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.

After far too long away, I’m finally returning to my series on the philosophy of political obligation. I’ve already introduced some of political obligation’s central concepts and explained why it matters. Now I’d like to begin exploring the major theories that attempt to explain how we might come to owe political obligations to the state. (Links to further posts in this series can be found in the “Theories of Obligation” section below.)

Let’s start with a story.

Small Town Life

You were born and raised in the United States, specifically a small town in Montana, where you’ve lived all your life and have no intention of leaving. You’ve got a spouse, two kids, some land, and cattle. There’s really nothing remarkable about you, in fact–except your taste for raw milk, which you don’t buy from anyone but instead get straight from your own cows.

Now, being a citizen of the United States, the federal government believes you owe it certain obligations, chiefly to support it through taxation and to obey its laws. The government of Montana feels the same. So when Montana passes a new tax–three dollars per head of cattle, say–in order to fund improvements to your town’s roads, it expects you to pay up. If you don’t, you’ll violate your political obligation and Montana’s agents will come after you.

Further, the FDA doesn’t much care for raw milk, so Washington’s made it illegal. The political obligations (they say) you owe them mean you’d better stop drinking it now or their agents will come after you, too.

So you’re facing a situation where the law says you face two specific political obligations: to pay a tax on your cattle to support road construction and to stop drinking raw milk. But do you in fact have these obligations? Clearly you don’t have freestanding moral (i.e., non‐​political) obligations in regard to either. There’s nothing immoral about drinking raw milk. And you don’t owe for road improvement in the way you would owe a contractor you hired to build you a garage. You didn’t ask for improved roads, after all, and you don’t even really want them. The roads they have now work just fine.

Theories of Obligation

Theories of why we have political obligations tend to fall into five broad categories: consent, gratitude, fair play, association, and natural duty. Here I’d like to very briefly introduce each and note how it might apply to the two hypothetical obligations introduced above. In subsequent posts, I’ll explore each in more detail, illustrating how proponents of the theory would use it to support the existence of general political obligations–and then show how each fails to meet the challenge.

The consent account is perhaps the easiest. Here, you have obligations because you consented to them. You agreed to obey the law and support the state by some statement or action you took. This could mean something as obvious as saying, “I agree to obey the laws and support the state.” But it needn’t be that explicit. You might have appeared in a crowd, with an agent of the state standing up front. The agent said, “Anyone who doesn’t consent, raise your hand.” By not raising your hand, you (perhaps) consented, thus creating political obligations. In our Montana story, maybe you consented to pay for road improvements by driving on the existing roads regularly when you went into town to run errands. Maybe you consented to obey the state’s laws–including the law against consuming raw milk–when you decided to remain in the United States instead of moving to some other country where raw milk consumption faces no prohibition.

Gratitude (covered in two posts: part 1 and part 2) gets around the need for explicit or implicit consent by arguing that, because the state gave up something to create a benefit for you (e.g., by paying for roads), you owe the state a debt you must repay. Clearly this theory applies to the roads example, but it’s not immediately clear how it would obligate you to avoid raw milk. We typically repay debts by giving back in kind what was received (money for money, help a friend move in return for the time he helped you move, etc.). “Obedience” doesn’t seem to fit.

The legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart set out fair play rather clearly in a 1955 essay: “When a number of persons conduct any joint enterprise according to rules and thus restrict their liberty,” he wrote, “those who have submitted to those restrictions when required have a right to a similar submission from those who have benefited by their submission.” Building roads was a joint exercise in which the residents of Montana restricted their liberty by paying taxes for their construction. You benefit from this submission, so fair play says you need to similarly restrict your liberty. Again, however, this doesn’t jump out as an answer to the why you need to obey the raw milk ban.

In an association-based theory , you have a duty to obey laws and support the state based on your association with or membership in a political community. In the same way you have duties to your family members, your friends, and your neighbors, you also have duties to your fellow citizens, even in “associations” as broad as the United States. If the association account works, it applies to both the road tax and the raw milk ban.

Finally, a natural duty account argues that we have a moral duty to obey the state not because we benefited from it but simply because the state or its institutions are just or because doing so creates a better world. Like association‐​based accounts, the natural duty account is rather thick, meaning that, if correct, it obligates us in a much broader fashion than fair play or gratitude.

Of course not all theories of political obligation fit neatly into these five categories. A popular trend in modern scholarship, for instance, is to draw from two or more, using the strengths of one to fill in for the weaknesses of another.

In the next post I address consent theories in more detail. Consent unquestionably creates obligations–even political obligations–but ultimately does so in far too narrow a way to support the kind of broad obligations necessary for the legitimacy of most governments.