Aaron and Trevor have a discussion about the political authority of the state. Should one obey the government? Is there a compelling reason to? Why does it matter?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Listeners interested in this topic should check out our episode of Free Thoughts with Michael Huemer on this topic, and this Guide lecture with Jason Brennan.
Aaron mentions Socrates’ actions in Plato’s Crito, here is our Free Thoughts episode on that dialogue.
Trevor talks about his lecture “The Statrix: How Government Warps Our Perception of the World.”
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Today we have a little bit of a different episode, another one where it’s just Aaron and I are going to chat about something that Aaron is writing about, has written about, and also a gives a lecture on, and it’s something we’ve talked about with Michael Huemer and some other people on the show. Today we’re going to be talking about political obligation, [00:00:30] why should you obey the state. I guess the first question I want to ask Aaron since we’re going to kind of do this like Aaron is the guest but I’ll chime in occasionally, the first question I want to ask Aaron is why does it matter. It seems A, like some people may be listening to this who are Libertarians who would say, “This is a really extreme topic. It’s not something that is generally acceptable in polite company in Western political discourse [00:01:00] to even question the authority of the state,” so it makes it seem at the very least weird and also maybe extremists who shouldn’t be listened to pointing. Someone could write a blog post about Cato and point to this podcast and be like, “See. This is why you shouldn’t listen to Cato on their tax policy because they actually seriously discuss the question of political obligation and whether you should obey the state.” Why should we even have this conversation?
Aaron Powell: Well, I think all of us have this conversation. I think this isn’t a question that’s off the table for anyone, because [00:01:30] you hear people bring it up all the time. It’s in the context of the government’s doing this thing and it’s not supposed to do that. It’s not okay for it to do that. You know, what it just ordered us to do, the travel ban, the first version of the travel ban was wrong. It’s not okay for the government to do that, and therefore I and anyone else don’t have an obligation to obey it. You know, civil disobedience has a long history in this country. We all ask this question. We all have lines [00:02:00] where we think if the government was to issue the following sort of command, I would not obey it or in fact be obligated not to obey it. Discussing it is not the problem.
I think where people sometimes get a little bit worried is when you take it all the way back to the beginning. You say … That’s what I think it’s an important question to ask, because if we’re going to draw these lines, we’re going to say, “Here’s where it’s okay for the government to demand that I do X, but if it demands Y, then it’s not okay,” [00:02:30] it helps in those conversations to have a theory of well, how does it get to demand things of me in the first place. Is it okay for it to demand things? What are the parameters for that? What are my general obligations towards it all? Because those are then going to inform the specific questions that are certainly not off the table and are certainly things that play out in conversations all the time.
Trevor Burrus: But we don’t seem to have the conversation in the general sense as part of our policy discussions, even [00:03:00] though it is a big part of modern political philosophy. I mean, in some way you’re not asking anything different than what John Locke asked, correct?
Aaron Powell: Yeah. No, this has been an important question for quite a long time. I mean, we have all the way back to Plato’s dialogue, the Crito, when Socrates has been condemned to death and his friends are trying to talk him out of it or trying to, “We can sneak you out of this prison [00:03:30] and into exile,” and he says no and he offers a bunch of reasons why he has an obligation to abide by the command in this case to commit suicide of a court of his Athenian peers. He says, “I have obligations to the state of Athens.” It’s been a conversation since the very dawn of Western philosophy, and it’s an important [00:04:00] one.
I mean, we have this institution that we have granted enormous power over us that can do all sorts of things to us that we wouldn’t allow anyone else to. It can exercise violence against us in a legitimate, permissible way that we would consider a criminal act if done by any other person or by another government. We have an obligation as citizens to access these powers, [00:04:30] to understand where they come from, to understand what their limits are, and understand what our relationship is to this institution.
Trevor Burrus: You kind of touched on it a little bit just now, but what are the unique things about the state, or maybe to put it a different way what is weird about the state that can do violence, but also commands other things of us?
Aaron Powell: Sure. I think we start by saying, “Look. We clearly have moral obligations [00:05:00] to other people, and we can be in situations where our duty is to obey them in certain ways or to respect their commands or to not interfere with their interests. That this is just the nature of human morality and these things would exist without a state or with a state in any other form.” The question then is the things [00:05:30] that the state does that would be impermissible if done by non-state actors, what are those and why does it get to do those? I think the things that make the state weird, if you recognize the state as really the state is just the people.
Trevor Burrus: The least abhorrent.
Aaron Powell: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: The least abhorrent compared to other things in society.
Aaron Powell: But the state is obviously just made up of other people. These other people get to do things to us or give us certain sorts of commands, and we have to obey them that other people wouldn’t. I think that the things that set the state [00:06:00] apart, set government apart, first is that it can demand obedience from us in a way that other people can’t or don’t, that it’s allowed to issue us commands and then if we don’t follow them, it gets to force us to follow them via violence or the threat of violence or punish us if we fail to comply in [00:06:30] ways that again individuals can’t. You can issue me a command or my boss here at Cato can issue me a command, but if I refuse, he’s not entitled to lock me up or take my property or shoot me, whereas the state can do those things. That’s one area where the state seems different.
