People regularly submit to authorities: They take the advice of experts, they do what their teachers and bosses tell them, and they follow the instructions of state officials. Is there something these different forms of authorities have in common? Generally, authorities have some sort of superior standing. Experts (“theoretical authorities”) have a superior standing insofar as they know more than others in certain fields. “Practical authorities”, in contrast, have a superior standing insofar as they have certain rights over other people: Teachers have the right to grade their students, bosses have the right to assign work to their employees, parents have the right to tell their teenage kids to be home at 10pm, and police officers have the right to stop drivers and check their driver’s license.
While most people usually take the superior standing of authorities for granted, authority relations look unsettling once we realize how they affect people’s freedom and create relations of inequality. This holds especially for the authority of the state and its officials. States have important rights over citizens – like the right to enact and to enforce laws –, and we can hardly escape their coercive power.
The book’s main focus, then, is the authority of the state (although it frequently compares other forms of authority as well). It critically discusses the most prominent and promising attempts to justify state authority. Since most common political debates presuppose that states have legitimate authority, justifying state authority arguably is the most fundamental task of political philosophy. It has figured prominently in classics from Plato’s “Crito” to Hobbes’ “Leviathan” and Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government”.
The following theories of political authority are discussed in the book:
Consent theory. According to consent theory (which has its roots in Hobbes and Locke, among others), states have legitimate authority only if they have the consent of the governed. Sometimes this consent is understood as tacit consent, hypothetical consent or “normative consent” (i.e. as something the governed ought to give).
The service conception of Joseph Raz. The basic idea of the service conception is that all kinds of authority are to be understood as a service to the governed. States thus have legitimate authority insofar as they help citizens to better follow reason.
Community-based theories. These theories conceive the authority of the state in analogy to the authority of parents, basically as grounded in community relations.
Natural duty-based theories. According to this family of theories (which has its roots in Kant and Rawls), the authority of the state is to be explained in terms of everyone’s universal duty to support just institutions or to help people to escape the dangers of the state of nature. Sometimes this approach goes hand in hand with an attempt to vindicate democratic institutions.
Fairness-based theories. These theories argue that the authority of the state can be justified if we conceive the state as part of a cooperative venture in which all participants have fairness obligations to comply.
A final chapter debates what we should conclude if all these attempts to justify state authority fail. It thus turns to weaker notions of legitimacy, philosophical anarchism, and political anarchism.
Fabian Wendt is a Research Associate at Chapman University in Orange, California.
His new book Authorityis now available from Polity.