Much of what I write will be with reference to the book “The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey” by Michael Huemer. I regret to say that the book is quite expensive (almost $100 in hardback and over $30 for the Kindle version) so I cannot in good conscience recommend that you purchase the book. But the ideas with which he deals and the conclusions he reaches in the first half of the book deserve your careful consideration. These are important subjects. I will reflect on the most general points he deliberates in the same sequence as his book uses.
First we take up the concept of authority, specifically political authority. I have a similar disrespect for authority in other areas of philosophy but we are mostly concerned in today’s essay with power relationships among people. Huemer defines political authority as “the hypothesized moral property in virtue of which governments may coerce people in certain ways not permitted to anyone else and in virtue of which citizens must obey governments in which they would not be obligated to obey anyone else.” Huemer goes on to divide such political authority into two aspects, that the government has (or claims) the right to make laws and enforce them using coercion and the companion obligation of the citizens to obey these laws. You will note, as Huemer makes clear, that this right and this obligation are moral or ethical in nature. People tend to feel that government is acting morally and ethically when it enacts laws and is likewise acting morally and ethically when it uses coercion to enforce these laws. (As an aside, note that the word “enforce” includes the word “force.” That is no coincidence.)
With respect to authority, the relationship between government and the individual is basically best expressed by the statement “obey me or I’ll hurt you.” Under what set of circumstances could such a relationship be considered to be moral or ethical? Certainly society has deemed the authority relationship between parent and small child to be moral and ethical. The old saying “spare the rod and spoil the child” illustrates the acceptance and even the requirement that the parent use coercion to gain obedience from children. But the state is not the parent of the individual. Presumably, an adult citizen is not so ignorant and helpless as to require a state’s coercion to be able to function without danger to himself or others. We have sports teams which have authoritarian coaches who use coercion to get the players to do what they are commanded to do. Why do we accept that? In part, we tolerate such things because the player can always refuse and leave the team. The player may forfeit salary, or a scholarship, or certain other social rewards but that option does exist for the player and many people live happy and successful lives without ever being a member of a sports team. Both the player and the coach are limited by some kind of formal or informal contract, a mutual agreement. Does such a contract exist between the state and the individual? It does when the individual is a government employee. But the individual may resign (with some military exceptions) and the government can fire the employee. Such a contract exists when the individual is a contractor providing some product or service to the government. In this case, also, the individual can opt out. But these contracts between the government and the individual are contracts between supposed equals. In a legal case concerning the contract, the two parties would be considered to be equal before the law.
Such is not the case with respect to the state and the citizen concerning political authority. Certainly there exists no explicit social contract in which the citizen agrees to obey. One is a citizen as an infant. Could there be an implicit social contract in this case? Huemer lists four conditions for valid agreements and I QUOTE from page vii “Valid contracts satisfy four principles: (1) valid consent requires a reasonable way of opting out; (2) explicit dissent trumps alleged implicit consent; (3) an action can be taken as communicating agreement only if the agent believed that if he did not take the action, the agreement would not have been imposed on him; (4) contractual obligation is mutual and conditional.” END QUOTE.
As Huemer notes, none of these four conditions is met by the alleged social contract between citizen and state. Therefore the idea that there is a true social contract between the state and the individual simply makes no sense. There’s more of a contract between a member of a social fraternity and one of its brothers than there is between the state and a citizen. So we can exclude explicit social contract as a basis for political authority to be morally or ethically justified.
But what about a hypothetical consent? Is there grounds for justifying political authority if certain hypothetical conditions were met? We examined the hypothetical consent context in our third lecture on Justice, in which we took up the work of John Rawls. My conclusion was that no such system was possible in the presence of physical object money. Therefore, I find myself in agreement with Huemer that QUOTE “Hypothetical consent cannot save the social contract theory.” UNQUOTE.
We have eliminated the social contract justification for political authority. That was like shooting fish in a barrel. No detailed analysis was required. No esoteric knowledge was needed. Everything was quite obvious. There must be other justifications for government authority over the citizen. The social contract justification could be used by kings and tyrants. Perhaps democracy provides a better justification.
