Justifying the State

To escape the state of nature, people would submit to an absolute sovereign. Therefore, absolute sovereignty is justified. So argued Thomas Hobbes. A minimal state, and only a minimal state, could arise by an invisible hand process. Therefore, the minimal state is justified. So argued Robert Nozick. In political philosophy, "therefores" often seem to come from nowhere.
My versions of these arguments are caricatures, of course, but many of us are also left wondering by the real thing. Do Hobbes's contractarian story and Nozick's invisible hand story have anything to do with justifying the state? What would a story have to be like to engage such a task? These questions matter. Rational choice theories like that of Hobbes (and after him, Rawls) and natural rights theories like that of Nozick (and before him, Locke) are the wellsprings of current Anglo-American political philosophy, supplying not only our subject matter but our methods as well.' If they don't make sense, then generally speaking, neither do we.
I will distinguish between two different kinds of justification in political theory. This distinction can help us avoid being distracted by problems that are mere artifacts of contractarian methodology, only appearing to be relevant to justifying states per se. This will help us explain what is irreparably wrong with hypothetical consent arguments, why we find them appealing nevertheless, and what kind of argument can actually make use of that appealing hypothetical element. The distinction will also clarify the limited sense in which invisible hand processes can be relevant to a state's justification.

Subject Area: 
Published in: Ethics
1990 101 Pages 89-102
Share