichever party they want.This is because I only want them to be able to resolve disputes in favor of the party whose rights claim is legitimate. Now of course “zero” is an impossible standard, since presumably people will be resolving the disputes. But at least the power to resolve disputes will be decentralized among the many arbitrators working for the many competing arbitration firms that people with disputes will choose to go to in an anarcho-capitalist society (thus meaning on average each arbitrator (or arbitration agency) has close to zero ability to resolve a given dispute) rather than be concentrated in one arbitration agency (the state).

            So I maintain that I am still an anarchist, even by this definition of “anarchist” and “statist,” “state” and “anarchy.”

            I really hope I interpreted you correctly. That was long. :-P

          • martinbrock

            Suppose Agent A has 100 disputes with others over the course of several years. Agent A wins a vast majority of those disputes. Does this make Agent A a “state” since Agent A “dominates” at successfully enforcing it’s claims against all others whom it has disputes?

            Agent A is a constituent of the state. Whatever declares A “winner” in these disputes is the state.

            If only you’re saying that A wins 100 fights with 100 other people, mano-a-mano, to dominate particular resources, like a lion winning many territorial disputes with other lions, no state is involved. That’s the state of nature.

            And then alternatively, in a society with many agents (e.g. a thousand or million), if all the agents have 100 disputes each and all successfully enforce about 50 of them and fail to enforce about 50, then they are in an “anarchy” — a state of nature. Is this right?

            No. The number of victories is not the issue. The systematic application of force by an organization claiming a monopoly of legitimate force is the issue.

            So if there exists an agent that successfully enforces nearly all of its claims, then we refer to this agent as a “state.”

            If most murders are never solved., a state prohibiting murder could be said not to enforce most of its claims, but it’s still a state. If a particular formulation of “murder” is illegal, everywhere and always, then every law enforcement service enforces this same law, and the services thus are not independent. If you own a particular parcel of land, because you were the first person to fence the parcel and to register your claim formally, and if every law enforcement service enforces the claim of the first person to fence a parcel and register the claim formally, then the services are not independent. The organization that establishes this particular standard is the state.

            If I have interpreted you correctly, my question is, what counts as “dominates”?

            People typically recognize the state to which they are subject. It’s like pornography. Defining it precisely is more difficult than recognizing it.

            Imagine that a lot of people start successfully enforcing their claims that they own the tax money the US state claims it owns.

            If these people successfully enforce their claims by either evading U.S. law enforcement or overpowering it somehow, then they are simply criminals by the standards of the U.S. If they ultimately manage effectively to secede from the U.S., so that people generally recognize them as not subject to the U.S., then they aren’t simply criminals, but since they claim resources, they presumably have some systematic basis for these claims.

            At what point does the US state stop being a state?

            That’s an interesting question, and the answer is not simple, but few people deny that the U.S. is a state at this time.

            You say above that people sucessfully claim resources, so they impose their claims over all competing claims, all competing claims being illegitimate, simply theft. At what point do these people and their standards of legitimacy constitute a state?

          • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

            I still can’t figure out exactly what you mean by “state” and I am thus still unsure why you think “[N]one of us truly want anarchy.” I maintain that I am an anarchist.

    • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

      “I’m satisfied with this minimal state only because I have no political goal beyond satisfying human preferences.”

      Imagine you and I live under the same minimal state. The fact is that I may likely have the preference to purchase the rights-protection services of a different firm instead. Should I have this right? Or should I be forced to purchase the services of the minimal state, even if I believe that I can get better quality service for a lower price from a competing firm?

      Have you read Gustave de Molinari’s essay “The Production of Security”? http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/2012/06/24/gustave-de-molinaris-the-production-of-security/

      • martinbrock

        I have no problem with you purchasing rights-protection services from anyone you like, but as Renzo and others note, you assume here that a rights-protection service may only protect particular rights, not any rights you want protected. The issue is not who may enforce particular rights. The issue is which rights they may enforce.

        I do have a problem with you purchasing the service of a firm that shoots people calling you a tyrant, on the grounds that these people violate your right not to be slandered, for example. The minimal state that I imagine prohibits you or any rights-protecting service from enforcing this right.

        I haven’t read Molinari’s essay.

        • http://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/ PeaceRequiresAnarchy

          “The state prevents anyone from enforcing rules that may not be enforced.”