If you get a vote in who is to command your obedience and punish you when you do not obey, are you any better off than the person who has no such vote? In both cases you obey under the threat of coercion. What difference does it make whether some people voted (probably) for the person in authority? In modern times all the great dictators announce that their rule is the will of the people. The use of voting, however conducted, will not render the outcomes either correct or ethical. People often vote against the interests of themselves, their community, and humanity. There’s nothing about a majority or a plurality than makes the verdict correct or moral. Democracy is merely a means of generating a decision when a decision is needed to prevent some kind of civil war or conflict. It is not a means of finding truth or validity or anything else, especially when one considers the many ways in which elections can be influenced. We also have a lecture available on elections if you’d like to pursue that topic.
Therefore, we cannot reasonably use the existence of democracy to justify political authority.
So what remains that might justify it? Perhaps a lack of political authority would have terrible consequences. Let’s explore that possibility. We can readily imagine a society without any government services such as the fire department, the police, the courts, business laws, and defense. Such a situation would obviously make us all quite vulnerable to many ills. Is political authority necessary in order to prevent such events?
Do we have fires, crime, injustice, fraud in the marketplace, and wars? Political authority does not appear to have eliminated these social ills. In the case of wars, political authority is the root cause. But does political authority reduce these problems, at least? Does having the state coercing people into obedience actually reduce the incidence of fires, crime, injustice, and fraud in the marketplace? The state would have you believe that political authority does just that. It may even be true in some instances. The state required that auto makers install seat belts in all their cars. The auto makers obeyed that law and the result was that many lives were saved and injuries were prevented, especially when people actually began obeying the law that said they had to use the seat belts. When the police require that people evacuate in the face of natural disasters such as wildfires, floods, and hurricanes, lives and property are saved. I am certain one could find other examples of instances in which the government used its power to coerce to have people do things which preserved lives and prevented injuries.
But to justify coercion by the state one would have to make the case that the only way those lives can be preserved and the harm prevented is through the existence and use of political authority. That is a very difficult case to make. In my own example, I purchased and used seat belts, first the lap belt and a couple of years later the shoulder belt years before the government requirements were made law. It was a form of insurance, and their use did save the lives of two of my family members. So it clearly is not at all necessary for the state to require sensible actions in order for some people to behave sensibly.
Next, I must point out that the state often passes laws which do more harm than good. That is, in the enforcement of the law, more harm is done than the harm that would have come about had the law not been passed at all. One of the most blatant and obvious of these bad laws is the War on Drugs. These laws are so dysfunctional for society and the general public that one must question the government’s true motives for the passage of such a set of laws. In this case and many lesser cases, political authority is actually the cause of the problem rather than a solution.
Another difficulty with the case for political authority being necessary to prevent problems is that laws are often disobeyed. Various studies of the incidence of crime show that only a tiny fraction of violations of the law are prosecuted. So just making some action a crime does not stop or prevent the proscribed behavior. Thus the exercise of coercion in the few cases prosecuted is capricious and biased against those who are weak, ignorant, and vulnerable. Political authority seems pointless, ineffective, and futile in the vast majority of such cases. Again I can cite the War on Drugs as a prime example.
We also have political authority used to make immoral, unethical, and downright evil laws. Extreme cases such as laws to exterminate or oppress minorities are common in history. We can cite the Jews as such a minority most appropriately at this point because they have been victims of such oppression in many of the Western world’s nations. But Protestants, Catholics, Native Americans, and the Irish could also serve as prime examples. History is littered with what one most charitably could label as bad law. Less extreme would be laws to give one group or another an advantage. Political corruption is commonplace. None of these bad laws would exist without political authority. The evils of crime might exist but those evils would not have the power of the state to make them worse.
