Bryan Caplan  

The Problem of Political Authority: Huemer Takes Your Questions

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By now, I assume that everyone has read Michael Huemer's The Problem of Political Authority cover-to-cover.  Well, almost everyone.  Mike has generously agreed to field EconLog readers' questions.  Please post them in the comments, and he'll respond in a separate post in a few days.

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COMMENTS (47 to date)
Bryan Caplan writes:

I'll start. Mike, how can you make such a simple argument seem so awesome?

Daniel Carlen writes:


You begin your book by asking how are typical means of coercion and theft distinguished from political authority, but to me this begs the question why does authority arise in spite of this complication? Why has political authority become so popular and widespread that every person in the world answers to some government or other?

david writes:

My question on private defence agency equilibria was in the previous post.

I'd like to toss in another:

Modern liberal democracies typically have a norm that political protesters wielding clearly non-lethal force may disrupt or occupy as much private or public property as they can, without being met with lethal force. Even jurisdictions with castle-defence doctrines do not permit lethal force if there is no imminent peril. Thus, if the state's law enforcement cannot figure out how to remove them without resorting to such force, then the disruption is just tolerated, no matter how costly to property.

This norm is usually considered appealing, as far as I know: contentions that political protesters should be shot are a little off-putting. Tolerating such protest sits well with some varieties of anarchism (those that do not consider property destruction as violence), but doesn't have any obvious compatibility with propretarian outlooks, much less one with unconstrained private defence. Does Prof. Huemer think that this norm is likely to be sustainable as a social or market outcome, under anarchocapitalism?

If so, doesn't it obviously favour large bureaucratic organizations that can mobilize ideologically dedicated supporters? In short, it enables mass politics and restores their authority over property.

If not, then, well, shooting protesters? Really?

david writes:

(nonviolent resistance is mentioned in the book - it's in chapter 12 - but it's limited to the context of resistance to state tyranny! There seems no acknowledgement of the inverse ability of domestic mass politics to trump propertarian claims*. Yet this is the genesis of the modern welfare and labour-regulatory state: general strikes and mass disregard for contractual claims)

* and the discussion of foreign invaders has a huge survivorship bias problem... etc. etc. I don't think I'm going to change any minds here, though, if GMU's finest failed to convince each other.

Taylor Davidson writes:

Thank you Dr. Huemer for a great book and this opportunity to engage!

Thank you Dr. Caplan for earlier on mentioning Mike's work which allowed me to recognize his name and get myself to the workshop when he came to Tucson! Your little random tweets / Facebook posts do matter to us all out here in the world!


I was curious if you had thought any further on the reality of fear as a base cause for some legitimate coercive governance.

For instance in your opening example (if it hasn't been significantly changed from manuscript) you concluded that reasonable people would NOT find the vigilante mob to be justified in their actions. I actually think some level of fear would very well lead the neighbors to justify, ex post, the actions of the mob and be willing to pay tribute/expenses. I think human history, and our tendency to accept dictators who bring an end to chaos, supports that.

I think that the justification of fear has a very limited scope, but could lead to a real legitimacy for coercive action at some very foundational level in the general populace of a society.

It may be a chicken/egg question, but can voluntary society emerge unbidden or is there a need for order to be established at some very minimal level before voluntary society can begin to grow?

I think a pragmatic look at history shows possibly only evidence of the latter, which would lead me to believe that some force (if only to restrain against the use of aggressive physical coercive violence) may be a necessary prerequisite for the subsequent flourishing of a voluntary/market society.


rapscallion writes:

Is a landlord who demands that his tenants pay rent and obey other rules regarding morality and lifestyle—on pain of imprisonment and/or banishment—behaving coercively? If not, why is a state that makes similar demands of its citizens coercive?

Sean writes:

Dr. Huemer,

I asked something like this privately, but I've given the whole thing some more thought and want to press a different angle.

So, I wonder if our intuitions about your water-bailing case might be better explained as an instance of our duty to aid others in serious need and not, as you claim in the book, an obligation of fairness arising from mere receipt of benefits.

It seems clear to me that the cases Nozick provides in 'Anarchy' generate no such obligation (and I know you agree). So what is different about water-bailing? Perhaps it is that one is being provided with a very great benefit or the satisfaction of a need (as opposed to a mere want). But suppose we modify Nozick's book throwing case slightly:

Proud Starvin' Marvin: Starvin' Marvin is in desperate need of food, but he is too proud to actively seek it out. Smith, meanwhile, gets his exercise by throwing food into people's homes, one of which is Marvin's. Marvin eats the food.

It seems to me that Marvin is no more obligated to Smith than he would be if Smith had thrown a book instead, despite the fact that the food, like being kept from drowning, could be fairly characterized as fulfilling a need or providing a very great benefit.

The upshot, I think, is that if all of this is correct things work out better for the philosophical (and political) anarchist since something like Simmons' account concedes less to the fairness theorist (i.e., does not concede that sometimes mere benefit is sufficient).

Sean writes:

Oh, one more quickie if I might:

Did you consider addressing associative accounts of political obligation (Dworkin, Horton)? Did you decide against it for the same sort of reason you dropped Gauthier?


Vipul Naik writes:

I'm going to focus on the part where you argue that not only are we not ethically obligated to obey the law, but that it is generally morally good to disobey unjust laws, whether covertly or overtly. This is a very small part of your book, and not central to your argument. On the other hand, it's also the part that is probably the most relevant in terms of how the book might actually affect the actions of an individual reader who is not in a position of power or authority. Hence, my focus on this area.

I'll just state my points of disagreement, rather than formulate my comment as a series of questions, because it's easier that way, but I'd like to hear your reaction.

==Breaking the law and the risk to others dealing with you==

If there is a non-negligible probability of your lawbreaking being discovered, and this could lead to penalties for you, this is a risk not only to you, but to all the other people to whom you have contractual or other ethical obligations. For instance, if you're a single parent of an infant, unnecessarily risking getting arrested means that you place your infant's welfare in jeopardy. If you have agreed to do a job or complete an assignment, putting yourself at risk of arrest to break an unjust law (e.g., a law against drug use) means that you are also putting at risk your employers or people who have given you the assignment.

Now, if these people are aware of the legal risk you're running by using drugs or breaking whatever unjust law you're breaking, and are fine with it, that's okay. But most lawbreaking is secretive in nature, so I would argue that if you are breaking the law in a manner that puts you at risk of penalties, you are ethically obligated to disclose it to any parties to whom your contractual or ethical obligations may go unfulfilled as a result, and to proceed with the "illegal" activity only after receiving their consent.

The question of what constitutes a "reasonable" probability of your law-breaking being discovered is a tricky question, and ultimately one where one's ethical judgments need to play a role.

==When in doubt, obey the law==

Relatedly, you argue that the thumb rule "when in doubt, obey the law" is problematic, because the law may be unjust. However, your language here seems to suggest that there are only two alternatives: the morally right/desirable, and the morally wrong/undesirable. In practice, there are usually three alternatives: (a) the morally right/desirable, (b) the morally neutral, (c) the morally wrong/undesirable.

In most cases, the uncertainty revolves around (a) versus (b) or (b) versus (c). It's quite rare to have situations where the uncertainty pits (a) against (c). Thus, "when in doubt, obey the law" is a reasonable rule of thumb to follow in many of the (a) versus (b) or the (b) versus (c) scenarios.

