May 14, 2012 columns

This is part of a series

Our National Potlatch Dinner: Fair Play and Political Obligation

The fair play theory of political obligation goes as follows: We’re all in this together. Every one of us got where we are because of the sacrifices and tax dollars of those who came before. We benefit from the group endeavor that is government and so, when the time comes, it’s only right that we pay our fair share, both by cutting a check to the IRS and not mucking the whole thing up by disobeying laws.

Fair play’s probably the most common argument of the five I discuss in this series. It’s the sort of obligation-creating situation we’ve all encountered. The neighborhood collects money for a playground. If you enjoy it, you should pitch in. Your church group hosts a potlatch. If you plan to eat, you should bring something to share.

To put it more formally, if we benefit from a cooperative scheme, we need to abide by its rules or else we’re free-riding. Here’s H. L. A. Hart’s useful capsule version from his 1955 essay, “Are There Any Natural Rights?”:

When a number of persons conduct any joint enterprise according to rules and thus restrict their liberty, those who have submitted to those restrictions when required have a right to a similar submission from those who have benefited by their submission.

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick sets out an example: Imagine that your neighbors have all agreed to use the town’s public address system as an entertainment outlet. Each day, a new person spends several hours broadcasting music, amusing stories, and community news. You don’t actively seek out these broadcasts, but because you live in the neighborhood and it’s summer, so you’re often outside or have your windows open, and you hear quite a lot of it. Most days, the programming’s pleasant enough and, in some case, you enjoy it greatly.

Then your day comes around. Clearly you’ve benefited in some way from this cooperative scheme, and those benefits came via sacrifices made by your neighbors (they gave up their time to run the system). So are you obligated to pick out old records, polish off your anecdotes, and spend the day entertaining your peers?

Whether you are will depend an awful lot on what choice you had in benefiting. If your neighbors, counter to your wishes, decide to form a mob and wander from house to house cleaning cars, and if they come in the middle of the night or when you’re out of town and clean your car, it’s difficult to see how this would obligate you to become part of the car-cleaning mob yourself.

For fair play to create obligations, the benefits must be accepted. They can’t merely be received. If you never had a choice about rejecting the benefit, how can you possibly be compelled to repay it? In the public address example above, it’s clear you as the listener received the broadcast entertainment, but not at all clear you accepted it. For if you hadn’t wanted to hear the broadcasts, how would you have avoided them? Closed all your windows? Never gone outside?

With this in mind, the issue for fair play and political obligations becomes one of whether state benefits are typically accepted or just received. Do we have a choice about accepting the services our tax dollars pay for? What would be involved in avoiding them if we decide we don’t want to contribute to this particular cooperative scheme?

Another problem has to do with the kind of obligations fair play creates. It may be true that benefiting from the sacrifices of my neighbors and fellow citizens means I’m obligated to sacrifice similarly on their behalf. But does this moral obligation rise to a political obligation? Do I owe it to the state–or just to my fellow citizens? Because we can readily imagine a situation where, while my peers benefited me by paying taxes, I’d benefit them more (and thus improve the whole cooperative scheme to a greater degree) if I do something other than pay taxes. I might offer my services as a carpenter. Or take the time now afforded me because of state programs to invent a cure for cancer.

In short, even if fair play suffices to create obligations, it remains an open question whether it creates political obligations and whether the obligations it creates must only be fulfilled by paying taxes and obeying the law. It remains an open question, in other words, whether fair play applies to the state.

That’s a question I’ll explore next time.

This is part of a series