The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey, by Michael Huemer (Palgrave McMillan – 2012)
Whether anarchy is good or not isn’t important. It’s whether it’s comparatively better than the alternatives.
Or at least that’s what Michael Huemer begins arguing in chapter eight of The Problem of Political Authority.
We have now reached the second part of Huemer’s book. You can find the first part of my review which covers the first half of Huemer’s book here.
In this part, I will primarily focus on whether Huemer’s particular model of anarchism is preferable to statism. I will also focus on whether there are viable alternatives to Huemer’s model. And whether Huemer’s model of anarchism — anarcho-capitalism — is a desirable model at all.
Just to spoil things a bit, I will say that Huemer has certainly made the strongest case for anarcho-capitalism I’ve seen, but I find it insufficient in the end. While it persuades me that anarcho-capitalism would likely be better than the alternative of statism, it doesn’t persuade me of much more than that. As a left-wing market anarchist, I believe there are alternative market systems that don’t involve any form of capitalism.
Now, comparing a form of anarchy to anything is difficult because we haven’t had anarchism in the way that Huemer or I advocate. At least not in any genuine, systematic sense. So to compare the two, I’ll rely on Huemer’s argumentation and my own ideas on what could improve his sketches. Ideas that I hope will aid them become less capitalistic and more anarchistic.
Even though Huemer’s argument here is weaker than in the first portion of the book, I don’t want to underplay how fantastic this section still very much is. Even if I reject Huemer’s ideal version of a stateless society, there’s plenty in it that seems preferable to a statist society. And further, some of what Huemer says is worth incorporating into any stateless society.
As in the first half of his book, Huemer’s arguments are clear, perceptive and beautifully argued. This is another point in his favor.
But now, on to the main attraction.
Statism as Utopia, Human Nature as Non-Predatory
Before I directly address Huemer’s arguments for statelessness, I’d be remiss if I didn’t first review some of his ideas on human nature and predatory actions by governments and individuals.
As is usually the case, Huemer’s premises aren’t very controversial:
- Humans are approximately rational — People have goals they work towards that are best realized when placed in familiar situations that aren’t overly complex;
- Humans are aware of their environment. People generally hold rational views that conform to their surroundings and what the consequences of interacting with what these surroundings will be, especially if the knowledge to do so is easily accessible;
- Humans are selfish but not sociopathic. Although you could donate to charity to save someone’s life, it’s more likely that money is going to buy your favorite pack of gum; but that’s not abnormal and you most likely would give your life for a dear friend or someone you care for deeply.
I agree with Huemer that these premises are pretty basic and seem mostly politically unbiased.
But Huemer runs into some trouble when he tries to apply this to history.
He repeats the oft-quoted line that the Pilgrims were starved by “communism” to prove that,”…if all are paid equally, and if there are no other rewards or punishments attached to quality and quantity of work, then people will not be very productive…” (p. 176):
An interesting but little-known illustration is provided by America’s first experiment with communism, which took place at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America. When the colony was established in 1607, its founding charter stipulated that each colonist would be entitled to an equal share of the colony’s product, regardless of how much that individual personally produced. The result: the colonists did little work, and little food was produced. Of the 104 founding colonists, two-thirds died in the first year — partly due to unclean water but mostly due to starvation. More colonists arrived from England, so that in 1609 there were 500 colonists. Of those, only 60 survived the winter of 1609-10. (p. 176)
It’s little-known within the larger culture but certainly not in the libertarian community where it’s been written at length by multiple authors. From Rothbard to Mises, and now Huemer, this historical inaccuracy has been repeated quite often.
But as Kevin Carson points out, there’s a difference between common property and corporate common property:
…according to [Richard] Curl [author of For All The People], relations between the Puritan settlers and the Merchant Adventurers make more sense in light of an entirely different subtext — the English peasantry’s relations with the landed classes in the Old Country:
“The colonists, most of them tenant farmers in the open fields of an old manorial hunting park in Nottinghamshire, considered that the investors’ demand essentially reduced them to serfdom. The settlers were asking for no more than was normal under England’s manorial system in effect since the Middle Ages. Peasants worked in the lord’s fields but also had time to work with individual plots for their household needs.”
