The Problem of Political Authority, by Michael Huemer (2012) was collecting dust on my bookshelf until a month ago. I received it from a friend around a year ago, and like most of my books, decided to keep it for later. If there’s any benefit to working at my new job, it’s that there are a lot of quiet moments. So I decided to start taking advantage of those moments and read it. I chose Huemer’s book partly because I was already familiar with some of his work. I enjoyed his “Common Sense” defense of libertarianism when I first saw him at Porcfest. But even before that, I knew about him through his work on ethical intuitionism and moral knowledge.
Now, not being an anarcho-capitalist, I was interested to see his basis for it. Part of the case he makes seemed shaky, and led me to not give this book perfect scores. Overall though, I’d heartily recommend it to just about anyone who wants to understand some core arguments against the state.
The way Huemer has divided his book is superb. So in an effort to give a little order and sense to this review I’m going to somewhat mimic Huemer’s style. I’ll have this, Part One of the review, with Part Two to follow — just as the book itself is divided. And like Huemer, I’ll divide each part into numbered sections which correspond roughly with his chapters and sub-chapters, though not precisely. For example, there’s two chapters in part one that deal with different ideas of social contract theory to justify the state. In an attempt to bring them together, I’ll try to put them under a single decimal pointed section. In this case it’d be 1.2 instead of two different sections, as in Huemer’s book. Either way, if you haven’t noticed by now, this is going to be a long review and I’m not going to sugar coat that fact. Stay tuned for the second part sometime this later month.
Part of the reason for this comprehensiveness is because I love the book enough to write at length about it. The other reason is that it deserves more attention within the libertarian community than it’s received. Maybe being overly-comprehensive will backfire on that effort, I’m not sure. Regardless, it’s worth going over at length just for the elucidation that Huemer provides us.
In the end reading these two articles is going to be at least a little less than the book itself — a book which comes is over four hundred pages. So there’s that.
1.1 Political Authority: Who Gets Served?
Huemer outlines his radical goal very clearly in the preface: Fundamentally rethink the political questions of the day.
Huemer says he has tried to lessen the amount of “academic jargon.” He hopes it’ll benefit both his fellow philosophers as well as the person who has only a casual interest in political theory. As someone who has much more than a casual interest but is not a “professional,” I found the book very accessible. The book centers around two fundamental questions:
Why should 535 people in Washington be entitled to issue commands to 300 million others? And why should the others obey? (p. 26)
In other words, the book deals with the concept of political authority and Huemer proposes the radical idea that there is no satisfactory answer to those two questions. Huemer, however, is a fan (as am I) of what he calls “reasonable extremism.” That is, he has extreme conclusions but he argues that his premises and reasoning are fairly intuitive. He doesn’t rely on abstract philosophical principles, a priori reasoning, or the non-aggression principle (he only mentions the NAP on one page and uses the term a total of five times).
Huemer works through his easy to understand premises to discover why political authority doesn’t work. He does this in large part by showing us how the state violates commonly shared values — acts we’d normally consider wrong if an individual committed them. This inequality of rights and privileges is at the heart of what makes the state supposedly “legitimate.” It’s what gives “authority” to the state and its tax collectors, police forces, military, domestic spies, drug enforcement agents, and practically everything else it does.
Huemer also, as one of his reviewers says, engages in the downright unfair tactic of not only reasonably engaging with the biggest arguments for state authority, he also typically reconstructs those arguments more charitably than they currently exist. At other times he’ll even add his own problems that he sees as much more likely than the ones offered by his interlocutor.
Moving on from the Preface, Part One begins with a parable:
You live in a small village with a crime problem. … No one seems to be doing anything about it. So one day, you and your family decide to put a stop to it. … Periodically, you catch one, take him back to your house at gunpoint, and lock him in the basement. You provide the prisoners with food so they don’t starve, but you plan to keep them locked in the basement for a few years to teach them a lesson.
After operating in this way for a few weeks, you decide to make the rounds of the neighborhood, starting with your next door neighbor. As he answers the door, you ask, ‘Have you noticed the reduction in crime in the last few weeks?’ He nods. ‘Well, that is thanks to me.’ You explain your anticrime program. Noting the wary look on your neighbor’s face, you continue. ‘Anyway, I’m here because it’s time to collect you contribution to the crime prevention fund. Your bill for the month is $100.’
As your neighbor stares at you, making no apparent move to hand over the money, you patiently explain that, should he refuse to make the required payment, you will unfortunately have to label him a criminal, at which point he will be subject to long-term confinement in your basement, along with the aforementioned vandals. Indicating the pistol at your hip, you note that you are prepared to take him by force if necessary.
Supposing you take this tack with all of your neighbors, what sort of reception could you expect? Would most cheerfully give over their assigned share of the costs of crime prevention? (p. 29)
Anyone who did this today in their local community would be called a vigilante at best and probably a loose cannon more accurately. People who lock others in their basements for perceived wrongs are generally seen as doing something wrong themselves. So what’s the difference between the vigilante who takes justice into his own hands and demands payment for his act, and the state?
Huemer concludes it’s the concept of political authority which he defines as:
…the hypothesized moral property in virtue of which governments may coerce people in certain ways not permitted to anyone else and in virtue of which citizens must obey governments in situations in which they would not be obligated to obey anyone else. (p. 30)
Political authority has an air of legitimacy under which the government can rightfully obligate you in ways most people couldn’t. The so-called right of government to enforce these obligations in ways that others normally wouldn’t be able to is part of that supposed legitimacy. As Huemer points out though, this belief in political authority can vary and doesn’t condone all governments. Huemer also states throughout the book that just as being an anarchist doesn’t mean anarchists have to defend any and all experiments that seem anarchic, advocates of government authority don’t need to justify, for example, Nazi Germany’s regime in order to justify government itself.
