Bryan Caplan  

What's So Special About Huemer's New Book?

My Hoover Talk Today: Live Str... Catch Them Doing Something Rig...
In the comments, Mark V. Anderson asks:

I would like to know why you think this book is so extra-special. I read the first chapter for which you provided the link. It was well written, but I saw nothing there that I haven't read a hundred times.  I am a consequentialist libertarian myself, and I find the radical approach very unconvincing, especially when one considers some of the potential consequences when one takes such an absolutist view against government.

I can see how you might think Huemer is merely hewing to a standard dogmatic natural rights position, which has indeed been done a hundred times.  But he's not.  He starts from much weaker premises, along the lines of "You shouldn't coerce other people without a good reason."  And a prime example of  "good reason," for Huemer, is "There would be very bad consequences of not coercing."  He never claims that consequences don't matter.  His reply to the consequentialist defense of government is:

(a) The defense only implies the rightness of government coercion when the consequences of not coercing are in fact very bad.

(b) Almost everyone sees that many, if not most, laws don't actually prevent very bad consequences.

(c) The good consequences of government coercion in the remaining, controversial cases are greatly overrated.

One big problem with libertarian consequentialism is that it focuses almost exclusively on (c).  Huemer's insight is that you can get very far with (a) + (b) alone.

And if I am not convinced, someone who is very skeptical of 90% of the acts of government, all the more reason that your average statist (a majority of the citizenry) will reject these ideas out of hand.

Empirically, you're right.  Most people can't be persuaded.  I admire Huemer's book because would change the minds of reasonable, fair-minded people on many moderate points - and at least pique their curiousity about his more radical positions.

I presume you have read the whole book. Can you give us some more clues as to what Huemer says that is different from previous writers?

You presume correctly.  What's great about the book is that he grants the plausibility of many seemingly statist intuitions, avoids absurd absolutism and obscurantism, and still reaches strong libertarian conclusions.  I was repeatedly surprised by how far he gets without assuming anything controversial.

I have no interest in reading it if he doesn't have fresh ideas, even if it is very well written.

Consequentialists will be tempted to dismiss it as yet another dogmatic natural rights book.  Natural rights theorists will be tempted to dismiss it as confused consequentialism.  But both dismissals are wrong.  Huemer is doing something novel: Starting with pluralist common-sense morality and ending with radical libertarianism.

And I don't see how it could have any affect on the population at large in that case.

I doubt one philosopher can have much effect on the population at large no matter how fresh his ideas are.  What a philosopher can do is bend over backwards to persuade reasonable people who don't already agree with him.  Which is precisely what Huemer does.

Update: In response to M.R. Orlowski, there's still no official publication date.  I'm guessing early 2013.

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Kevin writes:

Well, I'm sold... depending on the price.

Daniel Klein writes:

Very nice post.

David R. Henderson writes:

Ditto Dan Klein’s comment. Now I’m off to give my talk.

M.R. Orlowski writes:

I know that Bryan doesn't respond in the comments section, but does he or anybody else know when the book is going to come out?

Becky Hargrove writes:

Huemer owes you big time! You just made this book a 'must have'.

steve writes:

"I doubt one philosopher can have much effect on the population at large no matter how fresh his ideas are."

Except in a narrow sense (other philosophers have to take up the call to arms so to speak), I strongly disagree with this statement. Rivaled only by the advance of technology, I believe that if one considers philosophers in a broad sense (some economists, some politicians, some clergy, etc.), then they are ridiculously influential. Granted most fade into obscurity as in any profession, but a few literaly shape the way the world is organized. The only caveat is that this rarely happens in their own lifetimes, it seems to take a minimum of a generation or two for worldviews to alter on a wholesale basis in the population at large.

Hume writes:

At the end of Chapter 1 (p. 21), Huemer writes:

“This surprising development is due mostly to the trenchant work of A. John Simmons, whose seminal work, Moral Principles and Political Obligation, tore down several leading accounts of political obligation. I endorse most of Simmons’ arguments. Many readers will already be familiar with these arguments. But many will not; thus, in succeeding chapters I review some of the most important arguments against political obligation. At the same time, I believe Simmons did not go far enough, and the contemporary philosophical literature does not go far enough.”

