June 14, 2012 columns

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The State is Not a Family: Associations and Political Obligation

Our trek through the major theories of political obligation continues as we now move on to the association account.

It’s probably easiest to think of association theory as the “We’re all Americans” version of obligation. If you live in the United States, you’re an American, meaning you’re part of this thing called America, which is both the collection of all citizens and bigger than all of us. And being an American means respecting and obeying America’s institutions, including its laws.

This sets association apart from the other theories we’ve looked at. With fair play and gratitude, for instance, political obligations arise because of something we’ve done—whether accepting benefits or voluntarily participating in a cooperative scheme. With association, the obligations flow from who we are. Association theorists thus often draw parallels between country and family. As a father, I have obligations toward my daughter not because of some agreement we entered into or because I gained in some way from her. I have obligations to her because I am her father. Association simply applies this same sort of thinking to the state. Having political obligations is just part of what it means to be a member of the community. Given that our membership isn’t something most of us chose (we were instead born into it), our political obligations don’t flow from our choices, either.

This account depends on a number of assumptions, none of them particularly plausible. First, we very likely do have obligations arising from our role in our families, among our friends, or even in our very local community. But it’s not at all clear that the state is an association of a kind with those others. I don’t have a relationship with most Americans—let alone with Congress, the President, and the administrative agencies—that in any way parallels the relationship I have with my wife, my daughter, my parents, my friends, and my neighbors. In fact, when the state does try to act as if such a relationship exists (take Michelle Obama’s call that we all sign a father’s day card for her husband), it comes off as almost creepy.

Second, if political obligations flow entirely from community standards (“You’re an American, and Americans support their government.”) then it seems they bind us to the state no matter how bad it is. We might luck into a state that’s reasonably just, but we might just as easily have found ourselves politically obligated to turn over our peers to Stalin or to send Jews to the gas chambers. If the response is that of course you can’t be politically obligated to do that, then we’ve introduced moral standards outside of the association—and why can’t those moral standards include a prohibition on being obligated to a state involuntarily? It seems that, no matter what, we want some way to become unobligated to obey the state if the state grows bad enough. And this opting out shouldn’t be limited to “Love it or leave it.” For why, if the government behaves sufficiently unjustly so as to lose my obedience, should I also be forced to abandon my (true) community of my family, friends, and neighbors?

I don’t want to completely dismiss the strong feeling many of us have that we are, in fact, obligated to obey our government and that those obligations arise from it being the government of our country. The association theory matches quite well the unstated reasoning that leads most citizens to respect the will of the state. But those feelings by themselves don’t settle the issue. We might, after all, be mistaken in our emotion. And, at the very least, we want to leave open the option to back out of our obligations should the government change sufficiently that it no longer represents the America we’re a part of.

I’ll close with this passage from a paper by A. John Simmons, our most important contemporary philosopher of political obligation.

Absent any compelling argument for general political obligations (of the sort to which traditional theorists aspired), and absent any compelling argument for the independent binding power of local rules requiring obedience and support (of the sort to which proponents of the normative independence thesis aspire), it seems plausible to dismiss as a kind of false consciousness our feelings of obligation toward our countries of birth or residence. Of course we identify ourselves with “our” countries, “our” governments, and “our” fellow citizens. We have typically been taught from birth to do so, have typically spent our lives in a particular political culture, have been identified with a particular community by those outside our own (for purposes of praise or blame, say), and have associated with and become used to our own ways. That I might feel shame or pride at the acts of my countrymen (or that I might vote in elections and obey the law) is hardly surprising under these conditions. But none of this identification (along with its accompanying feelings of obligation) none of these ways of speaking and acting-seems, considered by itself, in any way inconsistent with denying that we are morally bound by political obligations to our countries of residence.

The appearance of authority must never be mistaken for the real thing.

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