What Is Political Authority?

The defining mark of the state is authority, the right to rule. The primary obligation of man is autonomy, the refusal to be ruled. It would seem, then, that there can be no resolution of the conflict between the autonomy of the individual and the putative authority of the state. Insofar as a man fulfills his obligation to make himself the author of his decisions, he will resist the state’s claim to have authority over him. That is to say, he will deny that he has a duty to obey the laws of the state simply because they are the laws. In that sense, it would seem that anarchism is the only political doctrine consistent with the virtue of autonomy.

- Robert Paul Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism (1970), 3

Podcast of the Day

The philosopher Robert Nozick once claimed that the most basic question of Political Philosophy is “Why not Anarchy?” Political philosophers pose this question often with the intent of demonstrating that there is indeed a good philosophical reason why governments should exist. Indeed, we often simply take for granted that the state and its vast coercive apparatus is morally justified. Similarly, we tend to think that anarchy is both a practically untenable and morally undesirable mode of social association. But governments claim not only power but authority over their citizens. And a few moments of reflection on the idea of authority suffices to see how curious an idea it is. To have authority is to have a right to create moral obligations in others simply by issuing commands, and a corresponding right to coerce compliance when others fail to obey one’s commands. It seems a puzzling phenomenon: The government claim to be able to make it the case that you’re morally required to do something simply in virtue of the fact that it has told you to do it. And they claim the moral right to imprison you for failing to do what they say.

In The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey(Palgrave Macmillan 2013), Michael Huemer explores this puzzling phenomenon, and defends the conclusion that in fact there is no such thing as political authority.

Listen to Michael Huemer discuss The Problem of Political Authority on the New Books in Philosophy Podcast

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Short Article of the Day

Michael Huemer’s new book, The Problem of Political Authority, defends two big theses. The first is that states lack political authority, and the second is that anarchy is preferable to the state. There is a lot here to consider... I’ll focus on the things with which I disagree, even if I agree with a lot and have, in fact, defended versions of some of MH’s theses (see my Essay on the Modern State, CUP 1998). The errors I think MH makes are common to contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy. States and governments are not characterized well, and the discussion is rather ahistorical. It also seems as if state (or government) and anarchy are thought together to exhaust all forms of political organization...

Continue reading Christopher Morris' article: Michael Huemer on the State's Political Authority

Further Reading

When is political authority legitimate? This is one of the fundamental questions of political philosophy. Depending on how one understands political authority this question may be the same as, when is coercion by the state legitimate? Or, when do we have duties to obey the state? Or, when and who has a right to rule through the state?

This entry is concerned with the philosophical issues that arise in the justification of political authority. First, this entry will examine some of the main conceptual issues that arise relating to political authority. What do we mean by political authority? This entry distinguishes political authority from political power, and the idea of morally legitimate political authority from descriptive ideas of authority. It also distinguishes between authority in the sense of morally justified coercion and authority in the sense of capacity to impose duties on others and finally from authority as right to rule. Further distinctions concern the nature of the duties that political authority imposes on subjects...

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Authority by Tom Christiano

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