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Huemer's Common-Sense Libertarianism

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My very favorite section from Mike Huemer's The Problem of Political Authority begins by distancing himself from other libertarian philosophers:
The ideas of this chapter will strike many as too extreme and far too libertarian. Are we really forced to accept such conclusions? Surely, to arrive at these radical conclusions, I must have made some extreme and highly controversial assumptions along the way, assumptions that most readers should feel free to reject?

I am the first to say that libertarian authors have frequently relied upon controversial philosophical assumptions in deriving their political conclusions. Ayn Rand, for example, thought that capitalism could only be successfully defended by appeal to ethical egoism, the theory according to which the right action for anyone in any circumstance is always the most selfish action. Robert Nozick is widely read as basing his libertarianism on an absolutist conception of individual rights, according to which an individual's property
rights and rights to be free from coercion can never be outweighed by any social consequences. Jan Narveson relies on a metaethical theory according to which the correct moral principles are determined by a hypothetical social contract. Because of the controversial nature of these ethical or metaethical theories, most readers find the libertarian arguments based on them easy to reject.

It is important to observe, then, that I have appealed to nothing so controversial in my own reasoning. In fact, I reject all three of the foundations for libertarianism mentioned in the preceding paragraph. I reject egoism, since I believe that individuals have substantial obligations to take into account the interests of others. I reject ethical absolutism, since I believe an individual's rights may be overridden by sufficiently important needs of others. And I reject all forms of social contract theory, since I believe the social contract is a myth with no moral relevance for us...
Huemer then succinctly sums up the novelty of his approach:
The foundation of my libertarianism is much more modest: common sense morality. At first glance, it may seem paradoxical that such radical political conclusions could stem from anything designated as "common sense." I do not, of course, lay claim to common sense political views. I claim that revisionary political views emerge out of common sense moral views. As I see it, libertarian political philosophy rests on three broad ideas:

i) First, a non-aggression principle in interpersonal ethics. Roughly, this is the idea that individuals should not attack, kill, steal from, or defraud one another, and in general, that individuals should not coerce one another, aside from a relatively narrow range of special circumstances.

ii) Second, a recognition of the coercive nature of government. When the state promulgates a law, the law is generally backed up by a threat of punishment, which is supported by credible threats of physical force directed against those who would disobey the state.

iii) Third, a skepticism of political authority as traditionally conceived. The upshot of this skepticism is, very roughly, that the state may not do what it would be wrong for any non-governmental person or organization to do.
Why should we accept these three broad ideas?

The main positive ethical assumption of libertarianism, the non-aggression principle, is the most difficult to precisely articulate. In truth, it is a complex collection of principles, including prohibitions on theft, assault, murder, and so on. I cannot completely articulate this principle or set of principles. Fortunately, it is not the locus of disagreement between libertarians and partisans of other political ideologies, for the "non-aggression principle," as I use the term, is simply the collection of prohibitions on mistreating other individuals that are accepted in common sense morality. Almost no one, regardless of political ideology, thinks that theft, assault, murder, and so on are morally acceptable. It is not necessary to have a complete list of these prohibitions, since the arguments for libertarian conclusions have not depended upon laying claim to any such complete list. It is also important to
understand that I am not making any particularly strong assumptions about these ethical prohibitions. I am not, for example, assuming that theft is never permissible. I am simply assuming that it is not permissible under normal circumstances, as dictated by common sense morality.

The second principle, that of the coercive nature of government, is equally difficult to dispute. The coercive nature of government is commonly forgotten or ignored in political discourse, in which the justification for coercion is seldom discussed. But virtually no one actually denies that the state regularly relies upon coercion.

It is, then, the notion of authority that forms the true locus of dispute between libertarianism and other political philosophies: libertarians are skeptical about authority, whereas most people accept the state's authority in more or less the terms in which the state claims it. This is what enables most to endorse governmental behavior that would otherwise appear to violate individual rights: non-libertarians assume that most of the moral constraints that apply to other agents do not apply to the state.
Hence the final title of the book:
Thus, I have focused on defending skepticism about authority, by addressing the most interesting and important theories of authority. In defending this skepticism, I have, again, relied upon no particularly controversial ethical assumptions. I have considered the factors that are said to confer authority on the state, and found that in each case, either those factors are not actually present (as in the case of consent-based accounts of authority), or those factors simply do not suffice to confer the sort of authority claimed by the state. The latter point is established by the fact that a nongovernmental agent to whom those factors applied would generally not be ascribed anything like political authority. I have suggested that the best explanation for the widespread inclination to ascribe authority to the state lies in a collection of non-rational biases that would operate whether or not there were any legitimate authorities. Most people simply never stop to question the notion of political authority, but once we begin to examine it carefully, the idea of a group of people with a special right to command everyone else fairly dissolves.