For instance, suppose you are uncertain about whether a law against marijuana consumption is ethical. Your doubt regarding marijuana consumption is whether it is (b) morally neutral or (c) morally wrong/undesirable (even if you believe (c), you may still consider the law unjust, but that's a different story). Following an ethical precautionary principle, you may be more tempted to refrain from marijuana consumption. Suppose, however, that you do not believe in ethical precautionary principles. In that case, the fear of punishment may make you comply with the law, and doing so is not immoral at all because the uncertainty was regarding whether marijuana consumption is morally neutral or undesirable.

On the other hand, there are rare situations that pit (a) against (c) -- for instance, participation in violence billed as necessary to prevent greater violence -- where your argument works as you state it -- "when in doubt, obey the law" simply fails as a thumb rule. The stakes are too high. Tellingly, that's the example you use, but it's a very atypical example in terms of the laws for which the question of whether or not to comply looms large in our day-to-day lives.

Javier H writes:

I have less of a question and more of an objection. Here's my objection: I think you need a justification of natural rights to property. In the absence of this justification, many of your arguments, such as your arguments against extensive state redistribution, will not succeed. But you do not provide this justification.

When you discuss redistribution, you argue (in a nutshell) that it is wrong to steal from people in order to benefit other people, unless this theft would prevent something truly bad from happening (I don't have the book in front of me, so this is from memory). But this argument presupposes that you are entitled to your property. After all, if you lack a moral right to your property, then there is little objection to taking it from you.

Consider an analogy. Imagine that I find a pile of money in the woods. If I took this money, I would give it to charity and this would greatly benefit some people who are needy. But you also happen to be wandering through the woods and see the money too. Neither of us have rights to this money. But suppose I also know for sure that you won't give any of this money to charity if you take it--you will just spend it on yourself. There doesn't seem to be a very strong objection to forcibly taking the money here. After all, you have no claim to it and I will do something good with this money (even if you don't find this example persuasive, there are probably other ones that can illustrate the point--imagine that manna falls from heaven and I know you won't help the poor if you have it, etc).

Some liberal egalitarians think that property rights are like this. People do not have any rights to their property, or at least their pre-tax income. Moreover, these egalitarians have the following empirical hypothesis: if the state refrains from redistributing income, the poor will be much worse off because rich people won't still won't give much of their money to help the poor. Suppose that this hypothesis is true. If it is true, then it seems like we have a good argument for redistribution. The rich lack rights to their income and the state has a good justification for taking it away--this money is necessary to help the needy.

Of course, if people do have rights to their income, then it would likely be wrong for the state to take it away (alternatively, the empirical hypothesis could be wrong). But you do not argue for the view that people have rights to their property. In fact, you claim that your argument is correct even if Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel are right that people lack rights to their pre-tax income. But I don't see why this is true.

Michael Wiebe writes:

Professor Huemer, what's your take on Christopher Wellman's samaritan theory of political obligation?

Dave writes:

I really liked the book and I agree with most of it, especially the first part. (I'm very sympathetic to anarcho-capitalist ideas, for more or less the reasons you explain so well in part 1, but I think building new institutions is very challenging, because no one can predict the equilibrium in advance)

Please pick and choose however you like if some of my questions are more interesting than others!

0. You're probably sick of hearing this, but I wish there were a way to get the book to a larger audience, and the price seems like at least one obstacle. How much would it cost to make the e-book available free or pay-what-you-want?

1. Have you gotten many people with different (i.e. conventional) political viewpoints to engage with you? If forced to pick a point in your argument to dispute, where do most people decide to get off the bus?

2. To play devil's advocate: Is your psychological explanation of the common intuition of political authority in danger of explaining too much? Once one has accepted that this particular moral principle is just a rationalization of submission to authority for instinctual or prudential reasons, it's easy to wonder how much of "common sense morality" has the same origin: some type of behavior is condemned by your parents|society|state|religion, you avoid it out of fear or guilt, and then you rationalize it as a moral principle (or accept the rationalizations provided by others) to explain your behavior. After all, the state wants you to feel guilty about private robbery just as it wants you to feel guilty about not paying taxes. And different societies had/have very different moral beliefs (about slavery, women, war, blasphemy, etc) and it is not too hard to look at this as caused by, rather than merely causing, their different "policies" on these subjects. At the end of this road I guess is moral nihilism (yuck) and/or a justification of the use of coercion in order to instill "better" moral attitudes in the next generation (double yuck)

3. In part 2, aren't you ignoring a large class of aggressive threats in between individual criminals and states with a goal of conquering territory? Modern states with big militaries and a global network of defense obligations make large scale "plunder" unprofitably costly -- and therefore not a daily concern for their subjects -- but an anarchist society, *especially* a global one, probably needs some level of deterrence against the formation of organizations able to overpower a small security firm for the purpose of robbing or enslaving its customers (and these organizations will have some kind of competing ideology; they probably won't *call* themselves criminals)

4. On the other hand, why are you so pessimistic about the capacity of an anarchist society to make (defensive) war? Why wouldn't a mature private defense industry, without the incentive or information problems of government, be more efficient and effective than state militaries? Why is "defense" any more of a public good than "security", when an attacker (especially a mid-sized plunderer) can choose to target would-be free riders to avoid retaliation, and when people are generally willing to *overpay* for protection against hyperbolic threats? (It's a dangerous world! But when you hire Joe's Security to protect your family against criminals, you also receive -- at no extra charge -- a $10 million indemnity against acts of war through ACME Defense. Futures markets place the cost to an attacker of defeating ACME and its reinsurers at $839 billion!) Of course, if you accept that something like this would probably happen, you have to address concerns about natural monopoly or cartelization in the *defense* industry, where the natural firm size might be larger than in the *security* industry.

5. Is there any particular reason that you don't mention any form of experimental community (e.g. charter cities) in your chapter on incremental steps? It seems to me that such proposals are relatively politically feasible by the (very low) standards of anarchist ideas, and very promising especially if you don't believe that a working set of anarchist institutions is obvious or automatic, so that we may have to try and fail lots of times before creating a superior society.

John Roccia writes:

Dr. Huemer, thank you for an amazing book and the opportunity to discuss it.

Question 1: How much are you paying Bryan Caplan to be your PR man? I kid, I kid. But it's high praise to you - he REALLY pushed this book.

Question 2 (For Real): In TPPA, you discuss many of the common rationalizations for political authority. However, one came to my mind that was not discussed (likely because it's not relevant in the modern world): The Divine Right of Kings.

Hear me out - I'm not crazy.

While the modern world certainly no longer considers the Divine Right of Kings to be a justification of authority, it's worth noting that for much of human history, this is a large part of why rulers ruled. From the Chinese "Mandate of Heaven" to the Pharaohs' rule as god-king, all the way through the Protestant Reformation, the Divine Right was seen as a very justifiable position. It's only in the last 500 or so years that this was even questioned. And even today, there are many people who believe that America is "God's Country" and that we're the superpower we are because of this. Now, I certainly don't ascribe to such a thing, but to this day, there's many that do believe their version of "divine right of kings" (and is the modern human's faith in government so different from his/her faith in divinity? We can only hope such faith follows a similar path into greater and greater irrelevance).

