Governments do a lot of things, such as collecting taxes and drafting people into the military, that we would object to individuals doing. Can this be justified?
Elizabeth Zhu, University of Toronto Schools, Canada
Second place of the 2020 Politics Prize | 7 min read
The political authority of governments rests on two grounds, both independent of each other: first it is justified on the basis of necessity, to protect citizens from a harmful state of nature, and second, on the basis of reciprocity and citizens’ normative duties to their government.
What do I defend in this essay? I argue that it is justified for democratically elected governments to impose reasonable costs on citizens to bring about societal good. These ‘reasonable costs’ fall under a set of criteria: a) they must not severely violate the basic rights of citizens b) they should be absolutely necessary as a means to fulfill the societal good c) on net, citizens should be made better able to exercise their rights and freedoms in the long term. For example, laws that enforce slavery or severely breach individuals’ privacy are excluded from the authority of governments. As Locke argued, the purpose of the state is to protect the ‘natural freedoms’ of individuals, including life, liberty and property rights (Locke). By extension, Joseph Raz argues that governments should only order citizens to do what they had prior reason to do (Raz). Thus, governments are justified only in enforcing just laws that protect the best interests of citizens in the long run, such as enforcing property rights, controlling borders, criminalizing hate speech, and punishing those who violate the law. Moreover, citizens have a reciprocal duty to obey these laws; though political authority differs from political obligation, the former implies the latter, and thus a defense of a duty to obey the law strengthens the justification for political authority.
Necessity and Securing Freedoms
First, governments have a right to impose certain demands on citizens out of necessity: to protect all citizens from an anarchic state of nature, particularly the most vulnerable. Take the absence of the examples stated in the prompt: without collecting taxes, governments would lack the funds to implement necessary public services and a functioning criminal justice system, and without military conscription, the state would be unable to properly defend itself from foreign attacks.
More broadly, without enforceable property and criminal laws, frequent conflicts and disagreements are likely to occur. Vigilante justice would replace a legitimate justice system, risking ineffective deterrence and biased punishments for perpetrators. In a brutish state of nature, individuals are unlikely to lead prosperous lives or pursue productive projects for fear of having the fruits of their labour stolen without consequence. Hobbes correctly argued that life without political order leads to a society “where every man is enemy to every man” (Hobbes). Rousseau famously said, “man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains” to describe the exploitative and unequal anarchy that exists in a state of nature (Rousseau). Provided this, the state has a samaritan duty to prevent a state of nature, and can only do so by demanding certain trade-offs from citizens. Moreover, government authority is particularly beneficial for the most vulnerable members of society who would otherwise be left at the mercy of anarchy. The poor, people with disabilities, and historically oppressed groups are likely to face unregulated discrimination and structural barriers in a state of nature where every individual must fend for themselves. In contrast, by taxing citizens to fund welfare programs, infrastructure, and public services, the government can provide a safety net and legal protection for individuals who may be disadvantaged by the lottery of birth. Therefore, governments are justified in imposing basic demands to secure the freedom of all individuals, and to prevent exploitation that will likely occur in a state of nature, thereby ensuring equality.
This begs the question: what grants governments unique political authority? Unlike individuals or private companies, the state is uniquely situated to protect us from a state of nature because only it has the means to fix a problem of collective action. As Wellmann puts it, political peril is a “coordination problem” which can only be resolved through state coercion (Wellmann and Simmons). Without forcible taxation or military conscription from the government, it is likely that citizens will free-ride on public goods rather than contribute. To use the example of taxation, self-interested individuals may be reluctant to sacrifice their earnings to contribute to the societal good. Similarly, individuals are often unwilling to risk their lives in war, yet protecting the safety of all citizens in a country requires that some citizens fight on the frontlines. Only governments are able to enforce a cohesive set of laws across a geographic area, unlike individuals or private organizations with conflicting interests. Only governments can reliably oversee an impartial justice system, in contrast to individually motivated and often disproportionate punishments led by vigilantes in a state of nature. Another reason why governments are uniquely equipped to enforce the law is due to their vast political expertise and knowledge of their state; a lawmaker is educated to weigh the pros and cons of a bill in their country, and are likely to be more well- informed of its societal and geopolitical implications than the average individual.
Importantly, our right to basic goods such as security, property and liberty entails a further right to have those goods enforced. Citizens cannot access rights unless there is a state that ensures those rights are granted; rights do not exist in a vacuum or in the abstract. Kant said, “justice is united with the authorization to use coercion against anyone who violates justice” (Kant). According to Kant’s categorical imperative, an individual should only be able to claim a right of their own upon upholding the rights of others. To guarantee that fundamental rights are enforced for all, governments must extract demands from citizens; for example, taxing them to fund public services to provide basic necessities or conscripting citizens into the military to protect the state, thereby upholding the lives of citizens at home. Only through taxation is the government able to guarantee the right to public healthcare and education. Freedom for individuals can only occur under state coercion; only then can citizens feel secure and have their bodily integrity upheld.
