Sunday, 18 December 2016

Political Authority?



An underlying assumption of much debate on this blog is that the government has the right to boss people about and the question at issue is merely which bit of bossing about the government should be doing. Despite the fact that the left are obviously very keen on bossing people about, this assumption is one I have always seen as rooted in a certain kind of right wing political philosophy, a philosophy based in the idea that people are necessarily subjects of a sovereign. To be is to be ruled.
An originating thought underlying republicanism is that one man cannot legitimately rule over another. Taken all the way, this thought will take you  to anarchy. So, must you obey the bossing about and if you refuse may they make you?


Michael Heumer has just published an interesting book on this question:  The Problem of Political Authority. His answer is no.
Political authority, as he defines it, is the right of the government to coerce conformity to its rule and the duty had by those subject to the government to obey. He points out that what governments do would obviously be grotesquely immoral if you or I did it and asks what makes it OK for governments. Consider for example that if I police the neighbourhood and lock up thieves and vandals and demand money from you for the cost of this service we would call it kidnapping and extortion but if the government does it it is called the criminal justice system and taxation. It can’t just be that we got together and agreed to do it because a conspiracy to kidnap and extort is even worse.
I haven’t got very far with the book yet so I’m not going to try to say much more now, but I think he has set it up with the right question: The very foundation of government is coercion. Coercion is wrong, systematic coercion is wronger and systematic coercion with killing is wrongest. There is therefore the heaviest possible burden of proof on those who would justify government. Political philosophers have generally been far too sanguine in their belief that they have satisfied that burden. I look forward to his analyses of their arguments.

Originally at http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk

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