What makes state's authority over me legal?

I was born to my parents in a given country but I did not sign any contract with the state, nor have I sworn to any oath. Yet, the state applies force to capture products of my labor or forces rules on me that I do not agree with.

By state I mean democratically elected government, for instance United Kingdom. I did not enter into any legal contract with other citizens/voters either.

Edit: The state (my neighbors/voters) is not asking me to obey or leave, it commands me to obey or go to jail, that's a big difference.

Edit 2: I think my question is too ambiguous. As @JohnFx pointed out "what is legal is defined by the state". So I am adding this prefix to the question: "From state's point of view ..."

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    Yet state applies force to capture products of my labor or force rules on me that I do not agree with. I think you've answered your own question there Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 16:13
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    Do you mean philosophical reason, or practical? Michael Kingsmill covered the former, and the latter is a very simple "They have the power to make you comply". Or, as the Man Without a Name quipped in "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly": "There are two kinds of people in this world: those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You - dig."
    – user4012
    Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 16:13
  • the state technically also owns the land Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 16:15
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    I think that the question is wrongly formed, making it disputable. The content suggest you're asking about philosophical reasons what makes this question proper for philosophy SE. But the title is about legality, which is the tautology, because the state has the authority to decide what is legal and what is not legal so the only instance that would make state's actions illegal is the international community. Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 16:04
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    @daniel.sedlacek Whether "freedom" is an appropriate word for the state's position or not is really an extraneous point to why it believes its actions are legal. As I said in my answer, the state believes tacit consent gives it ownership of the property and the people's willingness to not respond negatively to that give the government the legitimacy to make laws to defend that position. My answer IS from the state's point of view. Can you tell me what you think is lacking from my answer so that I can perhaps improve it for you? Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 15:33

4 Answers 4


According to John Locke at least, and as he says in his Second Treatise of Civil Government, when you are born into a country, live there and take advantage of its offerings (acquire property specifically), and more importantly, of your own free will choose not to leave that country to pursue a life elsewhere, you give your tacit consent to the laws and customs of the country you live in. An excerpt dealing with the idea of tacit consent is below:

Sec. 110. Thus, whether a family by degrees grew up into a common-wealth, and the fatherly authority being continued on to the elder son, every one in his turn growing up under it, tacitly submitted to it, and the easiness and equality of it not offending any one, every one acquiesced, till time seemed to have confirmed it, and settled a right of succession by prescription: or whether several families, or the descendants of several families, whom chance, neighbourhood, or business brought together, uniting into society, the need of a general, whose conduct might defend them against their enemies in war, and the great confidence the innocence and sincerity of that poor but virtuous age, (such as are almost all those which begin governments, that ever come to last in the world) gave men one of another, made the first beginners of commonwealths generally put the rule into one man's hand, without any other express limitation or restraint, but what the nature of the thing, and the end of government required: which ever of those it was that at first put the rule into the hands of a single person, certain it is no body was intrusted with it but for the public good and safety, and to those ends, in the infancies of commonwealths, those who had it commonly used it. And unless they had done so, young societies could not have subsisted; without such nursing fathers tender and careful of the public weal, all governments would have sunk under the weakness and infirmities of their infancy, and the prince and the people had soon perished together.

As Locke points out, it is originally your parents who made that agreement with the state for you, but as you are bound to them, so are you bound to the state. Certainly then when you become of age to make your own decisions, your decision to stay a citizen of that country and accept the property and belongings willed to you by your parents upon their death, renews that tacit consent for yourself.

This is obviously not a universally held theory and as this article explains, Robert Nozick argues in Anarchy, State and Utopia Locke's mistake is assuming that the original transfer of ownership to the first father in the chain does not come with an obligation to the state, as Locke assumes. Thus, when passing it down to his son, that obligation does not persist. Furthermore, ownership allows the bearer the right to do whatever he wants with the property, and this should include taking it out of state control.

However, most modern democratic systems are based at least in part on Locke's writings, and its his idea of tacit consent at work here.

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    <comments removed> Please keep comments focused on improving the post and try to not to turn comment threads into miniature chat rooms and debates. Thanks. Commented Dec 20, 2012 at 17:40

Not sure it was intentional but you have stumbled onto the argument of the chief critic of the Social Contract: David Hume in the Of the Original Contract, who authored a very similar (if not identical in spirit) argument. His conclusions is that the Social Contract is a myth, not only because it was never so presented, but that tacit consent for subsequent generations, is to use a philosophical term, a complete falsity. Try for example to opt out of the social contract with any government or, better yet, renegotiate on better terms.

Rather, the state rules by force, with the moral authority that such a "contract" implies, rising naturally out of daily exigencies required of survival.

No compact or agreement, it is evident, was expressly formed for general submission; an idea far beyond the comprehension of savages: each exercise of authority in the chieftan must have been particular...the sensible utility resulting from his interposition, made these exertions become daily more frequent; and their frequency produced an habitual, and if you please to call it so, a voluntary, and therefore precarious, acquiescence in the people.

In other words, we live in a society.

Hume had his critics, but no one was successful in refuting this self-evident criticism of the moral and legal authority on which the state is ultimately based, an organic, history of co-dependency between the ruler and the ruled.


As Aristotle stated,

"He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god"

We all live in society, and our life has the influence on the life of the others. This make it necessary to create rules that every member of that society must obey. Without this rules we wouldn't be people.

The Aristotle stated, that the person who refuses all social norms is either considered himself deity or wants to live as animal.

  • This is exemplary straw-man argument :). Your authority over me in not justified by your subjective judgement on my abilities. Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 11:24
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    Justified? Have I understood something false? You were asking about legality... Commented Dec 21, 2012 at 16:01
  • Government is not equivalence of society. Moreover, many times governments are strongly against societies, which they pretend to rule (take occupation or partitions as classical example).
    – mip
    Commented Feb 17, 2014 at 14:50

This is somewhat of a circular question given that what is legal is defined by the state. If you do not (hypothetically) accept that you have any obligation to the state, then the legality of anything is a meaningless concept.

  • It's meaningless only to statists. For anarchists what is legal is defined by voluntary contracts. From that point of view state is illegal, while all forms of voluntary association are legal.
    – mip
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 13:56
  • @doc - What good is a contract if there is no way to enforce it?
    – Bobson
    Commented Feb 19, 2015 at 22:38
  • @Bobson "voluntary" does not mean there's no way to enforce contract. Supervisor can be chosen as part of the contract. In anarchy there's no difference for parties, except there's no monopolist, thus it would work better.
    – mip
    Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 17:19
  • @doc - And what happens if you ignore the supervisor? How do they enforce it?
    – Bobson
    Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 18:15
  • @Bobson By an example. We have registered accounts in StackExchange network. It is a form of voluntary contract. Can we ignore a moderator? People try to do things which make sense, so parties are developing techniques to make voluntary contract enforceable. Otherwise it does not make sense and there will be no agreement.
    – mip
    Commented Feb 20, 2015 at 18:29

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