Another one is non-competition. The state says, “Not only do I get to issue these commands and that you have [00:07:00] a duty of obedience to me, but no one else has that authority over you. In fact, if someone else tried to get that authority or you tried to set up an alternate authority, I could punish you. I could prevent it from happening. I get a monopoly on these powers over you.” Then the third one is taxation. The state says, “You [00:07:30] need to give me a certain portion of your property and if you don’t, I can punish you.” An individual doesn’t get to do something like that. You know, we can enter into contracts with people where we owe them money, sure, but they don’t get to beat us up if we don’t give it to them and those contracts are limited in all sorts of ways that our relationship to taxation is [00:08:00] not.
Trevor Burrus: A lot of people listening to this might think that the answer to your questions or at least your skepticism is obvious, at least maybe as it concerns America if you’re American, and maybe some other countries to, that the reason you have to pay your taxes is because the US Constitution was signed and ratified by the people of the United States, and you are a citizen [00:08:30] of the United States, and that is why the government has power over you. Or to put it in a different way in a more general sense that there is as social contract that we all consented to in order to enter into a state relationship, and that has given the state legitimate power over us. It would be both Locke’s theory, Russo, Hobbes, and to some extent actualized in the US Constitution. That seems to be pretty convincing, [00:09:00] or at least to most people. What’s wrong with that theory?
Aaron Powell: The consent theory, which is one of the major theories that’s given for justifying the state’s authority, sounds convincing because in the abstract it is. We absolutely believe that obligations can arise from consenting to be bound to them. If I sign a contract with you, then I have consented to be bound by the terms of that contract. If I make a promise [00:09:30] to you, I’ve consented to be bound by that promise, that I’ve done something morally wrong if I then violate the promise and your trust. The question is not whether general notions of contract or consent work to give rise to obligations. The question becomes do they work to give rise to the sorts of obligations that the state claims, namely obedience and non-competition and taxation.
Yes, there’s a story [00:10:00] you can tell of at one point we all lived in a pre-government world, a state of nature, and we had call it absolutely freedom in a certain sense because there was no government telling us what to do. There was no laws we had to follow, but it wasn’t in Hobbes’ terms, our existence there was,”Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It was not fun, so we decided to get together and we would give [00:10:30] up a little bit of this freedom that we had in order to create this thing called government that would then protect our persons, protect our property, protect our other liberties, and in doing so we would benefit, our lives would be better, but we would agree to obey the laws that this institution created. We would agree not to rebel against it, so not compete with it, and we would agree to support it so that it could continue to operate, i.e. pay it taxes.
That sounds like a good [00:11:00] story, but it’s got some obvious problems. You know, the first is that I didn’t sign any such thing. I’ve never lived in the state of nature. Neither have you. We never got … When we became citizens of the United States, for both of us, it was through birth. We just happened to be born here. We weren’t given the option. We weren’t shown the terms of the contract. [00:11:30] In a very literal sense, the story doesn’t hold up.
Trevor Burrus: You mean it terms of like explicitly signing this contract.
Aaron Powell: Yes, yes.
Trevor Burrus: But what about people who became citizens?
Aaron Powell: The becoming citizens is an interesting case, because that looks more like explicit consent. First, it certainly would not apply to most people in this country. If that’s the way you have to do it, then the government-
Trevor Burrus: Wouldn’t they have to pay taxes then? [00:12:00] That would be only people who become citizens have to pay taxes.
Aaron Powell: Yeah. I mean, I guess I’m okay with that, but that’s not how things work and the government certainly doesn’t say, “Look. If you never got around to signing this thing or you never had the chance, then sure. We’ll lay off and we won’t command you and we won’t try to tax you.” The government steps outside of that limited range of authority, but also there’s an interesting thing about becoming a citizen that the social contract [00:12:30] is not a contract. It doesn’t have … We both went to law school. You know that contract law requires consideration. It requires both parties to have obligations to each other and to give something up. If you look at the oath that a new citizen takes, it’s all about their obligations to the state. The state doesn’t give a list of things that it will do [00:13:00] in return for them, so it’s a loyalty oath as opposed to-
Trevor Burrus: Well, isn’t there like protection, an implied at least police protection? I mean maybe not like-
Aaron Powell: Sure.
Trevor Burrus: Maybe not like Medicare or Medicaid. Maybe that’s not explicit, but I think that at least cops and armies and sort of basic functions.
Aaron Powell: Sure, there’s an implied thing, but the explicit terms. If we’re talking about like the instance where you actually have a contract in front of you and you sign it, which is the closest that … becoming a citizen looks like the closest to that version of a social contract, the explicit social [00:13:30] contract, then that version doesn’t look like a contract.
Trevor Burrus: Like joining a health club.
Aaron Powell: Yes.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. It’s not like that.
Aaron Powell: There’s also a problem. There’s this line of Supreme Court cases that seem to repudiate that notion of government. I mean, I’ll toss it over. You can give us the facts. One that I talk about is Castle Rock v. Gonzalez, which I’ll ask our real attorney.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. That case happened not [00:14:00] far from where I grew up south of Denver, Colorado when a woman who had a protection order against her bad ex-husband for protecting her three kids, one of these sort of typical restraining orders that said if you come near me or you take the kids, then state law said that the police shall arrest the husband, the ex-husband, upon him breaching his restraining order. [00:14:30] She went … The husband went to pick up the girls from school I believe is the way it worked, and he was driving them around all day calling her and saying very threatening things about what he was going to do to the three kids. I think it was three girls.