Huemer also remarks that what “saved” the pilgrims was private property. But in a response to John Stossel who made the same point back in 2013, Carson responds that:
[A]s Curl describes it, the system of private plots adopted after the rebellion against the Merchant Adventurers wasn’t much like modern fee simple ideas of “private property,” either. It sounds more like the open-field system the settlers had experienced in Nottinghamshire: The family plots were ad hoc, to be periodically redivided, and not subject to inheritance.
[T]he new system the Pilgrims replaced them with were the age-old open field system that peasant villages had spontaneously created for themselves, in the absence of coercive interference, since neolithic times.
So according to Curl, not only did communism not doom the pilgrims but private property also didn’t save them. It was a corporation largely in collusion with the state that ruined them. And it was a property regime largely made up of loose ownership that actually helped them out.
Still, Huemer is correct to oppose state-communism and see it as utopian in its application.
Generally, anarchism is treated as a form of utopianism, but Huemer contends that this isn’t necessarily accurate. As long as “unrealistic levels of altuism” (p. 178), perfect rationality, psychological uniformity, persistence of the system and simultaneous worldwide adoption aren’t presumed, anarchism may breathe safely yet from charges of being “utopian”.
But given Huemer’s framing of human nature, it seems like statism is more utopian than anarchism.
As Huemer explains:
[T]he distinction between utopianism and realism is not a matter either of how far a proposal is from the status quo or of how far it is from the mainstream of political thought. The distinction between utopianism and realism chiefly concerns, roughly, whether a political or social idea requires violations of human nature. A mainstream political view might turn out to require such violations, while some radical
alternative does not. It is perfectly possible for a small change to be unfeasible, while some much larger change is feasible.
For example, we can say that the function of government is to protect the rights of its citizens, but nothing follows from this about what government will actually do. In the absence of an effective mechanism for inducing government agents to efficiently dispatch their stated functions, we cannot assume that citizens will receive appropriate protection. The point here is not that government will not protect us; the point is that whether government is an effective mechanism for protecting individual rights, promoting social welfare, or promoting any other aim needs to be established by evidence, not taken for granted simply because of the stated purpose of government. (p. 179)
The “argument from bureaucracy,” as I’ll call it, is just such a sort of appeal. People who use this appeal claim that because a certain rule exists it must be followed. This comes in handy if someone shares a very negative perspective on human nature, like Hobbes did. As this theory seems to act as if government agents would be exempt from human nature.
But why would this be so? Perhaps the statist thinks that the government’s agents are the best individuals amongst a given population. But if that is true, why are there so many political scandals? Why do so many illegal things happen up top that would normally be disastrous for people lower on the totem pole?
And aren’t those same people who are electing the “best” amongst them the same people aren’t fit to govern according to the Hobbesian? How would people who are supposedly so bad choose someone so good to lead them? In other words, how would people unfit to govern know who is best to govern?
It seems that quite often government agents are just as susceptible to human nature as anyone else. If anything, given their positions of authority, they’re more likely to face the pitfalls of human nature.
They are more likely to be sociopathic and not just selfish. They’re likely to be approximately irrational and not rational in their estimates. This is largely because they can externalize their costs on to others and still privately benefit. And they’re less likely to be aware of their environment. After all, they don’t have to deal with the consequences in many situations. So why bother learning about how to judge the consequences of their actions?
All of this sheds some light on why government is more likely to be utopian than anarchism.
Others may resist though and claim that while this Hobbesian notion of people may not exclude government agents, it’s still necessary to prevent larger aggression.
Ignoring that most genocides and wars are carried out by governments, why would this be the case?
Most people, though it may surprise the Hobessian, don’t have rational incentives to aggress against others.
Huemer considers the ideal Hobessian scenario: One where people are of generally equal strength and abilities and thus, according to Hobbes, would be likely to harm each other.
But as Huemer argues, if the two individuals in question have roughly equal strength, then, for a variety of reasons, it’d make no sense to commit aggression.
For one thing, the other person is liable to be able to resist and perhaps seriously injure you. But if you do win then you’re unlikely to have repeat successes. And if you do have successful repeated attempts you’re loudly signaling to the larger community that you’re dangerous and should be dealt with, most likely, in a violent way.