Going back to the parable, defenders of government might say there’s a lot of things you could do to modify it. You could have the vigilantes conduct a “fair trial.” But implementing an involuntary jury would only add to the unjustifiable coercion already taking place. And for Huemer, coercion is what’s key here. He defines it differently than the standard dictionary version though. Huemer defines coercion as the use or of threat of physical force. This is one of the biggest things anarcho-capitalists object to about the state. So it’s no surprise that Huemer defines it this way.
Behind every government law is the threat of violence. If you refuse to comply with a law you may get fined and if you refuse to pay the fine you may get a bigger fine. Fail to pay the bigger fine and you might start to get notices sent to your house from the relevant authorities. What if you decide to ignore those notices? The relevant authorities can decide not to spend the time, energy or money needed to capture and put you in jail. But if the fine is big enough (which it most likely is at this point) then you’re likely going to get a knock on the door from the police. But what if you resist the police? I probably don’t need to explain, but good luck.
Because the authorities involved are probably state institutions or at least closely interrelated with the state, the costs of their following up are likely minor. Of course, the police themselves are funded by “the public,” a.k.a. taxation, which would normally be theft if anyone else did it. The state primarily relies on the use or threat of force to get others to listen to its edicts as well as to pay for its enforcement.
Questions then arise: What do we make of this? Is the state justified in doing this? Are there alternative ways of organizing? Is this necessary to prevent some greater violation of our rights? Are the costs of doing it some other way simply higher? We’ll get into Huemer’s answers to these questions as we look through the book.
Before we do, let’s look at my summary of the five principles Huemer thinks political authority rests on:
- Generality – Most people are under the state’s authority and have obligations to obey;
- Particularity – The state is specifically designed to rule over the citizens within its own borders. Doing so outside of its borders is generally frowned upon without some cause. Likewise, citizens within a border of one state listening to one outside of that border is frowned upon unless they happen to coincide;
- Content-Independence – A law, whether good or bad, should be obeyed and citizens have an obligation to do so;
- Comprehensiveness – The state is not limited in its reach and can rule over a broad spectrum of human activities; and
- Supremacy – The state is the “law of the land” and no organization may properly overrule it.
In order for the defenders of the state to continue justifying political authority, they need to “accommodate and explain these five principles.” (p. 36) If they cannot, they’ll have trouble justifying everything from the war on drugs (which many statists disagree with) to taxation (which almost all statists agree with).
1.2 Two Kinds of Social Contract Theory
One prominent theory that tries to justify the state’s legitimacy is called the social contract theory. There are many versions of it. There are also many different premises for why the state is legitimate and has political authority to coerce us into obligations we wouldn’t otherwise have. But Huemer can’t reasonably be expected to tackle them all in one book so he decides to tackle some of the biggest he’s encountered.
It’s also worth noting that Huemer has said that his publisher had a word limit for the book so he literally couldn’t have included any more even if he wanted to. With that said, Huemer examines the traditional social contract theory first:
The theory holds that, at least in some countries, there is a contractual relationship between the government and its citizens. The contract requires the government to provide certain services for the population, notably protection from private criminals and hostile foreign governments. In return, citizens agree to pay their taxes and obey the laws. (p. 43)
This theory is taken from John Locke but it doesn’t seem to actually make much sense in practice. Did you sign an explicit contract with the state when you were born? Locke seemed to think you did. Even if that were true, how could this contract apply to non-signatories born later on? Locke seemed to think anyone who lived on that general territory after such an explicit social contract was entered into was implicitly agreeing to it.
Without going too much further with this line of thought it suffices for now to say that the history of the state is conquest. Take the United States, for example. The colonists, the European settlers, and many of the people who pushed west in search of gold all ejected the Natives from their homes and land. They killed, infected and drove out millions of people (most famously in the Trail of Tears) away from their families and property. This doesn’t sound like an explicit social contract to me.
The conquest-centric theory that this relies on is called conflict theory and is popular among not only anarchists like Harold Barclay and David Graeber, but even Marxists like Engels. Engels relied on an involuntary history of the state that depended on class antagonism developing beforehand. The idea that the social contract was ever explicit seems far-fetched. Even if one could find such an explicit contract at one point in time, it’s irrelevant to the present-day populace who entered into no such contract.
So maybe we didn’t explicitly agree to the social contract. Perhaps we implicitly agreed to it. This may sound ridiculous but consider going into a store and leaving with something without paying. It’d seem like you were undermining the implicit agreement that if you go into a store and want to buy something you have to pay for it. This is called “consent through acceptance of benefits.” There are exceptions to the general rule, however. For example, firefighters get free hot chocolates in my store. Sometimes one of them will come in around 10:30 PM and raise his cup before he leaves to let me know. But even in that case he still couldn’t take something else without paying. We have an implicit agreement about the chocolate but that’s an exception to the general implicit agreement of all other items requiring payment.
There are other sorts of implicit consent:
- Consenting passively by not explicitly saying otherwise when asked (sometimes);
- Consenting actively by engaging in a process that marks consent; and
- Consenting by presence, i.e., remaining within the confines of X space.
