At Cafe Hayek, Don Boudreaux has a quote from Michael Huemer’s recent book, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. (I haven’t read the book yet, but I plan to.)
The general precursors for the development of Stockholm Syndrome, then, are reasonably well satisfied in the case of citizens of modern states. It is therefore not surprising to find that citizens tend to identify with their governments, adopt their governments’ perspectives, and develop emotional attachments (often considered ‘patriotism’) to their governments. Just as Stockholm victims tend to deny or minimize their captors’ acts of coercion, many citizens tend to deny or minimize their governments’ coercion…. Due to the Stockholm dynamic, power has a self-legitimizing tendency: once it becomes sufficiently entrenched, power is perceived as authority.
I don’t expect this to be a very popular quote here. But I often puzzle at the assurance of so many folks–both left and right–that the state’s legitimacy is nearly unquestionable, that to even doubt the legitimacy of the state is to show how unenlightened and unserious a thinker one is. (Of course enlightened and serious thinkers ought always be willing to question assumptions, but that seems to get overlooked all too easily whenever it’s our own most valued assumptions being challenged.) Huemer’s approach would explain that type of thinking.
It also would provide an answer to the on-going question of what constitutes legitimacy in a state. Max Weber defined the state as having “successfully claimed a monopoly on the legitimate use of force,” but he wholly begs the question of how a state manages to reach a position where its use of force is accepted as legitimate.* I always tell my students that it’s when “enough” of the people accept it as such, but that doesn’t touch on the question of “why” the critical mass chooses to accept it.
There are multiple possible answers to that “why.” As a rational choice theorist, I have a disciplinary inclination toward an argument that people do so when their own benefits of the state-claimant outweigh their costs of the state-claimant.** I.e., if enough people under the rule of ISIS decide that the benefits of its rule outweigh the costs of its rule, then it becomes de facto legitimate. And perhaps that’s qualified by the potential costs/benefits of a prospective alternative state-claimant
I think there’s something to be said for that–it really satisfies my professional preferences–but it doesn’t satisfactorily explain why questioning the state’s legitimacy would evoke such an emotional response. And rational choice theory, after all, is a model, not a description. Humans are emotional beings, and while some of that emotional response can be easily fit into the rational choice model, I don’t think all of it can be satisfactorily explained that way. However I think the Stockholm syndrome model would quite satisfactorily explain it, especially if we throw in humans’ instinct for tribalism (which may reflect our need for inclusion, so that it may actually be part of the explanation for Stockholm Syndrome).
To be clear, I don’t have objections to arguments for the legitimacy of the state.*** I’m referring only to the outrage, or shock, astonishment, what have you, that often seems to accompany any questioning of the state’s legitimacy; the implicit or sometimes explicit suggestion that simply to ask the question necessarily marks one as a nut job.
Agent Mulder may have understated his position when he said “I want to believe.” More likely, we need be believe.
* More precisely, a substantial portion of its use of force is deemed legitimate. The definition does not imply that all of a state’s use of force is legitimate. Weber was not a proto-Voldemort.
**By “state-claimant” I simply mean some group that is claiming to be, or trying to get in a position to try to claim to be, the legitimate state. This would include both those that have gained that legitimacy and those that have not.
***I may have specific objections about specific parts of specific arguments, but I don’t object to the logical defense of the state in principle. This should be clearly indicated by my reference to rational calculations of legitimacy, but given the nature of blogs, I’m sure it wasn’t, and still may not be.