She kept going to the cops and saying, “The state law says that you shall arrest, you have to arrest my ex-husband upon him violating this restraining order, so do it.” The cops said … Well, what do you [00:15:00] think they’d say. They said, “Okay. Well, we have other priorities. We’ll get around to it at some point.” They didn’t. She said, “Oh, he’s over in downtown Denver. He just called me,” and they’re like, “I’m sure he’ll come back. I’m sure that he’ll bring the girls back.” Well, the next morning he showed up at the police department and committed suicide by cop, at which point they found the three girls dead in his car.
She brought the case to the Supreme Court on the theory that the police had denied [00:15:30] her police protection that had been commanded by the Colorado state legislature that they shall arrest him upon violating this restraining order. She said, “You denied me my life, liberty, or property, my property without due process of law, and your obligation as police.” The Supreme Court held seven to two that the police have no obligation of that sort, more specifically that the legislature can’t command the police to do things in [00:16:00] a specific order or to put priorities in a specific way, mainly the sort of famous conclusion that was written as that shall means may in this situation. She didn’t have … In some ways, she didn’t have the ability to enforce the law herself if she would have gone and dragged the guy back to the police department, she could have been guilty of at the very least the tort of false imprisonment or kidnapping. The police didn’t enforce the law either, so [00:16:30] what happened with this obligation the state has to protect you?
Aaron Powell: Right. This looks like she … we can presume that she had more or less obeyed the laws most of her life, that she had not tried to set up competing governments, and that she had paid her taxes, so it looks like she had fulfilled the terms of her side of the social contract. If the social contract were a genuine contract, the state would have obligations on its side too. You know, the government does all sorts of things, [00:17:00] but if nothing else protecting you from violence. I mean, that’s the story we give for social contracts at the very beginning. For the government to then say, “Well, no. We don’t really have an obligation to do this most basic of functions that we exist for,” looks like repudiating the contract or saying it’s not a contract in a meaningful sense [00:17:30] in the first place. It certainly is not the case then that the government then responded, “But okay. Because we in this case absolutely failed to protect your rights and to protect the welfare of your children, we’re going to consider this thing null and void,” right? Like no. They still expect her to obey them and to pay them.
Trevor Burrus: But they owe it, they owe police protection [00:18:00] to everyone. I mean, that would be the … maybe that’s sort of the ruling of another case called Warren versus District of Columbia, which is a DC Court of Appeals case, that the police don’t owe any specific person police protection, but they owe the people police protection. Doesn’t that satisfy the contract?
Aaron Powell: I don’t see how, because the government is very specific that it’s you that owe it these duties and obligations and taxes. You can’t [00:18:30] get out of a contract by … If you sign a contract with your health club to pay them 50 bucks a month for access to their services, but they routinely kick you out of that health club or they routinely like you go in and they just go around turning off the various machines that you want to use but let other people use them, and then you reply, you say, “You violated the terms of our contract,” they’re like, “No, no, no. Our contract [00:19:00] is to give access to a health club to the people in general.” That’s not going to fly. The point is not that therefore there’s no such thing as political obligations. It’s that the specific case of it being a social contract doesn’t look like it works for the government here. But I want to bring up that there’s another way that we could get to this, which would be implicit consent, that gets around the, “I didn’t sign this,” thing angle.
Trevor Burrus: [00:19:30] Yeah. If you stayed here, you live in the United States, you accept the services, you do all the stuff, so there.
Aaron Powell: Right. The analogy here is you walk into a restaurant and you sit down and you order food. You didn’t sign a contract when you walked in saying, “In exchange for service, I will pay the bill,” but it’s implied in your actions. Your actions indicate that you agreed to be bound by these terms, [00:20:00] namely at the end of the meal they’ll bring a check and you need to pay it. All of us if we live within this country, we use its services, I rode the public transit in this morning, are these the kinds of things that indicate a general acceptance of the terms of the contract? Here again, I think the answer is unsurprisingly no, [00:20:30] and part of that is because in order to have these implicit actions indicate consent, there needs to have been a genuine choice in play. If you were forced at gunpoint to sit down at that restaurant table and order food, you wouldn’t then say, okay, you’ve agreed to the terms of the contract, but you didn’t have a meaningful choice.
I have this … David Hume, [00:21:00] is an essay he wrote called On the Social Contract, he made this point about the implicit consent argument. He said, “Can we seriously say that a poor peasant or artisan has a free choice to leave his country when he knows no foreign language or manners and lives from day to day by the small wages which he acquires?”. The point where is that it is really hard to leave your country. In some cases, it’s legally very hard to leave your country.
Trevor Burrus: [00:21:30] Some cases it’s actually just illegal, like North Korea for example.
Aaron Powell: Yes, or they’ll charge you an arm and a leg.
Trevor Burrus: Actually I think it’s something like $1,600 to renounce your citizenship to the United States.
Aaron Powell: Yeah. Those are instances. You know, those are state imposed barriers, but it’s also the case like your country is the culture that you know. It’s the language that you know. It’s when your family is, your friends are, your support networks. [00:22:00] It’s where you have been employed, where you’ve built up a career. Leaving it would be extremely costly, and whether that rises to the level of impossibility so that your choice to stay is not a meaningful choice may differ from person to person. Some of us have access to resources that would make it easier than others, but we can’t just say like … It’s not as simple as saying, “Look. Well, you chose to stay here, so therefore you’re bound.”