These three ideas-the non-aggression principle, the coercive nature of government, and skepticism about authority-together demand a libertarian political philosophy. Most government actions violate the non-aggression principle-that is, they are actions of a sort that would be condemned by common sense morality if they were performed by any non-governmental agent. In particular, the government generally deploys coercion in
circumstances and for reasons that would by no means be considered adequate to justify coercion on the part of a private individual or organization. Therefore, unless we accord the state some special exemption from ordinary moral constraints, we must condemn most government actions. The actions that remain are just the ones that libertarians accept.
Disagree with the conclusion?  Huemer wants you to name a specific premise you reject:
How might one avoid the libertarian conclusion? Only by rejecting one of the three core principles I have identified. It seems to me extremely unpromising to question the coercive nature of government, and I doubt that any theorist will wish to take that tack. Some theorists will question common sense morality. I have not undertaken a general defense of common sense morality in this book, and I shall not do so now. Every book must begin somewhere, and beginning with such assumptions as that under normal conditions, one may not rob, kill, or attack other people, seems to me reasonable enough. This is about the least controversial, least dubious starting point for a book of political philosophy that I have seen, and I think few readers will feel happy about rejecting it.

The least implausible way of resisting libertarianism remains that of resisting the libertarian's skepticism about authority. I have addressed what strike me as the most interesting, influential, or promising accounts of political authority-the traditional social contract theory, the hypothetical social contract theory, the appeal to democratic processes, and appeals to fairness and good consequences. But I cannot address every possible account of authority, and I suspect that a fair number of thinkers will react to my performance by proposing alternative accounts of authority.
This leads to his preemptive response to unaddressed criticism:
I also suspect, however, that the general strategy I have relied upon will be able to be extended to such alternative accounts. A theory of authority will cite some feature of the state (taking "feature" very broadly) as the source of its authority. My strategy begins by imagining some private agent that possesses that feature... For instance, the property of being something that would be agreed to by all reasonable people, the property of being actually accepted by the majority of society, and the property of producing very good consequences, are all properties that a non-governmental organization, or the policies of such an organization, could possess. As I say, then, we imagine a non-governmental agent with the relevant feature. We then realize that intuitively, we would not ascribe anything like political authority to that agent. In particular, we would not ascribe it a comprehensive, content-independent, supreme entitlement to coerce obedience from other people. And so we conclude that the proposed feature fails as a ground of political authority.
(Endnotes omitted.  I'm quoting from the draft, so there are slight differences from the final manuscript).

I suspect that many readers of Huemer's book will furrow their brows and say, "That's it?  That's all you've got?"  But this perceived defect is one of the book's chief virtues.  Unlike almost every other political philosopher, Huemer doesn't waste your time.  He doesn't try to convince you of seven odd claims, then try to convince you that those seven odd claims somehow imply his conclusion.  (See Rawls' A Theory of Justice for an egregious example).  Huemer doesn't try to make readers feel intellectually inferior by making them learn a lot of obscure jargon.  Instead, he clearly tells readers what he believes, and why he believes it, and his conclusion follows directly from his premises.  Readers of philosophy should settle for nothing less - or more - than this.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (35 to date)
Paul writes:

"Individuals should not coerce one another, aside from a relatively narrow range of special circumstances...whereas most people accept the state's authority in more or less the terms in which the state claims it."

I know that putting these two lines together may be misleading, but I think that there surely is a contradiction here in what people are thinking which is supporting Huemer's argument. Why should we be so sure that we shouldn't reconsider the principle of non-coercion as opposed to reconsidering the role and authority of the government? Aren't true philosophers and thinkers supposed to be evil, insofar as they are willing to believe that the dearly, deeply held beliefs of a people are false?

I have a suspicion that people are loath to admit that they believe that coercion is morally acceptable, and may even falsely think that they hold the belief that coercion is wrong. But when push comes to shove, well, they push and shove with gusto.

Libertarian arguments always bring out the conservative in me. Does that happen to anyone else?

Paul writes:

"In particular, we would not ascribe it a comprehensive, content-independent, supreme entitlement to coerce obedience from other people. And so we conclude that the proposed feature fails as a ground of political authority."

I don't know, if an entity like that came along that was not the government, I would personally advocate a coup. But maybe Huemer has concrete examples that illustrate his point. I really do need to find a copy of the book at a local library.

