December 15, 2011 columns

This is part of a series

Why Does Political Obligation Matter?

In my last post, I defined terms and distinguished concepts crucial to the broader question of political obligation. Here, I want to turn to why any of it matters in the first place.

All of us already live within states and most of us live within states that few would seriously consider entirely illegitimate. Thus most of us feel that we have at least some genuine political obligations. What’s the point then of spending all this time asking how such obligations come about—or if they can even really exist at all?

Specifically, if it turns out that we don’t have political obligations to the state we live within—or if the state does not possess legitimate authority over us—does that mean that we ought to all become anarchists? Perhaps not. Perhaps that takes things too far.

But recognizing just how hard the question of political obligation is does carry some normative weight outside anarchist circles. The modern state, with its high taxes, voluminous legislation, and robust regulatory regime, acts as if we have a significant number—a huge number—of obligations to it. The modern state exercises a great deal of authority over us.

But if justifying that authority and grounding those obligations proves morally difficult, then at the very least we ought to be more skeptical the next time the state adds another obligation to its list. And the state adds obligations all the time.

I’ve explored the difference between moral and political obligation and that difference becomes particularly important now. Political obligations that map perfectly to moral obligations ought not vex us too much. They ought to vex us some, of course, because even these leave unanswered at least two concerns. First, just because I am morally obligated to behave in a certain way, it’s not clear how the particular state claiming an enforcement right for those obligations got that right. After all, why is the United States (where I happen to live) allowed to enforce my moral obligations, but not the state of Canada?1 Second, do all moral obligations create enforceable political obligations? I’m morally obligated not to cheat on my wife, but does that mean the United States government should be able to punish me if I do?

These two issues don’t afford easy answers. But even if we set them aside, we still have to address the mammoth number of obligations the state imposes on me that are decidedly not moral obligations too. It seems odd to think that I have a moral obligation not to consume raw milk, but the state will punish me if I do. Likewise, no serious moral theory includes prohibitions on toilet tanks above a certain size. Yet the state is quite clear in its opinion that I have political obligations related to both.

This ought to concern us deeply. Because if there is any question of the state’s legitimate authority to create political obligations, that question is most pressing regarding those obligations that don’t map to strong moral expectations or prohibitions. And that’s a camp featuring almost everything large, modern states do.

Many would brush off these concerns, citing, in one form or another, what I’ll call the folk theory of political obligation. In short, the folk theory holds that we are politically obligated to support and obey the state’s laws because those laws arise from the will of the people. We thus owe it to our fellow citizens to treat laws as political obligations. “Love it or leave it,” in other words.

Of course, this only works if the state is just. If the people—51% of them, at least—decide to enslave the remaining 49%, the folk theory’s reason for why the 49% ought to respect this is less than satisfying. And this applies at both the macro and micro level. A state, as a whole, might be just, but individual laws might still be unjust. What sort of obligations exist in these cases? And who gets to decide what’s just or unjust? Profound and meaningful disagreements exist about the nature of justice. The folk theory—which is something of a hasty blending of the “natural duty,” “fairness,” and “associative” accounts of political obligation—has little to say about that.

It should be pretty obvious where I’m going with this. The folk theory doesn’t work, at least not fully satisfying way. Nor do the other major theories of political obligation—with the possible exception the consent theory. Next time, I’ll begin discussing how they fail by offering a thought experiment about a pleasant enough guy who lives in Montana.


  1. Geography seems the immediate and easy answer. I live in the United States, not Canada. But, as we’ll see in a future post, even that simple answer proves, under close examination, rather less than simple. 

This is part of a series