There are a wide range of arguments for what makes a state legitimate, or what confers authority on a state in such a way as to create a duty to obey. There is one class of argument I’ve always found unsatisfying, and recently while pondering it I realized why it always seemed to fall short in my mind. 

The argument I have in mind is found in the work of thinkers like Thomas Christiano, author of The Rule of the Many: Fundamental Issues of Democratic Theory. Christiano argues that democracy confers authority on the government because of an obligation to treat members of our society as equal and show them proper respect. As Christiano sees it, when a law is democratically passed with the support of the majority, to disobey that law would be to place your own judgment above the judgment of your fellow citizens. This would mean treating those fellow citizens as inferiors, which would be wrong to do. Therefore, there is an obligation to follow democratically passed laws. 

There are a number of reasons to be suspicious of this argument. Why should we believe there is some moral obligation to defer to the judgment of others if that judgment happens to be more popular than your own? And even more so, what would make this obligation an enforceable obligation – one that can be compelled through coercion? If you go back a few decades, the majority of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage. Nonetheless, some people married across race anyway. Those who did so clearly believed (correctly!) that their judgment on that issue was better than the majority of their fellow citizens. It seems obviously false to say that in doing this, they did something wrong by believing they had better judgment than the majority, let alone impermissibly wrong in a way that makes coercion acceptable.

But there is a more fundamental reason I find this line of thought unpersuasive. Missing from arguments like this is an idea that is much more emphasized in the classical liberal and libertarian tradition – the idea of reciprocity. 

I think the heightened libertarian focus on reciprocity is why libertarians are so disproportionately likely to cite the work of Ronald Coase. It’s not that Coase’s work is somehow uniquely conducive to libertarian policy – you can’t start with the Coase Theorem and take a straight line from there to anarcho-capitalism. But Coase pointed out that economists had been conceptualizing externalities in the wrong way. Prior economic analysis treated externalities as a one-way imposition of costs. But Coase pointed out that externalities are reciprocal – the imposition goes both ways, between both parties. (This conclusion was also independently reached by the fictional physicist Sheldon Cooper!) Because of this, attempting to correct for externalities by saying “we should impose taxes on the party creating the externality” doesn’t get off the ground. 

Christiano’s argument suffers from this same lack of reciprocity. Even assuming that placing one’s judgment above the judgment of others is an impermissible wrong, the situation is still reciprocal. If my fellow citizens say I must do as they have decided because if I don’t, I’m treating my judgment as superior to theirs and treating them wrongly, I can equally say that by trying to compel me to do as they’ve decided, they’re placing their judgment above my own, placing me as an inferior and treating me wrongly. The situation is reciprocal. And by treating the alleged “wrongness” of valuing one’s own judgment over the judgment of others in this non-reciprocal way, Christiano’s theory only treats people equally in a “some animals are more equal than others” doublespeak way. 

I previously argued Yoram Hazony’s concern that an unyielding commitment to free trade can undermine the bonds of mutual loyalty on which a nation depends suffers from the same flaw. I gave a hypothetical example of being faced with the choice between buying inexpensive lumber from a Canadian named Carl, or paying more for the same lumber from a fellow American named Walter:

Presumably, Hazony thinks there is an obligation rooted in loyalty to buy from Walter over Carl, but it’s not clear why. After all, what Hazony invokes so often is the idea of mutual loyalty – and the thing about mutual loyalty is that it’s mutual. The obligation goes in both directions. So why would we say I’m failing to show Walter proper loyalty by buying from Carl? Why not say Walter would be failing to show proper loyalty to me, by insisting I buy from him despite the huge additional financial burden it would impose on me? Simply saying “mutual loyalty” does nothing to resolve this.

One of the best recent works of libertarian political philosophy (in my never to be humble opinion), Governing Least by Dan Moller, makes a similar point about treating the impermissibility of certain actions in a reciprocal fashion: 

I want to insist that, perhaps contrary to other presentations of classical liberal ideas, the core impulse isn’t outrage about being asked to give, it is in the first instance a bewilderment at the suggestion that we are entitled to demand. The impulse moves through the table of conjunction: I couldn’t issue such a demand; on reflection it would be outrageous of you to make such a demand of them; and so it becomes clear that they shouldn’t make such a demand of us.

Moller argues that “if we recognize even modest strictures on making others worse off to improve our lot” – and if we apply those strictures in a reciprocal and equal manner among citizens – then “we quickly run into a form of libertarianism.” 

Of course, these are not the only theories of political authority out there. But I do find it striking that so many theories of political authority, like those grounded in mutual loyalty and showing proper respect for the judgement of others, have to assume away – or ignore – the issues of reciprocity those principles seem to carry.