Trevor Burrus: But isn’t the costliness [00:22:30] of giving up these … leaving the country, giving up these social support networks, job, things like that, isn’t that just saying that the government, the state, has provided you with a lot, and that’s why it’s costly? You received a ton of benefits from the state.
Aaron Powell: I think it would hard to argue that most of the costliness is on account of state benefits. My family is not a state [00:23:00] benefit. My friends are not state benefits. My career is not a state benefit.
Trevor Burrus: But all these entities, Cato, exists in a system of laws and it’s benefited by the property laws of the District of Columbia and by the utilities of the District of Columbia, and your children benefit by the schools of Arlington, and all of these things. They’re mixed up with benefits [00:23:30] of the state.
Aaron Powell: Yes, but that’s just an argument for how widespread the state’s reach is. You know, a protection racket in a city could make a similar claim that, “Look. All the businesses are paying us this protection money, and because of that we have a certain structure in place, and you haven’t been robbed. You’ve now consented by you’ve been embedded in this system.” Saying that there is a system [00:24:00] is not the same thing as saying that every last piece of it is legitimate or has power. Although that question of benefits does come up in one of the later theories, it’s just not really related to explicitly consent. I do want to touch on one really … one last point on consent before we move on to the next one, which I think is important, which is consent is something … I have consented to a set of terms, to a something [00:24:30] of rules, right?
Trevor Burrus: Literally like sufficiently knowable.
Aaron Powell: Yes.
Trevor Burrus: I mean, maybe not every explicit rules all contract have, but at least somewhat knowable.
Aaron Powell: Yes, and that’s how consent works in our everyday lives. You know, you tell me like, “Do you agree to do this?,” and I say yes, but if say I make a promise to you I’m going to stop by and feed your pets because you’re out of town, so I’ve consented to do [00:25:00] that and I now have an obligation to show up three times while you’re out of town. If I then show up and you’re like, oh, and by the way, I also need you to mow my lawn, and take out the trash, and also run some errands, and I’m going to … I’m actually going to be out of town for an extra six weeks and I need you to do all of that,” that’s not what I agreed to, right?
When we agree to things contractually, [00:25:30] there’s a set of terms and there’s a length of the agreement. The agreement doesn’t perpetuate forever, and if the terms change, like some little bits of change might be acceptable, but if it changes significantly then we consider the agreement is now null, right? The government changes the terms of the social contract all the time without my consent and often against my wishes, [00:26:00] and it seems to last forever, right, and there’s no way for me to say, Okay. I don’t agree to that, because that wasn’t in the original agreement, or that was so long ago.” That’s another example of how this agreement we have with the state doesn’t look like a contract.
Trevor Burrus: Before totally moving on from consent, I do want to spend more time. I think it’s the most predominant theory, but also what about voting? We talked about citizenship. We talked about becoming a citizen. We talked about the options [00:26:30] available to you, but every time you vote in an election, is that sort of re-upping the justification of the government doing things to you?
Aaron Powell: Voting would seem to give rise to consent in some instances. If we get together, if friends, 10 of us get together, we’re going to go out to dinner, we’re trying to decide where to go, and we say, “Well, let’s put it to a vote,” and I want Chinese food and [00:27:00] three of us end up voting for Chinese food but six of the group ends up voting for Italian food, it would be at the very least kind of uncouth for me to then stamp my feet and say, “Well, I’m not going to go,” and throw a fit and go home. Voting seems like a way to settle those kinds of differences, and a legitimate way. The question is does the same sort of apply to the state, and I think the answer is no.
[00:27:30] First, many of us … Well, first there’s a lot of people in this country who can’t vote but as still bound by its laws, whether … In a lot of cases, felons have their right to vote stripped from them and we can’t just say-
Trevor Burrus: Children.
Aaron Powell: “Well, they committed a crime and therefore they don’t have,” because if nothing else that’s circular.
Trevor Burrus: Children.
Aaron Powell: Children.
Trevor Burrus: Illegal immigrants, yeah.
Aaron Powell: But also many of us vote defensively, so we think [00:28:00] that all the options are bad and wouldn’t consent to any of them, but we know we’re going to suffer through one of them, so it might as well be the least worst one. But that doesn’t seem like consenting. I mean, that would be the mugger says, “Your money or your life.” He’s giving you a choice and you vote on it, but you haven’t consented to the outcome. Then of course your vote doesn’t really have any impact whatsoever. It’s one among millions, [00:28:30] so you didn’t really consent to the outcome, because the outcome would have been the same whether you participated or not.
Trevor Burrus: Let’s move on then to one of the other general theories of political obligation. Of course philosophers have been talking about this for a while, so they have kind of itemized them out, but I think a lot of our listeners and people who are objecting to this entire conversation are probably thinking about some of these. One of them is fair play, which [00:29:00] I think H. L. A. Hart did one of the versions of that, but you write it down in our little outline as if we benefit from a cooperative scheme, we need to abide by its rules or we’re just free riding. I think a lot of people feel that too about why they should obey the government.
Aaron Powell: Of course.
Trevor Burrus: What’s wrong with that?