So here's my actual question: If you were speaking with someone who was very devout in their religion/faith, and believed in this modern version of "divine right of kings," what would be your argument against this authority - WITHOUT trying to disprove or dismiss their faith or religion itself? Or would you consider even attempting so a complete waste of time - and if so, why?

Thanks again, Dr. Huemer - and keep up the good work!

- John Roccia

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

I also think that the theory of property should be elaborated. Property is something one is entitled to, by definition. Otherwise, it is not a property but merely a possession.

The relation of property to arguments should be elaborated. Property is a right, and a right is a conclusion to a series of arguments, ultimately to the moral premise that a man must eat by the sweat of his labor.

Thus how property emerges and makes sense in the context of state of laws needs to be made clear.

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

we'd have to talk about whether the state actually owns all the land.

Usually we talk about national territories and not properties or ownerships. Is this usage significant?
How does the nation of USA hold on to its territory?
By armed force, I would say.
How does an individual within USA hold on to his property?
By the laws of the USA. Any dispute between different individuals is subjected to the Courts of law and judged on the basis of arguments put forward by the claimants.
While the dispute for territory between two nations is not and can not be ultimately settled by arguments, there being no Court of law over them and no common law to adjudge between them, and the dispute is ultimately settled by force.

Thus territory is related to holding a possession by force and property to holding a possession by arguments. The arguments require a space of shared premises and that space we may call the state of laws.

David writes:

You end up being reasonably tolerant of the fair play objection, arguing that if

i) a good is being produced
ii) others are bearing the cost
iii) you benefit
iv) your participation would help
v) the costs are reasonable
vi) the opportunity cost is not too great

then you should contribute.

Later on, you argue that coercion is only justified if it is necessary, but that it is not necessary, because private defense agencies could work. But it seems the fair play argument isn't disrupted by the existence of another plan that (might) work better. Certainly none of the premises (opportunity cost notwithstanding, but it refers only to private opportunity cost) forbid this.

Ben Southwood writes:

This is actually a question to you, Prof. Caplan: what in the book's account of political authority is not in M.B.E. Smith's widely-cited 1973 Yale Law Journal article "Is there a prima facie obligation to obey the law?"

eccdogg writes:

Only half through the book but two questions came up.

1) Like others I think there needs to be an accounting for property rights. In particular when you discuss the social contract theory and how it fails on historical accuracy. I agree that it fails that test, but don't individual property rights also fail that test? We don't rightfully own our land any more than the State.

2) What do your arguments imply for working for the state. If a mafia boss stole money from people would I be right in accepting his ill gotten money to say be his plumber? How does that logic not apply to working for the State?

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Dr. Huemer,

Your work has driven me back to cf. The Calculus of Consent and Gordon Tullock's much more difficult prose for the political aspects of the human relationships conducted through the mechanisms of governments.

On the philosophical aspects of those relationships (so conducted), I am still searching for your observations on "consent" to authority, or individual and group assumption of obligations (presumably for some reciprocal benefit), that predicates the acceptance of,or acquiescence in, delegation of that power via representation.

Frankly, I think such "representation" or the function of that notion is a myth.

But, somewhere we have to "fit in" this concept that the authority is that of ourselves, acting through representatives, coercing ourselves.

Could you address the errors of that concept of representation as you did others in dealing with the Authority of Democracy.

Eric Hanneken writes:

Professor Huemer,

The book predicts that protection agencies would be geographically situated (e.g. a home owners' association would hire one to protect its residents' property, or a business would hire one to protect its office). Some laws would be selected by the property owner, and the rest would be created by arbitrators.

In contrast, if my memory is correct, David Friedman's Machinery of Freedom predicts (not confidently) that each person would choose his own protection agency. Law would be created partly by the agencies themselves, and partly through negotiations between each agency. Sometimes two people would agree on a set of independently created laws prior to doing business. Why do you think this is less likely?

I think that Friedman's predicted system would make it easier to travel. I would always be protected by the same agency, wherever I went. I would never find myself in a space where I was not protected, so long as I stayed within the boundaries my agency promised to operate in.

If Friedman's prediction is correct, the optimal size of a protection agency would probably be larger than what your book expects, although I still think a natural monopoly would be unlikely. It could also be that the functions of a protection agency would be broken out into different types of firms: first responders (which might be geographically situated), investigators, and enforcers. That would likely result in smaller firms.

MattW writes:

I'm interested in any comments Huemer has on Pennington's Robust Political Economy.

Michael Huemer writes:

Thanks to everyone for all the comments. And to Bryan: thanks for the enthusiastic book-promotion. Your check is in the mail.
There are so many comments and questions that I don’t think I can answer all. Sorry if I miss one of yours.

Daniel asks about how government has come to control the whole world. Basically, I buy the theory that government originated when primitive thieves evolved from roving bandits to stationary bandits. It turned out that you could get more spoils by settling down and extracting money from a fixed population at regular intervals. Once you get into the governmental position, you have a lot of power and it’s very hard to dislodge you. You can then use your power to expand your territory.
But why have we kept government for so long, even after we’ve progressed in so many ways? Most people think they need a government and have no idea how society could work without one. That’s why very few people are seriously thinking about abolishing their governments. And that’s also why books like mine are needed.

david asked whether it is permissible to kill political protestors for (merely) violating property rights. I should think not. But I didn’t follow why there would be political protestors in a stateless society. Maybe you had in mind protestors against private corporations, e.g., for using “sweatshops”. These protestors could sometimes get away with violating property rights. But this happens in democratic societies too, and in any case, I don’t see that this is such a big problem.

Taylor asks about how a voluntary society can emerge. It may be that human society naturally evolves through phases, starting with primitive tribes, then moving to dictatorial states, then democratic states. And it may be that you have to go through the democratic phase before getting to the ultimate ideal (anarcho-capitalism). This is of course just speculation.
Why might that be true? Because we might need a certain sort of civilized value system before we can have a working free market anarchy. I’m thinking of things like respect for individual dignity, belief in the moral equality of persons, disdain for violence, and respect for property rights. Primitive people didn’t have those values. But we have them, more or less, today. So our actual history is a possible path to acquiring these values. We don’t know whether there are other possible paths, but if there are, no one has found it yet.

rapscallion wonders if imprisoning deadbeat tenants would be coercive. It would, if one uses physical force (as presumably one must). However, if you legitimately own some property, you have the right to exclude people from it. You can kick your tenants out if they don’t pay the rent. Now, if you’re suggesting that the government is like a landlord, then I think you’d have to explain how the government comes to own everything.

Sean raised the example of Proud Starvin Marvin. But I didn’t see how the case relates to fairness-based obligations, because – even though someone is having a need provided for – I don’t see how there’s a cooperative scheme, or what role Marvin would play in the supposed system of cooperation.