Miguel writes:

I don't know if this is a criticism, observation, comment, or what, but here are some things on the three premises:

i) Huemer's 'common sense' morality is nothing but; the non-aggression principle is almost nowhere found except in stable, well-structured, at least modestly wealthy societies. Of course, very few would condone 'wrongful' taking, but 'rightful' taking, even when aggressive, is usually approved. For example, most humans find might think of it as 'rightful' taking if, eg., one tribe had monopolized some fertile land. The war they wage to take it would not be thought of as 'wrongful.' ii) the coercive nature of government is special, but not terribly different, from other forms of coercion that a libertarian should be equally worried about. After all, the libertarian is concerned about other people interfering into your business when it's none of their business. It matters, but not a whole lot, whether those others wear state insignia or not, for justificatory purposes. So again, anthropology teaches us that while, eg, hunter gatherer societies have no state to speak of, there is plenty of interference by the group into the individual lives of each member. iii) Same as with (ii), maybe the state shouldn't be able to do what a non-gov't group couldn't do, but that leaves a whole lot of nasty stuff still untouched. It's unclear whether he's skeptical of authority per se (an ethical claim) or authority backed by state coercion (a political claim). I guess lots of people are skeptical of the latter, cause it's recent, but the former is accepted by almost no human community.

I take the problems with (i) as the most challenging for Huemer. If in fact these assumptions are not common sense, then they are supported instead by a particular, and peculiar, life-style or cultural ideal. Now, that ideal has happened to develop within societies structured by the modern state. It's not clear to me that they would survive it's dissolution. Certainly human history offers no precedent to think otherwise. And so I think it's fair to ask, if common-sense morality were so common, why are there so few examples of communities, throughout history, including pre-written history, built upon those assumptions?

Hopaulius writes:

I agree with much of Miguel's comment. To the extent that individuals tend not to practice coercion against people over whom they have no authority, it is because as individuals they have no authority or power to enact their coercive desires, not because they do not want to coerce. This, then, is why conservatives and liberals alike love government coercion: government implements the coercive desires they already have. As for Huemer's position (as I understand it based on little exposure to him) that libertarianism is the only truly rational political philosophy, this is largely irrelevant. Human beings are not rational actors.

Peter St. Onge writes:


I haven't read the book, so only going on Bryan's excerpts. But if 'common sense' is "the idea that individuals should not attack, kill, steal from, or defraud one another" then I would argue that there are not "so few societies" built on it, but that it is the norm for all societies, formal and informal.

I think what Huemer's got in mind is something akin to "common law" which is a Roman, not British, innovation. The general idea was a set of ethics that all people subscribed to, for use by foreigners living in Rome. Despite today's fad for cultural relativism, this was a pretty successful innovation, and I think illustrated that, yes, there are many ethical commonalities among different cultures.

Infopractical writes:

My guess is that I'd agree with Huemer's conclusions moreso than I'd agree with those of the philosophers whose tenets he rejects. However, I think the ambiguity of "common sense" as the label of the foundation of his views is a cop out. This isn't the worst flaw in the world. It's certainly better than what we get when we accept axioms that defy common sense.

What is this common sense, and why does it seem so obvious? Perhaps because it's based on human cognition? Perhaps the ways in which we operate, think, and interface with the world around us make it seem like common sense to basically work for our own good and common sense to excuse the mob for mistreating us under extraordinary conditions and common sense to recognize that a human subservient to an impersonal government system is dehumanizing and so on.

The benefit of basing common sense in the machinery of the human animal is that it allows a more fluid common sense---one that molds well in line with utility. For instance, it allows us to make sense of group (familial, but perhaps broadening to the close tribe though doubtful to the societal tribe) behavior that involves sacrifice as a gamble for greater overall average utility among the players. This sidesteps much modern liberal critique of libertarianism as uncaring. No! It makes sense to me to take care of my wife---to sacrifice for her---and for her to sacrifice for me because these sacrifices may result in net gain as a solution to prisoner's dilemmas. I personally experience this sense of sacrifice for gain a little further out, and I could imagine extending it to a Dunbar-numbered tribe if we still lived such an existence. But I certainly can't imagine feeling anything but a sap if I extend it to the more than 300 million people of this nation I live in.

Note that I can arrive at all the same basic conclusions as Huemer does, but my version of common sense has context. Even if I cannot describe it completely (because I am unable to describe my cognition completely), it's not ambiguous to nearly the same degree as if I'd left common sense undefined or simply defined in reverse---by the conclusions I'd like to defend.

rapscallion writes:

Especially if a state allows emigration, it's not clear to me that ii, the stipulation that state action is coercive, is correct without a further theory of property rights that will probably be tricky to argue for.

It depends on what you mean by "coercive." If I say that while you are on my land, you have to obey my rules or I'll punch you in the face, am I being coercive? Most people would say no because it's your choice whether or not to come on my land, and since it's my land I get to make whatever rules I want. That's why it's "my" land.