Aaron Powell: Sure. If the government is just another word for the things we do together, then we’ve all gotten together. We have sacrificed in certain ways, so as citizens [00:29:30] people have paid taxes, they’ve given up their time. Sometimes they’ve given up their lives defending the country. It’s a big cooperative enterprise, and if I have benefited from it, so I went to public schools, I was protected by police, so on, then I have an obligation to kind of repay or otherwise I’d be free riding. If the neighborhood gets together [00:30:00] to have a potluck and everyone brings food but I don’t and I show up and just eat food that everyone else brought, there seems to be something wrong with doing that. It would be unfair of me to take advantage of the sacrifices of other people.
This is another one where clearly the concept of it can give rise to obligations, but the question is does it give rise specifically to the kinds of obligations that the state asks for. [00:30:30] Robert Nozick had an objection to this, which was that in order for fair play to come into play, the benefits needs to be accepted, not merely received. If the benefits are forced upon you or you never had a choice in accepting them in the first place, then we wouldn’t say that you now have an obligation to repay them. You know, maybe like it would be a nice thing to do, but you certainly can’t be forced to, and [00:31:00] the government looks very much like that kind of set up.
The benefits that the government gives me, I didn’t really have a choice about receiving. I didn’t have an option of a different police force. In many cases, the services the government provides, not only does it provide them, but it monopolizes them. It doesn’t allow other people to come in and provide [00:31:30] alternative services. I’m embedded in this system. I’m embedded in this geographical area that is run by the state, and again unless I can move out of it, I don’t have any way to avoid a lot of these services and a lot of these benefits.
Trevor Burrus: Would the same objection exist for … Occasionally you see these hit pieces on Libertarians where they write something like, “Mister Libertarian goes to his job at the Cato Institute, and on the way he uses [00:32:00] public roads, and stop signs, and stoplights, and benefits from, and Cato is protected by the public fire department.” I think that we did have a fire alarm a few years ago and someone did tweet that it was funny that Cato was waiting for the fire department. That seems to be kind of benefits that we receive. Does the same objection apply to this? What you just said about we didn’t accept them, or are we accepting them by using them?
Aaron Powell: We’ve received [00:32:30] them. Whether we accepted them would hinge on whether we had a choice about receiving them or a choice about using them at all. The roads, it would be quite difficult for me to get from my home in northern Virginia to my office here at Cato in the District of Columbia without using state provided means. [00:33:00] There’s the metro and there’s roads.
Trevor Burrus: This sounds like-
Aaron Powell: I could bike, but that would be sidewalks.
Trevor Burrus: This sounds like that guy who built his own toaster.
Aaron Powell: Yes.
Trevor Burrus: It would just be this like game. You’d be like, “All right, Aaron.” Maybe some very extreme Libertarians would try and figure out how to do this, but it might be impossible.
Aaron Powell: It might be impossible. I could telecommute, but even then I would be using other infrastructure that was provided by the state. It’s impossible [00:33:30] to avoid it.
Trevor Burrus: It seems to be related to one of the episodes we did on a concept that I’ve termed the “Statrix,” because you have to think about how the state has made the alternatives not exist, at least in so far as competing. If you wanted to start a private road business or many other private supplied schools, things like this, you have to compete against the state, which has [00:34:00] privileges that you do not as a private business. They can subsidize. As a result of that, if those things do exist, many of them are crowded out by the state.
Aaron Powell: Right.
Trevor Burrus: Then you look around, you say, “Look at all the benefits of the state.” Also, it’s not just that there is no choice. It’s that the state made there be less choice on top of that.
Aaron Powell: Yes. A lot of these objections we’re making now are quite similar if not the same to the objections to implicit [00:34:30] consent theories, but there’s another problem with the fair play thing, which is if it does … Let’s stipulate that it does give rise to obligations, that I do need to play fair, that this was a genuine cooperative scheme, that I did accept these benefits instead of merely receiving them. That still leaves open the question of, okay, so now I have some sort of obligation to this thing called the government, or I have some sort of obligation. [00:35:00] There’s two problems.
The first is who are those obligations to, because the people who sacrificed to give me all of these benefits were not the members of the government. They were my fellow citizens, my fellow taxpayers, so it would seem that my obligation is to them, which would mean maybe the way to discharge that would be through paying for supporting government programs. Maybe it’s also starting a business that employs lots of people, or [00:35:30] starting a private school that gives scholarships to poor children. There are lots of ways that I could discharge that that aren’t to the government.
Then second, those obligations … It’s not clear that those obligations, that the way we repay them, the way that I repay the sacrifice my fellow Americans made in paying for roads say is by obedience, non-competition, and taxation. You know, maybe it’s taxation. Maybe like I have to pay back, but why? If [00:36:00] at the potluck my obligation is to bring food, it’s not to obey the commands of the other people at the potluck and to agree to never set up my own potluck on the other side of town. Again, the obligation, there may be obligations here, but the specific ones that the state demands don’t seem to arise from fair play.
Trevor Burrus: Now, you have listed here a different theory of political obligation, which is [00:36:30] called gratitude. I that much different than fair play? Is it that you should be grateful for all you have gained from the state? I mean, again this pops in my head right now because a lot of these things we’re talking about should also be thought about in context of something like North Korea because like we’re talking about general political obligation. Maybe one thing we should be talking about, not [00:37:00] right now adding into the conversation, but more as in our political conversations is that if something sustains American’s legitimacy, does it also sustain North Korea’s legitimacy, because you can make all these arguments about North Korea. You could say, “Oh, they get so much from the state,” and they do get a few bags of rice and starving. I’m listening here and I was like-
Aaron Powell: And they don’t tend to leave.