Vipul suggests that you might be obligated to obey the law, because if you’re arrested, you might violate other obligations to other people, such as your employer or your children. Comments:
1. Yes, this would be like the fact that you might be morally obligated to rob a bank. Why? Because some criminal might credibly threaten to shoot your family unless you rob a bank. This wouldn’t make us say that you’re obligated to rob the bank “just because the criminal said so”. Nor should we say that you’re obligated to obey the law just because the government said so.
2. Parents are not obligated to avoid _everything that has any chance_ of preventing them from caring for their children. E.g., it’s not wrong to drive a car unnecessarily if you have children. We don’t normally think it’s wrong even to have a dangerous job. However, if you’re using illegal drugs, I certainly think you should take reasonable precautions against getting caught.
3. If you fail to show up for work because you were arrested (for something that’s not wrong), and then your employer has to hire someone to replace you, I think the employer has at most a minor complaint against you, and it’s not enough to justify a demand that you expose yourself to potentially being fired and then arrested by informing your employer that you use illegal drugs. Individuals are not obligated to risk severe oppression to prevent a small probability of their employer suffering a small inconvenience.
4. Similarly, if you have a racist employer, you are not obligated to disclose your interracial marriage, even (or perhaps “especially”) if you suspect that he would fire you, and certainly not if there’s a good chance that your employer is going to then inform someone else who is going to severely oppress you as a result.
5. I also think there is some limit to the extent to which you’re obligated to give in to irrational and unjust demands because the evil person is threatening to harm your family. You seem to be granting evil people too much freedom to dictate the actions of others. There ought to be some reasonable middle ground between abject submission, and lighting up the crack pipe in the police station.

Vipul also suggests that if the law prohibits X, and you are uncertain whether X is wrong or morally neutral, then you should obey the law by not doing X. Well, if you have no positive reasons for doing X, then this is true. But then, you shouldn’t do X whether or not there is a law about it. So this isn’t political obligation.
I take issue, however, with your drug use example. First, people don’t use recreational drugs for no reason. They get something out of it. Some people get a lot out of it. So to ask them to give that up, we need to have at least a fairly serious reason for thinking that what they’re doing might be wrong. And there is no serious reason. The mere assertion of some conservatives is not enough.

At least three people asked about property rights in general.
1. A theory of property would be at least another long chapter, probably another book. I’m not going to write that book right here and now.
2. I think some sort of belief in property is part of common sense morality, and it’s not my aim to prove common sense morality; I take it as a starting point. Now, that is compatible with there being all sorts of disputes about property rights that aren’t resolved purely by common sense, as well as many aspects of property rights that are conventional.
3. I said that even if there are no property rights, what the government does is still wrong. The government doesn’t merely take some (alleged) property that’s just sitting there on the ground. They will actually send people with guns to your house to capture you and then forcibly confine you in a cage, if you file a false tax return and you refuse to send them money.
Now, let’s suppose there are no property rights. Then you’re not really entitled to that money in the first place. But then, no one else is either, including the government. Maybe the government would be justified in grabbing “your” stuff if they can. And maybe (Javier suggests) they could use force to take the stuff away from you so they can give it to the poor. I find that suggestion much more dubious. But why would they be justified in sending the men with guns to capture you and lock you in a cage for several years?

Michael asks about Wellman’s Samaritan account of political obligation. Very briefly, I think the arguments of chapter 5 apply to it. I agree with some sort of duty of samaritanism. But I don’t see how it gets you content-independent, supreme, and comprehensive obligations to obey, to say nothing of entitlements to coerce others.

Dave asks about whether the psychological arguments of chapter 6 prove too much. Some non-political moral beliefs are indeed open to debunking explanations that undermine them. For instance, beliefs about the superiority of one’s own social group, special duties to kin, incest taboos, and various anomalies in sexual morality seem to be explicable in evolutionary terms. But it is not plausible that all moral beliefs can be undermined in this way. In particular, it’s hard to see how the belief that theft and violence are bad is some sort of illusion.
As I mentioned in the book, I think that even people who support government can see how the idea of authority is puzzling. You can get them to say, “Gee, yeah, it’s weird how the state gets to do all those things that are wrong when anyone else does them.” It feels like we at least need an explanation for that. But it doesn’t seem weird that coercing people is typically bad and that you need a good reason for it.

Dave also asked about (I guess?) whether a paramilitary group of ideologues might take over the anarchist society. Very briefly, I think some group of pro-government ideologues could take over, and set up government in, a community that was sympathetic to the need for government. But if they tried to take over in a community that was generally opposed to government, I think they would face problems similar to those of a government trying to occupy a hostile foreign territory.

Dave also asked about private militaries. I don’t see how the free rider problem is solved. If a few people don’t pay their military bill, and the Russians decide to attack, they aren’t going to attack just the three houses in the neighborhood that didn’t pay their defense bill.
However, maybe you could have an HOA that pays for military defense of the whole neighborhood.

John asked how I would deal with people who defend political authority through religion. Briefly, if they’re unreasonable, then I just don’t talk to them. If they’re reasonable, I’d have to learn more about their belief system to reason with them effectively. Most serious religious people, however, could easily be convinced that Congress is not doing God’s work.

eccdogg asked whether it’s wrong to work for the state, as it might be wrong to work for the mafia. (It’s certainly wrong to be a hit man for the mafia; maybe it’s also wrong to fix the mafia boss’ sink, because he pays for it with stolen money.) Anyway, the government has a much deeper and more pervasive presence, in every industry in society, than the mafia. This makes it much, much harder to not deal with the government than to not deal with the mafia. Almost every company takes government money in some way or other, and you can go through a series of questions from “is it wrong to take a job where 100% of the paycheck comes directly from tax revenues?” to “is it wrong to work for a company some of whose revenues come directly from the government?” to “is it wrong to work for a company some of whose revenues come from customers who got the money to buy the company’s product from the government?”, . . . and so on. In some sense, you could argue that virtually every company, maybe every company in the country, “takes government money.” So what we probably want to do is to avoid the most direct connections to the most objectionable of government activities.

Richard asks about representative democracy. I think the idea that representative democracy generates authority is rebutted by the Bar Tab example at the beginning of chapter 4. Presumably, matters there are not improved if the other people at the table all vote that Bob should coerce me to pay for everyone’s drinks, rather than everyone’s coercing me directly. Just the fact that you chose someone else to do the dirty work doesn’t make the coercion permissible.
The phrase “ourselves coercing ourselves” seems to be ambiguous between (1) each of us coercing him or herself, (2) each of us coercing the others, and (3) the majority of us coercing a minority. The first is permissible; the second and third are much less so.

Eric asks why protection agencies might protect areas, rather than individuals. I think it’s a lot easier to protect a certain area against crime than it is to protect a certain group of people no matter where they are. This is because protection usually involves some physical presence, or at least being ready to be present. If I fly to Hong Kong, it’s expensive for my protection agency to keep protecting me (unless they’re already in Hong Kong).

Hunter writes:

Considering the Milgram study

shows people have a tendecy to obey authority. And the Standford prison experiment shows that authority tends to bad behavior.

Aren't you argueing against human nature.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Dr Heumer,

Your response does not seem to go the essence of the question I raise.

In the example you cite there is no representative function by any of the actors (other than for their individual interests).

Had we agreed on ordering that payment obligation would be determined by the vote of 3 waiters selected by our consensus or vote, would that have created a kind of "consent" to the authority of the waiters? Is that not more to the point I raise?

This goes to a consideration of what exactly (or approximately) is the nature of so-called Representative Government, and thus the requested disquistion on its authority over the participants.

david writes:
But I didn’t follow why there would be political protestors in a stateless society.

Sometimes people disagree fervently over whether any given system of justice has been appropriately followed. i.e., the protesters think X is theirs, and the status-quo possessor thinks X is theirs, and the protesters disagree with the arbitrator's judgement.

