Government’s Right to Coerce and Our Duty to Obey

Do the state (aka the government) has any right to coerce us and we have any duty to obey it? This is the question that philosopher Dr. Michael Huemer addresses in his important work, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. The answer at which Dr. Huemer arrives after logical and empirical analysis is: I shall ultimately conclude that political authority is an illusion: no one has the right to rule, and no one is obliged to obey a command merely because it comes from their government.

Dr. Huemer divides his book in two parts. Part one is devoted to logically and empirically analyze various theories of political authority and part two to the discussion of how a society without the state will function.

The method that Dr. Huemer uses to logically analyze various theories of political authority is to first juxtapose an action of the government in the private sphere and then see if a private individual is allowed by common moral instincts, that most people intuitively understand and share, to perform that action. If that action is unjust and immoral for a private individual then it is also unjust and immoral for the governmental political authority to perform e.g., will we allow an individual to rob Paul and pay that money to Peter and call it social welfare? Not at all. So if a private individual is not allowed to rob Peter to pay Paul then the government should also not be allowed to do so.

The Traditional Social Contract Theory

The first theory of political authority that Dr. Huemer examines is the famous theory of social contract. The theory of social contract says that there is an explicit contract between the state (political authority) and the society members re giving monopoly of use of violence and force to the state via an explicit so-called “social contract”. The theory holds that, at least in some countries, there is a contractual relationship between the government and its citizens. The contract requires the government to provide certain services for the population, notably protection from private criminals and hostile foreign governments.

According to this theory then the state has the right to coerce its citizens and the citizens have the duty to obey the coercion of the state according to the explicit social contract that they have signed with the state.

The first problem with this social contract theory is that it totally ignores the reality i.e., no citizen in the history has ever explicitly signed a document called “social contract” with its government. Did you, my dear reader, sign such a social contract ever in your life with your government? No citizen has ever been presented with such an explicit contract document that citizens read and after agreeing to its terms and conditions signed it. Dr. Huemer presents more such glaring problems with the theory of social contract: But even If there was an original social contract, how could this contract bind people born much later, who never participated in the original agreement and were never asked for their consent?

Because of this and other such glaring logical defects this theory only remains as an historical artifact in the political science. No one takes it to be the logical justification of political authority.

The Implicit Social Contract Theory

As the explicit social contract theory crumbled under the weight of logical scrutiny the statist theorists designed another social contract theory. This time the social contract is implicit instead of explicit. Implicit consent is consent that one indicates through one’s conduct, without actually stating one’s agreement. If citizens have not embraced social contract explicitly, perhaps they have embraced it implicitly.

There are various ways in which one can indicate agreement to government’s coercion without stating agreement explicitly:

  • One expresses an implicit consent by not explicitly opposing the contract (passive consent)
  • One commits oneself to accepting certain demands by soliciting or voluntarily accepting benefits to which those demands are known to be attached (consent through acceptance of benefits)
  • Consent through presence i.e., one indicates agreement to a proposal merely by remaining in some location; and finally
  • Sometimes one implicitly consents to the rules governing a practice voluntarily participating in the practice (consent through participation).

Any of these four kinds of implicit consent might be used as a model for citizens’ implicit acceptance of the social contract. Dr. Huemer analyzes these implicit forms of consent using conditions for valid agreements. A valid agreement is an agreement that is morally efficacious – that is, it succeeds in rendering permissible some action to which one consents or in generating an obligation to act in a way that one has agreed to act. Where these conditions are not present contract is invalid. An example of an invalid agreement is, for instance, suppose a criminal holds a gun to your head and demands that you sign over the movie rights to your latest book. If you sign, the contract would be invalid, because the threat of violence made it involuntary. A valid agreement requires that these conditions are met in an implicit contract. These conditions are:

  • Valid consent requires a reasonable way of opting out
  • Explicit dissent trumps alleged implicit consent
  • An action can be taken as indicating agreement to some scheme, only if one can be assumed to believe that, if one did not take that action, the scheme would not be imposed upon one; and
  • Contractual obligation is mutual and conditional

The implicit social contract fails to pass all these four conditions and so is not a valid agreement between citizens and their governments. Dr. Huemer concludes the analysis of the social contract theory saying that the social contract theory cannot account for political authority.

The Hypothetical Social Contract Theory

The hypothetical social contract theory proponents say that individuals would consent to the state under certain hypothetical conditions. These conditions may involve stipulations regarding he knowledge, degree of rationality, and motivations of the parties to the social contract, in addition to the stipulation that all members of a society be given a choice as to what sort of society they shall live in. Dr. Heumer defines the conditions under which a hypothetical social contract can be judged valid. These conditions are, first, the defenders of this theory must show that people would accept the social contract in their hypothetical scenario; second, they must show that this hypothetical consent is morally efficacious, in the sense that it generates obligations and ethical entitlements similar to those generated by a valid actual consent. After a lengthy analysis Dr. Huemer concludes that, the move to a merely hypothetical contract cannot save the social contract theory. There is no reason to believe that agreement could be reached even in the hypothetical scenarios envisioned by most theorists nor that such hypothetical consent would be morally relevant if it could be reached.