Trevor Burrus: They don’t tend to leave, and they probably don’t want to leave because they don’t know. What sort [00:37:30] of … Does that challenge the view of legitimacy? Yeah, so I was thinking about that when I read this line, “We have all gained from the state.” I was like, “That sounds like something North Korea would tell you, so you should have gratitude of the great leader.” Aside from going … In America, we have gained to some extent. Is this different from fair play?
Aaron Powell: It’s different than fair play in that it attempts to get around the accepting-receiving distinction and problem for fair play. Gratitude says, [00:38:00] “Look. Because you have used these things, whether you accepted them or merely received them, you should feel a sense of gratitude to those who provided them to you, and then the sense of gratitude turns into an obligation to repay that debt.” If you’re in a car accident, you’re unconscious, and someone comes by and hauls you out before the car burns, you should feel a sense of gratitude [00:38:30] to that person even though you were in no position to accept or reject the help.
It seems to have solved that problem with fair play, but a lot of these same objections apply. Why would it give rise to the sorts of obligations that the state demands? Why would it give rise to obedience? The person helps you out of the car. Maybe you should take them out to dinner, but you shouldn’t … They can’t just start issuing you commands that [00:39:00] you then have an obligation to obey.
Trevor Burrus: Isn’t that like Chewbacca’s life debt?
Aaron Powell: Yeah, so Chewbacca’s life debt is a good example of Han Solo saves Chewbacca in some way. We’ll find out in 2018.
Trevor Burrus: Like with the Han Solo movie, yeah.
Aaron Powell: With the Han Solo movie. Chewbacca pledges to be Han’s companion and to help him out and protect him. It’s a debt of gratitude that Chewbacca’s-
Trevor Burrus: But he doesn’t pledge to obey him, does he? I assume not. I’m not sure.
Aaron Powell: It doesn’t seem like obedience is a strong suit [00:39:30] of Chewbacca’s.
Trevor Burrus: Chewbacca, I agree.
Aaron Powell: Yeah. I mean, this again is a theory like gratitude is a real thing and the obligations that arise from gratitude are a real thing. But just like fair play the questions remain of even if you have a debt, are obedience, non-competition, and taxation the way that you discharge that debt, and also who do you owe that debt to? You know, should you feel gratitude to the government agents or should you feel gratitude [00:40:00] to your fellow citizens who supported this stuff? Finally, there’s the issue of we at the Cato Institute spends a lot of our time pointing out the ways that government makes things worse. If government especially has its non-competition thing, so it’s keeping out what we would say are frequently better solutions that would be cheaper, more effective, less dangerous, so on and so forth, then yes we may have benefited, but overall [00:40:30] we might be worse off now than if the government were smaller or different in some way or it were a different government entirely. That starts to complicate the gratitude narrative.
Trevor Burrus: There’s the great Harry Brown quot, which is, “The government is good at one thing. It knows how to break your legs, hand you a crutch, and then say, See, if it wasn’t for us you wouldn’t be able to walk,” which seems to make that a problem. Now, another theory of why we owe [00:41:00] things to the state is association, which maybe we kind of touched on too a little bit, which is the, “We’re all Americans. This is a thing called American. You’re part of it. It’s an ongoing endeavor, so you need to obey American laws as part of this thing called America.”
Aaron Powell: Right. This one is … It’s like all the others. You can analogize it to non-political [00:41:30] life and it seems to make sense. Like if you are part of your local church or synagogue, say it may have rules or traditions, and being a member of that organization means obeying those rules and respecting those traditions. Does the government work in a similar way? You know, you’re a member of a family and being a member of a family means having certain sorts of relationships to each other. You know, often [00:42:00] you have to respect and obey your parents and so on, but the question is is the government that sort of thing. I think that no. I think that one of the problems with association is yes, we’re all Americans and there’s something called America and we’re part of this, but that’s not the same thing as the Department of Justice, right? Like [00:42:30] government is not America.
Trevor Burrus: Or the Raisin Administrative Committee.
Aaron Powell: Yes.
Trevor Burrus: Which a New Deal agricultural program. The Raisin Administrative Committee is also not America.
Aaron Powell: No. America would be America if the government had different rules or better rules or fewer of them, so they’re not the same thing. We can’t conflate society and state. But also, [00:43:00] there’s some real concerns with the consequences of an associational account, which is namely if government is America, if obeying government is … is obeying the American government is part of what it means to be an American, then it’s not clear where the limits are.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah. I’m hearing some North Korea in this, this just extreme obedience. Extreme obedience is required.
Aaron Powell: Yes. On a purely associational [00:43:30] account, there would be no meaningful way to say that crosses the line, that no, the government doesn’t have the authority to do that because it’s America, and this is who you are, and you obey it. You know, that’s pretty scary from the North Korea example. It’s also I think there’s cause for concern because our feelings of association can be misleading, [00:44:00] you know. The government is very good at making us feel like it represents America.
Trevor Burrus: It’s like half. They spend pretty much half their time telling us that I’d say.