Well, in a sense a state that allows emigration is saying to all its adults citizens, "come on my land, and you have to obey my rules." Why is the state but not the individual being coercive when enforcing rules within its domain?

RPLong writes:

I agree with Huemer, based on the above excerpts, but I don't think he's made a very convincing case to people with whom he disagrees.

I think he is being far more absolutist than he thinks he is. His three premises may be rooted in common sense, but the way he applies them is extremely absolutist, and it is an application that is very common among radical libertarians.

So, as member of "the choir," I can say, "Right on, Huemer." But if I were scoring a debate, I would not give Huemer very many points. The simple fact of the matter is that in order to accept his argument, one has to also accept the absolutism used to apply his premises.

Greg G writes:

Miguel makes many good points in his comment above but I would add that Huemer's premise iii) is even more problematic than his premise i).

"Common sense" refers to heuristics that are very widely used because they work so often. When has a libertarian society ever worked for long? It is not at all a common moral view that states should only have powers equal to non-state actors. To believe that is to believe there should not be a state at all. Even if that is a correct view, it is certainly not a "common" one.

I would argue it is not a sensible one either. There have been many societies throughout history with very little government. North America was full of them when the Europeans arrived. They all contained plenty of violence and coercion. If it is "common sense" to think libertarian principles are the best way to organize a society then why has their implementation been so, well...uncommon.

And why have all of history's greatest libertarian philosophers appeared only under the protection of governments strong enough and liberal enough to defend their rights?

Zachary writes:

His third premise is not in line with Classical Liberalism. Particularly, Smith and Hume recognized and reserved the special status of government's dominion over the people. Of course, illiberal policies they would criticize, but they still argued for that ultimate coercive authority as a source of stability through widely applicable rules. Smith further emphasized the difference between actions among equals and actions between inferior and superior positions. They should not be treated identically.

[irrelevant url deleted--Econlib Ed.]

Ken B writes:
The main positive ethical assumption of libertarianism, the non-aggression principle, is the most difficult to precisely articulate. In truth, it is a complex collection of principles, including prohibitions on theft, assault, murder, and so on. I cannot completely articulate this principle or set of principles.
This at least is promisingly honest, as Libertarians frequently tell me this supposed principle is simple, obvious, and enough to answer all questions.
jc writes:

(i) Yes, for better or worse, people do often love to coerce. Sometimes merely judging others isn't satisfying enough.

(ii) Many people do also simultaneously pretend the govt. rarely coerces, i.e., while they technically know it to be true, they don't feel like it's true. For example, if you bring up PJ O'Rourke's test of legal justification, "Would you be willing to put a gun to grandma's head to force her to do what you want?", people will generally feel like you're crazy, "We're not doing that! That's completely different!"

(iii) Yes, this is a clear issue even when you do get past (i) and (ii).

Troy Camplin writes:

This sounds like my own general libertarian views. I think it would be beneficial to explain the ethical theory in more depth, to explain its evolutionary origins, as I do here:

Of course, I have many more:

Of course, I go even further in my book, Diaphysics, and establish the fact that libertarian political beliefs most accurately reflect the evolution and structure of the universe as a whole,thus making it most deeply natural.

Philo writes:

If you define “political authority” as “a comprehensive, content-independent, supreme entitlement to coerce obedience from other people,” then of course no government nor any other entity possesses political authority. But some more qualified, limited definition would seem to be more appropriate.

As for commonsense morality, it is subject to the vague qualification that it holds only *in normal circumstances*. But *normally* we are interacting *under government*, which is at least quasi-authoritative. As Miguel puts it: “the non-aggression principle is almost nowhere found except in stable, well-structured, at least modestly wealthy societies.” It is not found elsewhere because people do not regard it as valid outside a context that is shaped by the presence of a government that is at least being widely treated as *authoritative*.

Ken B writes:

I don't want to get too far into this, not having read the book, but to expand on a point made by Greg G and Miguel: the whole point about heuristics, common sesne, common law ad hoc-ery is that it resists deductive logic. It is the embodiment of an awareness of the pretense of knowledge; there is always a big caveat 'in these circumstances, even small changes may matter, we won't know until we get there.' That's the great virtue of the common law. It's well known that if you take some garden variety common law precent and extrapolate wildly you get nonsense.

BZ writes:

Wow.. most of the critical comments thus far boil down to this:
1. Huemer says we ought not aggress against others.
2. Some people do, have and/or like to aggress against others.
3. Huemer is wrong, QED

Is/Ought fallacy much?