The Authority of Democracy

As the theory of social contract between all citizens and the state fell apart, the theorists of the state needed something else to justify its political authority to legitimize its coercion. They came up with a compromised idea of majority consent. Can the agreement of only a majority of citizens give the state a right to coerce all of us? A simple scenario can expose the fallacy of democratic majority rule argument. Suppose you have gone out for drinks with few of your friends. You are all busy talking about philosophy, when someone raises the question of who is going to pay the bill. A number of options are discussed.  A friend suggests dividing the bill evenly among everyone at the table. You suggest that everyone pay for his own drinks. Another friend then suggests that you pay for everybody’s drinks. Reluctant to spend so much money, you decline. But your friend persists: “let’s take a vote”. To your consternation, they proceed to take the vote, which reveals that everyone at the table except you wants you to pay for everybody’s drinks. ‘Well, that settles it’, declares your friend. ‘Pay up’. In this scenario are you ethically obligated to pay for everyone’s drinks? Can your friends collect the bill money from you by force? I am sure your answer is no. This is the normal generally accepted ethical instincts of most people when it comes to such private scenario, but same situation exists in the case of democratic majoritarian government. Majority alone doesn’t generate any right to coerce the minority. It also doesn’t generate any duty for the minority to obey the majority.

Dr. Huemer then analyzes theories of deliberative democracy, argument from equality justifying political authority etc., and concludes, democracy does not solve the problem of political authority. The fact that a majority of persons favor some rule does not justify imposing that rule by force on those who do not agree to It nor coercively punishing those who disobey the rule.

After logically analyzing and refuting various theories of political authority Dr. Huemer discusses very important topic of the psychology of authority. Why people abide by the coercion of authority and why some people like to coercively rule over others. The motive of Dr. Huemer to review the psychological evidence re authority is to throw light on two issues. First, how much trust we should place in our institutions about authority, and second, how desirable or harmful it may be to encourage skepticism about authority. Dr. Huemer goes on to analyze famous psychological experiments like the Milgram experiment, the Boston Prison experiment, the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, the problem of cognitive dissonance, the social proof and the status quo bias etc., to throw light on these issues. Dr. Huemer concludes that, human beings come equipped with strong and pervasive pro-authority biases that operate even when an authority is illegitimate or issues illegitimate and indefensible commands. And this is the reason why the standard intuitions about authority are not to be trusted because they are products of systematic biases of the human mind.

What if there is no Authority?      

Dr. Huemer dedicates part two of his book to the discussion of a world without any kind of political authority. This world is not a typical world of chaos portrayed by the opponents of this idea of a world without political authority. This world simply replaces state coercion with voluntary agreements and contracts. In this world most of today’s laws will be unjust because they are coercive.  Dr. Huemer goes on to discuss how this stateless society will provide goods like protection and security, justice etc. He concludes that a market based voluntary system is much better than coercive state system of today.

In the last chapter from democracy to anarchy Dr. Heumer discusses strategies of transition from a statist society to a stateless society. He concludes,

It is reasonable to believe that anarchy may come to the world in due time. The most plausible transitional model is one in which democratic societies move gradually toward anarcho-capitalism through progressive outsourcing of governmental functions to competing businesses. No obstacle but public opinion and inertia prevents government from turning over policing, dispute resolution, or even the conduct of criminal trials to private agents. Governmental armed forces can be drawn down and ultimately eliminated through an extended ratcheting-down process in which each country repeatedly cuts back its military forces to only those needed for defenses. …  

The most important determinant of whether this process will occur is intellectual: if anarcho-capitalism is a good idea, then it will probably ultimately be recognized as such. Once it is generally recognized as desirable, it will probably eventually be implemented. Abolishing the state is more realistic than reforming it, because abolition requires people to accept only single philosophical idea – skepticism about authority – whereas reform requires people to familiarize themselves on an ongoing basis with the myriad of flaws of specific policies. (Emphasize mine)


Dr. Huemer’s book is a must read for anyone who is interested in issues of political authority. Most people in their day to day lives are ethical and moral, but when it comes to the government (political authority) they become vulnerable. As Dr. Huemer shows, we need to apply the same ethical standards to the government that we apply in our private sphere. Application of those standards tells us that the government has no right to coerce us and we have no duty to obey the government. Once we start questioning the political authority and legitimacy of the statist governmental system, its days will be numbered. Only then we will be able to build a peaceful, just, civilized and prosperous society for all of us on this planet.    

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