Authority and Coercion
Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 2-35, 2004
34 Pages Posted: 23 Jul 2008
Date Written: 2004
States claim to be entitled to tell you what to do, and to force you to do as you are told. This dual claim to authority and coercion is familiar in the context of the criminal law. It claims to apply even, perhaps especially, to those who reject its claims. But it is also a familiar feature of the tax code, and the law of private remedies. If I owe you (or the IRS) money, the law says I must pay, where "must" here means something like "on pain of having my assets attached, or wages garnished." And that "must" applies to me no matter what I happen to think about it.
The dominant tradition in political philosophy over the past century and a half has contended, implicitly or explicitly, that the state's claim to authority takes priority over the claim to coerce. As a result, this tradition contends that the primary normative question of political philosophy concerns the authority of society over the individual. Thus, the principal task of political philosophy is to define the moral limits of the state's authority. Questions about coercion are regarded as secondary, and as governed by additional considerations, about such matters as efficacy or fair opportunities to avoid sanction.
My aim in this article is to propose and defend a different view about the relation between authority and coercion, according to which the state's claim to authority is inseparable from the rationale for coercion. Instead of asking what people ought to do, or what the state ought to tell them to do, and then asking which of those things they may be forced to do, we ask when the use of force is legitimate. On the view I will defend here, both the use of official force and the claim of states to tell people what to do are justified because, in their absence, arbitrary individual force prevails, even if people act in good faith. I will present my account, and offer support for it, through a discussion of Kant's views on the matter. Kant's views about coercion have, I think, been widely misunderstood, no doubt in part because they have been assimilated to the dominant tradition. In order to highlight their distinctiveness, then, I will begin by saying something about the dominant view, before turning to Kant's approach.
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