A reexamination of even the most venerable traditional problems of political theory can sometimes yield surprisingly new and relevant results. The problem of political obligation, for example, and its most popular “solution”, based on consent, turn out on reexamination to be rather different from what we have come to assume about them. The problem of political obligation resolves itself into at least four mutually related but partially independent questions:
1. The limits of obligation (“When are you obligated to obey, and when not?”)
2. The locus of sovereignty (“Whom are you obligated to obey?”)
3. The difference between legitimate authority and mere coercion (“Is there really any difference; are you ever really obligated?”)
4. The justification of obligation (“Why are you ever obligated to obey even a legitimate authority?”)
And the consent theory of obligation, as exemplified in Locke's Second Treatise and Joseph Tussman's Obligation and the Body Politic, turns out to yield a new formulation—perhaps a new interpretation of consent theory, perhaps an alternative to it—that might be labelled either the doctrine of the “nature of the government” or the doctrine of “hypothetical consent.”
It teaches that your obligation depends not on any actual act of consenting, past or present, by yourself or your fellow-citizens, but on the character of the government. If it is a good, just government doing what a government should, then you must obey it; if it is a tyrannical, unjust government trying to do what no government may, then you have no such obligation.