Firearms Owners Association
The Problem with Political Authority
Why should 535 people in Washington be entitled to issue commands to 300 million others?
And why should they obey?
There are NO satisfactory answers.
Nearly all political discourse ... presupposes that the government has a special kind of authority to issue commands to the rest of society.
For example, when we argue about the best tax policy, we presuppose that the state has the right to take wealth from individuals.
If, as I hope to convince you, these presuppositions are mistaken, then nearly all of our current political discourse is misguided and must be fundamentally rethought.
The questions addressed herein are relevant to anyone interested in politics and government.
Is this a book of extremist ideology?
Yes and no. I defend some radical conclusions.
But although I am an extremist, I have always striven to be a reasonable one.
I reason on the basis of what seems to me common sense ethical judgments.
I do not assume a controversial, grand philosophical theory, an absolutist interpretation of some particular value, or a set of dubious empirical claims.
This is to say that although my conclusions are highly controversial, my premises are not.
Furthermore, I have striven to address alternative viewpoints fairly and reasonably.
I consider in detail the most interesting and initially plausible attempts to justify governmental authority.
My aim is to persuade those who have kept an open mind regarding the problem of political authority.
Chapters 2 -5 discuss philosophical theories about the basis of stare authority
Chapter 6 discusses psychological and historical evidence regarding our attitudes about authority.
Chapter 7 asks the question, if there is no authority, how ought citizens and government employees behave?
It is here the most immediately practical recommendations appear.
At the same time individuals are thought to have obligations to their government that they would owe toward no nongovernmental person or organization.
This is the problem of political authority?
Political authority is the hypothesized moral property in virtue of which governments may coerce people in certain ways not permitted to anyone else and in virtue of which citizens must obey government in situations in which they would not be obliged to obey anyone else.
Authority, then, has two aspects.
(i) Political legitimacy: the right, on the part of a government, to make certain sorts of laws and enforce them by coercion against the members of its society - in short, the right to rule.
(ii) Political obligation: the obligation on the part of citizens to obey their government, even in circumstances in which one would not be obligated to obey similar commands issued by a nongovernmental agent.
Actions versus agents: the need for authority
What is coercion?
One cannot choose not to be subjected to physical force if the agents of the state decide to impose it.
p.12 The concept of Authority
Five Principles of Authority
2. Particularity: The sate’s authority is specific to its citizens and residents of its territory.
3. Content-independence: The state's authority is not tied to the specific
content of its laws or other commands.
4. Comprehensiveness: The state is entitled to regulate broad range of activities, and individuals must obey the state's directives.
5. Supremacy: Within the sphere of action that the state is entitled to regulate, the state is the highest human authority.
The obligation to respect others' judgment does not have sufficient force to override individual rights, such as an individual's right to property.
No one has the right to coercively enforce counterproductive or useless
policies nor to enforce policies aimed at goals of lesser import.
What enabled Hitler to become one of history's greatest murderers was the socially recognized position of authority into which he maneuvered himself and the unquestioning obedience rendered him by millions of German subjects.
We must ask whether humans have too strong a disposition to obey authority figures.
Many of the world's cultures include beliefs and practices that strike us as bizarre, absurd, or horrible, such as the practice of cannibalism.
Yet the members of those societies generally embrace their cultures' beliefs and regard their culture practices as obviously correct.
Human beings have a powerful tendency to see the beliefs of their own society as obviously true and the practices of their own society as obviously right and good - regardless of what those beliefs and practices are.
What does this tell us about political authority?
Overcoming an illusion often requires seeing why things might appear as they do even if the way they appear is false.
In overcoming the illusion of political authority, it is important to see why it might seem to us that there is political authority, even if in fact no state has ever had genuine authority.
There might still be good reasons to obey most laws, and agents of the
state might still have adequate reasons for engaging in enough coercive
action to maintain a state...If the arguments of the preceding chapters
are correct, the circumstances and purposes that would justify coercion
on the part of the state would just the circumstances and purposes that
would justify coercion on the part of private agents.
Moralistic laws prohibit some behavior on the grounds that the behavior is 'immoral', even though it does not harm anyone or violate anyone's rights.
The most obvious examples are the laws against prostitution and gambling.
Political authority is a special moral status, setting the state above all nonstate agents.
If we reject this notion, then we should evaluate state coercion in the same manner as we evaluate coercion by other agents.
For any coercive act by the state, we should first ask what reason the state has for exercising coercion in this way.
The prohibition of drugs means that users and sellers are subject to coercive threats by the state.
The resort to physical force is not always wrong. It is often justified for purposes of self-defense or defense of innocent third parties
In defense of jury nullification
When the law is unjust, the juror should vote to acquit.
Despite what they may be told, jurors certainly can nullify laws.
Sometimes we do nit know what is substantively just.
I reject egoism, since I believe that individuals have substantial obligations to take into account the interests of others. I reject ethical absolutism, since I believe an individual's rights may be overridden by sufficiently important needs of others.
Libertarian political philosophy rests on three broad ideas:
i) As nonaggression principle in interpersonal ethics, roughly, this is the idea that individuals should not attack, kill, steal from, or defraud one another, and in general, that individuals should not coerce one another, part from a few special circumstances.
(The nonaggression principle is simply the collection of prohibitions on mistreating others that are accepted in common sense morality.)
ii) A recognition of the coercive nature of government. When the state promulgates a law, the law is generally backed up by a threat of punishment, which is supported by creditable threats of physical force directed against those who would disobey the state.
iii) A skepticism of political authority. This skepticism is roughly, that the state may not do what it would be wrong for any nongovernment person or organization to do.
Most government actions violate the nonaggression principle - that is, they are actions of a sort that would be condemned by common sense morality if they were preformed by any nongovernmental agent.
In particular, the government generally deploys coercion in circumstances and for reasons that would by no means be considered adequate to justify coercion on the part of a private individual or organization,
Therefore, unless we accord the state some special exemption from ordinary constraints, we must condemn most government actions.
The horrifying lesson of history is that close to six million Jews were executed in Nazi Germany because the ruler hated Jews.
Fewer people realize that was only the tip of the iceberg of twentieth century mass murder.
The total number of people killed by their own governments in the twentieth century has been estimated at 123 million.
This raises the question of whether a strong government should be counted more a source of security or a source of danger.
The simplest problem with this (a democratic) system is that the majority may choose to abuse a minority.
If the majority of people have even a slight preference for some policy, however noxious or unjust it may be to the minority, the majority can implement their preference through the state.
This explains why gay marriage is not permitted in most of the United States. It explains the Jim Crow (segregation) laws prior to the (US) civil rights movement.
And this explains how the Nazis could become the largest party in the Reichstag by 1932, despite their evident hatred of various groups of people.
Powerful, selfish people use their positions to exploit and abuse these much weaker than themselves.
The standard solutions to the problem of human predation all start by cementing the very conditions most likely to cause predatory behavior - the concentration of power - and only then do they try to steer away from its natural consequences.
The alternative is to begin with an extreme decentralization of coercive power.
For copy of this book, please see:
Notes by Edward B. Hudson