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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.
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Andrew Gelman on “Stand Your Ground” laws

July 1, 2012

Andrew Gelman posted the results of a paper arguing that “Stand Your Ground” laws do not reduce crime and in fact increase homicides. Stand Your Ground laws remove your responsibility to retreat from an attacker if you are in a place you have a legal right to be.

I like Andrew’s blog but he said something I found distressing, which was:

Andrew Gelman: … even if Stand Your Ground laws really did increase homicides, I could imagine people still supporting the laws on the grounds that some of these homicides were justifiable.

To which I responded:

I could imagine that also, and they’d be wrong.

You (or whoever defends this) are equivocating between two different senses of “justification,” and that is 1) I am within my rights to do X; and 2) X is good. I am within my rights to shoot someone who I believe is attacking me with deadly force, but this is different from saying it is good that they are shot, because that is false. I am within my rights not to put anything in the collection plate, but this is not good.

Gelman also denies that the intent of Stand Your Ground laws is to reduce homicides, and that it is really aimed at legalizing violence that was once criminal. Other commenters on his site pointed out that Stand Your Ground laws are often sold to the public on the assumption they will deter crime.

Defending the Indefensible

October 29, 2011

Kudos to John Stossel for devoting a show to “Defending the Indefensible” (based on the book by Walter Block called “Defending the Undefendable“) on his Fox Business program. He invited Reason‘s Nick Gillespie and Cato‘s David Boaz on to defend insider trading, price gouging, child labor, human organ sales and a few other unsavory practices. That’s a good start, but I wonder if we could do better.

What are some defensible beliefs that the general public finds unpalatable? For me, it would be legalizing all drugs, eliminating licensures, opening the borders, withdrawing all military bases around the world and prosecuting members of the Bush and Obama Administrations for war crimes.

What about you?

From anarcho-capitalist to congressman

August 12, 2011

It’s hard to believe that a current member of Congress, Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), was once an anarcho-capitalist. It’s too bad he has become an idiot.

Prediction markets

June 3, 2010

Last week I wrote about how voters’ poor incentives to gain information lead to their ignorance of political issues. The implication was that better incentives would lead to better information. The question is how do we improve incentives? Secondarily, is there any evidence to show people with an incentive to collect information actually do it?

A number of opinion surveys have shown that the general public has great difficulty answering questions correctly about the federal government’s budget. I suggested that this is because each individual voter has very little say about what government does – especially the federal government – owing to the small probability of affecting an election. In short, voters don’t know what’s happening on Capitol Hill because there is little incentive to research it. If they had more of a stake in the outcome of the election, I think they would try harder to obtain information about government.

How do we give people a stake in the outcome of some event, such as an election? One way of doing that is to give the person a pecuniary award for possessing correct information. If people know that they can benefit financially from being smart, that is a good incentive to become smart. Luckily for us, there is already an institution that rewards people for correct beliefs, and it is known as a prediction market.

A prediction market is a speculative market in which the participants bet on whether or not a specific event in the future will occur. The most famous example of a prediction market is the market run by a company known as Intrade. Intrade allows its customers to bet on the outcome of political races and other events from the world of entertainment. For instance, Intrade allowed users to bet on who was going to win American Idol, whose season concluded earlier this week. Customers take bets on a contract that pays the buyer $10 if the event comes true, or more specifically here, if the candidate wins the competition. When there are many contestants early in the season, the odds of any one candidate winning are slim, which is why the bets for each contestant are typically low. Exactly how high or how low the bets are is a function of what the bettors believe is the probability of the contestant winning.

The contestant Crystal Bowersox was considered a favorite to win the competition a month ago, both by the show’s judges and by customers of Intrade. When there were six contestants remaining in late April, Bowersox was a 7-3 favorite to win the competition, according to the bets Intrade customers were making. By mid-May, Bowersox was an even-money bet. After Bowersox and fellow contestant Lee DeWyze faced off in the final performance Tuesday night, Intrade users had shifted their allegiances and were giving 4-1 odds that DeWyze would win. The results of the fan voting were announced Wednesday and DeWyze was declared the winner.

How could Intrade customers know with such certainty that DeWyze was going to win? How could they know how millions of people would vote on the final day? The answer is none of them knew. In fact, each bettor only had access to a tiny sliver of information. Through the use of prediction markets, a person can use that sliver of information to aid him in making a bet.

