Many theories of political authority are grounded in an argument about solving a coordination problem. Sometimes people talk about public goods like the protection of property, maintaining roads, or pollution mitigation. These versions of the arguments are weak because there are so many ways of overcoming these coordination problems without centralised coercion. The stronger argument is one drawn from Kant; it is not the provision of any kind of beneficial public good or service that we need political authority for, it is the existence of law itself. Even if we believe in natural law, and even if we believe everyone knows the content of the natural law, and is motivated to follow it even when it is not to their direct benefit, we still need a human-made positive law, and a state that has political authority to create, interpret, and enforce it. Why?
Well, Jeremy Waldron thinks there can be disagreements within the bounds of reasonable interpretation of the natural law, and where that happens, we need to know that there is one interpretation that we will all be forced to follow. It is more important that we coordinate on the same version of natural law, than we follow a morally perfect version of the natural law, because the whole point is to avert a situation in which we regard ourselves and each other justified in enforcing our own interpretation of the law. That would lead to a situation in which no one can trust one another, and society falls apart.
Why can’t the strongest person just credibly signal to all the others that his interpretation will be the one the flies, and the people on his pay-roll will enforce it? This will provide convergence on one reasonable interpretation of the moral law that is needed for people to trust one another, and make the most of their freedom in a pro-social context.
This won’t do because because the interpretation and execution of the moral law in this scenario is unilateral – it emanates from the intentions and actions of an individual who thereby has power over everyone else. Even if there exist incentives that can be relied upon to ensure this agent maintains a reasonably just system of coercion such that it really is institutionally robust, that fact that is unilateral raises a moral problem. Even if the other members of his society look like they are enjoying freedom as is consistent with everyone else’s freedom under law, they are not, because their freedom is subject to the will of this ruling individual agent. Being subject to unilateral coercion, whatever its effects, is a state of unfreedom. Having the socioeconomic autonomy to pursue one’s goals freely is not enough, one must also have political autonomy to be truly free, and that means not being subject to another individual’s will. The whole edifice of their freedom, as robust as it may be, is dependent upon this ruling agent’s unilateral will.
What political authority (de jure not de facto) does is execute coercion omnilaterally. Through something like a democratic state, we all coerce ourselves and each other together, in a way that provides a just framework of coercive laws, but without rendering anyone subject the coercive will of any given individual. The moral law must be interpreted and enforced omnilaterally by an agent authorised by everyone. That way, society coerces itself (a prerequisite for freedom and justice), rather than individuals coercing one another (a condition of private domination).
I think that a version of this account of political authority is given in almost all democratic theories thereof, including public reason liberalism, neo-Roman republicanism, and deliberative democratic theories.
Assume this is all true. I think unilateral coercion is still indispensable to getting political authority off the ground because it is sometimes going to be necessary to generate the coordination that is itself has political authority.
Yesterday Jason Brennan wrote a post showing that, when the mode of coordination itself is morally arbitrary, but coordination of some kind is morally essential, it is the actual mode of coordination that emerges that has political authority – which is to say we are duty-bound to comply with it. If, for example, a state made it the law to drive on the left, but everyone drives on the right, and expects others to drive on the right, and believes that others think they ought to drive on the right, one would have a duty to comply with this convention rather than the one’s laid down in the positive law of the state. Equally, I think, if society converges on some reasonable interpretation of the moral law in a similarly robust way that is at odds with the positive law, our duty is to comply with society rather than the state. It would erode the trust that grounds the system of coordination that itself grounds our socioeconomic autonomy.
It seems empirically highly likely and at a bare minimum in principle possible that unilateral coercion could be successful in generating coordination on which side of the road to drive, or which version of contract law to abide by, in such a way that people expect one another to comply with this version of rules and believe that others expect it of them. Once that convention is sufficiently off the ground, it has political authority – everyone is duty-bound to comply with it. Nonetheless, it is the seed of unilateral coercion.