I’m most resistant to the idea that one can passively consent. As a proponent of affirmative consent I’m weary of justifying passive consent in any situation. Sometimes employees will “agree” to a given proposal or not raise protest over it. That doesn’t mean they like the proposal or actually want to participate. They might be too low on the totem poll to be able to meaningfully challenge it. As Robert Anton Wilson said, “communication only exists between equals.” If the power gap between two individuals is wide (such as between a citizen and a police officer, for example) then it becomes farcical to use “passive consent” as a guide to what the weaker party wanted in the transaction. This is likewise true for someone who fears for their life but doesn’t expressly refuse X because of that fear. How about the fact that we all get benefits from the government and accept them? We all stay in the United States, don’t we? And many folks still vote and some even campaign for people to rule over them! Doesn’t this imply consent?
Some of the only people who have explicitly rejected the government are anarchists and they’re hardly in the majority. Even the most hardened of anarchists would call the cops in an emergency. And the ones I know in the US have almost universally stayed put. Though many anarchists don’t vote, some do and many others still pay their taxes. So maybe the theory of implicit consent with the state isn’t ridiculous. To decide if that’s true or not let’s look at how Huemer defines what constitutes a valid agreement.
For Huemer it must consist of (at least) four parts: (p. 46-48)
- A reasonable way out;
- Explicit dissent is considered more important than implicit consent;
- Your opinion should hold some weight; and
- The agreement should be mutual and conditional.
None of these things really applies to the implicit social contract:
- It’s difficult to opt out of any given government let alone government altogether. That is, unless you’re going to move to the woods or Antarctica. And that hardly seems like a reasonable alternative. Opting out of a given state also creates significant financial burdens due to tax laws, immigration restrictions and agreements you may have made within the territory, not to mention the emotional costs of leaving loved ones and fondly remembered places behind. Then there’s the added hardship of assimilating into the new culture to which you emmigrate.
- Well, we anarchists are a minority but doesn’t our opinion still count? Huemer rightfully points out that the taxes and laws are imposed on anarchists regardless of our explicit dissent against the government. There are also plenty of tax resisters and war resisters that have been sent to jail because of their explicit dissent from certain policies. And more to the point: Has the state ever offered you a way out of this supposed social contract? Probably not.
- This one is even simpler than 2. because, as implied by 2., your opinion doesn’t hold much weight. Consider telling the IRS that you refuse to pay taxes. Not even because you consider taxation theft or because you’re an anarchist. Maybe you send them a letter because you object to what they’re funding, such as war or “liberal propaganda” in the schools. Whatever the case, the government is unlikely to value your opinion. See, for instance, Karl Hess and his tax resistance, if you still think your opinion is worth much.
- Is there mutual obligation for citizen and state? Based on court cases like Hartzler v. City of San Jose (1975), DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services (1989) and more famously (trigger warning for rape and sexual assault) Warren v. District of Columbia (1981) it doesn’t seem there is. In all three of these cases where horrible things happened to individuals, the court decided that the police have no duty to protect and that has been upheld consistently. So if they have no obligation to protect us, why do we have an obligation to pay them for said protection? This is just one example, but it’s a big hole in the argument for the legitimacy of the state.
Huemer’s arguments against the social contract are simple but effective. They aren’t based on controversial premises or conclusions that seem distant from their premises. In the end, the explicit social contract could, at best, be seen as a historical relic no longer relevant to the current discourse. The implicit social contract, though more plausible doesn’t hold water either, for a variety of reasons. As Huemer stipulates, society ought to be based on purely voluntary interrelations. The state routinely denies us this opportunity though, making its costs artificially high and its likelihood all but illegal. Instead, it continues to enforce its dictates regardless of its citizens’ opinions.
1.3 “Yeah, but hypothetically…”
Another argument that Huemer addresses is the hypothetical social contract. See, you didn’t explicitly or implicitly agree to the social contract. But if it were offered to you, you would. This also seems ridiculous. Even if there are some hypothetical situations under which we’d consent to political authority, what does that have to do with our current, non-hypothetical, reality? But even so, the hypothetical argument seems appealing on its face, in certain scenarios, as Huemer points out:
Suppose that an unconscious patient has been brought to a hospital, in need of surgery to save his life.
Under ordinary circumstances, physicians must obtain the patient’s informed consent before operating. In this situation, insistence on this principle would preclude the application of lifesaving medical care, as the patient is unable to either consent to or dissent from the treatment.
In such a case, it is generally acknowledged that the doctors should proceed despite the lack of consent. (p. 55)
Huemer disposes of this argument with ease since none of us can reasonably be inferred to be unconscious as in the example. Though one could justify coercion on the basis that wanting to live (as the patient presumably does) is a fundamental value, it seems nearly impossible to apply this doctor-patient hypothetical to a widespread as a social contract.
There are other attempts to justify the hypothetical social agreement. Some of them use a reasonableness or fairness standard, and some use a Rawlsian “veil of ignorance”. The main problem with these justifications is that none of them account for the fact that no system based on hypothetical consent could get everyone to agree to it. Or perhaps the interest is to get everyone who is “reasonable” (whatever that means) to agree to have a government. Huemer and I both agree that anarchists, on the whole, don’t seem less reasonable than most other people do. So how does this theory account for anarchists?
Even if all “reasonable” people agreed to the hypothetical social contract it still wouldn’t establish political authority. For how could the social contract be enforced on the multitude of still-existing “unreasonable,” unwilling people? Could you justify performing surgery on someone who had deeply held beliefs about the procedure’s wrongness by calling those beliefs “unreasonable”? Imagine a doctor and treating a devout Christian. Would it be moral for the doctor to perform a procedure on his Christian patient that he or she objects to based on religious beliefs?
