Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Political Theory Behind the Wheel

Paul Brink


November 16, 2011
by Paul Brink

It’s the middle of the night.  The highway on which we’re driving is deserted.  In fact, as we slow for the red light, we realize we haven’t seen another car in at least thirty miles.  At the intersection all is quiet.  Everyone is home tonight—including, apparently, the police.  Indeed, we could run the light with absolutely no consequences: no accident, no ticket, no feeling foolish about sitting at a lonely intersection in the dark.  What should we do?

First, we consider the situation more closely.  For one thing, there’s no red light camera: if we run the light, there are genuinely zero legal consequences.  Additionally, we conclude that our observations are in fact correct: the intersection is indeed deserted, and there are truly no police cars around.  We can safely run the red light and do so with impunity.  Finally, we also set aside the question of habit.  Aristotle might suggest we obey the red light in order to cultivate certain virtues.  Aristotle may be right, but for now we set aside his concern. 

Now it so happens that we have several philosophers arguing in the back seat, each eager to lay out for us the proper course of action.  John Locke’s influential argument is that “we, the people” have created the state in our contract with each other.  Accordingly, we authorize its laws: when we obey the state, we obey no one but ourselves.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau goes even further: when we individually obey laws that we together have established, we are actually more free. Our obedience to the red light “forces us to be free.”  He suggests joyfully waiting for the green.  Immanuel Kant is more prosaic: we should act according to a rule that we would want all other rational people to follow, as if it were a universal law.  He suggests we hold a discussion on the rationality of a decision to run the light.  All three disagree with a fourth voice—we’re driving a minivan, apparently—Thomas Hobbes, who argues that our freedom ends when the police actually stop us.  If we run the red safely, and we avoid capture, our freedom is extended!

Note the assumption in each of these arguments: the purpose of the state and the origin of its authority is found in the wills of those who come together to establish it.  We have made the state, and it is we who determine its task; accordingly we will be the judge of our obligation to obey.  Each of these modern views rejects the idea that the state has any intrinsic authority apart from what we might think: no one in the back seat is suggesting that our obedience might derive from an intrinsic authority the state might have apart from what we might think of it. 

This is a remarkable claim.   Historically, the driver’s seat in political theory has been occupied by views that ground political authority not in anything we might do, but rather in what God might do.  We get involved only afterwards, figuring out who will hold which office, discerning the contours of public justice in particular situations, considering whether green lights or red lights should indicate stop.  We might even become subversives, literally taking the government to task.  Indeed, we might seek to “occupy” public space if we believe that God’s authorities are radically missing the point.  But the significance of our office as citizen-activists does not diminish the reality that the authority of the state comes from God. Its claim upon us is legitimate, and it is has prima facie authority that is to be recognized.

So even in the middle of the night, at a deserted intersection, we slow to a stop, and we wait for the light to turn green.  Our back seat drivers mutter unhappily: “those reasons are beyond us!”  That, we reply, is precisely the point.

—Paul Brink is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.



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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”