A. John Simmons is one of the most impressive political philosophers today whose work, I believe at least, is greatly underappreciated by popular libertarian circles. There have been some recent developments in theories of political obligation since Simmons’ last major contributions (Justification and Legitimacy (2001) and his co-authored Is There a Duty to Obey the Law? For and Against (2005)), such as Klosko’s Political Obligations (2005) (although Simmons deals with Klosko in an APA Newsletter (2007)).

I would love to ask Bryan if Huemer expands on Simmons’ objections to, e.g., the principle of fairness, or merely re-states them in a clearer fashion with different thought experiments. I am especially interested in Huemer’s criticisms of natural duty theories, particularly as re-interpreted by Jeremy Waldron’s Special Ties and Natural Duties (1993).

D writes:

"Well, I'm sold... depending on the price."


Kent Gatewood writes:

How will Huemer structure a non-governmental response to the Comintern's plan to collective the world?

Finch writes:

Maybe I'm missing something. Why would the standard be "very bad consequences of not coercing?"

I'm very sympathetic, but I think this is much stronger than the standard most people apply. I'm guessing the median American is fine with coercion that on-average makes things better. A lot of people are fine with coercion that simply results in a more aesthetically pleasing outcome for them, such as environmental regulation or immigration law (for people on both sides of that issue...).

Mark V Anderson writes:

I do appreciate the long response to my question.

I'm not sure if I'm convinced yet. Finch makes a good point. Few folks would accept that any government actions that don't have "very bad" consequences should not be taken, and in fact I'm not convinced of that myself. I do believe that (c) libertarian responses will provide by far the most effective arguments with the general public. Most libertarian moral arguments actually make it more difficult to convince people of (c) arguments, because it makes many people think libertarians are nut-cases, so they don't listen at all.

Nevertheless I may buy the book if it is not too expensive. I will probably wait for the soft cover. Make sure you make further announcements of when published.

Gumdy writes:

Bryan, have you commented on Hoppe's Argumentation Ethics? It's very, very commonly misunderstood:

Michael Huemer writes:

Thanks, Bryan!

We don't know when it will be published, as I'm still shopping publishers.

@Finch and Mark Anderson: The first half of the book is an application of common sense interpersonal ethics to political philosophy. In interpersonal ethics, almost everyone is a moderate deontologist. They don't think you can coerce other people whenever the expected benefits are slightly larger than the expected costs.

Most people also have a much lower standard for government coercion. This is because they believe in "authority". But none of the defenses of this belief stand up to scrutiny.

My methodology is a common one from applied ethics; it appeals to common sense intuitions about cases.

If you're a consequentialist in interpersonal ethics, you might reject the whole method. But it's fair to say that it would then be you and not I who would be making the extreme and controversial assumption.

Finch writes:

Nice to hear from you Michael. I'm glad somebody responded, because I was beginning to think there wasn't an answer.

> In interpersonal ethics, almost everyone is a
> moderate deontologist.

Clearly they don't have children.

> This is because they believe in "authority".

I don't think that's the case, it's that they don't see anything wrong with coercion, per se.

> But it's fair to say that it would then be you
> and not I who would be making the extreme and
> controversial assumption.

That's ridiculous. I'm making the normal human assumption. I don't care that there's an esoteric philosophical approach in which another assumption is the norm. Certainly it's not going to convince anybody who's not already in the choir.

Coercion is ineffective. That's a good reason to dislike coercion. But effective coercion? What's wrong with that? Personally, I would doubt that's really achievable, but reasonable minds could differ.

Finch writes:

Robin Hanson's post is related today:

He says that economists generally try to weigh the costs against the benefits of interfering with choices. He calls this "a higher analysis standard" than what people ordinarily apply.

I don't think my assumption is the one that is extreme and controversial. You are assuming your conclusion.

Michael Huemer writes:
I don't think that's the case, it's that they don't see anything wrong with coercion, per se.
Are you suggesting that if you just feel like punching someone in the face, the average person would say that's fine? You don't need a reason for it, since there's nothing wrong with coercion per se?
That's ridiculous. I'm making the normal human assumption. I don't care that there's an esoteric philosophical approach in which another assumption is the norm.
I stated that my approach was to appeal to common sense intuitions about cases. Are you saying that using common sense intuitions is "an esoteric philosophical approach" and that rejecting common sense is "the normal human assumption"? I'm having a hard time understanding you.
Finch writes:

> Are you suggesting that if you just feel like
> punching someone in the face, the average
> person would say that's fine? You don't need a
> reason for it, since there's nothing wrong with
> coercion per se?