There’s also Rawls’s veil of ignorance: If everyone was “equally rational” it is said that they’d agree on a standard. But similar problems appear. How would everyone agree? Is it a given simply because they’re all “equally rationally”? “Original position” or not, it is unlikely that everyone would come to the same result. In spite of the many commonsense institutions we share, we also sometimes reach different conclusions or we have very different reasons for supporting the same conclusions. And sometimes we just don’t agree on these intuitions at all.
In summary, Huemer shows that the hypothetical social contract is probably too far removed from reality to consider; but even if it isn’t too far removed to consider, it still fails to show how political authority could be applied across the board to each and every individual.
1.4 The (Lack of) Authority Invested in Democracy
Okay, maybe political authority doesn’t arrive out of unanimous consent. But what about appealing to the majority, as is the case with the democratic justification for the state? Although it seems like a more practical and realistic justification, democracy has yet to be ethically justified, despite many attempts.
Let’s say you’ve undertaken the all-important task of buying pizza. You want plain cheese (or extra cheese, if you have to have toppings) but the rest of your (disgusting) friends want something else. Say that they decide to buy a large pizza with anchovies and tomatoes despite what you’ve expressed. This by itself would be rude but it wouldn’t necessarily be unethical. However, what if they then said you were responsible for paying for it? And if you don’t pay your share they’ll take your money by physical force? Obviously pizza is serious business, so we might consider this a less egregious offense. In any case though it’d still be unethical.
Yet, this scenario is roughly equivalent to democracy (majoritarian state-democracy to be exact). So the burden is now on them, as Huemer says, to make the case for the utilization of violence. What makes the state so special that it can use violent means to accomplish its ends, while forbidding individuals from doing the same? Perhaps the process is fair and equitable as Joshua Cohen tries to establish. Or perhaps, as Thomas Christiano says, the democratic process is the best way to treat everyone as equals. Huemer examines both of these claims and concludes they are dissatisfying.
First, Cohen sees the ideal democratic process that’d legitimize the state as follows:
- Participants take their deliberation to be capable of determining action and to be unconstrained by any prior norms.
- Participants offer reasons for their proposals, with the (correct) expectation that those reasons alone will determine the fate of their proposals.
- Each participant has an equal voice.
- The deliberation aims at consensus. However, if consensus cannot be achieved, the deliberation ends with voting. (p. 74)
Much like other hypothetical situations Huemer has evaluated, he’s right to point out that this has nothing to do with actual reality. For example, what deliberation could be “unconstrained” by the prior ideas of the ones deliberating? Since when do the participants’ reasons alone decide a democratic process? We’re all aware of lobbyists and the enormous influence money has on democratic institutions. And the deliberation, at least in the United States, has never, to my knowledge, aimed at consensus. Even a more decentralized and intentional community like Occupy Wall Street, which had a lot of consensus-based decisions, wouldn’t be able to attain 1. or 2.. In fact it would only fulfill 3. in a more approximate sense and 4. perhaps the best.
Cohen suggests that perhaps it’s a goal for actual democracies to aspire to. But given that no democracies even come close (let alone much more voluntary, decentralized and intentional, consensus-based communities) it still doesn’t seem relevant to our present situation. But even if this aspirational democracy did exist, it would need to justify its coercive element, as Huemer explains:
Your colleagues and students have voted, over your objections, to have you pay for everyone’s drinks.
Now add the following stipulations to the example: before taking the vote, the group deliberated.
Everyone, including you, had an equal opportunity to offer reasons for or against forcing you to pay for everyone’s drinks.
The others advanced arguments that it would be in the best interests of the group as a whole to force you to pay.
They attempted to reach a consensus.
In the end, they were unable to convince you that you should pay, but everyone else agreed that you should pay.
Are you now obligated to pay for everyone? Are the other members of the group entitled to compel you to pay through threats of violence?
You have rights – in this case, a right to choose whether and how to spend your money and a right to be free from harmful coercion – which are not negated or overridden by the mere fact that a decision to violate your rights was preceded by a fair and reasoned deliberative process. The fairness of the process does not enable it to somehow sidestep all preexisting ethical entitlements and restrictions. Likewise, it is obscure how the sort of deliberation Cohen describes, even if it were to actually occur, would confer political legitimacy on the state. Individuals have a preexisting prima facie right not to be subjected to coercion. Deliberation, however fair and reasoned, does not by itself eliminate that right. Reasons for overriding individuals’ prima facie rights can of course be offered, and the offering of such reasons may be part of a deliberative process.
But the deliberative process does not constitute a reason in itself for suspending
individuals’ prima facie rights. (p.77)
But what if the only way to show people their due respect is through democratic laws? This is the argument that Thomas Christiano puts forth. As Huemer points out, it fails. And Huemer believes it fails even after granting the concession that, “we have a state whose laws are genuinely authorized by the people, whatever that may amount to.” (p. 78)
Huemer explains that treating each other equally under Christiano’s definition means not putting our own individual judgments over those of others. And part of that is treating everyone’s interests equally and hence obeying democratic laws. For example, if someone is disobeying a democratic law, they are treating their neighbors as below them. It’s unclear how this justifies political authority. If we should treat everyone equally and not place our judgements above those of others, then there seems to be everyday situations where we’d be acting immorally. And if I have a general obligation not to put my judgements over those of others, as Christiano states, what exempts the state from that obligation?
For example, most people would agree that I have the right to spend my money on bubblegum instead of donating that money to charity. But if I don’t have an obligation to donate to the charity instead of buying the gum then why do I have an obligation to pay taxes instead of buying gum? Where is the difference, exactly, in placing myself above society in the one case and not in the other?
