Home > Uncategorized > The Common Sense of Philosophical Anarchism

The Common Sense of Philosophical Anarchism

Philosophical anarchism is the idea that there is no duty to obey the law just because it is the law. Philosophical anarchists claim that there is no moral obligation to obey the commands of the state, and conversely, the state does not have the authority to command. In other words, the state is morally illegitimate.

Most people deny that philosophical anarchism is true. The most common reason is that citizens have freely consented to be governed by their states. Either expressly or tacitly, we have consented to the laws established by our government. Hence government is based on the “consent of the governed.”

The biggest problem with express consent is that it is plainly historically inaccurate. Apart from naturalized citizens, hardly anyone has ever explicitly consented to be governed. Given the absence of express consent, most arguments for the consent of the governed rely instead on tacit consent, through voting or residence.

Consider voting. The idea is that by voting for a political representative, we consent to the laws they establish. By participating in the electoral game, we agree to abide by the outcome.

The problem with this argument is that voting is a coerced choice. First of all, only choices that are free of coercion can generate obligations; if a choice is coerced in any way, it loses its moral ability to create an obligation. While there are cases where tacit consent can generate obligations, voting is not one of them, because the voter is never given the most important choice of whether or not there will be a government. Unless a voter is given the option to secede and avoid being governed at all, the act of voting cannot be taken as consenting to government.

Consider: a murderer breaks into your house and gives you the choice of being stabbed or shot. Your choosing to be shot does not mean you consent to it. The reason is that the murderer forces you to make a coerced choice: either be stabbed or shot. You do not have the option of not being coerced at all.

This example is importantly analogous to voting, because both the victim and the voter are subject to coercion, and neither have the choice of whether or not they will be coerced. Just as the victim will be killed no matter how she responds (and even if she does not answer the question), the voter will be subjected to coercive laws no matter how she votes (and even if she doesn’t vote). So voting, as a coerced choice, is not able to establish the consent of the governed.

The second argument given for tacit consent is residence: by choosing to live in a country, we agree to obey the laws of its government. Just as when you come into my house, you have to obey my rules, so too when you live in a certain country, you have to obey the rules of the government—love it or leave it.

Notice that this argument implies that just as I am the owner of my house, the government is the owner of the country. That is, the government is in a position of moral sovereignty over its territory and can demand that its citizens either obey or leave.

The problem with this argument is that it is circular. The consent theory of political obligation claims that government authority is based on the consent of the governed. Residing in a territory can indicate tacit consent only if the owner already has authority to demand you obey or leave (as when you come into my house).

But if government authority is based on consent, then that authority cannot exist prior to the consent of its citizens. This is, however, precisely what is required by the residence argument: government must have authority over its citizens before they can give consent, which is what needs to proved. Hence the residence argument fails. Unless government already has authority over us independently of our consent, then residing in a country cannot imply consent to that government.

At this point most people will appeal to an argument from fair play: since we receive benefits from government, we are thereby obligated to obey it. But this also fails to justify a duty to obey, since on this argument an investment company would be justified in seizing my life savings without my permission on the grounds that I would benefit from its money management. The problem here is that the benefits of a legal system are such that we cannot refuse them; and unless you can refuse a benefit, it is not clear how you are obligated to pay for it.

So the most popular arguments for a duty to obey the state fail. If the state is morally illegitimate, then we should embrace philosophical anarchism. Furthermore, we have good reason to investigate political anarchism, to see if it is possible or desirable to do away with the state entirely.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. July 9, 2011 at 11:23 am

    What about the case in which people genuinely believe that membership in a political state is a precondition for them living a good life. In other words people may believe that the state brings about those social and political conditions necessary for them pursuing their own interests, rightly understood. In this case people rationally commit to the state and thus their duty to obey the state comes from their own self-determined will.

    How would you respond to this claim as to why individuals have a duty to obey the state?

    • Michael Wiebe
      July 10, 2011 at 3:33 pm

      “people genuinely believe that membership in a political state is a precondition for them living a good life.”

