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Legitimate Authority

April 19, 2017

Politics is largely about how a state claims to have political authority over its citizens, where this authority can extend to being physically enforced on a person in extreme cases. This being the threat at the end of the line of disobedience to the state. But a state, certainly claiming to be democratic, doesn’t want to resort to this physical force too often, and with too many people, for then it would have a state of subjects, not of free citizens. So it is a balancing act always.

Modern democratic states tend to justify themselves on the grounds that they are neutral arbiters, supporting the rights of all humans equally. This legitimation, although powerful if believed and if applied. Of course cannot be completely applied, and so will never be completely believed, except by extreme ideologists. A state will have to give some preference to citizens over non-citizens, and in so doing it will have to base it’s decision on some more positive values that it claims to represent beyond being neutral.

This is where it begins to get interesting, and has much application in our current political scenario with globalisation and mass movements of people around countries. Serious questions are being asked of western states claims to neutrality. Some are willing to try and push further alongside this direction of neutrality. In line with their ideological beliefs, such as believing, for instance in pure secularism and objective science as their measure for everything. Others are doubting the application of science rigorously to social and moral and political issues. Doubting that value judgments can be reduced to scientific neutral judgments. One side says humans can all be interchanged, all differences are merely culturally conditioned. The other side says, even if such is the case in the long term. Short term mass movements of people is not going to allow time for people to be conditioned in line with shared values within their state.

So the very legitimacy of the state as an authority is at issue here. Many Western democratic states are undergoing something of an identity crisis I would say from too long trying to hold themselves to an impossible neutral standard. By doing so, they no longer really represent their citizens in a meaningful sense, which raises the question, who do they represent, and on what grounds and with what justification? Many of them take economic prosperity as the measure for their decisions. If mass immigration has even just a short-term economic advantage, then it is always favourable. They are reduced to valuing people purely instrumentally, in short. The precise opposite of what had been the original goal of state neutrality: for the sake of equality of all human beings. We become equal, but not in anything like the way initiators of some of these cosmopolitan political ideals such as Kant and Karl Marx, would have had in mind. They aimed at all men being treated as ends in themselves, not merely equal as instruments/means to others ends.

This latter route though, has been unfortunately the trend of the mass movement of people into western states, based purely on short-term economic advantages. So, I would say using economics as our source of values is a mistake. We need a new legitimation that highlights the value of citizenship, doesn’t pretend to be neutral, but does show itself as good and justified for the sake of its citizens and the world. It’s a tough task. I think it can be achieved, it will primarily involve a more openness to debating this very point. As many are still currently closed behind the iron curtain of their ideologies of the past that tell them being neutral is the only way to legitimise themselves. This enlightenment approach, great for natural science, has been a nightmare for western societies and culture, when applied to our politics and our morality. We have become trapped in an ideological bind, paralysing a practical approach to urgent political, moral and social problems that require pragmatic solutions, not ideological posturing.

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