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The Problem of Political Obligation: Benefit Theory as Solution

The question of political obligation asks, why, if at all people are obligated to obey the state? One of many philosophical theories used to answer this question is benefit theory, which operates under the assumption that the state offers special benefits to citizens, and they are therefore morally responsible to obey the state. However, critics of benefit theory suggest that this only justifies the existence of a minimal state, therefore not offering up an explanation for the political obligation that deals with the modern state. So how can one justify the existence of the modern state using benefit theory?

The merit of benefit theory is expressed through those benefits that are provided to the people that promote state obligation. Philosopher Robert Nozick offered a thought experiment in which someone would toss books onto the properties of people in a neighborhood and then demand payment for these books even though none of the neighbors had requested them. Many would suggest that this is not fair, for even though he had provided the books he had no grounds to ask for payment. Nozick offers another thought experiment outlined by George Klosko in his essay “Presumptive Benefit, Fairness, and Political Obligation,” in which a group of neighbors had decided to create a collective entertainment and broadcasting network. These neighbors take turns operating the broadcast, but one of the neighbors, “A,” does not want to give up a day to operate the broadcast even though they still benefit from the entertainment and broadcast. Is this person obligated to operate the broadcast? Many would still argue no. If benefit theory does not hold up against any of these examples, then how can it explain political obligation? The answer lies in the types of benefits that the state provides.

The state provides what are known as presumptive benefits: benefits that are necessary for living a quality life. This includes infrastructure, law, and clean air, as opposed to the benefits that appear in Nozick’s thought experiments. The classification of benefits can be described by two categories: excludability and rivalrousness. If a good is non-excludable this means that the benefit cannot be provided to one without being provided to all. The use of a non-rivalrous good does not impact the ability for others to access the good. An example of a non-excludable, non-rivalrous good would be streetlights. Benefit theory states that obligation is generated when the state provides these kinds of public goods. Excludable, rivalrous, goods such as cars and electronics do not generate obligation to the state. This explains why Nozick’s thought experiments do not generate political obligation, whereas the state providing law enforcement and clean drinking water do.

When benefit theory only applies to what is merely necessary for survival, or what is classified as a presumptive good, many of the actions of the state do not fall into this category and do not generate political obligation. However, the line of what is or is not a presumptive good is controversial. Klosko offers three examples of varying levels of severity that still generate political obligation. The first example is of a person that lives in a territory, X, that is surrounded by hostile territories, Y, that intends on killing the X-ites. The X-ites band together to protect themselves. Here, each person in X has an obligation to fight for the protection of all the X-ites. A less extreme example is that of the people in an arid area that depend on water usage for their agriculture. Therefore, the state imposes restrictions on water usage in daily life (gardening, showering, etc.) in order to conserve water for agriculture. Although the example is less extreme, the benefit of having an agricultural business that feeds and employs the community generates an obligation for the people to obey the state. This benefit, although less extreme, is still presumptive, non-excludable, and non-rivalrous, hence anything that extends beyond these requirements would not generate political obligation. Therefore, the argument for benefit theory can only justify minimal states.

Critics argue that by only justifying a minimal state benefit theory is flawed. However, in modern society, having excludable and rivalrous goods that do not generate political obligation allow for people to consent to whether they will receive these goods. Klosko offers an example of a drinking well being built in a community. Members A, B, C, and D want the well to be built, therefore they cooperate to build the well. After the well is built, they are able to drink from it. Community member E does not specifically want the well, although its existence does not hinder his quality of life at all, and therefore he does not cooperate in the building of the well. After the well’s construction he is unable to drink from the well. E has not consented to the well and therefore did not have to labor for its construction, but he also had no obligation to do so as he will not receive its benefits. Having these private goods that one can both consent to having and to not having allows people to have freedom over whether they must pay, in any respect, to have them or receive their benefit. Therefore, the existence of the private sector can help explain how benefit theory does justify political obligation in a capitalist state.

By understanding the concept of benefit theory and how the types of goods that the state can provide are classified it can be concluded that benefit theory justifies political obligation to a minimal state. Understanding political obligation and why it is that people do obey the state that they live in can better help legislators, and political thinkers, understand what their obligation is as a leader. This also highlights some political discourse about what is and is not beyond the rights of someone that lives under a state’s laws. Do these laws infringe on someone’s rights? Do these infringements benefit the greater good of the community? Are these laws or benefits excludable and non-rivalrous? By understanding these questions, we can have a better understanding of what people are and are not obligated to follow.

By Cora Fagan

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