There are also compelling reasons for not obeying laws. Were protesters in the 1960s acting immorally by disobeying Jim Crow laws? They obviously did see some people’s value judgments as below their own. It seems odd to claim that this alone made their actions immoral. Huemer has other reasons why putting one’s own values ahead of others’ may not be immoral. One may simply have better values, or they may know more than the majority of other people in society who crafted the law, etc. Still, this seems presumptive as a general rule. For example, if you tried to use this as an excuse for violating Huemer’s earlier example of not paying for a meal you should’ve paid for it wouldn’t work out so well. You might also think a given rule or policy is unjustified but you might suffer from a false presumption of knowledge.
More fundamentally, the state’s use of coercion doesn’t result in more equality. In fact, that way of seeing others as epistemologically inferior seems worse than what Christiano criticizes.
As Huemer points out:
Christiano argues that one fails to show proper respect for the judgment of other members of one’s society when one refuses to go along with democratic laws. These laws normally come with threats to impose punishment on those who do not follow the law, backed up by credible threats of violence against those who attempt to avoid punishment.
On the face of it, the disrespect for persons and the violation of equality involved in issuing and carrying out such threats are far more palpable than the supposed disrespect shown by those who do not comply with the laws. A majority that votes for a given law is authorizing this kind of coercion. Prima facie, therefore, it is this majority that is guilty of violating the requirement to treat other persons as equals. (p. 84, emphasis added)
If Christiano wants to use democracy to legitimize political authority, he’ll need to justify the use of democracy’s inherent coercion. He never makes the case for why unwilling people should be subjected to laws they find unjust or acknowledges how such force plays into political authority. As Huemer states, “In the end, democratic authorization can account for neither the obligation to obey the law nor the right to impose the law on unwilling persons by force.” (p. 87)
1.5 The (Minimal) Power Invested in Consequentialism
An even simpler defense of government, Huemer argues, is found in consequentialism. Consequentialism is the ethical theory that claims the consequences of an action are central to determining the justness of the action. Here, the statist appears to have a case, as government (just or unjust at its base) gives us many benefits. These benefits are not only good (and sometimes necessary), they also could only be expected to be provided by government (or so the statist argues). The benefits argument typically relies on three state-provided services for its primary support, according to Huemer:
- Protection from criminals through agencies like the police;
- A centralized and precise set of social rules applied to everyone; and
- The military.
Huemer gives another generous concession to the benefits argument by agreeing with its premise and still concludes there’s no case for political authority. Huemer also takes on the argument that says refusing to obey the state will have a negative influence on society. Maybe chaos will reign or social morale will be damaged due to the lack of faith in the democratic process. Consider the destructive consequences of citizens disobeying laws en masse, they say.
Certainly, some laws disobeyed would lead to unrest and a breakdown in overall morale. But simply disobeying petty laws like jay-walking hardly seems capable of bringing down government. Ditto for disobeying drug laws. Other criminal laws like robbery and assault are immoral irrespective of whether they’re codified as such under the law. Failure to abide by those laws is part of a larger moral failure regardless of the laws on the books. And it’s unlikely that my selective disobedience does much beyond possibly influencing one or two others to do the same. But, you might suggest, what if everyone disobeyed? Then we’d be in trouble, right? Maybe, but it doesn’t prove that doing it individually is wrong. Let’s use an example via Huemer:
Suppose I decide to become a professional philosopher. This seems permissible. But what if everybody did this? Everyone would philosophize all day, and we would all starve. Presumably this does not show that it is morally wrong to be a professional philosopher. We will not in fact starve, because the farmers are not all going to become philosophers merely because I decide to become one. (p. 93)
On a personal note, I didn’t find the prospects of becoming a professional philosopher very good. So I think we can all breathe a little easier. Perhaps though, it’s unfair to others if I disobey the state. We’re all paying taxes, right? What makes me so special and important that I can refuse to pay taxes? Doesn’t that money go to schools, roads and other valuable services that others utilize? Huemer says this “unfairness” argument only holds up in certain cases.
Taxes may be a good case for political obligation because defense and security services might not exist in their current form without everyone paying for them via taxation. But that doesn’t establish the need for general political authority. Charity and the social safety net wouldn’t disappear with the dissolution of the state. The sense of obligation might still arise to help provide for the defense of the community even without taxation, be it through voluntary payments or even through charitable donations to those unable to defend themselves. This example, like others Huemer points out, highlights the distinction between political and moral obligations. The absence of political authority wouldn’t result in the disappearance of moral obligations. As Huemer points out, the edicts the state don’t solely determine our shared morality.
Another problem with the claim that failure to obey laws results in unfairness to those who remain obedient has to do with dissenters. Dissenters aren’t only anarchists. They may include anti-war advocates, tax resistors, social hermits and even people who simply want a different government. The number of different types of dissenters is large enough that the statist must address the topic in order to legitimize political authority.
The problem is that there are situations where reasonable disagreement arises on complex topics such as war, immigration, etc. Someone might refuse to support a given policy by refusing to help pay for it. That doesn’t mean the person seeks a free ride. In the case of the dissenter, it has nothing to do with cost, and everything to do with that person making a political statement. Forcing the dissenter to pay just because the service benefits others in the community seems equally, if not more unfair, than the non-paying dissenter.
Perhaps the coercion is justifiable if we claim that an emergency would occur without it. Maybe, as some statists (and philosophers) have claimed, we’d have chaos if people just followed their own moral compasses and ignored laws they considered unjust. Coercion might minimize the risk of full-scale chaos. Huemer points out that individual scenarios in which coercion is justified are context-dependent. Putting the onus on the state to justify the coercion in each context is hardly as burdensome as most statists claim.