Next we come to the enforcement of the law. Even when a law seems to support morality and be an ethical law we find that the enforcement of such laws is, at best, irregular. The vast majority of people probably consider rape to be immoral and unethical and would support a law which made rape illegal and prohibited. Yet rape is commonplace and very few are prosecuted for committing rape. A sickeningly high proportion of women have been sexually abused and attacked by the time they are 40 years old. Yet when a woman comes forward to report being raped, in most cases she is the accused who must defend her character and her actions, it is her reputation that is destroyed. Her attacker, unless a member of a minority group, will likely be acquitted or suffer a minimum punishment.
On the other hand, enforcement of the law can be used as a tool, a weapon to suppress minority groups. Crimes which are very common such as the use of illegal drugs or the illegal use of legal drugs can be enforced only when the accused is a member of a minority group. Thus blacks in the U.S. have a much higher rate of arrests and convictions for using marijuana even though the usage rates for whites are very similar. Convictions for such crimes can serve as a means of political oppression.
There is also the problem of corruption in law enforcement. In recent years the U.S. has seen that crime of the highest order – fraud in the trillions of dollars which has done massive damage to our nation’s economy and, indeed, the world – these crimes have had virtually no prosecutions of individuals. Can we name anyone who has gone to jail for the real estate fraud of the housing bubble? I cannot. Organized crime is a mass-marketing business. Prostitution, illegal drugs, and gambling are selling to the general public. Millions of customers participate. Yet these illegal trades thrive in every city and almost all towns. Organized crime would be impossible without the cooperation and permission of the police departments of those cities and towns. So in these cases, political authority and the power of the state actually bring about a seemingly lawless condition. Of course, organized crime has its own laws, so to speak. There are rules concerning how they are to operate and conduct themselves. Just like the state, they use coercion to enforce their rules upon one another. They have their territories and gang wars.
I simply cannot see how political authority has made things better with respect to crime against persons.
What about projects which are of a scale and magnitude too great for any organization other than government? We have large construction projects such as Hoover Dam or the interstate highway system or the Panama and Suez canals. Surely they could not have been accomplished by private means… or could they? The government got us into space via NASA, but today private companies are sending payloads into space, so it could have been done by private means. The building of huge ships and sophisticated airplanes is accomplished by private businesses. I believe that the harbors and flood prevention projects of the nation are still largely in government hands and constructed by government organizations. But the government utilizes considerable private industry contributions toward the accomplishment of these projects. Private companies perform the actual construction of the interstate highways, for example. Therefore it is difficult to conceive any reason why private companies and organizations could not have accomplished the physical construction or the design of such projects.
This brings us to the political aspect of large projects, the acquisition of land. Government authority is employed to gain control of land for roads. Would it be impossible to build roads without that government authority? Certainly the roads might “wind” a bit more as holdouts’ property required detours. But there are all sorts of means of motivating people to allow their property to be used other than coercion by the state. Of course, coercion from any source is unacceptable to me. But I can see where this need for almost unanimous cooperation would be a problem, especially in a POM or physical object money economy. After all, the false zero-sum game simulation that POM imposes on money transactions gives each of the property owners the idea that by holding out they can gain at the expense of everyone else. That simulation also gives the state officials the idea that those who control the state (big money interests) can gain at the expense of the property owners and they (the state officials) therefore invoke eminent domain in which the seller of property must sell and accept the price the buyer demands. In other words, the situation in a POM economy makes people work against each other rather than cooperating. So I suggest that the difficulty in getting cooperation is, by itself, a product of our use of a POM instead of a non-POM. I suspect that in a non-POM economy there would rarely be such a problem. Of course since there are currently no non-POM nations we cannot be sure that I am correct.