An oft-cited counterargument against the authority of governments is the libertarian view that individuals know what is best for themselves and have earned the fruits of their labour, meaning that government intervention is a violation of their autonomy. However, there are two flaws with this argument. First, though individuals may know what is best for themselves, they are ill- equipped to know what is best for society; the government is justified to impose reasonable costs on individuals to protect society as a whole. This is because the state has a duty to protect the moral equality of all citizens above the political whims of individuals. Conversely, individuals ought to obey the law to rescue others from a dire state of anarchy (Wellmann and Simmons). Second, it is unlikely that individuals would have amassed wealth in the first place without government intervention. A businessman likely benefits from roads built by the government, subsidies, intellectual property laws, and most of all, the maintenance of an orderly society. In exchange, it is only appropriate for the government to demand that citizens contribute to the functioning of the state. In a similar critique of the authority of governments, Robert Wolff argues in In Defense of Anarchism that moral autonomy is incompatible with political authority as obeying the state requires that individuals do not follow their own moral compass (Wolff). Yet this is precisely the purpose of political authority; as morality is subjective, an individual’s moral views should not dictate the law, but rather, the majority’s views should determine how society is governed. While in a state of anarchy the most powerful individuals are likely to dictate society regardless of the morality of their views, through demands such as taxation and military conscription that apply equally to most citizens, the government is able to enforce democratic checks and balances that ensure the views of all citizens are represented.
Associative Obligations and Reciprocity
Second, governments are justified in enforcing these demands due to the uniquely normative and reciprocal relationship they have with citizens. Normatively, the moral authority of governments can be justified on a purely associative basis: citizens have an inherent obligation to obey the state they were born into. As Dworkin argued, “Political association, like family or friendship and other forms of association more local and intimate, is itself pregnant of obligation” (Dworkin). Similar to a family unit where children owe duties to their parents by virtue of being born into that family regardless of their consent, citizens acquire obligations to obey political authority by virtue of being born into a state. In Crito, Socrates reasoned that he ought not to flee the state but rather accept his punishment of hemlock because his long residence in Athens meant he had entered an ‘agreement’ with the city’s laws (Plato). Thus, one’s continued birth, education, and residence in a state signals tacit consent to its authority.
Beyond appealing to our intuitions, government authority is justified on a reciprocal basis. Rousseau argued in The Social Contract that citizens agree to a hypothetical pact to transfer certain rights to a collective governing body that serves the common good (Rousseau). Unlike individuals, democratic governments have been elected into power, and thus represent the interests of a majority of the population. In exchange for letting citizens participate in the political process, the state is justified in enforcing laws. More importantly, citizens benefit from public goods that are integral to their wellbeing, from laws that protect citizens against theft to welfare programs that provide a safety net for the poor. The mere presence of state authority ensures that individuals live in an orderly society rather than an anarchy; a functioning society is implausible without taxes or military conscription. Irrespective of whether we have explicitly consented to state authority, our participation in an orderly society and enjoyment of public goods means we have a reciprocal duty to repay the state through taxes and military conscription.
To this, Hume objected that not all individuals have chosen to be a part of the state and receive these benefits as most individuals cannot move out of their country of origin. He raises the analogy of an individual being forcibly carried onto a ship where they are unjustly subject to the captain’s commands (Hume). However, a duty to reciprocate still exists for three reasons. First, the fact that citizens benefit from public services and reside in an orderly society, or at the very least are presented with the option of doing so, entails tacit consent of the state’s authority and thus a duty to obey the law, lest they become a free rider. Second, ignoring duties to oneself, citizens have a samaritan duty to contribute their share in protecting others from a state of nature, and consequently, governments have a proportional duty to impose demands on citizens. Third, the importance of explicit consent is questionable, since we tend to dismiss consent when the act in question is exceedingly immoral or harmful. For example, we prohibit individuals from consenting to sell themselves into slavery or to sell their organs. Given this, it is unclear why the opposite does not equally apply: if individuals fail to explicitly consent to an action that is extremely beneficial or just, should a lack of consent bar that action? To illustrate this using Hume’s analogy, if a ship was sinking and the captain ordered all the passengers to coordinate to patch up the hole, assuming the ship can only be saved if everyone obeys the command, arguably this authority is justified regardless of an individual’s lack of consent to being ordered.
Governments must extract certain sacrifices from citizens to protect their freedom. Though the alternative of anarchy creates the illusion of freedom, individuals cannot access security and liberty without state coercion. Unlike individuals, governments hold a uniquely reciprocal relationship to citizens, granting them a right, and indeed a duty, to tax and conscript citizens to provide public goods and services that individuals cannot provide for themselves.
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