          Is that how you are defining “state”? If so, why are you defining “state” in that way? Specifically, why can’t non-states also prevent people from enforce rules that may not be enforced?

          “I do have a problem with you purchasing the service of a firm that kills people calling you a tyrant, on the grounds that these people violate your right not to be slandered, for example. The minimal state that I imagine prohibits you or any rights-protecting service from enforcing this right in this way.”

          Can’t that agency you imagine be a non-state rather than a minimal state? What feature about it makes it necessarily a state rather than a non-state?

          “Words mean only what people commonly mean by them, and people commonly do not use “anarchy” as Rothbardians and other self-described “anarchists” use the word”

          People commonly use “anarchy” to mean chaos…. Maybe we just have a semantic disagreement over how the term “state” should be used.

          “statists routinely advocate practically the same thing that these “anarchists” [Rothbardians] advocate.”

          How so?

          (1) Rothbardians believe that no rule permitting extortion may be enforced, while statists disagree (taxation).

          (2) Rothbardians believe that no rule prohibiting the enforcement of rules that statists and Rothbardians agree may be enforced may be enforced, while statists disagree (states outlawing competing rights-enforcement agencies in the territory controlled by the state).

          It is due to these two disagreements that I label Rothbardians “anarchists” rather than “statists.” What is wrong with this?

          • martinbrock

            “The state prevents anyone from enforcing rules that may not be enforced.”

            Is that how you are defining “state”? If so, why are you defining “state” in that way?

            Yes. Because that’s how people commonly use the word.

            Specifically, why can’t non-states also prevent people from enforcing rules that may not be enforced?

            Which rules may not be enforced? Without an answer to this question, “preventing people from enforcing rules that may not be enforced” is meaninglessly ambiguous.

            Note the passive voice in “may not be enforced”. May not be enforce by whom? The answer is “people outside of the state”.

            If you tell me a that X prevents any protection service from enforcing R, because R is a rule that may not be enforced, you’ve told me that X is the state.

            If you tell me that both X and Y prevent any protection service from enforcing Rx and Ry, because Rx and Ry may not be enforced, I’m compelled to ask, “What if obeying Rx disobeys Ry and vice versa?”

    • j r

      I agree. And I will only add that I know a lot of self-proclaimed anarchists and their revealed preferences certainly point towards minarchy more than outright anarchy. The biggest collection of libertarian anarchists might be found in the Free State Project. Notice they chose to go to New Hampshire as opposed to say, starting from scratch in the middle of some uninhabited place.

      Here’s what else I’ve found odd. Let’s say that you hate the state. What to do about it? Your options are pretty much along the lines of: (1) work to smash the state; (2) flea the state; or (3) ignore the state. There’s a certain irony to those who choose option 1 in that it’s the option that puts them most in contact with the state, the thing that they supposedly hate so much.

  • martinbrock

    Huemer understands political authority as the state’s right to coerce its subjects. I disagree. Political authority in my view is primarily to be understood as the capacity to create new moral obligations.

    Political authority is the state’s coercion of its subjects. We may say that the state has a “legal right”, or a “positive right” or better yet a “statutory right”, to coerce its subjects, but this statement is a tautology.

    A state never creates a moral obligation in my way of thinking. Morality and subjection to a state are orthogonal senses of “obligation”. One has nothing to do with the other. Omega is a moral obligation, because a particular, systematic morality requires omega, and I accept this system. Omega is a statutory obligation, because a state threatens to harm me if I violate omega.

    Morality is a subjective preference, like the preference for Dr. Pepper over Coca Cola, but unlike the preference for a particular soft drink, two people preferring different moral standards can’t necessarily have what they want in the same place at the same time.

    A minimal state, seeking to satisfy individual preferences as much as possible, limits coercive interaction between people preferring conflicting moral standards. It can do so in several ways. It can require people with conflicting standards to tolerate one another, or it can require these people to respect some compromise standard when interacting, or it can require these people to avoid interacting.

    A particular state enacts a particular systematic morality, but this fact does not contradict the preceding statements. The constituents of a state are people preferring particular moral systems.

