A few weeks ago, I blogged about my interest in Michael Heumer's new book The Problems of Political Authority. A comment from rulingclass emphasized the difference between the "moral" arguments for political authority and the "rational" arguments, noting that a rationalist argument will be seen as irrelevant to those who focus on the moral basis of political authority. I am not sure exactly what Heumer's arguments focus on -- the book is now sitting on my nightstand, awaiting my attention (and competing with Gulag: a history as my next read).
Before reading the book, I wanted to get a better sense of the distinction that rulingclass made. In his comment, rulingclass equated "moral" with "communitarian" and "rational" with "liberal". He followed by asserting that most people/Americans are communitarian rather than liberal, so the "rationalist" arguments (often favored by liberal academic philosophers) are not persuasive in public discourse.
I'm going to rephrase these comments in my own words (and connect them to the work of others), hoping that rulingclass, will tell me if I'm interpreting him correctly. I consider "moral" arguments for political authority to be those asserting that submission to authority is intrinsically good, whereas the "rationalist" arguments emphasize how submission to authority enables us to achieve pre-existing goals. Having that interpretation, I came across an essay "Man the Political Animal", in which the author (Michael Hannon) argued that political community is an intrinsic good rather than an instrumental good. I think this is the same distinction being made by rulingclass, but I like these terms better than "moral" and "rational", so I will use them for the rest of this post.
When rulingclass first mentioned that most Americans have a "moral" view of political authority, I contemplated exactly how that would manifest. I figured that for conservatives, the authority would essentially be patriarchal in nature -- that we obey the state for the same reason we obey our parents/father; while for progressives, this would be the authority of the community. However, Hannon's essay (in a conservative publication) focuses on the authority of the community, not parents. Of course, in a republic (unlike a monarchy), state authority cannot really be conceived as a manifestation of patriarchy. Conservative American patriarchy is limited to the family, and the authority structure binding households is more egalitarian. This authority can be idealized as arising from a union of heads-of-households who coordinate their actions to establish more effective governance over the other members of their respective households. This ideal could account for Lackoff's "strict father" perception of governance. I'm not sure how one can philosophically arrive at the "nurturant parent" perception of government that Lackoff attributes to the American center-left, but it clearly depicts political authority as an extension of an intimate and instinctual authority relationship, not some sort of contract or engineered relationship.
I am put into a bit of a bind by the acknowledgement that most Americans are communitarian and see political authority as an intrinsic good. For as long as I can remember, I have viewed politics as a problem of coordinating individuals for their mutual good. When people use moralist assertions to justify policy (e.g. drugs must be prohibited because their use is wrong), I clench my teeth and disengage from discussion with them -- I basically write them off as dangerous fanatics. The problem is that most people think like this, even if they are not as adamant in their opinion. So how to discuss politics with these people?
One approach is to target the authoritarianism in culture, whether by developing non-authoritarian methods of child-rearing and education, or attacking authoritarian institutions and ideologies that are not blatantly political. This sometimes conflicts with the political libertarian impulse to target political authority in isolation and profess that personal beliefs and voluntary institutions are separate from the political movement (I suppose this is rehashing the thick/thin debate).
The other approach is to dissect political authority and demonstrate that it is incompatible with their primary moral goals. For instance, during the Cato Unbound discussion of Anthony de Jasay's ideas (which I've only skimmed), one of the authors responds that "[The welfare state] reigns supreme because in the eyes of most citizens it conforms to
the egalitarian fairness norms that have evolved with humans.” When the standard attitude is that state policies should "try" to achieve fairness norms, the proper libertarian response is to argue that the state is antithetical to such norms (in contrast to the elitist response that often masquerades as libertarian). Here we see how the "instrumental" view of political authority often has a strong moral component; when a state policy or power is not being justified on the grounds that it promotes fairness, it is being justified as a way to prevent free-riding. If we show that the state creates a free-rider problem (i.e. rent-seeking) and facilitates exploitation of the poor, then we have an argument that turns the intrinsic good of political authority against other fundamental values that people may give priority to. Through it all, I think the problem is that most people view the state as an extension of "us", rather than as an exploitative "them". The trick is to retain a notion of "us" (allowing for secession) while rejecting authority relationships that can be corrupted by "them".