Perhaps not doing it by yourself is advisable. What if you banded together with others? Again, Huemer dismisses this by showing that your neighbors could just as easily band together as well. And besides that, you’re trying to join up with thieves and murderers. As Huemer delicately puts it,
People of this sort are not known for their trustworthiness, so there is a fair chance that one or more of the others will at some point attempt to cheat you and/or kill you. (p. 184)
An important conclusion that Huemer draws from this is that equal power breeds respect.
Even if all of the preceding reasoning was wrong, the fact is, we in the US don’t live in a state of nature. We live in highly technological society. One where weapons have become easier to access and wield and food is much easier to obtain. All of these things make conflict not only ridiculous, but easily vilified.
Huemer also states that a decrease in violence is largely due to liberality. By this he means that “the West” has “historically” seen violence as awful and now “civilized eyes” see it much differently. This is a fairly reductive approach to global cultures. There are many eastern cultures that don’t view violence as desirable, much less “honorable”.
Certainly, there’s some countries that may still have hangups about this (China and other even more totalitarian countries like North Korea spring to mind) but on the whole, even most people there don’t appear to relish violence.
Huemer’s assertions here also seem to fly in the face of history, which has traditionally seen “liberal” and western governments as colonizers of the rest of the world. So-called “liberal” countries have often been countries that reaped benefits from exploitation of indigenous or slave labor.
The argument from Huemer about “liberalism” also benefits from how broadly he’s defining “liberal”.
In a separate paper, called A Liberal Realist Answer to Debunking Skeptics: The Empirical Case for Realism Huemer conceives of liberalism as a “broad ethical theory” that:
(1) recognizes the moral equality of persons, (2) promotes respect for the dignity of the individual, and (3) opposes gratuitous coercion and violence. (p. 7)
Which, as Huemer admits in the same paper, makes “nearly every ethicist today” a liberal in some sense. Thus seemingly make the claim that countries are “liberal” definitionally watered down.
But even if that wasn’t the case, we couldn’t call America or most western powers historically (let alone currently) very liberal in such a sense, if at all. For as early as the mid 20th century, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. The firebombings of Dresden are also notable in a similar regard for their level of destruction.
Since then, the US military has engaged in a decade and a half war against “terrorism” in the Middle East based on entirely prefabricated lies. And in the process, that war has wasted billions of dollars, killed thousands of innocent people (many more if you consider the 1990s run-up to the US’s War on Terror) and got many US soldiers killed as well. This wasn’t some fringe idea either. It was supported by many in the American public for years.
Even now, individual violence against people who are disabled, queer, transgendered or immigrants is considered less important than violence against white and able-bodied folks. There’s been a long history of erasing the violence against the LGBTQA+ community as well as the neurodivergent community, from mental hospitals to street violence.
On top of all of this the US government has a long and eclectic history of backing oppressive regimes, whether through financial support, weapons support or technological support. In particular the CIA is well known to have contributed to many brutal dictatorships and government agencies like ICE, ATF, DHS who routinely violate our civil liberties.
The point being, while most of Huemer’s reasons for the lack of violence are strong, I’m not sure the liberality is particularly one of them.
Huemer tries to argue that there’s a difference between governments doing something and individuals doing something. And while that point is surely true, it doesn’t cut against my earlier points.
Most of the actions I mentioned were supported by the American populace (we can add that internment of the Japanese to this list) and thus not just the government. It’s certainly true that governments deal with different incentives than most people do. But their incentives also affect other individuals and the biases they normally have.
Recall those things that would prevent an average individual from attacking another, roughly equal, individual.
Governments simply don’t have the same incentives as Huemer shows:
If you decide to steal Abel’s food, he will have no effective means of resistance. If you kill Abel, his family and friends will have no effective means of vengeance. And however much they may recognize you as a threat, diffident neighbors will have no effective means of trying to neutralize that threat. There is no longer anything to hold you back from whatever you might wish to do to your hapless neighbors. As a rational egoist, therefore, you will certainly want to consider stealing most of Abel’s resources, then forcing him to keep working to produce more for you to steal. (p. 187)
But why would someone with tremendous power do that?
Well, the people at the top often enjoy having power for the sake of its exercise. There are also elements of cognitive biases and prejudice that can affect people’s desire or interest to persecute a given group of people. Also, governments often can (and do) externalize their costs. As such, there wouldn’t be much harm in persecuting a given class of people, let alone an individual.