    • Massimo Renzo

      Thanks. We disagree both on moral obligations (I don’t think they necessarily depend on whether you accept the relevant moral system) and on what you call “statutory obligations”. Why think that the latter should be understood in terms of coercion? Think about non-political authorities — for example, parental authority: when a mum tells his child that he should switch off the TV and go to bed, we normally think that the child has new reasons to go to bed that he did not have before she told him. These reasons have nothing to do with punishment (the mum might not punish the child when he disobeys). Those reasons have to do with the fact that “she said so”. Political authorities give the same sort of reasons. To be sure, their directives are usually backed by the threat of using coercion, but this doesn’t change that the same sort of reasons are created.

      • martinbrock

        Parental authority belongs in its own category, but a child’s sense of obligation toward a parent seems more like a contractual obligation than like a statutory obligation to me.

        Children naturally want to obey their parents, and parents naturally want to support their children, so the relationship is not coercive in the way that the relationship between state and subject is coercive.

        On the other hand, love is not contractual, and this natural emotion binds parents and children more than anything else. It’s about hormones encoded in DNA, not contractual terms or statutory decrees.

        The state seems nothing like a parent to me, even if it construes itself this way. A state typically is a parasite on its subjects, but parents are not at all like parasites on their children. The opposite is more nearly true.

        Parents naturally feed their children information, survival strategies, as well as food. States pretend to instruct their subjects similarly, but states feed their subjects a pretense of knowledge. Nothing could be more obvious to me when I hear practically any political speech. It’s like the least nutritious junk food imaginable.

  • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

    Massimo:
    Thanks for the interesting, provocative argument. I am wondering, however, whether it gains it plausibility from the fact that in your case everyone in the boat wants to get to land, that everyone must cooperate to do so, and disagreements relate only to the best means and method. I am not sure this establishes a “natural duty” to cooperate under the direction of a central authority when these conditions are absent, as they almost always would be in the real world.

    What if “Joe” is a conscientious objector to Bob’s plan. He sincerely claims that he would rather die than obey Bob’s directions. Does Joe have a natural duty to participate in the cooperative arrangement? If so, what is the ethical foundation of this duty? Would the rest of the participants be justified in forcing him to participate by torture, etc. Would they be justified in tossing him overboard?

    • Massimo Renzo

      Thanks, Mark. For reasons that I explain in the paper of mine I refer to, we should assume that the amount of rowing required to move the boat to the land is proportional to the weight of the boat itself. This means that if Joe was not on board, the boat would be lighter and the remaining passengers would be able to row to the land. Under these circumstances, Joe has a natural duty to row because failing to do so would endanger others. Joe can leave the boat if he wishes. If he doesn’t, he has a duty to be part of the rowing scheme, and this duty can be enforced (within the limits of necessity and proportionality).

      • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

        Thanks for the reply. I believe that while your stipulation may rescue your example (pardon the pun), it does so at the cost of robbing it of any application beyond this rather artificial setting (which as a libertarian does not upset me). More specifically, it seems clear to me that the reason that Joe has the right to leave the boat but not to stay on a non-cooperating basis, is that in the latter case he makes everyone else worse off than if he never existed. But, I can’t think of any other situation involving claims of political authority where this would be true.

        For instance, my refusal to pay into social security, ObamaCare, or Medicare, etc., while disclaiming any possible benefit from these programs, does not make other members of society worse off in this sense. Nor can I think of any other examples where it would. What am I missing?

        • Massimo Renzo

          Hi Mark, remember that my boat-case is supposed to justify only the minimal state (footnote 3 of my post), so Medicare etc would not be part of what I’m talking about. The state would have the power to issue authoritative directives only in relation to areas of conduct that need to be authoritatively regulated in order to have basic rights protected. I argue that in relation to this sort of cooperative scheme, non-cooperators are like Joe.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            With respect to national defense, I actually agree with your conclusion, but I still can’t follow your logic. When Joe free rides in my case, he actually makes all the other members of the community worse off, as they must row his weight. National defense doesn’t have this characteristic. Once you spend the money to defend N.Y. against a nuclear missle strike, one more New Yorker doesn’t raise the cost of the missile shield. Free riders don’t punish others, they just ride for free.

          • Massimo Renzo

            Hi Mark, my point is not that those who are not part of the cooperative scheme free ride (although I do believe that fairness obligations can ground political obligation under certain conditions), but that states will be able to effectively ensure that basic rights are protected only if they can impose content-independent obligations on everyone, or almost everyone, living on their territory. (In the paper I discuss how the idea that everyone has political obligation can be weakened under certain conditions).

