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.

I’ve looked at five theories of political obligation, and none seem to have found a strong duty to obey the state. Each either didn’t get us far enough–we might be obligated somehow, in some way, but only to a minimal degree and certainly not uniformly–or failed to explain why our obligations are owed to this state instead of that one or why any state gets a monopoly on obligation, including the exclusion of competition.

In short, if it’s true that governments exist to which we owe obedience, none of the five main theories point us to them. Overlapping the theories–choosing more than one and hoping each can fill in the others’ gaps–doesn’t work, either, in part because so many of the theories suffer from the same omissions.

So where does this leave us as citizens of existing states with governments claiming a right to rule?

First, we should admit that we may still be bound by a duty to obey. Perhaps a novel theory of obligation exists, one not yet explored, one that succeeds in proving strong obligations to specific governments. Just because we don’t know we’re morally obligated to do something doesn’t rule out the possibility that we are obligated to do it. If I’d been raised in a society that thought slavery was okay, slavery still wouldn’t be okay. I leave the possibly of a novel and successful theory open, but confess it feels quite remote.

But if no such theory exists, are we left only with anarchy? No, not necessarily. Of course, some may draw anarchist conclusions from the study of political obligation and decide that the only path forward is the abolition of the state. But that isn’t the only possible consequence of the failure to provide proof of political obligation. We may have other, perfectly good reasons for wanting to obey a state besides a moral duty to do so.

What might those be? Let’s remember that, with or without a state, we have a moral duty to justice–or, for Aristotelians, justice is one of the virtues. It’s one among many moral rules or virtues that weigh upon us and that we must abide by, regardless of who, if anyone, enforces them. Even in anarchy, murder remains wrong, as does theft, fraud, child abuse, being cruel to animals, and so on.

It may be that the best (or only) way to ensure that most of us behave in accordance with these duties most of the time is to enable someone to punish us if we don’t. We could grant such power to someone, even while recognizing that exercising it over those who haven’t agreed to its authority would itself be a moral wrong. In short, we could be willing to accept that letting a state punish us for breaching certain moral duties–and tax us for the infrastructure necessary to prevent and punish such breaches–is itself a morally wrong act to impose upon those who take a stand against the state and its punishment. But we could simply say we’re willing to live with that–similar to the way that many of us recognize the wrongness of slaughtering sentient animals because they taste good, but are willing to act wrongfully in exchange for yummy meals. The state may very well be like eating meat.

This defense becomes even stronger if the effects of not having a state prove horrible. If the choice is genuinely between (1) a Hobbesian war of all against all or (2) peace and prosperity but with the moral wrong of forcing dissenters to go along, then it’s not obviously irrational to chose the latter. Deciding whether the world really is that way, of course, demands further philosophical and empirical investigation.

What these possible paths to actual states have in common, however, is a recognition that, at some level, every state is illegitimate. Every state, by forcing its citizens to act in certain ways or give up certain things, perpetuates a moral wrong. Even if we’re willing to accept that, we need to recognize it. Because when we recognize the inherent moral problem with rulers, we at the very least become more skeptical of their actions.

For example, if my neighbor drinks large Cokes regularly and I’m offended by that or think it’s bad for him, none of us would think I’m morally permitted to go into his house and take away his pop. Nor may I follow him around at the grocery store and knock the Coke from his hand when he tries to put it in his basket. Aside from just coming off as silly, such actions would clearly be morally impermissible. Yet if the mayor of New York decides to ban the sale of large Cokes, a great many New Yorkers see nothing wrong with it, either from the perspective of policy or, more importantly, morally.

In a world of unproven political obligation, however, no matter what the government says we should or shouldn’t do with Coca‐​Cola, none of us are obligated to obey. And, because we lack a moral obligation, any state action to force us to comply with a ban on large, sugary drinks is clearly a moral wrong.

Recognizing this doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t have such bans. But at the very least it ought to make us a bit more hesitant before enacting them. It’s good to be moral. It’s bad to be immoral. Thus we should, whenever possible, strive to behave morally–even if “we” means the government.