Huemer also mentions the duty to do good being used as a justification used for political authority. This is the idea that when one can prevent something very bad from happening with minimal cost (of time, effort, or money) one ought to do so. This appears to justify coercion by saying it’s all right for the state to force people to do these good things. This justification assumes that the state can and will properly identify what is good behavior. That’s questionable especially given the things that various states have required over the last couple hundred years. Returning slaves to their masters in the early 1800s in the U.S. comes to mind. Since many modern day people find slavery to be immoral it is difficult to believe that those modern day people could think that forcing someone into slavery would be a good thing to do, no matter how little it would cost to do so. Second, the coercion itself imposed by the state would appear to be a bad thing. Coercion is always harmful, though in some circumstances (such as self-defense) it may be the lesser of evils. Does the good that results from the forced good actions exceed the bad of the state coercion? I would suggest that it would be difficult to make such a case, especially given the corruption of government and the use of government for evil ends. Finally, I would like to point out that the obligation to “do good” is a concept inherent in ethics and morality, and does not require any state or government to make it so. If the ethical system or the system of morals does not bring about such good actions, how can we expect any government, using coercion (which is a bad thing), to be any more ethical or moral than individual citizens? One must conclude that the duty to do good in no way justifies political authority.
Another justification is that it’s unfair for some people to obey the law while others do not. If the law were perfect as are the laws of physics, then that assertion would have some merit. But nothing about the law or its enforcement is perfect or fair. The law is designed and intended to give some parties advantages over other parties. In general, these advantages are for the wealthy or current office holders. Lobbyists make great efforts to bias the law in favor of their clients. The enforcement of the law is similarly unfair. If you steal $100 you are in big trouble. If you steal $100 million you can ignore the law. If you steal billions, you can write the law. Therefore, the use of political authority does not eliminate unfairness – nor does obeying the law promote fairness – when the law itself and the enforcement thereof are unfair.
Some maintain that obedience is the price we pay to gain the benefits provided by the state. One could just as easily maintain, and with just as much evidence, that violating the law is the quickest and easiest way to gain benefits from the state. Bribing officials, participating in mass protests, and rigging elections all get results and move government actions in one’s favor. Obedience has none of these benefits: The obedient are ignored. Again, the government and its processes are not fair and obeying the state will not make them fair.
Finally, none of the justifications provides any basis for why the state is the only agency or agent allowed to provide a wide range of services. In other words, if some action is good when done by a member of the government, why is it not good when done by an ordinary citizen? Likewise, if some action is bad when done by an ordinary citizen, why is it not also bad when done by a government official? If your morality and ethics has some provision which makes a distinction between the actions of a government official and an ordinary citizen then your ethical system is quite unusual.
Therefore, given the preceding points, my conclusion is that there is no real justification for political authority. This is not to say that I would recommend that everyone go out and break the law. There are many very good reasons to obey almost all laws, almost all the time. What I am saying is that there is nothing inevitable or required about political authority. What I am saying is that a society can function quite well without political authority but only under the proper circumstances.
Having thus pointed out the lack of justification for political authority to coerce obedience from citizens, we are prepared to move on to authority figures. The government claims to be the sole repository of legitimate force in the nation. Only the government can authorize the use of deadly force. The government controls the military or is controlled by the military, a distinction which makes no difference. The government controls the police and other security forces. (Just whose security these forces support is debatable.) Other individuals may also be authorized to carry and use weapons. But they must be recognized as licensed to do so by the state. All other uses of deadly force are without authority. I may shoot down an unarmed citizen in the street but in that event I must in some way justify my action in a court of law. Government authorities are under no such obligation. Almost anything can serve as justification in such cases. Such instances are very rarely brought to court and almost never prosecuted. In other words, authority figures have the power of life and death over ordinary citizens.
The cop on his beat is the most commonly seen authority figure. He carries a gun among other equipment. He is not paid much. Certainly far less than the degree of responsibility, difficulty, and danger that go with his job should command. As a result, the standards for hiring such officers must be set low. Because the police represent the authority of the state, the state has a vested interest in supporting that cop even when the cop is in the wrong. Being only human, cops make errors just like the rest of us. That’s inevitable. The problem is that those errors are exceedingly difficult to correct. Criticizing the cop is criticizing the state. State officials do not like to be criticized. Being only human they don’t like to have their errors pointed out, they don’t like to have their power challenged, they don’t want people to think poorly of them. So the government officials and the police see critics as the enemy, the opposition. But given that the officials and police are authority figures, how can the public or members of the public defend themselves from the use of force by these authority figures? To whom does one appeal when the apparatus of the state is in opposition, is the source of oppression?