Imagine an isolated island in a state of nature. Simultaneously, a man arrives with an army calling himself King William, and a group of natives form an organisation called the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic People’s Democratic Alliance. King William uses all his scribes and soldiers to create and enforce a system of private law, and is so successful due to the coercive capacity at his disposal that all the people on the island comply, and come to expect others to comply, in a way that rules become, in large part self-enforcing. Everyone trusts that everyone else will obey these rules and they get on with their lives. Meanwhile the ASCPDA is calling upon the people of the island to participate in meetings in which a different version of private law will be imposed upon the land such that everyone has an opportunity to determine the content of these laws. Rather than King William’s will, it will be everyone’s will together that determines the shape of coercive law. However, given that William’s system is already in place, is already robust in such a way that everyone can be trusted to act in a way that facilitates reciprocal external freedom, acting in accordance with the decisions of the ASCPDA seems to be a violation of one’s duty. Defying the King’s law involves acting upon a different reasonable version of the moral law that no one else converges on or expects one to act upon. If coordination is the output we want, unilateral coercion may sometimes be the thing that gets us there before omnilateral coercion can.
There seems to be two replies the friend of omnilateralism could give. The first is that political autonomy trumps socioeconomic autonomy, and therefore one is duty bound to act against a system of coordination if it originates in a unilateral will, in order to try to create an omnilateral system of coercion. This does not seem plausible to me. Surely, it is more important that people have some kind of legal rights that they can depend on, and plan their lives around than that they self-determine the law the grounds those rights. Indeed, in her new book Anna Stilz – a staunch defender of self-determination – agrees that the protection of “basic justice” is more important than political autonomy, and cannot be thrown under the bus in search of self-determination. It is incumbent on a self-determining organisation to show that in addition to being self-determining, they can also protect basic justice at least as well as the current unilaterally coercive agent.
The second reply is that the demand for political autonomy kicks in once basic justice is secured. It is incumbent upon moral agents to reform their political order from the inside to make the legal order it generates count as an omnilateral one. This reply seems plausible to me. But it requires wholeheartedly admitting that unilateral coercion can be necessary step to get us into a state of coordination from which we can then progress to a more democratic or self-determining one, as opposed to a non-starter. Political autonomy is something to aspire to, rather than a pre-requisite of political authority.
Beyond sometimes being necessary to getting a robust system of coordination going, unilateral coercion is also necessary to creating institutions and organisation that can act on the omnilateral will. Some individual or group has to unilaterally take up some model of what self-determination and democracy mean in order to coordinate with other pro-democratic reformers, and prior to their installing their system of omnilateral coercion, it cannot be said to really be omnilateral, it is just the private and shared will of a group of democratic campaigners. Even if they are operating in a state of nature and creating a system of law from scratch, someone has to call the first meeting, someone has to decide who gets to speak first, etc. It is hard not to think that the use of unilateral coercion may sometimes be the only way such matters get settled, even when the ultimate output is a truly omnilateral system of government.
Personally, I think that if a society trusts one another to converge on a system of rules, then it can be said to be omnilateral, since constant coercive intervention is not necessary to bring them all into line, I think this is pretty much as close as you can get to a system in which each person can be said to will the overarching order. But even if you have a more defined and substantive notion of the political procedures necessary for a legal order to count as omnilateral, you have to at least admit that unilateral coercion may often be better and getting the coordination that the theory of authority is supposed to be all about securing, and the unilateral coercion is necessary to put and omnilateral system in place.
Authority, to a certain extent, depends upon prior, successful unilateral coercion. Someone has to be the first mover in any coordination game. It is the ugly truth of the fact of coercion in human social orders that sometimes this means people just get to exert power over the rest of us. To think that you could get a system of coercion without anyone ever having any morally problematic power is to reject politics.
I think the upshot of this is that on a view of political authority that places socioeconomic coordination at the centre will have to admit that sometimes warlords, private defence agencies, tribal patriarchs, colonists, absolutist monarchs, have genuine political authority, when it is their unilateral execution of coercion that offers the best route to coordination under the circumstances. We’re back to Hobbes, but not quite.
It also means that civil society itself – where it just endogenously converges on some socioeconomic order – has political authority without any rulers. Where each person expects to be coerced in one particular way, and trusts that others will comply with these coercive constraints, there is convergence on a system of coercion without any exogenous ruler, and the order itself has authority, rather than any ruler who supposedly provides the order.
Even if political autonomy is a distinctive political good, under the right circumstances, stateless societies as well as all the other reviled forms of social order mentioned above will be authoritative to the extent that there is no democratic alternative than can secure coordination at least as well as the status quo.