Michael Huemer’s definition of political authority demonstrated by Surveillance Camera Man


Michael Huemer, in his book The Problem of Political Authority, which was reviewed by Slappy and Peace Requires Anarchy’s blog, explains the concept of political authority in this way:

Political authority (hereafter, just ‘authority’) is the hypothesized moral property in virtue of which governments may coerce people in certain ways not permitted to anyone else, and in virtue of which citizens must obey governments in situations in which they would not be obligated to obey anyone else. Authority, then, has two aspects:

(i)  Political legitimacy: the right, on the part of a government, to make certain sorts of laws and enforce them by coercion against the members of its society–in short, the right to rule.

(ii)  Political obligation: the obligation on the part of citizens to obey their government, even in circumstances in which one would not be obligated to obey similar commands issued by a non-governmental agent.

If a government has ‘authority’, then both (i) and (ii) exist: the government has the right to rule, and the citizens have the obligation to obey.

I usually use this argument when discussing the police or taxation, but I’ve recently come across a Youtube channel that brilliantly displays this notion: Surveillance Camera Man

Surveillance Camera Man is a person who walks around public (and sometimes private) spaces with a camera and records whomever he comes across.  Not surprisingly, nobody likes it.  Here’s an example of his work (Warning: there is some language in the video):

I don’t think that anyone should be surprised at how upset people get when a stranger takes their video without their permission.  No one in the video is doing anything wrong nor are they trying to hide anything, but they feel as though it is a violation of their privacy—and rightfully so!  Some people even get violent.  Overall, people get very uncomfortable over such a weird and awkward situation.

Appealing to the thoughts of Huemer, here’s my question: what right does the state have to watch us (whether with cameras, surveillance of emails and texts, financial statements, etc.) if a non-governmental agent does not have that same right?

Now you can certainly pick and choose whom you allow to take video of you.  If you’re okay with the government taking a video of you but not Surveillance Camera Man, that’s up to you.  However, is it okay for someone else to make that choice for you?  If the theory behind government is that it represents the will of you and me and every other citizen, but we as the source do not have the authority to take video of people without their permission, then how does the representative exercise a right that the source does not have?  In other words, how do you properly delegate a right that you do not have?

Do you want to know if the government should be allowed to do something?  Ask if any individual in the same situation would be allowed to do it.

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William Kiely
Great use of the “Government is Magic” Jan Helfeld interview with Sen. Inoue in your last link. I think the approach of some libertarians (e.g. Larken Rose: ) to assume that it’s impossible for a person or group of people (e.g. Congress) to acquire a right that nobody else has as an individual is the wrong approach. It seems like a very weak premise to me because it is an abstract principle that isn’t intuitively obviously correct. The strength of Huemer’s approach is that he doesn’t ask people to accept this controversial premise, but instead bases his arguments on much… Read more »