A political parable

Let us begin with a short political story….

You live in a small village with a crime problem. Vandals roam the village, stealing and destroying people’s property. No one seems to be doing anything about it. So one day, you and your family decide to put a stop to it. You take your guns and go looking for vandals. Periodically, you catch one, take him back to your house at gunpoint, and lock him in the basement. You provide the prisoners with food so they don’t starve, but you plan to keep them locked in the basement for a few years to teach them a lesson.

After operating in this way for a few weeks, you decide to make the rounds of the neighborhood, starting with your next door neighbor. As he answers the door, you ask, ‘Have you noticed the reduction in crime in the last few weeks?’ He nods. ‘Well, that is thanks to me.’ You explain your anticrime program. Noting the wary look on your neighbor’s face, you continue. ‘Anyway, I’m here because it’s time to collect your contribution to the crime prevention fund. Your bill for the month is $100.’

As your neighbor stares at you, making no apparent move to hand over the money, you patiently explain that, should he refuse to make the required payment, you will unfortunately have to label him a criminal, at which point he will be subject to long-term confinement in your basement, along with the aforementioned vandals. Indicating the pistol at your hip, you note that you are prepared to take him by force if necessary.

Supposing you take this tack with all of your neighbors, what sort of reception could you expect? Would most cheerfully give over their assigned share of the costs of crime prevention?

Not likely. In all probability, you would observe the following. First, almost none would agree that they owe you anything. While some might pay up for fear of imprisonment in your basement and a few might pay up out of hostility toward the vandals, almost none would consider themselves duty bound to do so. Those who refused to pay would more likely be praised than condemned for standing up to you.

Second, most would consider your actions outrageous. Your demands for payment would be condemned as naked extortion, and your confinement of those who refused to pay as kidnapping. The very outrageousness of your conduct, combined with your deluded presumption that the rest of the village would recognize an obligation to support you, would cause many to question your sanity.

What does this story have to do with political philosophy? In the story, you behaved like a rudimentary government. Though you did not take on all the functions of a typical, modern state, you assumed two of its most central roles: you punished people who violated others’ rights or disobeyed your commands, and you collected nonvoluntary contributions to finance your activities. In the case of the government, these activities are referred to as the criminal justice system and the tax system. In your case, they are referred to as kidnapping and extortion.

On the face of it, your activities are of the same kind as those of a government. Yet most people’s evaluations of the government are far more lenient than their evaluations of you in the story. Most people support the state’s imprisonment of criminals, feel obligated to pay their taxes, and consider punishment of tax evaders both desirable and within the rights of the state.

This illustrates a general feature of our attitudes toward government. Governments are considered ethically permitted to do things that no nongovernmental person or organization may do. At the same time, individuals are thought to have obligations to their governments that they would owe toward no nongovernmental person or organization, even if nongovernmental agents behaved similarly to a government. This is not simply a point about the law, nor is it about what sorts of actions one can get away with. The point is that our ethical judgments differentiate sharply between governmental and nongovernmental actions. Acts that would be considered unjust or morally unacceptable when performed by nongovernmental agents will often be considered perfectly all right, even praiseworthy, when performed by government agents. Hereafter, I shall use ‘obligation’ to refer to ethical obligations rather than mere legal obligations; similarly for ‘rights’.

Why do we accord this special moral status to government, and are we justified in so doing? This is the problem of political authority.

A political parable by Manuel Fraga is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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