For Huemer, concentration of power breeds abuse (p. 188). And that doesn’t just apply to totalitarian governments. Democratic governments are predatory as well. Whether through the tyranny of the majority, voter irrationality or governments disregarding their own failures due to their ability to externalize the costs onto taxpayers.
Are there any solutions to these problems?
Huemer highlights four possible options other people turn to in their defense of reformism:
- Checks and balances;
- Constitutional limits;
- The media as watch-dog.
While none of these options are completely useless, they are, in the end, inadequate to “be the solution to the constant, everyday malfeasance of government” (p. 193). Activism, for instance, would take far too much coordination for a public that has no rational reason to spend so much time on this.
It’s possible to split up duties and have some watchdog agencies watch certain parts of the government. This division of labor would make things more effective. But it likely wouldn’t be feasible in the long-term to organize so many people so that all parts of the government could be effectively watched. This would not only be a huge drain on resources, it’d likely come under intense government scrutiny. Said scrutiny would likely cost these organizations too much if it wasn’t already failing.
Besides that, even if you’re just looking at individual bills that get passed they tend to be lengthy and very technical.
Huemer gives a typical example:
The 2008 farm bill I have been discussing comprises 663 pages of legalese. Just knowing what the bill contains is a feat in itself, but tracing the effects of its hundreds of sections would require a background expertise in such areas as economics, agriculture, energy use, and international relations that would probably require years of study to acquire. And that bill was just one of the over ten thousand bills introduced into Congress that year. (p. 193)
Given all of this, what realistic hope do activists have to radically reshape the government? They may be able to achieve popular reform in some areas; that’s certainly possible and has happened historically. But it’s also been the case that popular movements which set out to reform the government have themselves been co-opted. In particular, they’ve often been co-opted by corporate leaders who want to profit off of growing trends.
An excellent example of this is the supposedly “progressive” movement of the early 20th century that aimed at getting labor reforms. In the end these labor reforms disempowered most labor unions and made radical labor unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). With the Taft-Harley and Wagner acts wildcat strikes and sympathy strikes become much harder. And thus a movement that wanted to empower workers ended up taking away their best tools by working with the state.
For more on how so-called progressive movements can be co-opted by business interests, I recommend Roy Childs’s Big Business and the Rise of American Statism (audio version here). Childs draws heavily on the work of New Left historian Gabriel Kolko who also wrote on the populist movements of the early 20th century and their co-optation business interests.
Checks and balances and constitutional limits are some of the main things we learn about in our civics classes. We are taught that the three branches of government (judicial, executive, legislative) are able to keep one another in line. The president can veto a the legislature’s laws and courts can strike down executive and legislative actions. Likewise, the Constitution is said to restrict the ability of the government to oppress us.
But the important thing isn’t what we’re taught, but the incentive structures that are actually involved in any of these processes. As Huemer asks, why wouldn’t the three branches work together for maximum power or profit? If an unjust law is passed by the legislature (i.e., one that clearly violates the civil liberties of American citizens), the other branches are only going to receive more money, or more authority, taking on new roles and expanded duties. What possible incentive could the other branches have to challenge the legislative branch on such a power grab?
Similarly with the Constitution, we’re supposedly gifted from the government limits upon itself. But we’ve seen over the past several decades rampant abridgements of basic freedoms: Privacy, freedom to peacefully protest against the state, freedom to travel without subjecting ourselves to invasive searches, etc.
As the 19th century individualist anarchist Lysander Spooner wrote:
Whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain — that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.
Why should we expect the Constitution to prevent abuses? There’s no other third party to impose restrictions on the government except the government itself. It’s tantamount (as I’ve argued before) to letting IBM’s legal department adjudicate customers’ claims against it. Who do you think IBM is going to rule in favor of? The customers or themselves?
Roderick Long, professor at Auburn University and Senior Fellow at C4SS, has written why Market Anarchism as a Constitutionalism makes more sense:
As for the desideratum of an “established, settled, known law,” markets seem likelier than government to converge on a relatively uniform set of laws for the same reason that they tend to converge on a single currency: consumer demand.
Consider: why are there no triangular credit cards?
Government regulation is not the reason; rather, if someone started offering cards that wouldn’t fit in the standard machines, nobody would accept them (unless forced to do so by law).