Honest disagreements can occur! The question is, how much are you prepared to enforce property claims? If the private courts and arbitrators decide, welp, they're just going to gun down these people who defy their decisions and occupy some property "illegally", are you prepared to endorse this outcome as a necessary cost of freedom?

Or are private courts never entitled to uphold their preferred contractual interpretation over such-and-such basic rights to political activity?

Sean writes:

Dr. Huemer writes:

Sean raised the example of Proud Starvin Marvin. But I didn’t see how the case relates to fairness-based obligations, because – even though someone is having a need provided for – I don’t see how there’s a cooperative scheme, or what role Marvin would play in the supposed system of cooperation.

With respect to membership in the cooperative scheme, I willing to agree that if Marvin were an outsider, he'd have no obligations (which i'm supposing is an obligation of financial compensation, allowing the food-throwing to continue). But that, I think, is just the problem. In what sense is Marvin any less a member of a cooperative scheme than someone in water-bailing?

Consider what Simmons' says about being a cooperative 'insider' in Moral Principles. Is it that in water-bailing one has done something "which involves either an express or a tacit undertaking to do one's part in the scheme"? It seems to me, and I take it you meant to imply in the book, that we would be obligated as we are in water-bailing even if there was no consent present (tacit or otherwise). So it doesn't seem like one would be an 'insider' in water-bailing that way.

And obviously it couldn't be that someone in water-bailing has accepted the benefits; after all, your point was that we're obligated even thought there is no acceptance (which I totally agree with).

Maybe the point is that one guy throwing food around could not properly be said to be cooperative and that obligations of fairness are not applicable to such situations. But that, I think, would make the principle's applicability far too narrow. For example, road provision/payment for use seems like the quintessential sort of scheme in which obligations of fairness potentially arise. But suppose you live on a small island where all the road paving is done by a single guy. Would that make any difference?

I don't think so, but suppose it would. Couldn't we just alter Marvin's case instead? Suppose that the other members of Marvin's neighborhood are foodies. They get together and organize a scheme whereby each day a different member of the community buys a bunch of new, exotic food and delivers it to each doorstep. Marvin neither consents nor accepts the food but, as in the original case, it is of extremely great benefit and/or meets a need.

My sense of this case is exactly the same as the first.

Michael Huemer writes:

I discuss both experiments in chapter 6. However, I also observe in chapter 13 that human values have evolved enormously over recorded history, and thus that we could expect further change in the future. Furthermore, I think the direction in which our values have thus far evolved is consistent with the sort of values we would need to get to an anarchist society.

R Richard,
I don’t understand what you mean by a “representative function”, why it isn’t present, why it has to be “other than for their individual interests”, or why you think people in our society have this thing. Anyway, I don’t see how a group of voters designating Barack Obama and Congress to coerce everyone is relevantly different from a group of people at the bar designating Bob to coerce everyone.
Leaving that aside, your latest scenario assumes some sort of prior agreement. If you’re suggesting that in some actual societies, there is some kind of prior agreement by everyone to set up the government, and agreement to the political procedures to be used, then I think you’re now invoking the social contract theory, which is addressed in chapter 2.

It’s clearly ethically wrong to kill people merely for violating property rights in the course of some kind of social protest. I also think that that would be very unlikely to be endorsed by any court. However, there is a broader question: can private courts make wrong decisions? Absolutely. Every human being, organization, or institution is fallible. Sometimes they make errors. Sometimes horrible errors. Because I don’t accept the idea of authority, I do not endorse any errors merely because of where they came from. But, until God descends from the heavens to rule, no system can completely prevent errors from happening.
If you want to know what sort of safeguards we might have to reduce errors, I expect there would be some appeals process. However, if the appeals courts keep making the same error, at some point wrong decisions get carried out. Again, that’s because we only have fallible humans to run things, and you’re stipulating that they make errors. My argument would merely be that errors are *more likely* in a governmental system, due to its coercive monopolistic character.

Did you agree with my verdict about the water-bailing? If so, what would you say is the difference between the water-bailing story and the foodie story?
Maybe the difference is that the water-bailing story involved a public good (in the economist’s sense), whereas the food-donation stories do not. If the foodies get tired of Marvin’s free riding, they can easily exclude him. So we might think that their continuing to give him food constitutes their voluntary acceptance of his free riding, which negates any obligation on his part to pay them.

Sean writes:

Dr. Huemer,

Yeah, I'm completely on board (if you'll pardon the pun) with what you take to be the normative implications of the water-bailing case. You should definitely pitch in and help. What I'm having a hard time with, however, is the interpretation. What I suspect is going on is not that one's non-participation would be unfair or taking advantage of the bailers, but that the bailers are in dire need of your help, and you're obligated to help those in dire need (ala Singer-Unger's drowning child). But the way the case is set up, it could be easy to conflate the two.

I'm not sure what to make about the public goods suggestion, but i'll give it some more thought.

Sean writes:

I should have also said:

I think the reason why Marvin isn't obligated in either case is that 1) neither Smith nor the neighborhood foodie group is in dire need of his help (which is what I suspect is generating the obligation in water-bailing) and 2) both cases lack those conditions that seem to be necessary for a fairness obligation (i.e. those of Simmons; consent, acceptance of benefits).

Sean writes:

Okay, so here is another modified case i'll call Thirstin' Thurston (to preserve the alliteration):

Thurston lives in a drought-prone farming community. In an effort to combat the problem his neighbors get together and order a rocket-based-rain-cloud-seeding kit off the internet. It is decided that each day a different person will be responsible for getting the rocket ready, sending it up and generating the rain clouds that will cover the whole area and deliver fresh water to all the fields.

Thurston isn't a farmer; he's desperately poor and dying of dehydration (his water has been shut off, he can't afford to go to the store to buy a bottle of Poland Springs). He's also terribly proud. He doesn't consent to take part in the community's endeavor and doesn't actively seek out its benefits. But when they send the rockets up and the rain starts to fall, Thurston ends up with pools of drinkable water on his property, fulfilling his need and allowing him to live another day.

It seems to me that should the other members of the community come around demanding that Thurston take his turn on rocket duty, he'd have no such obligation. But like water-bailing, this case seems to meet all six of the criteria you outline in 5.3.1:

1) There is a (large) good being generated by others;
2) The others are assuming a cost causally responsible for the good;
3) Thurston receives his fair share of the benefits;
4) Thurston's participation would contribution to the good's production;
5) The costs to Thurston wouldn't be overly burdensome;
6) Thurston doesn't have anything more important to do.

Also like water-bailing, in Thurston's case:

7) he is being provided with a very great benefit or having a need (as opposed to mere want) met;
8) this great benefit/need isn't excludable. Given the nature of the seeding device, the community cannot help but benefit Thurston when they benefit themselves.

Unlike water-bailing, however, the other members of the scheme are not also facing a dire emergency. And that, I think, is the key.

Todd Moodey writes:

Professor Huemer--

In regards to the three reasons you adduce for the media not being an alert watchdog of bad/dangerous government activity, I'd propose adding a fourth: that an active, aggressive government is conducive to, and in fact furthers, the interests of those in the media.

