How to gain authority in politics

Fabian Wendt"Political Authority"

Do states even have the right to enact laws and - if so - to enforce them if necessary? Philosophy professor Fabian Wendt explores this question in his introduction to political authority - for him one of the fundamental questions of political philosophy. And so he goes to the substance of our coexistence for centuries, which is organized in more or less well-functioning, more or less just states. Wendt first clarifies terms. Most important: the authority.

"Authorities give other people reasons to believe or do something because, in a certain sense, they have a higher normative status than other people."

We all recognize authorities - but always with reasons: the authority of parents because they care for us. The doctor's authority because he has expertise. But why should we respect a police officer, a tax officer, a judge, asks Wendt:

"From a moral perspective, there are inherently no relationships of authority and subordination between people. So how could state officials have moral rights that ordinary people don't?"

Wendt initially works systematically on this question, always with practical examples. In doing so, he leads the reader on different ways of thinking about how political authority can be established.

A society with moral ties

First there is the approach that the citizens consent to the authority of their state - and thus to the unequal distribution of rights - explicitly or tacitly. However, none of us was asked whether we would like to submit to a state power, Wendt points out.

The second approach, that the state offers the citizen a service because it has guaranteed protection, security and peace and has therefore acquired its authority, does not go far enough for Wendt. On the other hand, he can gain more from the third thought construct, that state authority, similar to a family, is legitimate, since the citizens form a community in which there are moral ties.

"Just as everyone assumes that parents have an obligation to look after their children and that children have an obligation to support their parents in old age, most people also take it for granted that citizens have an obligation To pay taxes, to vote and to obey the law. The same goes for political authority: the vast majority think that the state naturally has the right to legislate and enforce it with coercion. There are not many who question political authority . "

But even this community theory is not comprehensive enough for Wendt: he doubts the existence of moral ties in political communities too strongly.

"You have good reason to believe that one of the [...] theories is on the right track when it comes to political authority. However, I don't think the chances of success are very good. So we should be prepared to have to accept that all current states and probably all future states have no political authority. "

The possibilities of anarchy

But what follows from this for the author if no moral justification for the existence of political authority can be found? First of all, according to Wendt, one could then become a "philosophical anarchist".

"Philosophical anarchists recognize that states have no political authority; but they do not consider this to be sufficient reason to strive for the abolition of the state. Some consider philosophical anarchism to be a 'toothless' anarchism because of this."

But really political anarchists, as the author argues in his final chapter, strive for the abolition of the state because they consider it illegitimate and unjust. But that doesn't have to cause chaos. If goods like cars, housing and education could be produced privately, why not order, peace and security as well? After all, there are already well-functioning private security services and arbitration tribunals. Nevertheless, the author knows that he is walking on thin ice here.

"Indeed, it seems difficult to find examples of functioning anarchist societies in the modern world. Without such examples, there is good reason to be cautious about supporting anarchism. On the other hand, the ideal of the democratic state has also become Denounced as a utopian dream for centuries, and it took mankind a long time to see examples of reasonably well-functioning modern democracies. Who knows what the future of the ideal of a stateless society will look like. "

Wendt counters the sound doubts about the functionality of an anarchist society quite pointedly, but not nearly with the analytical sharpness and argumentative rigor with which he previously worked on the question of authority. He also ignores the socialist anarchism of the 19th century without justification. That's a shame, because the thought experiments in the book are quite refreshing. The emperor is seldom seen so naked.

Fabian Wendt: "Political Authority. An Introduction",
Mentis Verlag, 142 pages, 19.90 euros.