Bryan Caplan  

A Conversation With Michael Huemer

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Michael Huemer, author of The Problem of Political Authority, has kindly agreed to take EconLog readers' questions about his new book.  To get maximum value from the exchange, read the book first ($30.40 on Kindle, $37.72 in paperback on Amazon Prime).  Then on January 28, I'll solicit your questions in the comments.  A day or two later, Mike will post an extended reply.  If there's continued interest, I'll post follow-ups. 

P.S. Don't miss Huemer's TED talk.



COMMENTS (12 to date)
Nickolaus writes:

I suggest Michael read the always classic "The Problem with Charging $30.40 for an Electronic Copy of a Book"

david writes:

The most interesting part of the book is not the anti-monarchist part; it is the anti-democratic part (since most of us would not, I suspect, be sympathetic to a monarch claiming property rights over all land you need to live, and inherited ownership of your person).

The anarchist part is unfortunately a little weakly argued. e.g., remarks like:

Pace Hobbes, when diverse agents have roughly equal power, it is prudentially irrational for any agent to initiate conflict... (pg 335)

Except, of course, when he wants to take your stuff. The best argument that is offered against this seems to be a combination of "well I don't think people really want to", given optimistically as

Pace Hobbes, most human beings are not sociopaths...

which is strongly belied by the fact that people can dehumanize other people and cease to consider them as deserving of empathy, whilst remaining quite non-sociopathic with their own tribe - ethnic cleansing is regrettably easy to sustain -

plus a hefty dose of "well I think I can talk people out of wanting to", which makes me highly amused to imagine Huemer encountering with all the white ethnic-nationalists that infest Caplan's immigration blogposts.

There is a quite a bit of handwaving whether the anarchist law-enforcement and military equilibrium is a favourable one. It doesn't seem self-evident, for example, that security agencies would only voluntarily offer protection to clients who abide by local norms rather than to clients who can most afford to pay.

Dan Hill writes:

Presumably Huemer thinks the ideas in his book are important and would therefore like to spread them as widely as possible. Pricing the book so that the only people who buy it are other academics (presumably on their employer's nickel) seems somewhat inconsistent with that.

Since you guys obviously all understand that demand curves slope down, there has to be some underlying cause. Are you guys somehow locked in to using academic publishers who are stuck in the last century in terms of distribution and pricing strategies? Perhaps you could explain to them that the economics of the publishing industry have fundamentally changed.

david writes:

Addendum to my previous post: I recall that GMU actually has a whole literature on the private-security equilibrium. Cowen has essays (PDF) on it, I think?

Even taking the favourable equilibrium as given, it still has some disturbing intuitive properties. By definition, people would invest in security enough to make them indifferent to marginally more military strength vs marginal wealth. Matched military strength is invoked, by Huemer, to underpin the absence of initiated conflict. If your neighbour wins the lottery, therefore, you have to marginally alter your own behaviour to recognize the shift in military balance - invest more in your own security, or give him what he wants! Conflict might never break out, but only because weaklings have to keep pre-emptively surrendering. This is highly unappealing.

D writes:

I skip books priced this high. Too many great books to read out there.

John Samples writes:

Huemer did not set the price for the book. His publisher did that. Palgrave is a for-profit business that has been in business for some time (i.e. their revenues have exceeded their costs for some time). We should presume that Palgrave knows better than anyone here the revenue maximizing price for Heumer's book. Another reason to trust the publisher: Palgrave has something at stake with Heumer's book: their initial outlays which they seek to recoup. Having been in publishing I can testify that many authors and other people believe books are highly price elastic. But such beliefs are like beliefs upon which a person will not wager; after all those who believe a book is highly price elastic generally have no financial stake in its sales. Authors might be thought to have fixed costs at stake with a book, but those are sunk in any case, and royalties are at best a supplement to their income. Authors generally have no knowledge of likely sales and every reason to avoid the unpleasant likely reality about their work. Hence, publishers have a saying: "The fastest route to bankruptcy is believing your authors' sales forecasts."

Tim writes:

I think it's interesting that they priced it at a level that basically says "we don't think this book can get mass appeal and thus justify a lower price."

I mean $30 for digital books is a signal that the publisher sees it as a very niche piece. I actually thought it might be some sort of complimentary text book.

guthrie writes:

Bravo John Samples. Thank you for that insight.

For me, a Caplan endorsement of a book is enough to get me to (at least) consider investing in material which might normally be outside my price preference.

My question for Huemer: What would you say to Bryan's statement that this book may not as persuasive as, say 'For a New Liberty' because of its lack of 'poetry'? Any thoughts on how your ideas might be made more 'poetic'?

Jason Brennan writes:

As a fellow blurb writer for this book, I give it my highest endorsement. It really is the best anarchist book I've ever read. Rothbard pales in comparison.

Desmond Diamond DDS writes:

As a person with no philosophical training, this seems like an accessible approach. But at that price, what's the point? Might as well stick with the standard philosophy rigor and score some ivory tower points. Good try though.

Tim writes:

So looking at it a little bit more, it seems that Huemer did use an academic publisher, which really explains the high price.

For the book to be truly influential though, it needs a wider audience, and thus a lower price.

I really wish he had gone with a mainstream publisher or even self-published.

Michael Huemer writes:

A few brief comments:

1. I told the publisher to price it closer to $20, but they wouldn't listen to me. They negotiated on other items in the contract, but they wouldn't negotiate on that. John Samples is probably right about why.
2. It isn't as easy as you might (?) think to get a trade publisher to take a book on political authority and anarchism. I had worked with Palgrave before, and they wanted the book.
3. If I self-published a book, no academic would take it seriously (except maybe Bryan and Jason Brennan ;)). That cuts out its possible influence on the whole field of political philosophy, including influence on students through political philosophy courses.
4. If you can't afford it, there is a simple solution: university libraries. That's why academic books are priced so high to begin with: to sell to university libraries. Btw, this is actually cheap for an academic book; usually they don't come out with the paperback right away.

Perhaps contrary to initial appearances, then, I did think about the pricing issue and about what my options were before I chose Palgrave.

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