Almost no one in the public at large has the ability directly to perceive the workings of government (the cost argument you make is one important reason), nor the ability to canvass what "the public thinks" about a particular issue. Government as such is presented to us through the lens of the political media. And the members of that media, in my view, have strong personal incentives for promoting large, active government as the default way of viewing the world.

It's plausible to assume, I think, that these people are ambitious, and their ambitions, wealth, prestige, etc, are all better served by an activist national government with a large footprint in domestic society as well as international relations. Absent that, they might be compelled to cover local issues--should we put a traffic signal at the corner of Main and Elm?--that wouldn't satisfy these ambitions to anything like the same degree.

As I've only reached page 223 of your very interesting book, you might well have addressed this in some way later in the book. In any case, what are your thoughts on it?

Michael Huemer writes:

Sean, I've now forgotten exactly what I said about needs. But it looks as though you're illustrating the fact that the obligation to contribute to the cooperative scheme depends upon the scheme's satisfying the needs (and not mere wants) of *others*, rather than the needs of yourself.
I would add, however, that this is not the same as the typical duty of samaritanism, because, as I intended the water-bailing scenario to be understood, the other passengers on the boat are enough to bail out the water. That is, if everyone but you works at it, the boat will be successfully bailed. You see that everyone else is in fact bailing, so nothing very bad will happen to anyone if you don't bail. But it still seems unfair to refuse to help.
Anyway, I think the view you're proposing pretty much has the same upshot for political obligation as the view I addressed in the book. I also think I would say pretty much the same things about it (it can't account for content-independence, etc.).

Todd, I think that the news media are frequently biased. But I'm not sure I followed the particular sort of bias you're suggesting. Are you saying that news companies have more (and more exciting things) to report on because we have an activist federal government? That may be true, although one factor mitigating the effect of this bias is the fact that any given reporter knows that he personally has only a very small expected impact on federal government policies. Thus, some media personalities can make a good living railing against government interference, without fear of undermining their own job.
Here's another bias. Government officials will refuse to talk to journalists who regularly give critical reports on government officials. Since government officials are a very large part of a journalist's sources of information, it behooves you to stay on good terms with them.
The main thing, though, is that people who work in intellectual professions, particularly the more "humanities" and "social science" areas (as opposed to natural science) appear to simply have left-wing personality types.

Todd Moodey writes:

Professor Huemer--

Yes, I am saying that a big, activist government provides more and more interesting opportunities for the news media. And in a sense, it doesn't matter whether the organization or personality is on the "left" or "right" as conventionally defined. As long as government is involved in a wide variety of things, the "rightist" will always have issues to rail against.

The media in general benefit from the scope and size of government; their coverage of it--whether from the conventionally left or the conventionally right point of view--in turn works to habituate the public to the activities of government. Countless times on the Sunday morning news programs, I've heard pundit X say something like "I've been out talking to the people, and they're angry that Congress can't get anything done". As absurd as it is that Pundit X has actually talked to "the people" in such a way that he could truly know they're angry, I can well imagine that the effect on viewers is, on the margin, to inculcate the belief that they too should be upset over the gridlock.

Were we immediately transported to an anarchic society, these people would have to work to create the perception that society suffers from ills that only activist government can address, or face the prospect of finding another line of work.

Javier writes:

Well, perhaps I didn't state the liberal egalitarian position as strongly as I could have. Here is a second try.

I don't see the liberal egalitarian position as the view that people lack property rights per se. Instead, the position is that the distribution of property rights is now unjust. You argue that, even if there are no natural property rights, it would still be wrong to lock people in cages in order to take their property. But if some people currently control property that other people are entitled to, then it is less clear that it would be wrong for the state to redistribute it. Chris Bertram sums up this position rather clearly:

The key point to focus on is this: that a theory of justice establishes what people are morally entitled to, and one of the jobs that the state has it to see to it that people’s entitlements are respected.... [L]et us suppose that I am in possession of something that properly belongs to [someone else], and that I refuse to relinquish that object when he ask for it. The officers of the libertarian state will the come along and forcibly remove that object from me and hand it over to its rightful owner. This forcible redistribution from me to him will generate no objection from libertarians, indeed they will insist that justice has been done. If some version of egalitarian liberalism is the correct view about distributive justice, then, just as with other theories, it may turn out that some people will have entitlements to holdings that are in the possession of others. In order to realize justice, agents of the state—“the robbers with badges and good intentions”—will use mechanisms like taxes to effect transfers such that people get what they are entitled to (and lose what they are not entitled to). In other words “forcible redistribution” can’t be an objection to a theory of distributive justice because we need a theory of distributive justice already in place to determine whether an act of “forcible redistribution” is morally objectionable.
It may still be wrong for the state to punish people for refusing to pay taxes. Nonetheless, if Bertram is right, then it seems that there is not a strong objection to forcibly redistributing property, as some people currently hold property that belongs to other people.

Sean writes:
Sean, I've now forgotten exactly what I said about needs. But it looks as though you're illustrating the fact that the obligation to contribute to the cooperative scheme depends upon the scheme's satisfying the needs (and not mere wants) of *others*, rather than the needs of yourself.

I would add, however, that this is not the same as the typical duty of samaritanism, because, as I intended the water-bailing scenario to be understood, the other passengers on the boat are enough to bail out the water. That is, if everyone but you works at it, the boat will be successfully bailed. You see that everyone else is in fact bailing, so nothing very bad will happen to anyone if you don't bail. But it still seems unfair to refuse to help.

Yeah, that's a really good point (and looking back at that section of the book, you do make a point to say that their efforts alone are enough to keep everyone out of immediate danger). I guess my reservation is, is this enough to disqualify it as a samaritan case? I'm not sure.

Anyway, I think the view you're proposing pretty much has the same upshot for political obligation as the view I addressed in the book. I also think I would say pretty much the same things about it (it can't account for content-independence, etc.).

I'm definitely with you on that, and hope my criticisms come off in the spirit they were intended. PoPA is far and away the best contribution to libertarian political philosophy around and I would be hard pressed to find anything else in it to disagree with. The only potential problem, as I see it, is that you might concede fairness accounts more than you need to.

Michael Huemer writes:

Todd: That's true, I don't know what political journalists would do in an anarchic society. Maybe report on foreign governments? But if we're talking about why people don't endorse anarchism, I suspect that the main reasons journalists reject it are about the same as the reasons why almost everyone else rejects it - they have no idea how an anarchist society could work, etc. As to why journalists tend to be left-wing rather than conservative, I don't really know, but they don't seem to be more left-wing than people in other intellectual professions who don't have the same incentives (well, I don't know whether they are more left-wing or not).

Javier: I see your and Chris Bertram's point, and I think a full discussion of distributive justice would be needed to satisfy you. I would like to write (or at least, I would like to have written) such a full discussion, but that would be a different book.
For now, I will just invoke one of my usual private-agent analogies. Suppose that I hold you up at gunpoint and steal your wallet. "You really shouldn't do that, Mike," you say. I reply, "Oh don't worry. I'm not taking this for myself. I donate it to the poor." Now, some extreme leftists might say "Oh that's alright then." But I think only a very few people would say so. Most would say: it's still theft.
But now suppose I say, "Oh no, you don't understand. You see, I have a theory of 'distributive justice', which says that the poor are entitled to receive this money. So I'm really not stealing." Again, I think this appeal would be widely rejected.
Now, there could be special circumstances in which the robbery would seem justified. What if you literally stole that money from a poor person? You broke into a poor person's house, rifled through his drawers, and stole $200 from him. The poor person asked me to go and take it back. In that case, I'd say it's okay for me to take it by force (barring issues of excessive force, etc.). (If you like, assume that there's no state, so people won't say "you should let the police handle it.") But if, on the other hand, the situation is just that you have more money than the poor person because you have more economically valuable skills, I think hardly anyone would say I can hold you up and take it away to give to the poor person.

