I became aware of Michael Huemer thanks to the recommendations
of bloggers Bryan
Caplan and Arnold
Kling. I had read his earlier book, Ethical
Intuitionism and found it interesting but (since it was aimed
at his fellow professional philosophers) a bit above my level.
There is no similar problem here: I think just about any mature reader
can follow the arguments presented
in The Problem of Political Authority.
Which is, in a nutshell: Not only does the emperor have no clothes, his
power over his subjects lacks any rational justification. This applies
not only to emperors, but also your standard liberal democracies.
As long as they rely on coercion of their citizenry—which all
governments do in practice, and
nearly by definition—their powers have no
Huemer's argument is careful and clear. We would not tolerate our
next-door neighbors suddenly assuming powers of taxation, legislation,
punishment for misbehavior, etc. Especially if (at the same time) they
we had some sort of patriotic duty to submit to their demands and dictates.
In fact, we'd consider our next-door neighbors
to be crazy and dangerous.
So don't we need at least a good yarn about how
existing states might have justifiably claimed the same
Huemer examines various attempts to justify political authority.
Without going into detail inappropriate for this blog post: he finds
them all lacking. I found his arguments to be compelling. I've been
a minimal-state libertarian for the past couple decades. Ballparking,
I'd say my confidence that a small, rights-respecting government was
necessary for human flourishing was around 80%; Huemer knocked that
down to somewhere around 30%.
Why does anyone take government's claims to authority seriously? Huemer
is also convincing when he discusses the psychology involved. For
better or worse—mostly worse, these days—humans seem
hardwired to fit comfortably into authoritarian modes, no matter
how artificial and arbitrary. (See the Stanford Prison
In the latter parts of the book, Huemer explores the likely contours
of anarcho-capitalist society: protection agencies, private arbitration,
etc. This will be mostly familiar ground to folks who have read
Murray Rothbard or David Friedman, but Huemer's treatment is fresh; he
also dismisses Robert Nozick's argument (in Anarchy, State, and
Utopia) that a minimal state could (in theory) evolve out of
an anarcho-capitalist society without transgressing anyone's rights.
Finally, Huemer looks at the likelihood that our current
societies could become government-free. He's surprisingly optimistic,
noting how our current liberal democracies developed in,
historically-speaking, a relative eye-blink. Radical changes
do occur—just ask Gorbachev—so who's to say we couldn't
Thumbs up, by the way to the library gurus at the University Near Here,
who purchased this book at my request. (The price is daunting, even for
the Kindle version.)
But it's somewhat ironic, since the thrust of the
book is that the University (like every other institution funded
via coercion) is one of the institutions that would be (at best)
radically transformed or (probably) eliminated under the
Huemer advocates. (Doubly ironic: like your blogger, Huemer also
works for a similar institution, the University of Colorado; it might
have been good for him to write some paragraphs justifying
this. I would find that personally useful, as it's a continuing
philosophical irritation for me.)