Jason Brennan On Political Authority

In this lecture philosopher Jason Brennan discusses the idea of political authority. He says that the median position among contemporary philosophers is that the state is legitimate (meaning the state is justified in imposing some coercive laws) but that the state lacks authority (meaning there is no content independent obligation to obey such laws). Philosophers sometimes refer to the latter position as philosophical anarchism. It’s not clear to me from what Brennan says here just what sort of laws such academics think the state may legitimately impose – they surely don’t think all laws are legitimate.

Brennan’s lecture is well worth watching.

I think there is something important missing from one of Brennan’s examples.

Imagine we’re all at a party together and I say, “Here’s the deal, at the end of this party you all have to help me clean up the mess that we make, and if you don’t like that leave right now.” If you continue to stay at the party it seems like you have agreed to clean up at the end.

As Huemer has pointed out elsewhere it’s really property rights that seem to do the moral work here, not implicit agreement. If the party is at Brennan’s house when he makes the announcement then it seems like those who stay do indeed have some obligation to help clean up. But if Brennan makes the same announcement at a party at Huemer’s house then there does not seem to be any such obligation, unless party goers have reason to know Brennan speaks on Huemer’s behalf.

This distinction is crucial because it requires that to rely on such an argument the state must demonstrate demonstrate that it owns the territory in question, or else that it legitimately speaks on behalf of the owners.  In The Problem Of Political Authority Huemer demonstrates that such arguments tend to be circular and thus invalid.

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Huemer On Social Contract Theory

In this talk hosted by Liberty On The Rocks Michael Huemer sketches out the argument in his book The Problem of Political Authority and focuses especially on attempts to justify the state via social contract.

My favorite quote from this talk: “What divides libertarians from everybody else is not a belief about rights or what rights people have, because the judgements libertarians make about the state are the same as the judgements almost everyone makes about private agents. So it’s not that we believe in rights that other people don’t believe in, or that other people believe in rights that we don’t believe in. It’s that other people think the state is exempt from the moral principles that apply to non-government agents.”

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