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Michael Huemer Profile

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Don't miss this great profile of my favorite living philosopher, the noble Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado.  Intro:

Michael Huemer asks his students to imagine being a neighborhood vigilante. Suppose, he says, you live in a crime-ridden neighborhood, and nothing's being done about it. So you hunt down criminals and lock them in your basement.

After awhile, you bill your neighbors for keeping the neighborhood safe. You tell neighbors who balk that not paying means they'll land in the basement brig with the criminals.

"Most people would recognize this as outrageous behavior," observes Huemer, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Yet in Huemer's thought experiment, the vigilante's behavior is that of a rudimentary government, focused on preventing crime and collecting taxes.

This hypothetical scenario illustrates a question that Huemer argues is difficult to answer: namely, what gives a government the legitimate authority to act as it does?

"There is no satisfactory answer to this," Huemer says. "In fact, I conclude it's a moral illusion we're suffering from."

The profile mentions Mike's next book project, Freedom and Authority.  But I'm still begging him to write Ethical Answers.

HT: Justin Longo


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Taimyoboi writes:

Hmm, not impressed, at least by this excerpt:

A common response is that citizens implicitly accept the social contract simply by using public services or residing in a nation’s territory.

The neighborhood-vigilante scenario illustrates the fallacy of that argument, Huemer says. “This would work if everyone were living in my house,” but if neighbors own their own land, the argument breaks down, Huemer notes.

Aren't the "neighbors' own land" the equivalent of residing in a "different nation's territory"?

Seth writes:

Three things different between the vigilante and government is knowledge, (perceived) acceptance and checks and balances.

Nobody agreed to give the vigilante that power. By choosing to live in an area with a known government role you have knowledge of it and accept the trade-offs. Perhaps part of your acceptance is knowing that there is some accountability (checks and balances).

Jayson Virissimo writes:
Nobody agreed to give the vigilante that power.
How do you know that? What if some people did agree (after all, the streets are much more safe these days)? What if slightly more than the majority in the neighborhood did agree? Would that make it okay to force the others to go along with it?
By choosing to live in an area with a known government role you have knowledge of it and accept the trade-offs.

By choosing to live in an area with a known vigilante role you have knowledge of it and accept the trade-offs, right? Would that mean that it is simply a matter of who moved into the neighborhood first, you or the vigilante?

Lord writes:

The power of force, might makes right. In a very real sense the lord owns his domain and his tenants are subject to his power. We have created some myths of social contract and some institutions to disguise and soften the exercise of that power, but they are just tools of the powerful to exert their force. Curt Dolittle is quite accurate on that.

Pandaemoni writes:

The difference between the vigilante and a government is clearly an issue of the willingness to tolerate the conditions. Some of the neighbors may tolerate the vigilante's actions and give in to his demands out of fear, just as some people may tolerate and live under the rules of a dictator.

That there is coercion involved may make us feel as though the situation is unfair, but if the people living there are not motivated to rise up and depose the vigilante or dictator (or at least move away), then they are by inaction consenting to the status quo.

We implicitly assume that we would never *want to* give in to his demands...and we assume this because we implicitly compare them to our own situations--with a stable, relatively fair, and relatively non-abusive system of government. If we really lived in the hypothetical crime ridden world of the hypothetical, though,we may well want the vigilante there to protect us.

The problem with the hypothetical, though, is that it's too simple. If a vigilante tries to shake me down for money, then he is just one man, as am I. My options are *not* just "pay him or go to his basement," I can kill him or at least threaten him back. If the vigilante gets out of line, other vigilantes will take him down. I agree, in effect, with Taimyoboi: this is a system of horizonal enforcement that is more akin to sovereign nations dealing with one another than it is to the vertical enforcement of government over its citizens. If the vigilante abuses his power, my fight with him after that is more akin to a traditional war than a civil war or a criminal act on my part.

Granted that the reason why citizens are subject to the vertical enforcement of the nation in which they reside is largely a psychological acceptance by an overwhelming majority of the legitimacy of that authority (which is, of course, what the vigilante lacks), but that acceptance is real. It's not a delusion that we have. I accept the authority of the U.S. government, because it is to my advantage to do so because I know that my friends and neighbors accept it and that gives it a collective power. The strategy of accepting it's authority to rule me is basically a Nash Equilibrium (which is why government is such a naturally arising phenomenon). If the government became tyrannical, then in certain circumstances it might be in my best interest to break with my friends and neighbors and fight against my government...but that happens to not be the case.

The problem of how to vest power in such an authority without those in charge turning into tyrants is a problem that took us a long time to come to grips with. It's a risk that we've muted over time, but not one that is completely gone.