Similar reasons explain why the market no longer carries both Vhs and betamax video cartridges, but only V[HS]; the market creates uniformity when customers need it, and diversity when they need that instead. Diversity in movie titles available is a benefit to consumers; diversity in shape and size of video cassettes is not. Hence the market tends to provide the former and suppress the latter. (p. 135)
Long also uses the familiar IBM argument I’ve adopted:
Under anarchy, any dispute can be submitted to third-party arbitration; but under a governmental system, in disputes between a citizen and the state, the state – which as a monopoly of course recognises no judicial authority but its own –necessarily acts as a judge in its own case. division of governmental powers alleviates the situation somewhat, but even so, those with a grievance against one branch of an organisation are unlikely to receive unbiased justice from another branch of the same organisation.
(Would you feel secure in having your complaint against the marketing division of IBM adjudicated by the legal division of IBM?) (p. 137)
Long also uses comparative analysis between a limited government and an anarchist society. Long concludes that the incentive structures, mechanisms and the actual patterns of behavior that individual actors aim for matters much more than what’s written on paper.
Huemer, similar to Long, is invoking the notion that merely writing these laws out doesn’t guarantee anything.
The World Under Anarchy in Three Parts (Security, Justice and Defense)
Minarchists typically think the state should handle law enforcement, the legal system and some sort of military for solely defensive purposes. Other minarchists may add certain things. Maybe a given minarchist would also like the state to continue running libraries, firehouses and schools too.
Whatever the case, Huemer is taking the minarchist at their ideological core. The minarchist as an individual may desire other things, but these services are particularly crucial to the government today and historically. So even if the minarchist wants more or less from their ideal government, the anarchist will have a much stronger claim if they can prove anarchist societies can handle these things.
The first thing Huemer addresses security, rooted in Rothbardian and Friedmanite notions of private security firms. Huemer correctly stipulates that security firms would arise like any firm in a freed market — through sufficient demand.
Although many specifics can’t be given about what fully privatized security might look like, according to Huemer, this is true of any untried institution. Anarchism as a whole is particularly susceptible to this problem. This is largely due to anarchism being pluralistic, diverse and competitive. Many different societies and communities would emerge, each with their own unpredictable subculture.
But none of this is a problem. Part of being an anarchist is taking the notion that you just don’t know. The unknown is unpredictable. Even though statists may like to criticize anarchists for being vague, we simply don’t have the luxuries that they do. We don’t want everything to be (as James C. Scott, in Seeing Like a State, terms it) legible. We want there to be a diverse array of functions and forms. If we could somehow “plan” most of the inner workings of a given society, then we most likely have already failed.
Anarchists shouldn’t be required to give blueprints for their society. We can give sketches, discuss new incentive structures and have forecasts. But we can’t plan everything in a centralized way. Things will happen organically and spontaneously because that’s the kind of order empowered people trend towards.
But what about courts?
Here too, Huemer insists on private arbitration firm: Firms that exist and compete on the freed market with each other in the name of achieving some sort of communal notion of justice. Huemer also argues that because third party arbitration is already preferable in most cases, most people would turn to them as access increases. However, when it comes to one on one disputes, Huemer seems to only think violence will be chosen.
I’d argue that the most empowered societies, communities, neighborhoods, etc. would have folks who don’t need to rely on private security firms. People being able to resolve their own problems directly without getting third parties involved seems more likely in a freed market. The costs of non violent, direct dispute resolution would be far less than any alternatives, most likely. But you’d have to have a good relationship with the other party to the dispute. They’d most likely be an already-existing friend, a neighbor, or a family member. In these cases, peer-to-peer resolution may make more sense than third party resolution. Huemer is generally correct that third party dispute resolution is likely to produce fairer results. But I think he underestimates the ability of people in an anarchist society to resolve disputes on their own.
However, a question must be raised: Is this an anarchist society?
Huemer seems to think so and argues the difference between this system and all other existing forms of governance include:
The first difference is one of voluntariness versus coerciveness. Governments force everyone to accept their services; as we have seen (Chapter 2 and 3), the social contract is a myth. Protection agencies, by contrast, are chosen by customers, who make actual, literal contracts with them.
