Archive for June, 2015

Review of Michael Huemer’s ‘The Problem of Political Authority’

June 26, 2015

Michael Huemer’s 2013 book “The Problem of Political Authority” sets out to prove a radical conjecture: that no government has legitimate authority, and citizens have no duty to obey it.

Considering nearly everyone allows some role for government, Huemer has set himself a tall task. And yet, through careful reasoning that relies on commonly held ethical intuitions, Huemer pulls off a magic trick: he makes a far-out theory like anarchism seem plausible.

Huemer begins the book by asking readers to imagine a small town ravaged by vandals. You periodically catch one of them, and take them back to your house where you lock them in your basement. Later, you decide to go door-to-door asking people for money to pay for your anticrime program while informing them that if they don’t pay, you will lock them in your basement, too. Almost nobody would find your actions justifiable, and yet, on the surface, they are analogous to two of government’s most central functions, the criminal justice system and the tax system.

The first half of the book is dedicated to exploring whether there is any moral difference between the actions of government and your vandal-kidnapping. Huemer’s thesis is that government does not have a right to coerce individuals, nor do citizens have a moral obligation to obey a law just because the government says so.

Crucially, Huemer does not argue coercion is never justified. One example of justified coercion he gives is being in a sinking lifeboat where you need the aid of the other passengers to bail water, but they refuse to help. In this instance, you are justified in forcing them to bail water. This is not enough to justify the existence of government, however, since the example only illustrates the acceptability of coercion, not authority. It does not imply some people have special rights to boss others around, which is what political authority is.

Social contract

The author provides an exhaustive list of the arguments for political authority, including all the ones I’d heard before and many I had not. One of the most common arguments for political authority is the implied social contract, the notion that by remaining in a country, we tacitly agree to follow the state’s laws in exchange for protection from the government.

In other contexts involving implied contracts, explicit dissent trumps implied consent. When you order food at a restaurant, you are implicitly agreeing to pay for the food the waiter brings you. But if you walk into the restaurant and tell the staff you are not going to pay for the food, but you’d like some food anyway, the staff cannot object when you refuse to pay at the end of your meal.

There is no way for us to signal our explicit dissent from the social contract, by telling the government we don’t want the services it is offering. Thus, the social contract is not really a contract at all. It is just one group of people bossing around another.

The social contract is not really a contract at all. It is just one group of people bossing around another.

Huemer considers this and many other theories that are supposed to justify political authority. Chapter by chapter, he addresses each one in turn, pointing out its weaknesses. After reading the book, I am convinced political authority is a myth, and I believe most other people will arrive at that conclusion, too, if they read the book with an open mind.

Most of state’s acts unjustified

Without political authority to fall back on, what does that do to the justifiability of government’s actions? It shows that much of what government does is immoral. Private actors cannot take money from others without their consent. They cannot tell them where they can live, with whom they may trade or what they can put in their bodies. And yet, we see that governments extract taxes, restrict immigration and lock up drug users all the time. If governments have no more authority than private actors, we can infer that governments that do these things are acting wrongly.

While discussions of political authority dominate the first half of the book, the second half of the book is dedicated to what a society with no government would look like, how it would function, and how well it would solve the problems governments are typically intended to solve, namely national defense, crime prevention and the adjudication of disputes.

Utopian?

This project will seem ambitious to most readers, and they may wonder if Huemer’s belief in anarchy is utopian. The author makes it clear he is not relying on humans to undergo a dramatic shift in their nature for anarchy to succeed. He assumes people will behave much the same way under anarchy as they do now under governments, that they would be primarily concerned with their own interests and that they would behave rationally most of the time.

Armed with those assumptions, Huemer makes a compelling case that private defense firms would function better than public police, that private arbitrators would deliver justice better than public courts, and that most societies could live without their standing armies.

Unfortunately, these are often presented as merely persuasive thought experiments. The book lacks a historical account of the free market alternatives to the main government enterprises of law and order. I know, from reading other books and essays, that there are examples of the private provision of police and courts throughout the world, including in the western frontier of the United States a century or two ago.

But the book could only be so long, and Huemer could only research so much. Something had to be left out, and this is what Huemer chose to cut. Including those historical examples would have made the book much stronger. This is my one and only complaint about it.

Why Huemer’s book is special

Skeptics might view “The Problem of Political Authority” as just another off-the-wall libertarian screed. Why should someone read Huemer’s book instead of the countless others that argue for the same conclusion?

Until the publication of Huemer’s book, libertarians suffered from one major problem. Their problem was they often built their argument on intuitions that appealed to a small number of people. For instance, Ayn Rand grounded her arguments in the idea that agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest. Robert Nozick staked his belief in limited government on the concept of inviolable rights. These ideas do not sound reasonable to most people, and have only served to paint libertarians as oddballs with a warped moral sense.

Huemer’s book is the best argument yet that what separates libertarians from everyone else is not their attitude toward freedom, equality, fairness or even coercion. What distinguishes the two groups is their attitude to political authority. Libertarians reject it while everyone else accepts it. This is a remarkable breakthrough in the history of political thought, because no thinker has zeroed-in on this key distinction until now.

This is an important insight because it’s easy to think that, for any proposition on which there is widespread agreement such as the existence of political authority, the majority must be right. The voices who dissent from the crowd have the burden of explaining how so many people could be wrong.

If anarchists are unusual in any way, it is that they are unusually consistent.

Huemer shows that, if anarchists are unusual in any way, it is that they are unusually consistent. They apply the same ethical standards to government agents as they do to private ones. The rest of the population believes in separate standards for each group. On this view, the thing in need of explanation is the source of the inconsistency.

No one else is as clear, as accessible and as convincing as Huemer is in “The Problem of Political Authority.” I have little doubt the book will be a cornerstone of libertarian philosophy for years to come.

  • I want to thank Michael Huemer for taking the time to answer my questions and offer comments about his book through personal correspondence.