This is going to be a couple of parts, but I’m going to try to tie them all together, in time. I’ve chosen a “selection plus commentary” approach for these sermons, which means I’m almost certainly going to be dropping spoilers about the future pieces of text. Since it’s philosophy, not thriller fiction, I think that’s OK. On with the sermon:
The Conflict Between Authority and Autonomy
Politics is the exercise of the power of the state, or the attempt to influence that exercise. Political philosophy is therefore, strictly speaking, the philosophy of the state. If we are to determine the context of political philosophy, and whether indeed it exists, we must begin with the concept of the state.
The state is a group of persons who have or exercise supreme authority within a given territory. Strictly, we should say that a state is a group of persons who have supreme authority within a given territory or over a certain population. A nomadic tribe may exhibit the authority structure of a state, so long as its subjects do not fall under the superior authority of a territorial state. The state may include all the persons who fall under its authority, as does the democratic state according to its theorists; it may also consist of a single individual to whom all the rest are subject. We may doubt whether the one-person state has ever existed, although Lous XIV evidently thought so when he announced, “L’état, c’est moi.” The distinctive characteristic of the state is supreme authority, or what political pholosophers used to call “sovereignty.” This one speaks of “popular sovereignty” which is the doctrine that the people are the state, and of course the use of “sovereign” to mean “king” reflects the supposed concentration of supreme authority in a monarchy.
Authority is the right to command, and correlatively, the right to be obeyed. It must be distinguished from power, which is the ability to compel compliance, either through the use or the threat of force. When I turn over my wallet to a thief who is holding me at gunpoint, I do so because the fate with which he threatens me is worse than the loss of money which I am made to suffer. I grant that he has power over me, but I would hardly suppose that he has authority, that is, that he has a right to demand my money and that I have an obligation to give it to him. When the government presents me with a bill for taxes, on the other hand, I pay it (normally) even though I do not wish to, and even if I think I can get away with not paying. It is, after all, the duly constituted government and hence it has a right to tax me. It has authority over me. Sometimes, of course, I cheat the government, but even so,
I acknowledge its authority, for who would speak of cheating a thief?
 For a similar definition of “state” see Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation. Weber emphasizes the means – force – by which the will of the state is imposed, but a careful analysis of his definition shows that it also bases itself on the notion of authority (“imperative coordination”).
This is the opening of Robert Paul Wolff’s “In Defense of Anarchism” (1970). He was a colleague of my father’s at Columbia back in the 60s when I was a toddler in a stroller on the steps of Low Library. Somehow a copy of “In Defense…” wound up in my father’s rather gigantic library and as I was trawling through for something to read, I settled on that slim volume. I still have it on my shelf, with marginal notes by my father, overlaid with my own illegible chicken-scratch.
Wolff begins by establishing a definition of “authority” and then “autonomy” which he then places in opposition. The rest of the book is an examination of various political systems to see how they rationalize the autonomy of the individual with the authority of the state, and fail. Wolff concludes that no state is convincingly legitimate. To be legitimate, a state must rationalize its authority with the autonomy of the individual, or the individual is not being a moral actor since they are submitting to the threat of force and can choose to stop doing so at any time. They have a right to choose to stop doing so at any time, indeed they may have a moral obligation to stop doing so, as in the case where a state is aggressive, militaristic, or corrupt. That latter bit of argument always reminds me of the time, in some forgotten interview, where someone asked Noam Chomsky why he’s so concerned about the US’ injustices and not the more obvious crimes of other states; Chomsky’s reply, “because I help fund the US.”
For the record, Louis XIV did not really think he was the state when he said that. The story, which is probably not true, is that his Conseilleur D’état, Colbert (not Stephen!) at one point remonstrated with him, “Mais, L’état exige..” (“The State requires…”) at which point Louis cut him off “L’état, c’est moi.” (“I am the state!”) Louis VIX ushered the age of absolutism, the final transition of European government from feudalism – the nobility no longer had real power, all power in France was Louis’ to exercise. In a sense, Louis XIV was the quintessential monarch that every tin-pot dictator since has wished to emulate – to the point where most tyrants’ chateaux are inevitably compared to Versailles.
The enlightenment can be seen as, in part, a dialogue between the ascendent absolutist monarchies, and the bourgeoisie, the people who actually make the economy work. And, in France and North America, the monarchies overreached themselves a bit and the results were catastrophic, though they were a great petri dish for political philosophers.
Wolff’s concern echoes Eric’s concern in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” – “Who died and made you king, then, eh?” Wolff writes:
The fact that something has always been done in a certain way strikes most men as perfectly adequate reason for doing it that way again. Why should we submit to a king? Because we have always submitted to kings. But why should the oldest son of the king become king in turn? Because oldest sons have always been heirs to the throne. The force of the traditional is engraved so deeply on men’s minds that even a study of the violent and haphazard origins of a ruling family will not weaken its authority in the eyes of its subjects.
Wolff is not playing coy, here: he is establishing the idea that the state – whether it’s an absolutist monarchy or a democratic state – is founded on coercion. From there he describes what he calls “de facto states” – states which men believe have legitimate authority (“legitimacy” in a state is when the state’s authority is real and not merely imagined) yet it seems that all states in all times compel compliance to a certain degree. And the issues of taxation or conscripted military service seem to inevitably crop up. So Wolff sets up the first half of a dilemma: if states are legitimate, why do they have to compel the people to obey?
In the next Sunday Sermon we’ll look at Wolff’s decompilation of “Autonomy.”
Ranum, O. “Paris in the Age of Absolutism”
Robert Paul Wolff’s Blog (“The Philosopher’s Stone“)
Robert Paul Wolff: In Defense of Anarchism (various formats)
Robert Paul Wolff: Workshop on political philosophy