The second difference is one of competition versus monopoly. Governments hold geographical monopolies on protection and dispute-resolution services, and changing one’s government tends to be very difficult and costly, so governments feel little competitive pressure. In the anarchist system, protection agencies and arbitration companies are in constant competition with each other. If one were dissatisfied with one’s protection agency, one could switch to another agency at little cost without moving to another country. (pp. 208-209)
My main claim throughout the rest of this review is that Huemer succeeds in establishing this system is, “…less abusive and more responsive to people’s needs than coercive, monopolistic systems.” but that this doesn’t establish it as an anarchist system per se.
Merely having a non-monopolistic and non-coercive society doesn’t mean you’ve achieved anarchism.
For example, as Charles Johnson wrote in Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin:
Even in a completely free society, everyone could, in principle, still voluntarily agree to bow and scrape and speak only when spoken to in the presence of the (mutually agreed-upon) town Chief, or unthinkingly agree to obey whatever restrictions and regulations he tells them to follow over their own business or personal lives, or agree to give him as much in voluntary
taxes on their income or property as he might ask.
So long as the expectation of submission and the demands for wealth to be rendered were backed up only by means of verbal harangues, cultural glorifications of the wise and virtuous authorities, social ostracism of
unruly dissenters, and so on, these demands would violate no-one’s individual rights to liberty or property.
Huemer’s case then, revolves around a fairly thin notion of anarchism. Later on, Huemer will add that an anarchist society needs certain cultural tendencies such as liberality to make it more sustainable. But at its base, Huemer’s differentiation of anarchism and the government seems insufficient.
Granted, the idea of anarchism isn’t actually a stranger to left-libertarianism, historically speaking. Benjamin Tucker, noted left-libertarian theorist, defined anarchism in State Socialism and Anarchism as:
…the doctrine that all the affairs of men should be managed by individuals or voluntary associations, and that the State should be abolished.
This too seems like a very thin version of what an anarchist society looks like. All it involves is the state being abolished, voluntary associations take over and people don’t harm each other. But again, we can easily imagine a horribly unjust society where no violence takes place, no coercive or monopolistic institutions rule and so on.
The lack of violence in a given society doesn’t mean, for example, that the power dynamics involved are healthy. It doesn’t mean that people’s practices on their own property wont’t encourage more general, undesirable cultural norms to develop. Norms like homophobia, racism, sexism, militarism, etc. can all be held by completely private and voluntary organizations in non-violent ways.
Now, you could certainly argue that such institutions wouldn’t likely last due to competition. But if they do then there’s nothing to say, according to Huemer, that it’s non-anarchistic. This is the case even though these norms often justify violence or encourage it by reducing other individuals to their identities.
My main point here is to rebuke the notion that just because we have a non-coercive (in a physical sense) and non-monopolistic society we have an anarchist society. Is Huemer right that it’d be preferable to any and all existing governments? Most likely. But contrary to his conclusion I don’t think that means we’ve necessarily gotten to an anarchist society. It has a lot of potential, but I don’t think it’s quite there yet.
The World Under Anarchy: Security
The first objection is that competitive agencies would have incentives to engage in violence with each other. Given this, an anarchist society (as Huemer sees it) would be plagued by “interagency war” (p.209). Huemer readily concedes that violence periodically happens in society and attributes that to recklessness. But he insists that business managers aren’t as likely to have issues with recklessness because of their desire to have their firm profitable.
Huemer adds that if they somehow would be inclined towards recklessness that market forces would work against them.
Here, we have another problem with Huemer’s vision of anarchism: CEOs and bosses.
Huemer supposes that the people on top of hierarchical chains tend to make rational choices like most people. But CEOs of big corporations or more generally business managers often deal with knowledge that is not easily consolidated unto just themselves. Often the workers have a far better grasp on what’s going on with relation to ground level things. This is due to Hayekian notions of localized knowledge.
This is variable of course and it’s likely in smaller firms that these problems diminish. If we’re talking about a CEO of a small corporation then it’s entirely possible that these factors of irrationality would diminish. But even if that’s the case that doesn’t mean there aren’t better alternatives.
Huemer seems to be suggesting that absent the state, the capitalist firms would remain largely the same except there’d be no state regulations. For myself and other left-wing market anarchists this isn’t sufficient for an anarchist society to exist.
A capitalist economy and its problems don’t merely stem from the state but also concentrations of wealth in the hands of those who have the most. This isn’t to say that inequality is per se a bad thing. For instance, I have no objection to a doctor making more than a plumber. And likewise I don’t think it’s de facto unjust for someone to have more than someone else.