Suppose that the American Idol judges panned a contestant’s performance, but all the people you talked to at the local gym said they liked it. That is useful information. If everyone else at Intrade is putting very low odds on that contestant winning, the piece of information you have suggests the other bettors are underestimating the contestant’s chances. That means there is an opportunity for you to put your knowledge to work and make a buck by placing a bet on that contestant. When thousands of people do the same thing – making bets on the theory that they possess information other people don’t – the resulting odds reflect the collective knowledge of the betting pool’s members. By rewarding accurate bets and punishing inaccurate ones, the system provides an incentive to bet only when you have good information. Because prediction markets contain (mostly) good information, the betting odds you see in such markets closely reflect an event’s true probability, as evidenced by the markets’ proven track record.

For more information, watch this report the ABC series 20/20 did on prediction markets.

The parable of Pip

March 28, 2010

Imagine a boat full of sailors in the Caribbean Sea. They travel from island to island in search of gold and silver. Most of the sailors want to visit Puerto Rico, but they don’t have any power. The captain is the one who makes all the decisions, and he decides the boat will sail to Cuba.

The crewmen quickly grow tired of having their wishes disregarded by the captain, so they decide to throw him overboard. The sailors announce that from now on, all sailing decisions will be voted on by the crew.

This new system works much better, but one of the sailors is still unhappy. His name is Pip, and he has his heart set on visiting Jamaica. He argues with the crew about where to sail, but what can he do? They are many, and he is only one. Puerto Rico it is.

Pip is no quitter, and soon he begins thinking of other ways to get what he wants. When the crew lands at San Juan, Pip tells his shipmates that he will be taking a boat to Jamaica.

“But we don’t want to go to Jamaica!” shout his shipmates.
“Who said anything about we,” retorts Pip. “I won’t be taking your boat. I will build my own.”

Within months, Pip has built a small raft he uses to sail to whatever island he wishes, whenever he wishes, unencumbered by the will of his former crewmen.

If you thought this was an allegory, you are correct. If you thought it was an allegory about politics, you are correct again.

The political system that existed under the captain is, of course, an allusion to autocracy. The second one is an allusion to democracy. Those were easy. But what about the third system, the one in which individuals aren’t told what to do by anyone else, either by a single strongman or a large majority? That, my friends, is known as capitalism.

Two videos that changed my mind

February 13, 2010

I recently watched a couple videos on the internet that dramatically changed my perceptions of two political figures: Pat Buchanan and Alan Dershowitz.

The first video is an interview with Pat Buchanan talking about his 2008 book Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War”. Prior to the video, I had a very negative opinion of Buchanan for his anti-trade, anti-immigration and general social conservative views. Although I still think Buchanan is wrong on those issues, I now have a much greater respect for him after watching the interview.

Near the end of the interview, Buchanan remarks that the national leaders in the First and Second World Wars could not be easily divided into “white hats and black hats.” Buchanan’s ability to see nuances in both adored figures such as Churchill and reviled figures such as Hitler and Stalin was impressive and also unexpected coming from a conservative. Compare that to the Bush Administration’s “good versus evil” mantra.

The second video is a debate between Alan Dershowitz and Norman Finkelstein about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that aired on Amy Goodman’s radio program Democracy Now! in 2005. I had seen Dershowitz debate Noam Chomsky on the issue before and thought that Chomsky presented a better case that Israel is responsible for blocking the peace process. I assumed that Finkelstein, who is a friend of Chomsky’s, would tear Dershowitz to shreds, but I was wrong.

Finkelstein makes almost nothing but ad hominem attacks against Dershowitz. For nearly the first half of the debate, Finkelstein repeats the line that Dershowitz plagiarized material for his book The Case for Israel and that Dershowitz is not qualified to be a professor at Harvard (as if that were at issue). I was not impressed with Finkelstein, but I was impressed with how Dershowitz responded and did a good job of sticking to matters of fact without resorting to personal attacks.

Tour my apartment

February 7, 2010

I filmed a brief tour of my apartment earlier today. I live on the second story of an apartment complex near downtown Washington, Iowa. I’ve lived here since late September 2009. I work as a newspaper reporter for the Washington Evening Journal, which is just one block south of where I live. Also visible in the video is Fareway, which is a grocery store across the street from the apartment that I frequent.