Addison Thiel writes:

Though I personally agree with huemer's beliefs and am a libertarian, the weakness of his argument lies in his “common sense” views, which I think are more complicated than one might assume. Yes people believe in the non-aggression principle, but I think many ALSO desire (more strongly) a framework for society which promotes equality of outcomes over equality of treatment. These can easily conflict. Especially if you would take a utilitarian view of society, which clearly CAN favor a significant amount of redistribution to reach an optimum level of overall utility due, to diminishing marginal utility of wealth. Because of this fact, people are willing to accept a certain amount of government authority, because they view the coercion to be less harmful than the overall gains of forcible redistribution. Thrown in the “veil of ignorance” perspective as well, and it's easy to see how someone might desire this kind of society and try to preserve it even if it is not in their current best interests (maybe they want it for their descendants?).

I think this all comes down to differences in values or priorities, and can be shown by looking at the statistics on the differing levels of female and male libertarians. Females are more compassionate on average than males, and therefore value more redistribution to help others (female economists are also markedly more left leaning than males in the profession). Common sense moral views for A LOT of people are such that they think it's ok to use government authority to forcibly redistribute for the overall good, ie. His third principle is disagreed with. To them, redistribution should be exempted from non-aggression principle, which they still value in general.

P.S. Since these values conflict, the best reason to counter this argument against libertarianism may just be in the evidence that it is probably more effective in promoting BOTH justice and utility, for example Bryan Caplan and Scott Beaulier's “Behavioral Economics and Perverse Effects of the Welfare State”
And I think this is also what John Stuart Mill advocated for as well.

Ken B writes:

BZ's syllogism completely misrepresents the criticism I have read above. A better reading is

1. Huemer asserts common sense morality implies we ought not aggress against others.
2. Some/most cultures do have a common sense morality that allows some actions Huemer would call aggression.
3. Huemer is wrong about what common sense morality really dictates, QED.

Brian writes:

While I applaud Huemer's attempt to begin with just a few clear and reasonable principles, he should begin with ones that are actually likely to be true. These are not it.

Working in reverse order:

iii) It's not clear why government should be treated approximately as a person. "the state may not do what it would be wrong for any non-governmental person or organization to do." Any potentially wrong action I take would be for my benefit only, or for a few around me. The same action taken by the state can benefit many more. And isn't the determination of what is "wrong" based on a cost/benefit analysis of some kind? Doesn't it matter that many more can benefit when the state acts?

ii) The government is coercive, yes, though many don't see it that way. But is coercion wrong? Or to put it another way, is coercion always wrong? If coercion is sometimes valid, doesn't that make state action valid? After all, when I stop my child from running into a busy street, I am being coercive, but it's the right thing to do, isn't it?

i) Ah yes, the "my right to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose" argument. Apart from the points made by earlier posters about whether this is really a common-sense principle, and putting aside a dubious case against coercion, the question still remains why anyone should accept "ethics" in the first place, much less one based on non-aggression. Sure, acceptance of some ethics is common sense, but why? This is not meant to be an esoteric question of the kind Bryan would reject. I doubt that any ethical or organizing system can be argued for without first understanding why anyone should care about ethics in the first place.

Greg G writes:


That is a strawman caricature. No one is saying that Huemer is wrong because some people will always choose aggression.

The criticisms are, that the ideas that Huemer calls "common sense" are neither common nor particularly sensible because they fail all historical tests for having ever worked.

Just because we can agree that the system that minimizes coercion and maximizes liberty is best, does not mean we will agree on what arrangements will best achieve that goal.

[commenter's name fixed by request--Econlib Ed.]

Thomas Boyle writes:

To my mind, the reason that libertarian societies don't exist is similar to the reason why communist societies don't exist: both ignore human nature. Communism ignores the fact that people don't do much when all the benefit goes to society at large. Libertarianism ignores the fact that, given the existence of large amounts of wealth being created by others, someone will try to steal it.

The question for libertarians is not to gain the moral support of others for our ideal society: it is to figure out structures that will limit the theft. As Puso pointed out, governments are just Mafias, writ large. They do what they do because they can; moral authority just moves the needle left or right a bit.

Given the ability to limit government excess, libertarianism can succeed or fail on its other merits. Without that, the experiment can't happen at all.

Thoughts, anyone?

Michael Huemer writes:

Comments on four matters:


Some of the above comments express (a) that humans are not rational, and/or (b) that historically, humans have often been aggressive. These seem to be intended as objections to something I am supposed to have said, though it is difficult for me to see how.

One interpretation is this:

1. People sometimes act irrationally or aggressively.
2. Therefore, irrationality and aggression are good (or at least not bad).

If that's the objection, I think it's missing a premise.