It might be that tolerating the authority of the vigilante is also a Nash Equilibrium. It might not. It depends on a host of factors. It's hard to imagine, given our current circumstance, that the vigilante should be allowed to shake down the locals, because we know that in reality we have other options...moving away, or more likely appealing to the actual government to put an end to both the crime and the vigilante.

Tracy W writes:

How about this scenario? You are a bully who extracts money from your neighbours by force. But you do, for selfish reasons, defend your neighbourhood from other bullies, and you are smart enough to work out that if you allow your neighbours to keep some of their money then they work harder and you are richer overall than if you just took all of it.
Then it occurs to you that if you provide some public goods, like policing the people in your neighbourhood even if they aren't enough of a threat to your own safety, you can get even more money.
Then it turns out that the bully of another neighbourhood looks like being stronger than you, so you go to your people, convince them that you have a better interest in not overly exploiting them than this other bully, so how about you go into alliance with this young man here and you'll be able to beat him nicely. But the people are worried about this increase in your power so you agree to some long term rules limiting what you can do.
Repeat over the centuries and, if we're awfully lucky, we get to this amazing state where the military with tanks and machine guns obey the orders of elected politicians whom the rankest private could beat up in unarmed combat.
So this way democracy is not about some contractual relationship where someone suddenly starts providing public goods and charging for it, it's about agreeing how to support guys with big enough guns to beat the next door neighbours without them destroying the wealth necessary to buy the guns.

Steve Sailer writes:

I'd say that in a situation of violent anarchy, the vigilante is doing the right thing.

Daniel Klein writes:

I was sorry to see no mention of David Hume's conventionalist theory of government authority. Hume's take may also be fairly ascribed to Smith. It is the one that I incline toward.

Hume writes:

These discussions are worthless without first articulating a conception of "authority" or "legitimacy." Are we discussing authority/legitimacy as in the correlative obligation to obey? Or simply being justified? (see, e.g., Simmons, Justification and Legitimacy (1999)).

James writes:

Seth:

It's still not consensual, or if it is, so is nearly all private theft.

We are all aware of the fact that private theft takes place in the countries where we live. In the past, many of us have submitted to the demands of private thieves because they threatened us with violence if we didn't comply with their demands. We always knew that by emigrating, we could avoid dealing with the private thieves operating wherever we currently live but for whatever reason we didn't leave. It's even sometimes the case that thieves have to get some other thieves to sign off on their activities, just like the checks and balances system in government.

No sane person would think that this means the victims of private theft have somehow given their consent to what has happened.

Jim Glass writes:
the vigilante's behavior is that of a rudimentary government, focused on preventing crime and collecting taxes
Yes, of course it is. Look at The Godfather II, where the young DeNiro godfather starts off by saving people from their exploiters and bringing peace to a part of the city where the police won't go ... then starts charging for it, then charges for it whether the people want his services or not.

North documents how over a long time this historical process, at its best, leads to modern democratic governments. Our "great" ancestral historical political figures can quite credibly be viewed as warlords or mafia dons. What was a successful medeival king but someone who had "made offers they couldn't refuse" to all potential rivals -- but who, if he was smart, also found ways to make them work together for the realm's common good (which was also his personal good).

This .... illustrates a question that Huemer argues is difficult to answer: namely, what gives a government the legitimate authority to act as it does? "There is no satisfactory answer to this," Huemer says. "In fact, I conclude it's a moral illusion we're suffering from."
Illusions abound about, no doubt. But that doesn't mean there is no real, legitimate force driving these developments, and that the masses don't benefit greatly from them, even when ruled by a warlord or mafia don -- when compared to the alternative.

Remember the "welfare status" of the masses in pre-governmental societies:

"It’s true, of course, that twentieth-century state societies, having developed potent technologies of mass killing, have broken all historical records for violent deaths.
"But this is because they enjoy the advantage of having by far the largest populations of potential victims in human history; the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot." [Jared Diamond]
Estimates put the death rate by violence in those societies as high as 40%. When a warlord or don successfully fights his way through all that  to grab a "monopoly on violence" -- the functional definition of govt -- the masses benefit greatly.

Of course, as a monopolist the warlord/don reaps monopoly rents from the society -- thus the "wealth of kings" -- and stories, legends, beliefs, illusions, grow to cement the social relationship in place ("divine right of kings").

But the masses are still a lot better off than with a 40% death-by-violence rate. So they go along willingly rather than kill the king, and are even very loyal to the king -- the true social contract.

Then, when and if the society develops successfully, other elements in it gain the ability to bid away the power and wealth of the king -- they gradually become distributed (democratized). The power of Henry II gradually transforms into that of Elizabeth II.

Spontaneous order in action. OK. Did anybody "agree" to this process in some past dark age to "legitimize" it. Of course, not -- but since the idea that anybody could have is nonsense, why is it any kind of logical problem?

Does anybody argue that spontaneous order must be "morally legitimized"?

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