Allegedly, in a democracy, one can vote out of office any who do not perform their duties satisfactorily. That’s the theory, the premise, the assumption we were taught in school. But if one examines elections as our lecture on elections makes clear, one will discover that there is little that elections have to offer in this regard. Elections are not fair and are frequently corrupted. But just for argument’s sake, let’s assume that the state does have fair and honest elections. One set of officials who are failing in their duties does get replaced by another set of officials who promise to do better. Won’t that new set of officials, the reform candidates, be operating in exactly the same circumstances as those who previously held those offices? They, too, will make errors which they will not want be responsible for correcting; so little will change except the names on the office doors. They knew what they were talking about when they said “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss…”.
As I write this lecture it’s been about a week since the formal release of the Senate’s report on the torture activities of the CIA. Those who were responsible for torturing prisoners of the U.S. government, those who represent you and me – in that they were elected or appointed by persons elected in the nation of which we are citizens – are now attempting to justify that torture. I will point out that if a government can justify the use of torture on any person on earth whether a citizen of the U.S. or not; then that selfsame government can and will justify the torture of any person on earth, period. In other words, unless everyone on earth is safe and protected from being tortured by my government, then no one is safe or protected from being tortured by my government.
You will also note that torture is an incredibly stupid and pointless means of getting information. In fact, it renders any information provided as a result of torture completely meaningless. Those under torture will say anything to make the torture stop, they will not even be able to think straight: they will be incapable of distinguishing the truth from a lie. One can make the victim of torture say almost anything if one can get them to talk at all. The CIA long ago discovered this for themselves but for some reason (probably psychological) chose after 9/11/01 to use torture anyway. One has to suspect the sanity of those CIA officials who set such a torture policy.
So how is it that an agency of government can have its members do such stupid and harmful things? You will find that question very easy to answer I’ll bet. In fact, you’ve probably already answered it. The members are just doing the job they are paid to do. Yes, it’s a consequence of POM. The members of an agency in a POM context are paid to obey and will be punished for a failure to obey. POM is used to coerce.
So what if a society were using a non-POM economy. Would there be political authority? No. None at all. For one thing there would be almost no government. For another thing, if anyone used coercion on anyone else, that would reduce their future income. This would be true regardless of the office one held, if any. If they were performing the role of policeman and used coercion, that action would reduce their future pay. The coercive action might even have actually resulted in a significant net benefit but the coercion would reduce that benefit. So in a worst-case situation where a madman is shooting school children and a policeman kills that madman, the fact that he killed would reduce the pay he would receive for saving the remaining children. If he had been able to stop the killing equally quickly without harming the madman shooter, his pay would have been greater. Note that this would be the case no matter whether the person who shot the madman was a policeman or government office holder or just an armed staff member at the school. Exactly the same pay change would result: based solely upon consequences.
So who are the authority figures in a non-POM economy? Is it those who decide how much non-POM each person gets or doesn’t get? No, there are no authority figures in a non-POM economy. Every person has the same authority, the authority to control their own behavior. There is no justification one can use which makes it all right to coerce anyone else. If one uses coercion and the outcome is bad, one will suffer the consequences no matter what one’s intentions were, or the ends one sought. If one fails to act to prevent harm to others, one loses the opportunity to gain money in a non-POM economy. Thus there may well be those who go about armed and who may use those arms to protect themselves or others… but they are in no sense “authorized” any more than anyone else is. They are responsible for their actions and the consequences of their actions. If they make a mistake – no matter how innocent –just like anyone else, they pay the price.
My conclusion is that the problems with political authority and with authority figures are a consequence of POM. If we change over to a non-POM those problems disappear.