This question comes up each time I teach this material–could we mount a Utilitarian or Consequentialist argument in support of Political Authority? Here’s an easy way for there to be something that looks like political authority under Utilitarianism (I’ll explain why it doesn’t really work in a bit). So according to Utilitarianism, the right thing for a government agent (or anyone) to do, is to undertake the action among the available options that would have produced the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness in the world. Conceivably, scenarios can arise where the right thing for that person to do, is to order and coerce the citizens to make them do something. But here’s the problem. The above is not really the sort of outcome that brings comfort to a true Statist.

Keep in mind the two positions:

Statism: Some governments (i.e., the properly constituted ones) have political authority over their subjects, some of the time (i.e., when due process has taken place).

Anarchism: No government has political authority over its subjects; political authority is an illusion.

Under Utilitarianism, if the action in question is morally right, it is not because the government in question has a special moral status such they have the permission to coerce. Correspondingly, if I, as a citizen, ought to do something that counts as “obeying the government’s order”, it won’t be because I have an obligation to obey the government’s orders, strictly speaking. Rather, it’s because my doing the thing will promote the world’s happiness. It just happens that there is a happy coincidence between the verdicts of Utilitarianism and Statism (a bit like saying that a clock that is otherwise spoiled and stuck at 12 will still be ‘right’ twice a day). And as soon as the verdicts of Utilitarianism and Statism diverge–for instance, there is a small gain to net happiness for the world for the government agent not to order any coercion–then Utilitarianism requires that. Given the above, it’s hard to say that government really has political authority.

What the Statist needs is a way to justify the idea that government–or at least certain types of government (e.g., democracy), under certain conditions (e.g., when due process has been followed in framing the order)–has political authority over its subjects. At the end of the day, this is not best understood as a claim that a certain specific action is morally permitted or required at a certain point in time, but a more general claim that a certain class of people (those constituting government) has authority over another class of people (the subjects of the government).

The more likely Utilitarian or Consequentialist justification for Political Authority will thus not be one that focuses on individual acts, but on rules. So instead of a doctrine that says the right thing for an agent to do at any point is to do the one among the available options that would have produced the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness (in the world), or is called “Act-Utilitarianism” in modern discussions, the Statist will probably have a better time with a variant doctrine that says the right thing for an agent to do at any point is to follow the rules that, if adopted and complied with, would have produced the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness in the world, or what is called “Rule-Utilitarianism“. And then argue that one such rule is–Governments (conforming to a certain specification) has the permission to coerce subjects. Some Statist theorists have attempted to flesh out an account of Political Authority in this direction. Note also that the combination of the State of Nature with the hypothetical consent version of the Social Contract is very close in spirit to this proposal and can be developed in this direction.