You are using my principle, not yours. We were talking about coercion that, on average, benefits. In your example, that is clearly not the case. You aren't making anything better. You have to argue that coercion is still bad, even if on average it makes things better, to convince normal people who don't see anything wrong with it, per se.

So, for examples of coercion people accept:

Arresting and confining a murderer.

Putting your children to bed at a reasonable hour.

Taxing and using the money to feed poor kids.

Bringing in an immigrant and obligating me to pay for his welfare, education, and health-care.

Preventing me from bringing in an immigrant as an employee and interfering with me transacting business as I see fit.

The average person just doesn't consider coercion a problem when it's done for a good cause and it works, even if it only works to a small degree or is close to zero net benefit. Your approach is not common sense. If it were, Libertarians would be winning elections.

To be clear: you can't just assume coercion is bad. It's a herculean assumption, and most people don't make it. You either have to prove it, or you have to work the argument differently. "Coercion is ineffective" at least stands a chance of getting traction in the real world.

Sean writes:


I don't think anyone would deny that most people regard (many) forms of government coercion -- the sorts of examples you gave -- as morally acceptable. But surely you would agree that most of those same people would consider the examples Dr. Huemer gives in his first chapter unacceptable?

What, then, can account for the difference between the two sets of cases? It can't be the consequences. It can only be, as Dr. Huemer said above, that the government has authority and we private citizens do not.

Finch writes:

I did give an example of coercion within the family, as well.

I don't know. I found Dr. Huemer's examples unconvincing. The vigilante example is a false equivalence. It's not coercion people are upset about, it's the lack of safeguards. It's the implementation. Really. People used to accept that sort of policing just fine before they had better options.

I suppose I think his examples are sloppy. He doesn't conceive of effective, non-violent coercion. His example of a neighbor who eats too many potato chips ends in force. There is no effective coercion in his mind. He assumes away the problem. If I could gently, silently coerce my neighbor into not-eating the chips, I suspect many people would endorse it. If it were smoking and not chip-eating, I suspect most people would say I was doing a good deed.

I'm sorry, I'm sure Dr. Huemer means well and is sincere, and I'm very sympathetic to the goal. But I think his argument is a non-starter. And as I point out, I suspect I'm a lot easier to convince than most people will be.

Maybe I'm missing something. Was there a particularly good example in there that you saw?

Sean writes:


I find all of his examples convincing, and I don't think they're really disanalogous in the way you suggest.

All we have to do is tweak the cases slightly (this is what Huemer himself does starting on page 7, and is another well-worn tactic in applied ethical debates). So suppose you think what distinguishes the vigilante case from that of government is what you call "safeguards." Simply imagine the vigilante is identical to government in that respect. Suppose, for example, that my friends and I form an organization functionally identical to our local city or state government. Some of us go get law degrees and become lawyers, some of us get police training and arrest criminals. We lock them up in prisons we build and try them in our own non-governmental court houses. We can suppose that, in so doing, our criminals receive treatment no different than they would receive at the hands of the state.

Now suppose we start trying to collect taxes to pay for these services or conscript people into jury duty. If my neighbor received a summons saying, "we're just some guys, not the government, but you have an obligation to serve on our juries and, if you refuse, we're going to do bad things to you," my sense is that it would be regarded as unacceptable despite the isomorphy of consequences in this case and government jury duty. "Who are you to demand I serve on your jury?" she'd say. You're just some guy.

If that is true, and I think it is, the legitimacy of (most, many form of) government coercion is going to turn on the question of the state's authority.

Also, I certainly wouldn't want to say (and I doubt Dr. Huemer would either) that every form of coercion is morally unacceptable, so it isn't enough to point to cases in which one might legitimately use force. Rather, the point is that the sorts of coercion the state typically employs are sorts of coercion that would be regarded as morally problematic in any other (i.e., non-state) context. If that moral distinction is to hold, there needs to be some morally relevant difference between them, and again, if it isn't the consequences, it's going to have to be authority if anything at all.

And it's probably not authority either.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top