      Obviously, merely believing this doesn’t justify a duty to obey. But if it is in fact true that the state is necessary for a good life, then it seems plausible that there could be a duty to obey.

  2. May 12, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    Are these the only arguments for state legitimacy that you’ve encountered in the anarcholibertarian literature? I know a better one. I suspect an ideological turing test failure here, because I doubt that the argument I’m thinking of is original to me.

    • Susanne
      September 17, 2016 at 9:13 am

      He wrote a one-page article and you accuse him of not covering the subject exhaustively even when he explicitly writes that these are common objectives, which implies there are more? Seems a little far-fetched to me.

      • Susanne
        September 17, 2016 at 9:14 am


  3. September 17, 2016 at 10:14 am

    He wrote: “So the most popular arguments for a duty to obey the state fail.” What matters are not the “most popular” arguments, but the _best_ arguments.

    • Susanne
      September 17, 2016 at 3:47 pm

      Whats your point? You would have one if he claimed this is the definitive answer to the question of the morality of the state. He does not. He says he wlll talk about popular arguments, and he does exactly that.
      You sound a little butt-hurt and try to hate the article for no reason.
      I’ll be glad to answer your brilliant arguments for the state, though. I have 5 seconds to spare.

  4. September 17, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    Sounds like we’re in violent agreement that this is not a “definitive answer to the question of the morality of the state”.

    If you want to try to pass the ideological turing test here, then tell us: what’s the best argument you’ve heard of for the moral legitimacy of the state? If the “popular arguments” given here are the best you’ve heard, just say so. (P.S. A “best argument for X” doesn’t necessarily prove X. It’s just a way to measure how thoroughly you’ve engaged with both sides of a question — as opposed to name-calling etc.)

    • Mukwew
      April 17, 2017 at 7:54 pm

      Instead meandering around forever, just WRITE DOWN the best arguments. The fact that you refuse to do that says a lot.
      What is the best answer I have heard? Pretty much the ones this article talks about. The only thing that can’t be answered 100 percent is the argument from practicality, so I would have to say that’s the best one. You can, of course, enlighten me.

  5. April 18, 2017 at 3:32 pm

    I doubt this argument is original to me, but I’ve never seen it addressed by any anarchist — even though the homesteading concept and parallel to guardianship seem obvious.

    • trtrtrtrrrtrt
      April 27, 2017 at 3:50 pm

      “Due process rights require coordination to avoid problems like conflict among competing courts or laws, double jeopardy, and inconsistent or capricious interpretation of rights.”

      Not at all. Privata law can handle this. When two parties form a contract, they may write in a clause that a specified third party can handle disputes. No court of law has any monopolistic claim. This is the most basic idea behind private law, if you have never heard of it, you know nothing about it.

      “Protection of common goods (i.e. natural resources) requires coordination of policy throughout the geographic extent of a resource.”

      No. Land can be aquired through homesteading, so can natural ressources. Read “Water Capitalism: The Case for Privatizing Oceans, Rivers, Lakes, and Aquifers” for an in-depth analysis.

      “Regulation of site monopolization, and the return of site rents due to provision of public goods, requires coordination throughout the region benefiting from a given public good.”

      Is this the classic public goods argument? There is an anarchist response to all supposed public goods, but it more useful to debate specific issues rather than an abstract idea in this case. So, provide an example of a so-called public good.

      Since this premise falls flat, so does the rest of the argument.
      You also cannot homestead something that is already owned by someone else. You cannot “homestead the right to steal”, based on supposed problems that are routinely addressed in even the most basic anarchist treatments of the subject.

      “When such a jurisdiction (i.e. rights-protection coordination framework) does not exist or is inadequate” Wrong. They have not shown that this is true.
      ” anyone may homestead the right to provide it” non sequitur, even if they COULD show an example, which they have not.

      The question of which rights a child has in regards to its parents, what rights the parents have etc. is rather complex, but the premise of their argument is here simply does not stand.

      You can’t homestead the right to punch someone either.

      • trtrtrtrrrtrt
        April 27, 2017 at 3:53 pm

        Sorry for the typos, I had to write this from a phone.

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