A Traditional Argument

Aretae and AnomalyUK have been discussing authority. More interesting, to me, is the question of legitimacy. They are not the same thing. In 1655, Cromwell had authority, but not legitimacy, while Charles II had legitimacy, but not authority.

Michael Huemer likens the government to a vigilante who suddenly started imprisoning criminals in his basement and forcing his neighbours to pay his costs in doing so. He rightly points out that few of us would feel morally obliged to pay the vigilante, so then what is our obligation to the government?

Yet, I think we would agree that there might be circumstances in which we were obliged to pay the vigilante. For instance, if I had asked the vigilante to begin his reign of terror, and promised to pay my share of the costs, then perhaps I am morally obliged to pay up.* Now, I never did any such thing, but some people did – Bishop Odo, for example, might be thought morally obligated to follow his half-brother’s laws. However, this idea of a social contract doesn’t get us very far.

More practically, we might think about the idea of prescription. The idea is not that the state is “above” us, in Aretae’s terms, but rather that it is alongside us. If I may establish property and other rights by prescription, why may the Crown not? Certainly the Crown has been locking up criminals by common consent since “Time whereof the Memory of Man runneth not to the contrary.” Does it not follow that the right to do so has become Crown property, or prerogative as the courts would call it? Therefore we should make careful enquiry of any purported right of the Crown, to see whether it is of ancient usage, or a novel usurpation. If my neighbour has been putting his bins there for centuries, I can’t interfere with his right to do so. But if he just started last Tuesday, I might look askance. The same goes for Her Majesty.

Therefore we can easily see the distinction between legitimate authority, sanctioned by law, consent and tradition, and Aretae’s idea of authority, which is mere power. The question of which authorities are legitimate, and how far that legitimacy runs, is a matter to be determined by careful enquiry into the circumstances of any particular case. The question of what should happen when a legitimate authority exceeds its proper rights is more controversial, and so I shall leave it aside for now.

*Although in the real world such a contract would be void as a matter of public policy, because it’s ancillary to criminal activity. But let’s leave that issue be for the moment.

One response to this post.

  1. […] see how this goes – but if you only have the stomach for one response, read Devin’s and Why I am Not’s not mine. AMcGuinn also makes the point that I’m going to try to make below – our […]


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