Aaron Powell: The pageantry of it, the symbolism of it. You know, it’s not a coincidence that the buildings throughout Washington DC look the way they do, look as imposing and the classical architecture. It’s meant to make the government seem [00:44:30] really important, really significant, and part of a long tradition that is America. We know that your feelings of association can be manipulated. We know that you can have, to use a godawful term, false consciousness. North Koreans, who think that … Clearly their government is illegitimate because it’s a slave, but [00:45:00] a lot of them feel … they’ve effectively been brainwashed. We see this with members of cults. You know, the cult leaders can be very good at convincing you that they have authority over you and that you are part of something bigger than yourself. I’m not saying that the United States is a cult, but just that we should be willing to examine those feelings of association and willing to say, “How much of this is legitimate? How [00:45:30] did I arrive at these feelings? Am I being not manipulated, but have I been influenced in certain ways?”.
Trevor Burrus: Public schools for example.
Aaron Powell: Sure.
Trevor Burrus: The Pledge of Allegiance, things like this. I think the North Korea example to bring it up again, it’s good because I think it challenges people, as we said at the beginning of this episode, to take these questions seriously, because actually the best argument against North Korea is not that it has bad [00:46:00] policies. I mean, those are good arguments. It’s that it is a completely illegitimate, criminal organization that is claiming authority that it does not have and oppressing people based on this claimed authority.
People would analyze the legitimacy of North Korea’s government in a similar way we’re doing now. They would say, “Well, they consented.” They said, “Well, no. They never really had a choice, and it only matters if you meaningfully have a choice.” It’s like, “Oh, well, they were born there.” It’s like, “Yeah, but they couldn’t have been born anywhere else. They didn’t become citizens. [00:46:30] They participate in a process somehow.” Then they would say, “Well, you know, but they received benefits.” “Yeah, but they’re brainwashed. They don’t really have any choice.” They would fully de-legitimize North Korea, but then you get over to America and do these same arguments apply? I think it’s a good foil for talking about these in a good way.
Aaron Powell: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Now, there’s another possibility, which is the state is legitimate because it fulfills some other moral quality. You have this listed [00:47:00] as the natural duty argument. It’s just it’s somehow moral by itself, so insofar as being moral, it takes your obligation because things that are moral should receive your obligation, your obedience.
Aaron Powell: Yeah. We clearly have … There’s morality outside of the state, outside of politics, that we have moral obligations that exist simply by nature of us being humans who live in relationship [00:47:30] with other humans. The question here is do those preexisting moral obligations, are they what gets us to the authority of the state, and there are various ways that we might argue for that. One that I want to set aside really quickly because it might look promising but I think it’s not quite on point is when the state says, “You shouldn’t murder, there’s a law against murder, [00:48:00] that you have an obligation to obey the state, and therefore we’ve solved the obligation problem.” No, because the reason that you shouldn’t murder is because you shouldn’t murder. The state has a law against murder, but that’s not what makes murder wrong. In fact, if the state had no law against murder, it would still be wrong. I the state for whatever reason legalized murder, it would still be wrong.
Trevor Burrus: You would have an obligation to disobey the state in that [00:48:30] regard.
Aaron Powell: Yes, yes. That doesn’t get us to … That’s not quite political obligation, and quite a lot of the laws on the books are simply just statements of preexisting moral obligations. Most of them certainly are not. But there’s some other arguments that might be more promising. One might be a utilitarian account. Utilitarianism, we’ve talked about on the show before, says the right thing to do, the morally proper [00:49:00] thing to do when you face a moral choice is to basically add up the consequences of the various options. How much happiness or how much pleasure, how much utility will be created by your various options? Then your obligation is to do whichever one of them creates the most utility. If having a state and obeying the state maximizes utility, then [00:49:30] that’s your obligation is to obey it. That would go back to our social contract. Like if not having a state is really bad, the “Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” then having one is morally good and we should support it.
I think one of the problems with that one is it would seem to say we should only support it when it maximizes utility, and there’s a lot of reason to think that [00:50:00] many if not most of the things that governments do do not in fact maximize utility, that we’d be better off if more people refused to obey those laws, refused to pay for those programs. It doesn’t seem to get us to the kind of blanket obligation that states demand of us. The other one is that we have an obligation to obey just institutions. This [00:50:30] argument goes that we have a … There’s a preexisting duty to behave justly and to support.
Trevor Burrus: That’s just a moral duty?
Aaron Powell: It’s just a moral duty to behave.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah.
Aaron Powell: You know, I need to be just in my own life and in my dealings with others, and I need to support justice out there in the world and support institutions that are seeking to promote or are promoting justice. If the government is a just institution and is promoting [00:51:00] justice, then I have an obligation to at the very least not interfere with it, but to also support it in that mission of promoting justice in the world. This one I think has, again, a number of problems. One is that no government is perfectly just, so they certainly wouldn’t apply to North Korea and [00:51:30] it wouldn’t apply to a great many of the things the United States government does. We get in a weird situation where, “Should I only … Do I only have an obligation to support those parts of … either those states or those parts of the state that are just?,” which maybe, but that’s not again the blanket obligation. Police and prosecutors and the DEA are pretty convinced that I have an obligation to comply with or support or not [00:52:00] interfere with the war on drugs, even though the war on drugs is monstrously unjust.
Trevor Burrus: Maybe it’s just that when you said that no government is perfectly just, I think you could make an argument that yes, but they strive toward justice. Like we have a court system with error correction methods that we acknowledge will produce unjust outcomes due to the very nature of human fallibility, but it’s trying, so you have a duty to support [00:52:30] institutions that are at least attempting to achieve justice.
