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The justification of the state

What is the justification of the state? Or to put it differently: From what source does the legitimate authority of any particular government arise?

There is a loose sense of the word "state" in which all the citizens of a particular territory are part of the state -- in the sense in which we are all part of the United States. In that sense, "state" means something like "country." But as the term is usually used in philosophy, "state" has a more restricted meaning; it means, basically, the government.

The state, or government, is not some totally monolithic "leviathan" (to use Thomas Hobbes's term), a single entity with a single mind and a single will -- even though words like "the state" and "the government" , may invite us to think of it that way. The state is made up of people (such as the president), some items at their disposal or so-called public property (such as government buildings and weapons), and particular habits or traditions (such as those things that are called "laws").

One kind of justification is epistemic justification-- the sort of justification that some of our beliefs have. When we talk about the justification of the state, we're talking about justification in a different sense -- in a moral sense of the word. If a state is "justified" in this moral sense of the word, then it is, as we say, legitimate. It is a legitimate government; and it has a moral right to rule.

What exactly are we talking about when we ask about the moral justification of the state? Are we asking for the moral justification of the existence of particular politicians, or particular government buildings, or particular laws? The question isn't about any one particular government; it's about an aspect of any government: the monopoly on the legitimate initiation of force. How are the people in any government morally justified in engaging in any practice that involves threatening or using force?

If they couldn't use force, there would be no government. Distinguish two senses of this question. Like this:

  1. What is the moral justification, if any, of government agents using force at all?
  2. What is the justification, if any, of government agents using force to achieve a particular purpose, P?

The difference between these two questions is reflected in the difference between two other questions. First, what is the justification of the very existence of the state? And second, what is the justification of a particular kind of state action? On the one hand, if we can't give any justification for the existence of the state at all, if we can't justify government agents ever using any force at all, then we're stuck with theoretical anarchism. If we can't justify a particular kind of state action, if we can't justify government agents using force to achieve that action's purpose, then we might still believe that government ought to exist. We would simply be saying that that is one less function that the government ought to be performing.

For example, it's the threat of force that keeps people paying taxes, and it's taxes that keep the government running at all. So: no tax enforcement, no government. It's easy to forget this, but it's true.

Focus on (1), rather than (2). Ask why the state should exist at all -- why the power of government agents to initiate force should be thought to be morally legitimate.

At first glance, the reason that governments are needed at all is to protect citizens' rights, and to preserve justice.

Related article

The purpose of government