A perhaps more charitable interpretation is that Miguel, Hopaulius, et al. believe that I said that human beings never commit aggression, or that human beings are always perfectly rational. If so, I would simply clarify that I do not assert either of those things. My central theses in the book are normative, not descriptive. They are claims about how one _ought_ to behave.

Now, I didn't give an argument against attacking people at random, for no reason. So the whole book wouldn't be persuasive to someone who is in favor of random attacks. I'm fine with that; I'm not trying to persuade sociopaths.


@RPLong: I am not an absolutist in the usual sense of that word (e.g., someone who thinks that it is never permissible to violate someone's rights, no matter what the consequences). I view absolutism as indefensible, for reasons explained in another paper. So if you think my text somehow supports absolutism, I would be much obliged if you would explain why.


@Paul: I think you're raising a question that is discussed briefly in the book: if, as I contend, common sense morality conflicts with common sense political philosophy (sc., the belief in authority), why should we hold on to the former, rather than the latter? Briefly, my answer was fourfold:
a. Because ordinary morality is more widely shared than ordinary political philosophy.
b. Because, even among those who believe in authority, most are probably more confident of ordinary moral views than they are of ordinary political views.
c. Because, even for those who believe in authority, one can see how the idea of authority is puzzling and calls for an explanation, in a way that ordinary moral beliefs are not puzzling. But when we examine the leading proposed explanations, we find that they all fail.
d. In chapter 6, I give an account of how and why non-rational biases might be responsible for the widespread belief in authority.

Obviously, those points could stand more explanation, which I don't have time for here. See the book for more discussion.


@Miguel: If you're raising the common objection that an anarchist society would degenerate into constant violent conflict, see chapter 10. What I say there is similar to Friedman's and Rothbard's responses to the same objection, which essentially appeal to economic incentives to explain why protection agencies could be expected to resolve disputes peacefully in an anarcho-capitalist society. If you're not familiar with anarcho-capitalism, this won't mean anything to you, in which case you'll have to read Rothbard, Friedman, or myself for a basic exposition of the system.

Jonathan Monroe writes:

To give an obvious example, the Huemer-libertarian case against coercive taxation to fund the welfare state begins with the "common sense" belief that stealing from the rich to give to the poor is wrong.

In fact Robin Hood is a folk hero, not a folk villain. Common sense morality only forbids stealing from the rich because we understand that they got rich under broadly just institutions and that some kind of social good is achieved by allowing them to keep their after-tax income.

Even given today's welfare states, many of the soft-hearted Democrat-voting SWPLs who implement coercive redistribution believe that people who steal because they can't afford the name-brand trainers that their peers have are merely annoying, not evil.

The same applies to free speech as well. In pre-State societies, common-sense morality didn't forbid beating up a man who called you a poltroon - it required it.

Ken B writes:

@Michael Huemer:
What do you say to the objections raised about your reading of "common sesne morality". I take it these fall into several kinds

1. (Ken B) The partial and tentative nature of common sense systems, common law being an analogy, resist simple logical extrapolation. Contradictory extrapolations seem quite likely.
(This may also be Greg G's point).

2. Common sense morality varies considerably from culture to culture. Ancient Romans considered slavery and subordination to the pater familias common sense. Common sense in Saudi Arabia is a whole other topic.

3. Common sense morality pretty widely rejects your premise 3. Indeed it is an explicit principle of much Jewish thought that the one might be sacrificed for the group, as just one example.

3. Common sense morality usually countenances some forms of aggression.

RPLong writes:

Mr. Huemer,

Thanks very much for the reply. It could be that I don't understand your argument well enough because I am only really able to comment on what is excerpted by Caplan, above. If this is the source of the misunderstanding, I apologize.

My experience is that those who disagree with us libertarians are more inclined to argue for occasional deviations in any of the above premises than they are to object to them outright: (1) Others have mentioned that they may support occasional aggression. (2) Many people in my experience reject the classification of government action as "coercive" if its authority is established via a democratic mechanism. (3) Many, many people who are skeptical of Authority X are not at all skeptical of Authority Y, as in the case of a person who distrusts George W. Bush, but readily accepts the authority of the family doctor.

So, to sum up, you seem to take your premises as absolutes. I agree with you, but I think non-libertarians would be more inclined to see your premises as being less-absolute that you and I see them.

For what it's worth, I am a bit of a moral absolutist, so I don't count this as a mark against you.

Miguel writes:

Wow, it's pretty awesome that Huemer was here!

About that: one of the merits of Huemer's book and argumentative strategy is that it's not supposed to require a committment to abnormal moral beliefs. Rather, he's claiming to justify some admittedly abnormal political beliefs as following from humdrum, common sense moral beliefs. But that only works if those moral beliefs are in fact common, and I'm saying that they are not.