But there are different ways of acquiring wealth. And many corporations seem to get their systematic privileges from the state. The same institution which Huemer claims has no real authority.
Without the state it is certainly true that bosses and managers would likely have less privileges and benefits than they did before. But there are also intrinsic cultural benefits from seeing yourself as the boss over other people. And it seems plausible that if individuals are shielded from rationality and imbued with certain cultural privileges, they may have ample opportunity to shield themselves from responsibility as well.
Now, whether this is possible or not isn’t at all important. The point is that if it did happen, Huemer’s model of anarchism would likely have little to say about it. There’s no way to critique things like bossism, hierarchy (see also here and here), the irrationality that stems from authority and the way that alternatives would tend to be smaller, flatter and more numerous than before.
I’m not sure whether that’s just because Huemer takes hierarchy and bosses as a given. Maybe he thinks it’s “natural” as Rothbard argued. Or perhaps he finds it results in better coordination, consequences, utility or something else to have hierarchy. I’m not entirely sure but either way I find Huemer’s premises wanting and not explained enough.
It’s also notable that Huemer, in his entire book, never mentions any alternatives. There’s no engagement with more democratically organized firms that are run on the basis of decentralized consensus building, for instance. There’s no mention of people being independent contractors or forming short-term partnerships. The only thing that Huemer seems to involve in his sketch of his anarchist ideal is the traditional capitalist model absent the state.
Granted, Huemer is pressed for both space and time. And it’s possible I’m looking too much into his lack of commentary on such things. Huemer may be what I’ve heard termed an anarcho-“capitalist” rather than an “anarcho”-capitalist. That is to say, he’s much more interested in anarchism (at least as he sees it: abolition of the state and voluntary with private firms replacing the useful functions) than whatever those particular arrangements look like.
At any rate, Huemer is right when he says:
But war is, putting it mildly, expensive. If a pair of agencies go to war with one another, both agencies, including the one that ultimately emerges the victor, will most likely suffer enormous damage to their property and their employees. It is highly improbable that a dispute between two clients would be worth this kind of expense. (p. 210)
War is particularly expensive because the agencies in question have to front all of their costs. They can’t outsource their costs and internalize their benefits through the state anymore. This severely limits the abilities of companies to act recklessly.
Thus, my disagreement here doesn’t so much revolve around Huemer’s particular response to the criticism. Instead, my issues lie in how he sees these problems resolving themselves. I agree the freed market can handle such issues in elaborate but elegant ways but disagree about how skewered it’ll be towards the private realm.
Even if the freed market somehow failed at an institutional level (via the people up top) the saving grace may be that individual people tend to not want to murder. And to Huemer’s credit he does admit that managers often have auras of authority, though he downplays it, comparing it to the authority of government.
While it’s certainly true that overall governments have much more authority and an aura of legitimacy than bosses do, it’s still the case that bosses represent a notable role of authority in our daily lives. I can give you far more examples of how my life was made directly and measurably worse because of my boss. I can’t really do the same for the government except every April 14th of the year.
On the other hand, it’s certainly true that there are plenty of awful interventions the government does to create the world around us. And I experience that every day in both direct and indirect ways. But they are more often than not indirect, subtle and not as personal as the conflicts I’ve had with bosses.
But if it would be so profitable for individuals to be protected from crime what about when they’re criminals themselves?
Huemer responds to this:
First, far more people wish to be protected against crime than wish to be protected in committing crimes. Almost no one desires to be a crime victim, while only a few desire to be criminals.
Second, the harms suffered by victims of crime are typically far greater than the benefits enjoyed by those who commit crimes. Ordinary people would therefore be willing to pay more to avoid being victimized than criminals would be willing to pay for the chance to victimize others. (p. 213)
It’s possible one could respond by asking why informal groups of criminals couldn’t band together and help subsidize the cost of crime. But the first objection applies here too, thus making it difficult to form very large-scale bands of thieves, for instance.
Even if that wasn’t an issue however, as Huemer has stated before, bands of criminals don’t typically last too long. This is in part because criminals aren’t likely to be (if not in the short-run then the long-run) trustworthy or interested in long-lasting partnerships. They tend to be in it for the short-term and even when they’re not, they’ll still run into the problem of high risk and low reward in a more anarchic society.