Take the example of an ill person needing medical attention who will soon die without it. The ill person has no means of transportation to the hospital other than to steal his neighbor’s car. As Huemer argues, theft seems acceptable here so long as there is no other better way for the person to get to a hospital. Putting such a burden of proof on the state would restrict their coercive activity to emergency situations. As Huemer concludes:
…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 allegedly would 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 minimal amount of money from its citizens necessary to provide the “indispensible goods” that justify its existence. (p. 100)
According to Heumer, the state is justified, at best, in such limited activities as to amount to minarchist government. Minarchism is certainly not what most current defenders of the state are aiming for. And keep in mind that the minarchism conceded by Huemer is granted only when one accepts the premise the state must provide these essential services. Both Huemer and I disagree with that premise, and I will revisit that topic in Part 2.
Finally, to the extent the state is justified in its coercion under certain “emergency” situations, will defenders of the state also permit individuals to coerce under like scenarios? If so, then what claim to supremacy does the state have in this case? I agree with Huemer that the consequentialist argument comes closest to successfully defending the state’s political authority. I also agree with Huemer that individuals ought to have the same level of authority as the state (if we’re going to have a state at all). But the version of the state that Huemer so generously grants seems like a pretty toothless one when you consider that individuals would have the moral authority to carry out the state’s functions as they see fit.
So the end result (or consequence you could say) would likely be anarchism.
1.6 What has Authority Done to Our Brains?
At this point, Huemer has concluded his investigation of what theories may or may not justify political authority. He now investigates what our belief in authority has done to us, historically. To do this, he cites historical examples like the My Lai Massacre, in which over 300 unarmed and innocent civilians were killed, purely based on the orders of higher ups.
The massacre was initially covered up and only when it went public was anyone get charged with crimes. The soldiers who participated claimed they were “only following orders,” a defense one would think would be illegitimate after Nuremberg. Even so, only one person was ever held legally accountable. His punishment: Three years of house arrest. Meanwhile, the three people who tried to protect the innocent villagers were initially vilified and only decades later got any sort of positive recognition. By that time, one of the individuals was already dead.
The main lesson to take away from the My Lai Massacre is that the belief in authority and in-group bias can result in a dangerous lack of accountability. There were even reports that some soldiers who knew the massacre was going to happen moved away from it so as not to be involved. This is not to pretend that these soldiers had an easy decision to make. To have acted rightly, they’d have had to disobey their superiors and faced the personal consequences for doing so. The point is not to lambaste the soldiers who decided not to get involved. After all, there were plenty of good reasons for them not to do so. And that’s the point. The existence of authority with the addition of in-group bias perpetuated the murder of hundreds of innocent people, a cover-up, and misplaced hate, a gross miscarriage of justice for the murderers.
Of course events like these don’t in and of themselves don’t delegitimize political authority, let alone a case for anarchism. As Huemer says in this chapter “…is it not more likely that I and the handful of other anarchists have made a mistake than that almost everyone else in the world has?” (p. 107)
Thankfully, there are reasons to not conclude as much. I shall highlight some of the strongest ones I found in this chapter:
- Stockholm Syndrome;
- Social Proof and Status Quo Bias; and
- Cognitive Dissonance.
At first, saying that the majority of the populace has a case of Stockholm Syndrome goes against common sense. But the main aspects of Stockholm Syndrome seem amply fulfilled by the presence of the state in a given society:
- The state is a credible threat;
- Escape from it seems costly to the point of impracticality;
- It’s nigh impossible for individuals to defend themselves against the government;
- There is much kindness perceived on the part of the government even when it does objectively awful things;
- While citizens aren’t isolated from the outside world, most of their information comes from within the nation-state they live in. Those in other nation-states are in similarly situated.
So maybe Stockholm Syndrome leading to obedience of political authority isn’t all that far-fetched after all.
Huemer talks at length about social proof and status quo bias. They are similar concepts but have subtle differences. “Social proof” happens when you believe something because a lot of other people believe in it. People assume that the right thing to believe must be what most people believe. Otherwise, why would so many believe in it? Huemer gives plenty of good reasons why appealing to the most commonly held opinions isn’t necessarily a bad idea (and indeed may often be prudent), but there’s definitely still problems with uncritically adopting common positions. Especially if the main reason for doing so is because most others hold that position.
Status quo bias, while similar, is more about action than theory. Whereas social proof mostly revolves around personal belief influenced from the outside, status quo bias has more to do with what we as a society tend to do. For instance, if most people show deference to police officers, which in turn causes others to do so who might not agree with such deference, status quo bias has kicked in. This might happen because those other people will shame them, or because the police might assault them for not following their orders, etc. Whatever the reason for engaging in status quo bias, there’s always a certain amount of it present when someone gets beat up by the police for “resisting”. People ask, “Why weren’t they calmer?” and “Why did they resist?” All of which just ends up further entrenching the status quo view that people ought to show deference to authority.
Finally, cognitive dissonance is the conflict between two simultaneously held values. This conflict may make us reflect on our self-image as opposed to how we actually act, or vice versa. As an example, someone who says they care about the poor but then supports things like zoning laws, engages in cognitive dissonance. Many times, the person continues to hold both of these values, even after being shown how much harm zoning laws can do to the poor. As Huemer writes:
This psychological principle generates a bias in favor of recognizing political authority. Almost all members of modern societies have frequently submitted to the demands of their governments, even when those demands required actions that they would otherwise be strongly disinclined to perform.
