Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor

Aaron Ross Powell is Director and Editor of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org, a project of the Cato Institute. Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org presents introductory material as well as new scholarship related to libertarian philosophy, theory, and history. He is also co‐​host of Libertarianism.org’s popular podcast, Free Thoughts. His writing has appeared in Liberty and The Cato Journal. He earned a JD from the University of Denver.

The state’s an institution by which all of us, through the pooling of our resources, help both ourselves and our fellow citizens. The state keeps us safe, provides us with roads and schools, checks our food for pathogens, and so on. It stands to reason, then, that having received so much, we all should feel a debt of gratitude toward the state. A debt we must repay through obedience.

At least that’s what the argument from gratitude would have us believe. This theory distinguishes itself from–and is seen by many as a appealing alternative to–consent in that it depends not a bit on the perceptions or intent of the citizens it purports to obligate. With consent theory, I must in some way (explicitly or implicitly) indicate that I’ve chosen to become obligated and I must be aware that I’ve made this choice. But gratitude is something circumstances mean we ought to feel, regardless of whether we actually do. Parents make their kids write thank you notes for birthday gifts regardless of whether the child appreciates what his grandma has given him.

Gratitude theory takes this idea–those who have given us something, who have sacrificed for us, are owed something in return–and uses it to justify political obligation.1 This gives gratitude at least one big advantage over theories like fairness. Fairness, in order to work, depends on us “accepting” benefits instead of merely “receiving” them. Gratitude doesn’t. No matter how we benefit from the state–and, in fact, regardless of whether we even want to benefit–gratitude theory applies.

The crude form of the argument from gratitude I sketched above doesn’t hold up to even passing scrutiny. The most obvious concern is with the form of repayment. Assuming I do owe a debt of gratitude to the state, why must I repay it with obedience? Why not cash or a day’s labor cleaning up the neighborhood? If you happen to pull me back onto the sidewalk just as I’m about to unknowingly walk in front of a bus, I should, out of a sense of gratitude, feel that I am in your debt. Yet if you were to respond with, “Okay, and to fulfill that debt, I demand you obey me,” I’d rightfully scoff. That’s not how debts of gratitude work.

A more sophisticated version, advanced by A. D. M. Walker, attempts to get around potential objections to “repayment by obeying” by arguing that the obligation gratitude creates is to not get in the state’s way. Walker summarizes his position like this:

  1. The person who benefits from X has an obligation of gratitude not to act contrary to X’s interests.
  2. Every citizen has received benefits from the state.
  3. Every citizen has an obligation of gratitude not to act in ways that are contrary to the state’s interests.
  4. Noncompliance with the law is contrary to the state’s interests.
  5. Every citizen has an obligation to gratitude to comply with the law.

Limited to gratitude between individuals, this makes a certain intuitive sense. If you’ve done something really great for me–and especially if you sacrificed quite a lot to do it–then, in addition to being in your debt, I also probably shouldn’t take any actions that harm you. Doing so would show ingratitude.

Walker just extends this, saying that the state only really works if we obey it. If we don’t, then it can’t get anything done and it will soon cease to be. Thus any act of noncompliance with the state’s wishes would violate our moral obligation.

This formulation gets around the trouble of the oddness of obedience as a form of repayment. But it leaves gratitude as an awfully weak justification for political obligation; Walker rightly admits that the debts gratitude creates aren’t trumps. If I owe you, but principles of justice or of greater morality indicate that acting contrary to your interests is the more right thing to do (your interests include perpetuating an injustice, for example), then I must go against your wishes–though perhaps while feeling a little bad about it.

What this means is that the best the argument from gratitude gets us is a general sense that we ought to consider the states interests when acting. If we can act in a way that’s right and proper while not “harming” the state, we ought to do it. But this is rather far from outright obedience. States expect far more.

Further, because we should only feel gratitude towards someone who has in fact benefited us, the argument from gratitude collapses into simple consequentialism. Walker writes,

[T]he fact that citizens receive significant benefits from the state does not mean that they cannot suffer harm or injustice at its hands, or that, overall, they might not fare better as citizens of another state or outside the jurisdiction of any state. … [These concerns] are best handled as possible grounds for distinct lines of argument whose conclusions we must then weight against that of the argument from gratitude in order to settle whether, all things considered, in a particular case a citizen should comply with the law.

If it’s the case that the state isn’t a net benefit to you then gratitude won’t apply and you’ll lack a duty to obey the law. Which is precisely what consequentialist libertarians like David Friedman argue. To them, we’d all be better off without the state. If they’re right that the state’s existence harms us more than it helps us–the consequences of the state’s existence are a net loss–then we owe it no debt of gratitude and thus no obedience.

Which means, simplifying a bit, the argument from gratitude reduces to, “If the state’s good for me, I’ll support it. If it isn’t, I won’t.”

That won’t get supporters of strong political obligations very far.

1. This leaves open the very real question whether it makes any sense to characterize the state’s (even the state as defined as an institution consisting of our fellow citizens) provision of benefits upon its citizens as a “sacrifice.”