Government is good for you so do what you’re told!



We are discussing Huemer’s argument against political authority, where political authority is the special right of government to command and coerce what other agent’s may not and the special duty to obey what government commands. A number of commentators here have responded to earlier parts of Huemer’s argument against political authority by citing benefits of government. Heumer calls this kind of defence consequentialist, not because it requires a commitment to consequentialism (that the rightness of an act is determined solely by its consequences), but just because it is offering a justification of political authority on the basis of good consequences. The essential difficulty for this defence is that political authority is supposed to be content-independent, comprehensive and supreme, but neither consequences alone, nor consequences combined with fairness, can justify such authority.

The kind of example that consequentialist defenders appeal to are where a certain good we share in requires obedience to a law and thereby justifies command and coercion. The problem here is that most such cases do not require universal obedience so the good consequence alone cannot explain either obedience or coercion of any particular individual in a content-independent way.

The claim that each individual should obey because if everyone disobeys there would be no good also fails. It is not generally true that just because it would be bad if everyone did something you shouldn’t do it (for example, it would be bad if everyone drove down my road, but they don’t, so it’s fine that I do). When we try to fix the problems with that principle we end up with provisos along the lines of ‘provided not too many people… you may X, but otherwise you may not X’ or ‘provided enough people…you need not X, but otherwise you must X’. There is no principled way of applying these provisos that can’t be extended to the case of laws in general and hence the thought that you should obey because it would be bad if everyone disobeyed won’t get a content-independent requirement to obey out of the consequences.

It is natural at this point to appeal to fairness to explain the obligation, that it would be unfair not to obey when other people are: you share in the benefit that thereby obtains and although your obedience is not necessary it would be causally contributory to bringing about that benefit. This kind of defence is no longer purely consequentialist, but is based on a combination of good consequence and taking a fair share in the real cost of that benefit. An example Heumer considers is where you are in a lifeboat which is being bailed out. Although your help is not needed (there are enough others bailing already), you should join in because it would be unfair not to.

The problem here is once again that this will fail to justify the content-independence of political authority. To illustrate it Heumer considers a lifeboat situation in which a majority that does not include you ‘want Bob to devise a solution’. Bob promulgates a plan: everyone shall bail, pray to Poseidon for mercy, flagellate themselves to prove they are serious, give £50 to Sally ‘who helped get Bob elected’. Huemer’s point here is that if political authority is content-independent then disobeying the last three parts of this plan should be unfair, but obviously it is not unfair at all.

A further problem with adding fairness is that it cannot explain any obligation to obey for dissenters who reject the alleged good, such as pacifists paying for the military, or who are prepared to forego the benefit.

The comprehensiveness of political authority introduces its own problems for this justification. The good consequences of government that are persuasive are when laws protect people’s rights, such as laws against murder and theft, or create public goods such as military defence and environmental protection (public goods are those that are non-rivalrous—my consumption doesn’t diminish yours— and non-excludable—the benefit can’t be confined to those who pay). But governments are involved in a far wider range of law making. To pick just three out of seven types Heumer considers, paternalistic laws such as drug laws, moralistic laws such as laws against prostitution and gambling and rent-seeking policies such as subsidies to politically influential businesses and monopoly creating policies such as professional licensing (‘rent-seeking policies’ is economist’s jargon for policies that award economic advantages to some at the expense of others that they would not have if freely competing). It is quite clear that these laws don’t fit the consequence + fairness justification.

As an example, Heumer contrasts taking out your gun to coerce lazy people in the lifeboat to bail water with taking it out to coerce other things. The former seems reasonable and let us suppose the boat is now safe. You then use your gun to stop someone eating crisps for the sake of their heart, some other people from playing poker for money, and you force some others to hand over stuff that you’ve decided would make a nice sculpture when assembled. This is indefensible just because coercing any benefits here (whether there are any net benefits is itself disputable) is not justified.

The final problem is the supremacy of government authority: that only the state may coerce. Benefits only obtainable by coercion do not justify only one agent having the right to coerce. Taking the lifeboat case again, supposing there are two armed passengers, either may be justified in coercing bailing and just because one did it once does not now mean that only he may coerce bailing from now on. The source of the problem here is that the goodness of the consequence does not depend on who does the coercing necessary for its obtaining, but only that someone does it. For that reason no justification of political authority that depends on consequence can pick out the state as the unique possessor of the right to coerce.

Heumer concludes ‘Consequentialist and fairness based arguments come closest to justifying political authority. Nevertheless, they cannot ground content-independent, comprehensive or supreme authority for the state. The state has the right, at most, to coercively impose correct and just policies to prevent very serious harms’.