For example, most have paid very large amounts of money to the state in satisfaction of its taxation demands. How do we explain to ourselves why we obey? We could explain our behavior by citing fear of punishment, habit, the drive toward social conformity, or a general emotional drive to obey whoever holds power. But none of those explanations is emotionally satisfying. Much more pleasing is the explanation that we obey because we are conscientious and caring citizens, and we thus make great sacrifices to do our duty and serve our society.
Philosophical accounts of political authority seem designed to bolster just that image. (p. 114)
There are many other case studies and reasons why someone might obey authority but those were the three I found most compelling.
1.7 …But What if There’s No State?
Well, now hold on now!
What about the state’s policies?
What about their agents?
What about individuals who are outside the state’s service?
What will happen if the state’s political authority is considered illegitimate and illusory?
Not to worry, says Huemer.
First off, even if we all recognized no authority in the state, this doesn’t necessarily mean we have to abolish it. It just means that individuals aren’t obligated to obey any of the state’s edicts simply because they are edicts. They could still obey certain state laws. But they would not be doing so because they are state laws, but instead because the laws mesh with their own moral code. They’d therefore be following their own commands, not the state’s. It may even result that the bulk of their actions still coincide with the state’s edicts.
So Huemer reveals a distinction in two kinds of anarchism — the philosophical and the political (which I agree with Huemer, is a misnomer). The former advocates a lack of obligation to the state. The latter claims not only do we have no obligation to the state, but we should also strive towards statelessness. The latter is not only a rejection of political authority, it’s also an argument to replace it with a system lacking political authority. So what implications would this have for some of the state’s larger undertakings?
I’ll mention the ones I found most important:
- Protection of Individual Rights; and
- Taxation and Government Finance.
Huemer’s goal in this section is to show prominent examples of unjust laws that fail to justify the use of coercion. First, immigration — the use of violence to prevent people from crossing imaginary boundaries some refer to as “borders”. Justifications for state borders are generally twofold. 1) Negative economic consequences resulting from a new immigrant population; and 2) Cultural erosion brought about by new ways of life being introduced into one’s existing society. As understandable as these concerns may be they don’t justify the use of violence by the state. Violence isn’t warranted because some residents might suffer competition from the new immigrant class. Nor is violence justified because your way of life might be influenced (for better or worse) the new immigrant class.
To be clear, you could tell the immigrant to leave your property for any reason. But no one owns the borders in a given country. Claiming that the government owns them would be asserting political authority, and as we have seen, that claim hasn’t yet been justified. Even within a voluntary community it would be difficult to justify most borders beyond those of your own personal property. To keep immigrants from crossing borders within your community, you would have to somehow show that community-owned property, or property wholly unowned, is also off limits to them. This seems analogous to asserting political authority.
It should be pointed out that there’s a difference between land no one owns and common resources. If a group of people own a particular house or a particular plot of land (think of a community or collective’s garden) then I think it could be justifiable to turn someone away if the given participants decide.
On the other hand, even in such limited contexts with personal property there are most likely side-constrains on exclusion. Consider a malnourished entrant in your community who only wants some food before he returns home. For some reason perhaps, you don’t want him on your property. That seems objectionable on a moral level but not from a property standpoint. But if they try to interact with your neighbor who is willing to nourish them and give them food, are you justified in using violence against them to stop the exchange?
As Huemer says,
If a person is starving, and you refuse to give him food, then you allow him to starve. But if you take the extra step of coercively interfering with his obtaining food from someone else, then you do not merely allow him to starve; you starve him. The same point applies to lesser harms: if, for example, Marvin merely suffers malnutrition as a result of being unable to reach the marketplace, Sam will have inflicted this harm upon him. (p. 139, emphasis in original)
I believe Huemer would argue that the harm would have to be demonstrably great or the cultural impact would have to be dire to justify the use of coercion. I agree. And just like Huemer, I think those situations are so minimal as to be almost practically irrelevant.
When it comes to “the protection of individual rights” Huemer actually suggests that if governments could justify the use of violence for something it would be this. One thing that strikes me about his argument (that I disagree with) is this:
Sam’s behavior in this last story is analogous to that of a government that pursues murderers, gives them fair and public trials, and imprisons them. There is nothing objectionable in such a practice. (p.140)
Being a prison abolitionist, I just can’t agree. Incarceration in our current prison system, for starters, is objectionable to me. Even imprisonment for those who violate the rights of others by such heinous acts as robbery, murder, or other cruel and violent means would be suffering disproportionately to the harm they caused. That’s because prisons are often places where rape, sexual assault and abuse by prison guards often happen and are hard to prosecute. Prison abuse is enabled by psychological authority, a concept Huemer illustrates using examples like the Stanford Prison Experiment. It involved 24 male students who were given the roles of either prisoner or prison guard. After only six days it was stopped because of the abuse that happened.
Now consider what that sort of power will do to someone when it’s their full-time job. Granted, the Standford Prison Experiment is hardly the best example to draw upon for Huemer. The “experiment,” if it could even be called that, was heavily biased and could hardly be reproduced without risking similar unethical results. Using a heavily-criticized social experiment as one’s basis for skepticism of authority seems dubious.
While an inadequate basis for delegitimizing political authority, the Stanford Prison Experiment is nevertheless instructive as a means of showing that people tend to identify with the roles they’re assigned. And sometimes those roles change them. Earlier, I linked an article about abusive Attica Prison Guards. One of those prison guard’s ex-wives remarked at the end of the article: “He was a very calm, laid back, easy going, fun person to be around. There is right and wrong, and I think he forgot that.” It’s easy to forget what’s right and wrong when you’re drunk on power. And that’s one of the many things that prison system can easily facilitate.