      • Theresa Klein

        Let’s change the hypothetical a bit. What if in order to get the boat to land you really do need all four people to row. If one of them jump out of the boat to swim for himself, he effectively condemns the other three to sink or swim.

        Can the three people in the boat force Joe to stay and row in order to assure their own safety?

        What if Joe’s safety is less assured if he stays and rows, than if he were to jump and swim on his own? That is, Joe would be better off going it alone, but the other three would be worse off without Joe.

        How does this change the calculation? If Joe is better off swimming, but the other three are worse off, can the other three force him to stay? How much better off would Joe have to be swimming for it himself for him to be justfied in jumping ship and swimming by himself?

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  • Counsellor

    Missing from this contribution is the distinction between Law and Rules of Policy (Legislation).
    Whether it be the world of Science (Physics ,Mechanics, Biology) or society itself, Law describes, defines (and sometimes delineates) the order that is observed and perceived.
    Rules of Policy ( (Legislation) describe, define, and delineate **desired** order.
    Care should be taken to differentiate the obligations of members of the social order to one another arising out of , or determined by, Rules of Policy as distinguished from Law .

  • Theresa Klein

    As Hayek would argue, there are ways to coordinate our activities that do not necessarily involve a central coordinating authority.
    You respond by arguing that in some cases, differences in moral principles may make it impossible to coordinate acitivites effectively without such an authority. However, I’m not sure if it being impossible to coordinate activities because of disagreement justifies imposing a central authority to force such coordination.
    If people in the boat cannot agree on how to row, to the point that they would rather let the boat sink than go along with what other people in the boat want, then perhaps letting the boat sink is the only moral course of action. At least this option should be considered.
    The alternative is to suggest that whichever party is ultimately stronger has the moral right to force people to go along with what it thinks is right. But this would quickly devolve into a might-makes-right majority rule justification.
    In the long run, the goal of the normative project is to get agreement amoung everyone in the boat about what the correct moral principles ought to be, which eventually will form the foundation of a truly just society. Granting the stronger party the right to force the weaker party into conformity for the sake of survival doesn’t advance this goal, but rather impedes it. It may be, that the right of the weaker party to sink the boat rather than go along is just what is needed to get the stronger party to compromise.

    • Massimo Renzo

      Hi Theresa, my point is not that the stronger party has the right to coerce others. My point is that Joe can be coerced into being part of the rowing scheme if it is true that
      a) Joe’s refusal to cooperate will prevent the boat from reaching the land and
      b) if Joe hadn’t been on board, the other passengers could have rowed to the land (because the boat would have been lighter),

      • Theresa Klein

        Well, in that case, the stronger party should offer Joe a choice, jump out of the boat and swim, or cooperate and row. That isn’t technically coercion since Joe does have the option of jumping and swimming for himself. The fact that Joe prefers not to swim for himself, or thinks he would be worse off attempting to swim, doesn’t mean he’s being coerced into being in the boat. If he stays in the boat he’s voluntarily assuming the duty to cooperate.

        • Massimo Renzo

          Hi Theresa, the whole discussion (including Huemer’s treatment of the problem) is premised on the assumption that what you describe above is an instance of coercion. However, names are not important. It looks as if we agree on the substance of the matter (except that which party is stronger in my view is not relevant in establishing who can permissibly coerce whom)

          • Theresa Klein

            Ok, but I do think whether we call it coercion or not makes a difference. There’s a fundamental difference between chaining Joe to the oar and making him row, and throwing him out of the boat if he refuses to row. And that difference is the same as the difference between forcing everyone to purchase an approved insurance plan, and allowing them to opt out and pay out of pocket.

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  • jebaldwin

    Why must we presume that we’re all in the same boat? I mean, is life really like a lifeboat, or can we conceive of a world of lifeboats, one in which those who need Bob to coerce them get on one boat and those who believe cooperation will emerge without an all-knowing Bob can set sail in peace?

    And, no, I’m not suggesting sea-steading.

    The problem with the one lifeboat hypothetical is that it ignores the fact that too many people want to be Bob and are willing to fight to be so.

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