He's free to say, of course, 'I'm stipulating as a normative assumption that one ought not aggress towards others,' but again that only works for him, argumentatively, if people agree with it. Most people around the world today and through human history have assumed that they have all sorts of reason to interfere in the business of others, aggressively if need be. It's only a peculiar moral norm that developed in modern, modestly wealthy, relatively safe and predictable societies that the best way to live is to live and let live, and that this is the baseline assumption, deviation from which needs to be justified. I'll say it again, most humans think it perfectly acceptable and necessary to get all up in the bizness of others, even aggressively.

For example: let me tweak his opening scenario a bit (from his book). Instead of me going out and rounding up criminals and then demanding money in return for a service I haven't been asked to perform, suppose that me and several other young men in the group go hunting and warmaking and bring the spoils home so that the women, children and elders can eat and have stuff. They didn't ask us to do this. We just did. Now suppose one of those women says, 'I didn't ask you to do that, and I have no interest in mending your clothes while your out doing this unbid favor.' Given this scenario, most humans, throuough most of history, would have thought the young men perfectly within their rights, and maybe evern as obliged to, punish the woman and demand recomenpse, etc. It's only us who, eg., assume from the start without much thought that of course it's not right to try to force someone to pay for something they never expressly agreed to in the first place.

Micheal DE writes:

What about people who don't think it's common sense wrong to murder others? There may not be too many living in the US right now but do I really need to delve into history to find counter-examples?

There are many times and places in which most people think it's only unequivocally wrong to murder their family/friends/national group. And even then you will find a lot of people who think it's ok to "murder" (in their terms, execute) people for doing things that you would not regard as coercive, like marrying someone of another religion or committing adultery. Lesser crimes like theft and common assault will have even more widely accepted cultural exceptions.

This seems more like an advertising pitch for libertarianism than a comprehensive moral theory, and one that needs special circumstances to succeed.

I don't deny it's a good ad pitch for the time and place in which you and he happen to live, though.

James A. Donald writes:

Thomas Boyle writes:
> Libertarianism ignores the fact that, given the existence of large amounts of wealth being created by others, someone will try to steal it.

In recent times private security has been one sidedly and ridiculously better than government provided security, for example in dealing with Somali pirates, the occupy movement, and leftist terrorism in the aftermath of the Chick-a-file incident. It is not remotely close.

There is a reason why the Pentagon hires Blackwater.

And government security gets worse and worse, as for example its amazingly impotent performance during the recent British riots.

Hence the frequent accusation, particularly in Britain in the aftermath of the British riots, that the present system is anarcho tyranny. Everything is illegal (the tyranny) except for crime which is effectively legal (the anarchy)

Thomas Boyle writes:

James A. Donald writes:

In recent times private security has been one sidedly and ridiculously better than government provided security, for example in dealing with Somali pirates, the occupy movement, and leftist terrorism in the aftermath of the Chick-a-file incident.

James, while I don't disagree with your observation, I think you miss my point, which is that government (in general) is not in the business of protecting us from pirates. It is in the business of being the pirates. Of course, it tries to monopolize piracy, shutting down all the other pirates. There are other examples: the state governments have forcibly monopolized the numbers racket, for example.

My point is this: there will always be - and have always been - pirates. The strongest will try to monopolize piracy within some dominion. That pirate, we will call "government". A simplistic libertarian, or anarcho-capitalist society will fail when the biggest pirate, or security firm, turns itself into a government. In that sense, simplistic libertarianism is as utopian as communism: both ignore real human nature.

In my view, our best hope at liberty is to, somehow, control and/or co-opt the government. There is no stable solution without government.

Tom E. Snyder writes:

"There is no stable solution without government."

I would argue, as does this cartoon, the opposite.

Chris writes:

I didn't take Miguel as saying that it's common sense to kill at random, but that most societies have thought it common sense to allow aggression - sometimes lethal, sometimes not - under many circumstances. Government is one of them. Subjugation of women and children is another.

Even if we could agree on the non-aggression principle for bodily harm, most would not agree on an expansive non aggression principle for property. Without a controversial Lockean or Randian type argument that your property is comparable to your body, I think non libertarians (or proprietarians, as I once heard them called) will read your book believing what they started.

Chris writes:

Additionally, if we don't need to persuade sociopaths, the prudent predator problem for egoists goes away.

Thomas Boyle writes:

Tom E. Snyder,

I watched the cartoon. It says that government is a parasite, not a wise maker of rules, etc., etc., etc. It then asks if we are really so stupid as to think it is necessary to allow people to steal from and enslave the population, just in case someone else might do so. It suggests we would be better off without government.

