[Home]TheJustificationOfTheState

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So far we have defined "government" and used that to introduce a definition of "political philosophy" -- since political philosophy concerns, primarily (but not only), philosophical issues about government. It just so happens, as we saw, that political philosophy contains a lot of different issues, and there is no way even so much as to summarize those issues without moving so fast that the chapter would be just useless and very difficult to follow. So we could, but will not, spend a few paragraphs each on the justification of the state, the purpose or function of government, the proper form of government, what the law is, and other basic issues in political philosophy. Instead, we are going to focus on the first issue, which is one of the most important, if not the most important issue. Namely: What is the justification of the state? Or to put it differently: From what source does the legitimate authority of any particular government arise?

Notice I am using the words "state" and "government" interchangeably here. There is a loose sense of the word "state" in which all the citizens of a particular territory are part of the state -- in the sense in which we are all part of the United States. In that sense, "state" means something like "country." But as the term is usually used in philosophy, "state" has a more restricted meaning; it means, basically, the government.

Now letís get clear about what the question at issue is. I very imprecisely put it as: "What is the justification of the state?" But as you should know by now, the first way of asking a philosophical question that comes to mind is bound to be woefully imprecise. If we ask the question and then forge right on ahead to giving an answer, we will end up just wasting a lot of time. So letís see what we mean when we ask, "What is the justification of the state?"

The first thing to observe is that the state, or government, is not some totally monolithic "leviathan" (to use Thomas Hobbesís term), a single entity with a single mind and a single will -- even though words like "the state" and "the government" invite us to think of it that way. No, the state is made up of people (such as the president), some items at their disposal or so-called public property (such as government buildings and weapons), and particular habits or traditions (such as those things that are called "laws"). For any given government, there are not always the same people, public property, and laws; that is of course especially true for any relatively long-lived government, such as the United States government.

Next, recall that what weíre talking about is the justification of the state. That word, "justification," has turned out to be rather important in our investigations into philosophy. One kind of justification we encountered was epistemic justification -- thatís the sort of justification that some of our beliefs have. But obviously, when we talk about the justification of the state, weíre talking about justification in a different sense -- in a moral sense of the word. If a state is "justified" in this moral sense of the word, then it is, as we say, legitimate. It is a legitimate government; and it has a moral right to rule.

But now, we said that the state is made up of people, public property, and a set of traditions such as laws; so what exactly are we talking about when we ask about the moral justification of the state? Are we asking for the moral justification of the existence of particular politicians, or particular government buildings, or particular laws? No -- not any one of these things in particular. So you might say: What weíre asking for is the moral justification of the existence of all of these things together.

But itís not everything, taken together, that makes up one particular government that philosophers are interested in showing to be morally justified. The question isnít about any one particular government; itís about an aspect of any government. Which aspect? The monopoly on the legitimate initiation of force. Remember that thatís what we said was essential to the state: the legitimate or at least widely accepted ability to initiate force within a given area. So if you want me to single out some items for moral justification, from among the items in government that I listed -- people, property, and practices -- it would be: the people in government engaging in any practice that involves threatening or using force. So then here's the question: "How are the people in government morally justified in engaging in any practice that involves threatening or using force?"

In the United States at present, there are a lot more than just police officers, judges, and soldiers who can legitimately initiate force. There are also zoning commissions, the EPA, the FAA, and all sorts of other regulatory bodies. But the United States is only one example, of course, and you have to remember: the question is, "How are the people in any government morally justified, if and whenever they are morally justified, in engaging in any practice that involves threatening or using force?"

Itís really important that you understand why weíre asking this question. In order to understand it, you have to understand, and be persuaded, of the rather strange claim that government is essentially legitimized force. Once youíve grasped that point, then when we ask, "What is the justification of the state?" you are just one step away from understanding that that question means, briefly put, "What is the moral justification of government people, government agents, using force?" What justifies them in using force? If they couldnít use force, there would be no government; and thatís precisely why weíre asking what justifies them in using force. Itís not like Iím trying to be subversive -- Iím just trying to be philosophical. Anyway, thatís the basic question weíre asking now.

Next I want us to distinguish two senses of this question. Like this:

(1) What is the moral justification, if any, of government agents using force at all?

(2) What is the justification, if any, of government agents using force to achieve a particular purpose, P?

The difference between these two questions is reflected in the difference between two other questions. First, what is the justification of the very existence of the state? And second, what is the justification of a particular kind of state action? On the one hand, if we canít give any justification for the existence of the state at all, if we canít justify government agents ever using any force at all, then weíre stuck with theoretical anarchism. (More on that later.) On the other hand, if we canít justify a particular kind of state action, if we canít justify government agents using force to achieve that actionís purpose, then we might still believe that government ought to exist. We would simply be saying that that is one less function that the government ought to be performing. Or to put the contrast even more starkly: itís one thing to say we should get rid of the government entirely; itís quite a different thing to say, simply, that we should get rid of the Social Security system, or certain defense programs.

By the way, if you wonder what the Social Security system has to do with force, just ask yourself something. Suppose an employer did not expect to face heavy fines and possible jail time, if he did not take out money for Social Security tax. Do you think he would then, voluntarily, pay the tax? Very possibly not. Itís the threat of force that keeps people paying taxes, and itís taxes that keep the government running at all. So: no tax enforcement, no government. Itís easy to forget this, but itís true.

Anyway, the question I want to focus on is (1), not (2). I want to ask why the state should exist at all -- why the power of government agents to initiate force should be thought to to be morally legitimate.

Now, if youíll remember, we already asked this question once. We said that government is necessary in order to keep other people from violating our rights. Some people are hell-bent on taking our stuff and even our lives and purely as a protective measure we are willing to establish governments that protect us. Thatís at least a "prima facie" reason for the existence of the state. "Prima facie" means "on first glance." So on first glance, the reason that governments are needed to exist at all is to protect our rights, and to preserve justice.


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Last edited February 2, 2001 12:00 pm by PhillipHankins (diff)
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