Sean: thanks for your comments and questions, including your generous compliments on the book. Yes, I understand where you're coming from.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Dr Heumer,

I have a follow-up on your response to Dave's questions about private militaries, security companies, etc...

I've written a book that describes something similar (Sharper Security), with individuals contracting with security companies that provide both private law enforcement/local criminal defense and also military defense. The idea is that they contract to protect individuals and their specific property, so it's a mix of territorial and individual.

In turn, the security companies contract with each other in terms of how they will interrelate and also with larger umbrella-style military organizations that act in a manner similar to insurance underwriters. In this way, local groups deal with local issues such as crime, investigation and courts, with the security company on the hook to make good if they can't enforce a claim, but larger voluntarily formed groups provide protection against larger threats that we'd currently associate with a foreign military.

Obviously it's required that the security companies understand that it's in everyone's best interest to have limited relations with someone who doesn't pay their bills. It's self-enforcing when someone can't get a property/personal defense commitment without also paying their share of the military defense required to actually make that possible.

In our current society, ultimately criminals aren't prevented from just taking a whole town over by the police force of that particular town, but by the knowledge that if they ever succeeded, a larger group of armed individuals would intervene, right up to the military as necessary.

There's no reason why groups of smaller security companies wouldn't make agreements about enforcement among themselves, including agreements for paying a military group for defense, and then pass those costs on to their customers. It seems less realistic to me that a customer would want to contract for only limited protection against local threats, but be fine with an exclusion for larger threats. If anything, most customer-driven insurance works the other way, being more concerned with larger devastating threats and more tolerant of self-insuring against petty threats.

As for foreign travel, the power of trade and contracts comes to the rescue. If your security company (or affiliated group of companies) has a mutual protection agreement with a foreign country that covers members, than you're covered. Otherwise, your agreement with that security company would have to contain an exclusion where you travel to foreign lands at your own risk.

All of this seems to be easily covered under an insurance model with companies and individuals using standard waivers/riders and normal underwriting practices. I believe you are underestimating the power of creative individuals motivated to write and enforce contracts to server customer needs.
What do you think?

P.S. Since this reply became so long, I've cross-posted it with a link to this page and your book at

Sean writes:

Just a few last, random thoughts:

1) What's supposed to be distinctive about obligations of fairness is that they arise in contexts where one's failure to contribute to some scheme would constitute taking unfair advantage of others, i.e., that you are benefiting from the labors of others in some unfair way, and you gotta pay your share. If it isn't your unfair benefiting that's doing the normative work in a particular case -- if it's the need of others instead -- could that case be fairly characterized as involving obligation of fairness?

2) Consider the following sort of samaritan-type case: you and another guy are walking by a pond and discover the Singer-Unger drowning child. Other Guy wades out into the water, gets the child, and starts bringing him back to shore. The thing is, Other Guy isn't having an easy time of it; though the child is out of immediate danger (he's no longer under water), Other Guy is really struggling (maybe the pond has a sticky, muddy bottom). Do you have any obligation to wade out yourself and pitch in? I'm inclined to say that you do.

If there is an obligation here, it can't be an obligation of fairness sensu stricto; you've not benefited from child or Other Guy. But it isn't the classic samaritan case either; child is out of immediate danger.

Maybe what's driving both water-bailing and this case is something about the distribution of burdens in samaritan cases?

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Dr. Heumer,

Thank you for your response and directing me to reread your section on the social contract.

Having done so, what I note is the presentation in the text of a concept that the "contract" appears to be between the reified entity, "the State," and the individuals (or members), rather than amongst the individuals and members, who "consent" through the appointment of representatives.

So, we can leave it at that, since I do not see government (the "State") as a reified entity, but rather as a mechanism for specific relationships within the social order, my inquiries would likely be a waste of your time. Thank you for your work.

Michael Huemer writes:

Thomas S asked more about private military defense. Let's see if I understand your idea. Is this it: You buy "unjust violence insurance" from your local protection agency (to insure you against suffering unjust violence). The local agency takes care of reducing unjust violence from small-time criminals. They do this because when unjust violence happens they have to pay out claims.
But your unjust violence insurance also covers unjust violence by states. Your local protection agency would have to pay out a lot if there were an invasion by a foreign government. But they can't prevent this by themselves. So they (along with many other local agencies) pay a much bigger company to insure them against the losses that would result from a foreign invasion. The bigger company then hires some soldiers to prevent foreign invasions, so that they won't have to pay out claims.
Is that something like the idea? I'm not sure if I got it right, because I'm not sure if you were buying insurance, or just directly paying people to combat rights-violators.
I like the idea at first glance. I'm a little worried, though. Let's say the private military is defeated in combat with a foreign state. They're not actually going to have to pay out any insurance claims, because the society will now be under the control of that foreign state, and the state won't enforce the insurance claims. Knowing this, why would anyone buy the insurance? Have I misunderstood something?

Sean asked more about samaritan vs. fairness obligations. I'm not sure whether "unfairness" requires one to receive a positive benefit (as opposed to the negative benefit of not sharing the costs that others undertake). If you decide to let Other Guy assume all the costs of rescue, when you could easily help, is that "unfair" to Other Guy? It sounds natural to me to say "Yes, that's unfair." But I would agree that there is *also* the criticism that you are failing to help others in need, which we might call a failure of samaritanism.

R Richard raised the question about whom the social contract is between. Locke had it as a contract between citizens and state. Hobbes had it as a contract just among the citizens. I'm not sure exactly what a reified entity is, or whether the state is one, but I suspect that's a red herring, because Hobbes' version of the social contract is subject to most of the same criticisms as Locke's version. E.g., the act of contracting never actually happened; there's no reasonable way of opting out; explicit dissent is ignored; &c. I doubt that any of these criticisms require the state to be a reified entity.

Sean writes:
Sean asked more about samaritan vs. fairness obligations. I'm not sure whether "unfairness" requires one to receive a positive benefit (as opposed to the negative benefit of not sharing the costs that others undertake). If you decide to let Other Guy assume all the costs of rescue, when you could easily help, is that "unfair" to Other Guy? It sounds natural to me to say "Yes, that's unfair." But I would agree that there is *also* the criticism that you are failing to help others in need, which we might call a failure of samaritanism.

I think it's right to say that there is something we might be able to call unfair in the samaritan-type case. But I don't think it's the same sort of something that Hart, early Rawls or other fairness theorists would be happy to call unfair in their accounts of political obligation.

Thomas Sewell writes:

Dr. Heumer,

Thank you for your reply.

In essence, yes. You could add a couple of additions like assignable and inheritable claims, etc...

I'm not sure if you were buying insurance, or just directly paying people to combat rights-violators.

