Bryan Caplan  

The Problem of Political Authority by Michael Huemer

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I've read almost every major work of libertarian political philosophy ever published.  In my view, Michael Huemer's new The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey is the best book in the genre.

What's so great about it?  Simple: Huemer scrupulously reasons from widely shared moral premises to surprising conclusions.  There's no question begging, no obscurantism, and no bullet biting.  The book begins by pointing out that if a private individual acted like a government, almost everyone would consider his behavior immoral.  He then charitably considers all the major attempts to defend this asymmetry.

If you've had a standard philosophical upbringing, Huemer's position will initially confuse you.  Is he a consequentialist, ready to abandon his principles if the latest cost-benefit analysis is slightly less favorable than expected?  No.  Is he a deontologist, loyal to his principles no matter what happens?  No again.  Instead, Huemer holds to the common-sense position that we should follow ordinary moral principles unless there is a strong reason to do otherwise.

In section 5.4.2, for example, Huemer considers a "lifeboat" argument for government coercion.  Suppose the only way to save the passengers on a boat is to point a gun at their heads and order them to bail water?  Huemer accepts the view that threatening coercion in this scenario would be morally justified.  If government coercion were analogous, he would support that as well.  But how often is real-world government action actually analogous?
Your entitlement to coerce is highly specific and content-dependent: it depends upon your having a correct (or at least well-justified) plan for saving the boat, and you may coerce others only to induce cooperation with that plan.  More precisely, you must at least be justified in believing that the expected benefits of coercively imposing your plan on the others are very large and much larger than the expected harms.  You may not coerce others to induce harmful or useless behaviors or behaviors designed to serve ulterior purposes unrelated to the emergency.  For instance, if you display your firearm and order everyone to start scooping water into the boat, you are acting wrongly - and similarly if you use the weapon to force the others to pray to Poseidon, lash themselves with belt, or hand over $50 to your friend Sally...

If, therefore, we rely upon cases like this to account for the state's right to coerce or violate the property rights of its citizens, the proper conclusion is that the state's legitimate powers must be highly specific and content-dependent: the state may coerce individuals only in the minimal way necessary to implement a correct (or at least well-justified) plan for protecting society from the sorts of disasters that would allegedly result from anarchy.  The state may not coerce people into cooperating with harmful or useless measures or measures we lack good reason to consider effective.  Nor may the state extend the exercise of coercion to pursue just any goal that seems desirable.  The state may take the 'indispensable goods' that justify its existence.  It may not take a little extra to buy itself something nice.
The second part of TPPA draws heavily on economics, game theory, psychology, and international relations to argue that, empirically, the special conditions that would morally justify the existence of government often do not hold.  Anarcho-capitalism is probably workable in a wide range of conditions, and in such conditions, it is morally required.  The same holds for pacifism (at least as I use the word). 

Axiomatic libertarians will probably think that Huemer makes many dangerous concessions to statism.  But that is essential to his project: Building a political philosophy on common-sense morality.  Since common-sense morality admits exceptions, so does Huemer.  At the same time, however, he argues that these exceptions are so narrow that they are often unimportant in the real world - and habitually abused by governments to rationalize their misdeeds.

There are definitely more persuasive works of libertarian political philosophy than TPPAAtlas Shrugged and For a New Liberty immediately come to mind.  Why are they more persuasive?  Because they decorate their weak, question-begging moral arguments with inspiring poetry.  While TPPA is extremely well-written, its arguments appeal solely to the intellect.  The cover is apt: Huemer reasons like a chess grandmaster, consistently thinking several moves ahead of his critics.  If people could learn "how to think" by reading a book, this is that book.  Buy it now, and read it without delay.

P.S. I discussed Huemer's draft a year ago here and here



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Tom E. Snyder writes:
If, therefore, we rely upon cases like this to account for the state's right to coerce or violate the property rights of its citizens, the proper conclusion is that the state's legitimate powers must be highly specific and content-dependent: the state may coerce individuals only in the minimal way necessary to implement a correct (or at least well-justified) plan for protecting society from the sorts of disasters that would allegedly result from anarchy. The state may not coerce people into cooperating with harmful or useless measures or measures we lack good reason to consider effective.

That is what the Constitution was written to do. We can see how well that has turned out.

Julien Couvreur writes:

Who's boat is this? Who is the captain? How did passengers get onboard?

Paul writes:

"almost everyone would consider his behavior immoral"

Yeah, but almost everyone is way to lazy to think carefully anyways, so I am not sure how much weight we should give these arguments. Especially since how almost everyone feels is more important than what they think, and feelings don't have to be in any way logically consistent, because we are social primates.

I wonder what Larry Arnhart would have to say about the book, however. Or a good primatologist like Frans de Waal.