My point is not that I think government is necessary. No-one need think it is necessary - all that is required that some ruthless people should realize it is possible. My point is that I haven't seen anyone explain how to stop it.

Michael Huemer writes:

Thanks to everyone for all the comments. I can only respond to a few of the many points above.

I mentioned three premises of libertarianism:
1. A non-aggression principle.
2. The coercive nature of government.
3. Skepticism about authority.

⋅ I do not say that all these are common sense. I said that #1 is common sense, that #2 is just true, and that #3 is where most people disagree with libertarianism. There are 134 pages defending #3.
⋅ #1 does not say that no one should ever coerce anyone. It says one should not coerce others without having a good reason. By stipulation, the principle allows all the sorts of reasons that are accepted in common sense morality (self-defense, consent, defense of third party, etc.)
⋅ I’m not trying to convince everyone in the world. E.g., my book wouldn’t be persuasive to:
a. People from primitive, aggressive tribes such as the Yanomamo.
b. Sociopaths such as Ted Bundy.
c. Utilitarians.
I’m okay with that.
I didn’t address utilitarianism because a single book can’t refute every ethical theory that any philosopher has devised, and also talk about political authority and anarchism. I decided to do the latter two topics.
I didn’t address myself to the Yanomamo or the Ted Bundy’s of the world, because I don’t take them seriously as candidates for having the correct views. My interest is practical; I didn’t want to engage in purely intellectual games such as “see if you can refute the skeptic”. Now, if someone wants to talk about how we know that Ted Bundy isn’t right, or that it wouldn’t be better to engage in constant slaughter like some primitive tribes, I’m just not interested in discussing that.
⋅ What, then, am I interested in discussing? Authority, and anarchism. That’s what the book is about. The first part is about how people have tried to defend the idea of authority, sc. the authority of the state, and why these attempts fail. The second part is about how an anarchic society could work.

@RPLong (is this Rod Long?): Here’s why I’m not an absolutist:
(1) I agree, coercion is sometimes justified. I accept all the same exceptions that are accepted in ordinary, common sense ethics.
(2) For me, “coercion” is something of a technical term. I use it to mean the actual use of or threat to use violence. It doesn’t matter if this is the use of “coercion” in ordinary English. Call it “schmoercion” if you like. But there’s no doubt that the government does it.
(3) I’m not saying that no one has any kind of authority. I’m not even saying political authority is impossible. I’m just saying that, in actual fact, no state has political authority. And I’m not saying that as an ultimate starting point; that’s the conclusion of the first 6 chapters of argumentation.

@Thomas B:
I don’t think libertarians ignore the fact that people will try to steal wealth. I think libertarians are specifically responding to that fact. The governmental system is great at stealing and wasting lots of money. The anarcho-capitalist system is intended to reduce the amount of theft.
You said that the anarcho-capitalist system is unstable and will inevitably devolve into government. Why? Others have made similar claims (Robert Nozick, Tyler Cowen, George Klosko), which I address in section 10.10. If your reasons are similar to theirs, you might look at that section.

I didn’t include a general defense of property rights in the book. But I would make two observations:
a. Most people agree that you shouldn’t rob people or destroy their property (again, under normal circumstances). One doesn’t have to claim, implausibly, that stealing is as bad as injuring someone.
b. Anyway, even if you suppose that there are no property rights, that’s not going to help you defend governmental authority. So then it might be permissible to “steal” other people’s “property”, if you can do it without hurting them. That’s going to make it permissible for individuals to “steal” the government’s “property” too. Meanwhile, it won’t explain why people would be obligated to send the government money, or why the government can arrest people (using threats of violence) and lock them in prison for failing to give it money.

Thanks again to everyone for the discussion. Sorry if I didn’t respond to your favorite point, but time is limited.

Ken writes:

I'm working my way though Huemer's book now and find it refreshing for the point's Bryan makes here.

As to some comments about what seems to be the utopian nature of his approach to anarchy and the NAP/Nature of Government/skepticism about authority: I think he does a good job of addressing it.

I also think, though it's insightful to look to the past for guidance on the feasibility of say the NAP, which can cause a true believer to doubt his anarchistic values, I'd suggest those who feel that way to read Pinker's book on the historical decline in violence (Better Angels of Our Nature).

It shows empirically and through reasoned argument that classical liberal ideas like free markets and free minds have led to the decline in one-on-one and interstate violence.

So maybe, just maybe we can look to the future for people to naturally embrace the NAP, etc. If not, I'll just hang on to the belief that I was part of a movement that was on the right side of history....

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