More along the lines of buying protection with liquidated damages if the protection isn't able to be provided. Some companies could specialize in prevention to lower costs, others in investigation/retaliation to force the criminals to pay for the claims, etc... it's a market for services, so the possible outcomes would vary with actual individual preferences. Some would want catastrophic-style reimbursement coverage, others with more wealth might desire a team of 24x7 guards dedicated to their account. They could all coexist in the same marketplace.

... they're not actually going to have to pay out any insurance claims, because the society will now be under the control of that foreign state, and the state won't enforce the insurance claims. Knowing this, why would anyone buy the insurance?
I have a few answers to your "winner-takes-all" concern:

1. Caveat Emptor? Like any other business, the insurers would have to create at least a credible impressions that they will be able to deliver their product, or why would anyone buy it? At the very least make it clear that their defense will be damaging enough to a potential attacker that a reasonable purchaser is going to believe it's sufficient deterrence.

2. Historically, mercenary armies have successfully used bonding authorities to lend credibility to keep their promises. It adds some business overhead, but combined with assignable/inheritable claims, could be made to work for subscribers to gain assurances. I suspect it'd only come into widespread use if enough failures occurred to make the extra overhead worth it to buyers.

3. Comparing your concern to the current systems, in any country, if a foreign invader successfully invaded and took over completely, the current government would be deposed and that government's promises of future services, legal enforcement, etc... would be only worth as much as the winners allowed them to be. Despite this lack of assurance, people still generally pay their taxes and those taxes pay to hire soldiers for foreign defense. In other words, the actual existence of the defensive army is what is being paid for, not a guarantee of winning every war. Presumably the parties providing the underwriting services would be ruined as well if they were totally defeated. If not, then the inheritable/transferable claim against them by the "protected" would be rather large, with enough out there and willing to be an agent collecting on it to make it a decent deterrent to malfeasance.

Thanks again. More concerns?

Dave writes:

Michael, I think your objection to "invasion insurance" being impossible to collect really only applies if we are concerned about the whole world being conquered. Against more moderate threats, the insurance can be backed by people all over the world in different jurisdictions. (I don't think you could run a private defense force out of, say, the US or Britain, but maybe you could write a credit default swap on one, or hold money in escrow for one)

Thomas, I guess I'll have to read your book. It sounds like you rely on some kind of limited "cartelish" norms enforcement to ensure that security firms pay "their share" of defense costs? What do you think of my claim that the possibility of "moderate scale" extortionary attacks, targeted against security firms without any defense insurance, would discourage free riding security firms?

What laboratory can you use to find out if these ideas actually work? EVE online?


Thomas Sewell writes:


Thanks for the excellent notes on how a market can use financial transactions to spread risk across borders.

It sounds like you rely on some kind of limited "cartelish" norms enforcement to ensure that security firms pay "their share" of defense costs?
More along the lines of each underwriter, i.e. military defense unit, is an independent company, but the norm is to agree to a set of interlocking contracts with the others in the area because keeping the peace is what their ultimate customers are paying them for. A refinement of the threat of force being the best way to keep the peace, if you will. Also a way of specializing, because one group may be best at mobile armor, but desire support from an air group and a light infantry group, and some specialists in anti-air defense, and a medical team, and contracts with suppliers who specialize in military logistics, and arms dealers, etc... Modern warfare capability is a complex thing and ultimately the market advantage would go to groups that can arrange to do it most efficiently for their customers.

In terms of individual customer cost, that would be the subject of negotiations between the large consortia and the local security companies. As long as there is competition, or at least the possibility of competition, then the payment for services would have to converge on the amount willing to be paid by the ultimate individual consumer. In that case, the local security companies end up as just a pass through in the average case, because other than having an ability to potentially negotiate a better deal for themselves, the average prices are going to revolve around the available supply and demand for military defense services overall.

What do you think of my claim that the possibility of "moderate scale" extortionary attacks, targeted against security firms without any defense insurance, would discourage free riding security firms?
I think that could occur, but it may be more likely to come into play when two local security firms are negotiating with each other over a case between their subscribers. If one of them has a contract with a big underwriting company to back them up as long as they are following the agreed upon rules of justice, choice of law and courts, etc... defined in their contract and the other one is on their own with no such relationship, guess who is going to have the negotiating advantage and is going to attract more subscribers? It's a competitive advantage in servicing their customers to ensure they're taken seriously enough.

As a result, once they've both contracted with an underwriter, either the same one or underwriters that also contract with each other, directly or indirectly, then that also creates a strong norm to keep the peace and work out any minor differences of opinion through the arbitration provisions in their web of contractual relationships.

A similar situation of friction between a "backed" company and an area that doesn't want to allow competition for government-style services arises in the sequel to Sharper Security, which isn't quite out yet. That competitive advantage explains part of the process of how local unaffiliated groups end up joining enough of the sovereign security company/underwriter legal framework to keep the peace and keep their influence. Similar to how having an industry standard for something causes competitors to converge on it because while there isn't direct enforcement of it, if they don't, they'll be at a competitive disadvantage to those that are interoperable as their customers desire.

What laboratory can you use to find out if these ideas actually work? EVE online?
That's a good suggestion. I'd like to see it. :) Currently I'm exploring them by writing fiction based on such a society and seeing how things turn out, how problems that arise are dealt with, etc... as much to see where the ideas take me as to expose them to the competitive light of the market place for ideas. If nothing else, it gets some people used to pondering the possibilities.

Please send an email to Thomas at the domain name in my name URL and we can correspond further, plus I'll be able to credit your full name when I quote your questions, assuming you don't mind.

Hume22 writes:

Although sympathetic, I am skeptical of Huemer's methodological approach. His ethical intuitionism is close to a non-starter, mainly due to framing effects. For example, there are at least two ways to frame the question of our obligations of beneficence:
(1)"is there a moral obligation to give over 80% income to charity?" [p. 157].
(2) "if persons are dying of hunger, is it morally permissible to go to Peter Luger's and spend $200 on steak and bacon instead of aiding such persons starving to death?" [this is basically Singer's and, e.g., Elizabeth Ashford's point].

I'm also skeptical about beginning all discussions with "is it ok to coerce?" A better approach is to figure out what our moral obligations are and worry about coercion later.

Sean writes:
Although sympathetic, I am skeptical of Huemer's methodological approach. His ethical intuitionism is close to a non-starter, mainly due to framing effects.

Even if intuitionism were 'close to a non-starter', Huemer's case is (largely) metaethically neutral; you don't have to sign up for his intuitionist epistemology, his non-naturalist moral ontology, or any of the rest (though for independent reasons, I think you should). With the exception of certain kinds of error theorists, even most anti-realists could be happy accepting his reasoning and endorsing his conclusions.

Maurizio Colucci writes:

Hoping it's not too late, I have a quick question for prof. Huemer, which I am posting here as I can't seem to find his email address.

Sometimes you claim that it is "permissible" to violate someone else's property in situations of extreme emergency. It is not clear to me what you mean by "permissible". Do you mean that the "victim" (the person whose property you violated) is not entitled, after the fact, to use the force against you to collect a proportionate compensation? If she is not, why? And if she is, is this not equivalent to saying that your action was _not_ permissible?

(It seems counterintuitive to me to say that the victim is not entitled to a compensation, and therefore it seems at best very misdleading to say the action was permissible.)

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