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 gratitude account of political obligations appears to suffer from a number of perhaps fatal difficulties. But the earlier discussion left unexamined one particular problem–a problem not unique to the argument from gratitude. Moreover, this issue–particularity–will trip up most of the remaining theories, as well.

Here’s a refresher on gratitude:

  1. X benefited me somehow.
  2. This benefit places me in X’s debt (i.e., I feel gratitude toward X).
  3. I’m morally obligated to repay this debt.
  4. I’m also morally obligated, while the debt is outstanding, to not harm X unless I have a really good reason for doing so.

Let’s accept for the sake of argument that the above works. In fact, in realms outside of politics we needn’t limit ourselves to this minor endorsement. Outside of the issue of politics this is precisely how gratitude works.

To move it into the political sphere (to turn those moral obligations into political obligations), we need to add a couple of points. First, we “repay” our debt of gratitude to the state by paying taxes. Second, disobeying laws counts as harming the state, so the debt of gratitude, by this argument, means we should obey the law.

So, if this all works, then the debt of gratitude created by benefits confered by the state (benefits we can either willingly accept or simply recieve, as it makes no difference here) morally obligates us to (1) pay taxes and (2) obey the law–the two chief political obligations we’ve been looking for all along.

The unanswered trouble, though, comes when we pose a single question: Why this state?

Outside of the political sphere, I can owe debts of gratitude to many people and institutions simultaneously. I have a debt to my wife for marrying me and continuing to put up with me. I have a debt to my boss for taking a chance on me and giving me a job. I have a debt to my family members, my friends, and to everyone else who’s helped me throughout my life. Institutions I feel gratitude towards might include hospitals that healed me when I was sick or the colleges that educated me. The size of each debt varies, of course, but that doesn’t impact how real each is.

What about states? I’ve probably benefited in some ways from the United States government (whether those benefits outweigh the harms remains an open question). But I’ve also arguably benefited from other governments worldwide. Chinese policies leading to greater economic growth have made goods I buy cheaper, meaning I’m better off now than I otherwise would’ve been. I’ve driven through Canada and enjoyed their roads, police protection, and so on. I’ve enjoyed art paid for by governments throughout Europe. And so on.

Yet the very nature of nation states means that I can’t owe many of them political obligations simultaneously. I don’t pay Chinese or Canadian taxes. Nor do I feel obliged to obey British laws. Further, if I told the U.S. government that I couldn’t obey a given law because it conflicted with a law of France, a law that in this case implicated a debt of gratitude to France greater than what I owe the U.S., there’s little doubt Federal agents wouldn’t accept my excuse.

In other words, the kinds of institutions (i.e., governments) we supposedly owe political obligations to uniformly claim monopolies on such debts over certain geographical areas. Yet such monopolies aren’t justified–or even discussed–by the argument from gratitude outlined above.

Further, it isn’t just that the state has a monopoly on providing political sorts of benefits within a given region. The state also forcibly maintains that monopoly by using violence and the threat of violence to keep competitors out. So what is it about the state–about this state in particular–that grants it the feature of getting obedience/​noninterference of the “follow the laws” variety as payment for debts of gratitude, to the exclusion of all others? What’s to stop some other institution–some other group of my fellow citizens who engage in actions benefiting me–from declaring itself a state, too? What’s to stop it, that is, other than the (unjustified?) force of one particular organization claiming a monopoly on the title of “state?”

These questions not only cast doubt on whether political obligations can be exclusive but also on whether state benefits, given the nature of their source, even create debts of gratitude (exclusive or non‐​exclusive) in the first place.

Let’s say I’m drowning and you save my life. I likely now owe you some kind of debt of gratitude, though the content of that debt will depend on how much risk you undertook to save me, how much damage your act did to your person or property, and so on. But I’ll owe you something, even if just a heartfelt thanks.

But what if there were others lined up to save me, some who wanted to help more or who could’ve done so quicker or who might have caused less property damage along the way? In this benefit you provided me, for which I am now in your debt, they’re the competition.

Further, what if I discovered that when those people tried to come to my aid you used violence to stop them? Only once they’d been subdued did you turn your attention to saving me–making me potentially worse off than I would’ve been had the pool of aid‐​givers not fallen prey to your monopoly. In that case would I owe you the same debt of gratitude? Would I owe you any debt at all?

It seems that in order for gratitude to create political obligations only to a particular institution–one with monopoly privileges over a geographic area–it must be the case that the institution is the best possible at providing such benefits. Otherwise, no good reason exists for this institution preventing others from providing their own services in addition to (or in lieu of) its services. Does anyone seriously believe that all of the benefits the U.S. government supposedly conveys on its citizens are of this sort? We need only ask whether third parties could do a better job delivering first class mail to see the trouble in that.

The modern state forces its benefits upon its citizens and prevents others from giving similar benefits, even if the others could do so more fairly and efficiently. In this, it looks less like a beneficent provider to whom we owe thanks, and more like a common protection racket. And who feels gratitude toward that?

The problem of particularity isn’t easily overcome. It presents any theory of political obligation with an additional step: not only must the existence of political obligations be proven, but the theory must also explain why one institution exclusively gets to claim such obligations. Gratitude doesn’t succeed here because the circumstances leading to debts of gratitude and the ways in which that debt creates obligations needn’t apply only to a single, ruling government.

The argument from fairness, which I’ll turn to next time, stumbles here, as well.