The Problem of Political Authority

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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 moral force.

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 claimed that 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 powers?

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 Experiment, Stockholm Syndrome, etc.)

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 get there?

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 anarcho-capitalist system 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.)


Last Modified 2013-06-19 1:23 PM EDT