Aaron Powell: Perhaps, but I think it would be a strength for a lot of the thing the governments do to say that these are well being and genuine attempts to achieve justice. We could point to all sorts of things that the state does. Go back to the war on drugs. There’s not a well meaning attempt to support justice. I think that we could agree that a lot of the things that our new administration has done and the [00:53:00] people who operate within it, many of them are not well meaning advocates for justice. Again, we would have to pick and choose effectively.
There’s also the problem here that if our duty is to justice, so it’s not to the government, right? You know, the government is merely the means by which we happen to be promoting justice. Then it would seem that we would have an obligation then to promote justice [00:53:30] in whatever means is more effective, not simply to promote justice via the existing government. In a situation like North Korea where the state is everything but just, it would seem this would say you have an obligation to effectively rebel, to violate the non-competition, to try to establish actually just institutions. We probably could accept that with North Korea, like, “Yes.” [00:54:00] But then given that no state is perfectly just including our own, it would mean that we would have an obligation to seek out alternatives if we can find them, if we can enable them, which again the state is going to deny us. It’s going to say, like, “Look, yes. You know, you can’t like be supporting me but that the same time be trying to establish [00:54:30] a new regime that’s going to be more just, a new set of institutions that are going to be more just, because that’s rebellion.”
Trevor Burrus: Well, it’s odd, because it almost … A proper view of the argument I think would have you trying to create just institutions as you said, rebelling against some of them, but it definitely wouldn’t have you just kowtowing to a monopoly on the use of force in a geographic area. It [00:55:00] certainly doesn’t get us to … It might get us to something where it’s like, “I obey this because it’s just,” and then if that’s the only problem we have, then the fact that it’s a state or not or it’s called a state doesn’t seem really to matter, because it’s just a just thing. You should obey justice and follow justice. That’s a good thing. We can call it the state or not, but your obligations are to justice as you said.
Aaron Powell: Right, and then your obligations turn to whatever institutions in whatever form with whatever labels [00:55:30] are best or most efficient at promoting justice.
Trevor Burrus: Exactly. Where does this get us? I mean, we talked about this at the beginning. We’ve gone through a lot of the classic arguments for political obligation, and I imagine that most of our listeners are probably not convinced about this still, which I understand. At least they practically think that it might be interesting in the abstract, but practically they’re going to go obey the state.
Aaron Powell: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: [00:56:00] Where does this get us? What have we learned about how to approach both A) political philosophy, but also B) just looking at politics in our daily lives?
Aaron Powell: Yeah. I mean, one answer to that, which is not mine, would be if the state, if we’ve now demonstrated that the state’s authority is not justified, then we need to abolish it and have political anarchism, which would [00:56:30] be the absence of a government, that that would be the only way to … If enforcing its authority because it’s not justified is immoral, we need to stamp out immorality and therefore. I am skeptical of that. I’m not an outright political anarchist. I feel that way because I think going back to the kind of utilitarian case or the social contract case, that I’m not convinced that [00:57:00] in terms of its just straight outcomes political anarchism would actually be better for people in their everyday lives than some sort.
Trevor Burrus: You mean at least right now.
Aaron Powell: Right now, yes. I think if we smashed the state tomorrow, things would get pretty bad. Keeping things from getting pretty bad is another one of our obligations, another one of our moral duties. There can be conflicting things here, so we have to trade them off. It’s not a perfect world.
Trevor Burrus: In other words, it’s [00:57:30] like if we’re going to bring about Mad Max and then maybe 200 years after that we’ll have a nicely organized anarchistic society, we might have to also make account for the fact that we put people through 200 years of Mad Max and the pain and suffering of that.
Aaron Powell: Yes. But another possible thing is we could say … Like we might dispute that these are … that the arguments against each of these five theories [00:58:00] are quite as incisive as I made them out to be and say, “No, I think these theories or at least some overlapping version of multiple of them gets us to something.” I might grant that, but even if we grant it, it seems that they would at best get us to a very minimal state, that these accounts would get us to something that looks closer to Nozick’s minimal state than it does to the expansive say federal government [00:58:30] that we have today, that most of what it does is not justified by any or all of these theories.
I think all of those are like practical, like you know, “Okay, so given this, what sort of world should we institute?,” but I think the really important thing to draw from this line of thinking is more of an approach to thinking about what government, what our government, does going forward. This is to say [00:59:00] that look, if most of what the state is doing is not on strong moral grounds, the powers that exercise this can’t quite be justified, be fully legitimate, then we should be at least skeptical of what it does. We should see it. We should not be … We shouldn’t venerate it and hold it up as the highest achievement of the human mind. [00:59:30] That it’s effectively a necessary evil, but a necessary evil is still an evil, even if only a little, and we should be wary of that.
Going forward, we should be checking it at every instance. We should be shifting the burden so that when it claims a new power, we should say, “Why do you get to exercise that new power? What is the value in that new power? You know, like a lot of your powers, [01:00:00] they’re not as firmly grounded as you think they are, so you need to have a really good reason why I am willing to put up with and why we should all agree to a little bit more authority exercised over us.” Then recognizing. I think the final step is if we recognize that at some level the state exists because we weren’t good enough to live without one, if we were all [01:00:30] morally perfect wouldn’t need it, right, so if it exists for that, then it’s in part a failing of us that we need this thing, so we should always be working to be better and we should always be working to move the world in a direction where we need it less and less.
Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. [01:01:00] To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.