Will Wilkinson – It’s not a prison if you never want to leave.

In “Authority! How the #@%$! Does It Work?”  Will Wilkinson deploys the following argument to convince people that the state’s authority is legitimate:


  1. People want to engage in complex social projects of many kinds.
  2. Complex social projects require a certain amount of coordination in order to succeed.
  3. Authority of some kind is required for the right kind of coordination to occur.
  4. Because people recognize (1), (2), and (3), they voluntarily submit to the relevant authority. Coercion is never required in ordinary cases. (Prime examples provided: parades; musical performances involving more than one musician; basketball teams have coaches.)
  5. Political authority is just a variety of authority in general.
  6. Since authority in general isn’t fundamentally coercive, political authority must not be fundamentally coercive.


[Note: Wilkinson is using ‘authority’ in the most general sense, and so I’m not going to spend time dissecting all the various ways we might account for it.  I accept his general characterization for the purposes of this analysis.]


But Wilkinson goes a step further and addresses cases where coercion *does* come into play.  Here, he seems to essentially be arguing that people are committed to accept coercion against them because of their buy-in to whatever complex social project they’re already engaged in.  So, for example, if you become part of a basketball team, you have committed to promoting the success of the team (i.e., winning games) and all that is required to achieve that goal, but primarily what you’ve committed to is to submit to the authority of the coach, or whoever else is properly authorized to coordinate your actions and the actions of your teammates to achieve this shared goal.


So then, Wilkinson’s move is to move from those projects that people voluntarily and actively commit to and suggest that being a part of society is pretty much exactly the same thing.  Therefore, you’ve already submitted to whatever the appropriate authority is for society as a whole by virtue of being a part of society.  It’s essentially social contract theory by the backdoor.  When the authorities use coercion on you, they’re really just saying, “This is what you’ve already agreed is for the best.  We’re just doing what you’ve asked us to do in order to achieve the complex social goals that you’re committed to.  You’re welcome.”


But I think there’s an easy way to test if Wilkinson is actually serious about this argument.  No doubt, he has participated in many complex social projects with various colleagues and/or friends over the years.  Let’s say that it’s contributing essays to a volume for publication.  It’s not the most complex project ever, but if it involves more than half a dozen people, it can definitely fall apart without some serious coordination and, yes, authority of some kind.  So, how about if one of the members of this team suggested the following.


We’re all committed to this project here, and we all agree that we need some kind of authority in place.  And any authority we have will need some way to actually enforce its judgments.  Otherwise, we might simply ignore it and attempt to proceed with the project however we each individually see fit.  Of course, we’re all committed to the success of this project, so I’m not suggesting that anyone would deliberately sabotage it.  But it seems best that we agree ahead of time that the authority we designate have the power to use whatever amount of force, up to and including lethal force, to compel us to coordinate our efforts in the most effective way.  How does that sound to everyone?


I’m sure that Wilkinson would have no interest in agreeing to such a thing.  It seems perfectly reasonable that he would much prefer to simply exit the project if it got to the point where he seriously disagreed with how it was turning out.  (Of course, there might be contractual obligations that would result, but that’s a far cry from being coerced into remaining and working on the project against one’s will.)  It’s hard to imagine that he would think that lethal coercion would actually *improve* the chances of the project’s success.  And it has nothing to do with the buy-in of each person involved.


Political authority is a different animal altogether because it disallows exit options that would be a natural part of every other kind of authority relationship.  If basketball coaches had the authority to lock up players who disagreed with them, or steal money from them, or even execute them, no one would seriously claim that this was good for basketball or that it was no big deal because players already had buy-in.  The truth is, no one would play on such a team (except possibly in North Korea).


The fact that Wilkinson doesn’t seek out coercive arrangements in his own voluntarily entered complex social projects indicates to me that he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying.

3 thoughts on “Will Wilkinson – It’s not a prison if you never want to leave.”

  1. “It’s not the most complex project ever, but if it involves more than half a dozen people, it can definitely fall apart without some serious coordination and, yes, authority of some kind.”

    I get it: You’re saying I suck as an editor.

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