Alex Salter writes:

I am reading the book now and am greatly enjoying it. However, I am worried by the many appearances of phrases such as "strong enough", "sufficiently large", "strong reason to do otherwise", etc. These qualifiers are sufficiently vague that they give one plausible room not to consider the argument or update in any way. While acknowledging the shortcomings of Rand and Rothbard, their in-your-face arguments force you to take another look at your priors as well as the chains of logic you think support your conclusions. With the usual caveats about not wanting to be right for the wrong reasons, do you think this book is sufficiently stimulating in getting people to reevaluate their fundamental beliefs?

Chris H writes:

@Julien Couvreur

I'm not sure those questions are particularly relevant to what Huemer's trying to do. A hard natural rights stance might hold that as long as the boat owner is not under any kind of contractual obligations to the passengers and they voluntarily came on his ship he could order them to do whatever as long as they chose to stay aboard (and not drown). But Huemer's not taking that kind of stance. That he still comes to an-cap conclusions however intrigues me.

Peter St. Onge writes:

@ Julien,

I sympathize with you point, but it won't win the masses. Not for nothing did the bad guys fight so hard for public education. Now we got a 3-generations of indoctrination hole to dig out of, and common sense stands a better chance than Lockean property.

Zachary writes:

Loose vague and indeterminate has a long history in liberal thought. There is not an axiomatic set of rules. Moral evaluation is a framework which guides the thoughts through the unique contexts. I've not read the book, but I trust Caplan's word enough to give Huemer as much benefit of the doubt as I can prior to having read the book. TMS, after all, has similar characteristics...

Michael Huemer writes:

Brief comments:

@Tom S: Yes, I discuss the limitations of constitutions in a later chapter (sec. 9.4.8).

@Julien C: Not sure what you're getting at. Are you thinking that maybe if the boat is owned by someone who doesn't want it to be saved from sinking, then it becomes impermissible to save it? (I don't think so.) Or perhaps if the boat is owned by someone who wants to impose all sorts of anti-libertarian rules, then it becomes permissible to impose those rules? If so, then we'd have to talk about whether the state actually owns all the land.

@Paul: Well, the remark was in the context of a thought like this: Look, you non-libertarian. You think it's wrong for anyone else to do X. So why do you think it's ok for the state to do X? It seems that if there's no good answer to that, then the non-libertarian should change their position.

@Alex S: It would be desirable to have precise accounts of what is "strong enough", etc., but unfortunately, I think we just don't have them. You are right to be concerned about whether the theories will become unfalsifiable, or at least resistant to falsification, due to the use of such flexible language. Perhaps it helps a little to be reminded that even though these phrases are flexible, they don't make the theory that contains them unfalsifiable. For example, I say that you can violate someone's rights if (but only if) there are "sufficiently large" harms to be avoided by doing so. This claim could be falsified (on my methodology) if someone could think of a right such that it would, intuitively, be wrong to violate that right even if an infinite amount of harm would be prevented by doing so. My view would also be falsified if (again, intuitively) we found it acceptable to violate a right (solely) in order to prevent some harm that was itself only *slightly* worse than (or equally bad as, or even less bad than) the harm involved in the rights-violation itself. That is, there is still room for intuitive data to contradict theoretical claims that are couched in this flexible language.

Paul writes:

@ Huemer

My point is really that thought isn't so important, because we did not evolve to think, except maybe instrumentally and only occasionally at that. When people say that they "think its wrong for anyone else to do X," they are just talking out their ---, as their actions manifestly indicate that they really are okay with it. Who hasn't been in a fist fight over something stupid? Did you really believe you were in the wrong? I think most people are deep down, in their emotions, okay with violence so long as the violence is not used against their own interests. Which isn't something people will say in public, or even believe about themselves, because we are all very good hypocrites in order to maintain a positive self image.

I also realize, having not read your book yet, that this might be a polemical book, not a descriptive book, in which case I guess I am just complaining about the intellectual aesthetics of the book, where the point of the book is to convince a certain sort of reader to reconsider their priors. My priors: I think the use of violence to dominate others is perfectly acceptable, always has been and always will be so long as we are human. Those who are on the receiving end won't like it, but they would surely change their tune if they held the reins of power.

Joshua Harris writes:

Looks like an interesting book! Quick question:

Does this version of intuitionism presuppose a sort of egalitarianism regarding the capacities of all individuals to make good political decisions? It seems like I might be rational to accept someone's decision to coerce even if I wouldn't--that is, if she has demonstrated that she is politically savvy, a virtuous leader, etc. Maybe the analogy would run like this: As someone who has no idea how cars work, I would never let anyone tinker around under the hood of my car if my rationale for such a decision were my own limited faculties. She might break something because, well ... I probably would!

But perhaps you think that political knowledge and car knowledge are fundamentally different?

I hope that tracks the argument somewhat. Cheers!

Micke writes:

No Kindle version? How come?

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