But even if all of that weren’t true the idea that somehow imprisoning people in cages is going to teach them what is wrong seems wrong itself. Punishment, as a concept, seems to put unwarranted faith in the idea that causing more harm to criminals will force them to stop their criminal behavior. This rarely seems to work. Often, there is even public outcry for the death penalty. The blood lust among the public for criminals who commit particularly brutal acts never ceases. Their quest for “justice” doesn’t end with the person being locked away, it continues on until the person is buried in the ground. So even if we had a much smaller prison system that only included violent offenders I would still have issues with it.
As an institution, prison thrives on criminals being defined as the “other”. They are something that doesn’t need to be treated, rehabilitated or even seen as human. Instead, they are “monsters,” things to be crushed, confined and killed if necessary. And there is no regard for the fact that they’re exposed to extreme violence from their fellow inmates. Additionally, prisons are often a breeding ground for better criminals, as opposed to reformed criminals. Why should we presume this would change just because it’s much smaller prison population?
With all of that said, let’s move on to taxation. How do we justify the coercive extraction of people’s incomes? Some theorists have claimed that property, as a social construct, is impossible to separate from the state and its protection of the same. So whatever the state says you owe them is what you owe. We could counter this claim by thinking that property is natural (and hence prima facie wrong to violate), partly natural, or not natural at all. I won’t go over all of the views here but I most sympathize with options two and three.
But regardless of which position you take, political authority must still be accounted for. It seems implausible to argue that taxation is moral if we have no philosophical obligation (at the very least) to follow the state’s edicts and it has no moral authority to issue those edicts.
Huemer offers a “fee-based” model for an alternative to state taxation. Being an anarchist, I’m not really interested in minarchist proposals and Huemer is mostly postulating this as a way to imagine a different sort of state. That said, if Huemer’s fee-based state allowed “customers” who didn’t pay state taxes to create their own private or community-based services, then it wouldn’t be much of a state at all. That’s partly because the state is an organization that claims a monopoly on certain “essential” services. If it’s not imposing taxation or hindering private competition then it’s not, by definition, a monopoly.
The implications for government agents are fairly simple. Either refuse to implement unjust policies (like arresting people for possession and use of drugs) or resign if that’s not tenable.
There would still be laws and customs adhered to in the “free society.” As we’ve discussed, moral laws would still be abided by. Why? Because people hold themselves to moral laws every day without needing to be reminded that there are political laws. There’s also no reason to think we’d have a world without consequences for unjust actions absent a state justice system. Personal rights, property rights, and community customs would still prevail. Only the nature of the legal system enforcing those rights and customs would look different.
Michael Huemer is perhaps one of the best thinkers I’ve seen from the anarcho-capitalist school of thought. His arguments are logically sound, his foundations are easy to grasp, his language is clear and concise and he is charitable to his opponents.
In certain parts of the book he not only charitably reconstructs his opponent’s argument to prove why it’s unfounded, he even gives some problems he thinks are actually more likely with his own position. I thought this was a brilliant move on Huemer’s part. It gives the sense that he’s very confident in his position but not dogmatic about it. He’s aware that there are problems and that he’s considered them, a very rare thing for someone to openly acknowledge, let alone acknowledge at all.
As you may have noticed I have very little to offer in way of criticism for the first part of this book. Huemer’s arguments against political authority are intuitive, powerful and simple in their deconstruction. His responses to everything from the social contract theory, consequentialism, to prominent academics who have tried (in vain) to justify the state’s authority are devastating.
The book is not without its flaws, though. Apparently the publisher had an explicit page limit for Huemer and this shows much more in the second section than the first. But even in this first section it’s obvious that there are a few bits that could’ve used more attention. Things about prison, more theories that justify political authority, more grappling with the prominent political theorists mentioned, etc. I think all of these things would’ve furthered Huemer’s case.
As Bryan Caplan says,
My main complaint about The Problem of Political Authority is that it’s not long enough. Indeed, the book should have three parts, not two. Part I powerfully critiques the morality of state authority. Part II counters the consequentialist defense of the existence of the state by arguing that the expected consequences of anarcho-capitalism are, at minimum, tolerable. This is to say the least an abrupt transition.
Though, as I mentioned before, Huemer literally couldn’t do this if he wanted to. We can only hope (as Caplan does) for a second edition that adds a few more chapters expanding on some of his points.
That said there just isn’t a lot to criticize here. I will fully disclose that I was already sympathetic to Huemer because of our shared interest in ethical intuitionism. And although I don’t agree with anarcho-capitalism, Part I isn’t about anarcho-capitalism. I could see just about any sort of anarchist making the claims that Huemer makes against political authority. Which is part of their appeal, naturally.
The near universal praise by almost anyone who took the time to read the book also speaks to its impressive quality. Even the Bleeding Heart Libertarian symposium on Huemer’s book, the sole intent of which was offering criticism, roundly acknowledged that the book was thoughtful, well written, clear and persuasive.
If you’re disappointed that you came all this way (and seriously, thank you if you did!) without any serious criticism for Huemer, don’t worry, that’ll be in the next part. That’s because the next part deals with Huemer’s case for an anarcho-capitalist society. It’s the best argument I’ve seen for anarcho-capitalism, but it’s still wrong in the end.
For now though, even if you’re not an anarcho-capitalist I highly recommend part one to you.
Even if you’re not an anarchist at all I’d recommend it to you.
It’s one of the clearest and more forceful arguments against political authority I’ve ever read.