Perhaps one of the most important issues is whether security would be affordable to the poor.
Overall I find Huemer’s response to this question lackluster at best as it mostly involving hand-waving.
In such [relatively free market] societies, for how many of these other goods and services is it true that suppliers cater solely to the rich, providing no products suitable for middle- and lower income customers? Is clothing manufactured solely for the wealthy, leaving the poor to wander the streets naked? Do supermarkets stock only caviar and Dom Pérignon? Which chain is larger: Walmart or Bloomingdale’s? (p. 217)
The problem being identified, for me at least, isn’t whether a given service would be monopolized by the rich but whether they’d have generally better access to it. There are some services that rich people currently have better access to such as “private” security. Now, the rich don’t have a monopoly on such services and one could argue that there’s a lot more to be protected for the rich than for the poor.
But this is another argument against any system that would put mechanisms in place that may disproportionately benefit the rich over the poor. I’m not sure an anarcho-capitalist society would do that but pointing to Walmart as a good example of a “relatively free market” firm doesn’t help Huemer postulate otherwise. Especially when Walmart’s largely able to cut its costs through sweatshops.
So while Walmart certainly is more popular than Bloomindale’s and other stores that cater to the rich, they don’t exactly cater to the poor on their own dime either. Much like the government, large corporations often externalize the costs of operations through the poor in particular. But in Walmart’s, Apple’s and Nike’s case, it’s the third world, especially through intellectual property.
Many government subsidies help them do this too. I’m not saying they couldn’t do it without the government but it seems unclear, at best, that they’re a good example for much of anything “relatively free market” related.
The next response Huemer gives is this:
…[A]s a result of imperfect protection, some poor people will become victims of crime. This is unjust, in the sense that it is unjust that anyone ever suffers from crime. The injustice inherent in crime, however, points to a flaw in human nature rather than in the anarchist system. Some people will suffer from crime under any feasible social system. The question is whether anarchy faces a greater problem or a greater injustice than governmental systems. (p. 217)
This strikes me as mere hand-waving. While it’s true that the poor are far far worse off under a governmental system that doesn’t necessarily mean that the levels in an anarcho-capitalist society will be morally acceptable or worth accepting. You could still have a drastically better society than a really awful one and come up short in the end.
Annoyingly, Huemer does this throughout the chapter which so far I’ve been ignoring to focus on his model of anarchism. I’ve been trying to focus on less on the points where we agree, i.e. how government does worse currently at X, Y or Z and more on his conclusion that this seemingly points to his model being just.
But I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. The government can be very awful at a given service and anarcho-capitalism may outperform it 10 to 1. But that doesn’t mean that it’ll either be good enough or that there aren’t better alternatives to anarcho-capitalism. Namely left-wing market anarchism would be an acceptable alternative, in my view.
In summary, I find it a bit of a cop-out when anarchists say things like, “Well under governments it isn’t like it’s any better!” While that may be true and worth pointing out to a certain degree it shouldn’t be your main argument. Because it only points to a different sort of government, probably a radically different one. But such a conclusion could go in any number of ways, good or bad. It’s simply not evidence enough on its own to really prove that anarchism is the conclusion that people should reach.
More broadly, a problem I have with this second part of the book is that it feels cluttered. I don’t think Huemer really had the space to sketch an outline of a freed society and, at times at least, it shows. Recently, in a debate with Richard Epstein Huemer explicitly says around the 31 minute mark that defending anarcho-capitalism is a “book lengnth project” and points to this book as his example. But unfortunately that’s simply not the case.
Half of this book is attacking government and not defending anarcho-capitalism. The other half is defending anarcho-capitalism and sketching out a vision of what it might look like. But even within this section, a good chunk of it is still directed towards the government and his criticisms of it in comparison to anarcho-capitalism. His rhetoric is still as lucid and clear as usual and he’s generally on point. But some of his objections seem flimsy or akin to hand-waving.
The next big issue is one of monopolization.
If anarcho-capitalism tends to centralize certain private firms then isn’t monopoly therefore not only possible but likely? And in such a given situation what is the difference between a state and a rule by private companies?
Robert Nozick, author of Anarchy, State and Utopia is particularly notable for making this objection.
As Huemer explains:
Nozick imagines agencies doing battle to resolve disputes between customers. If one agency is more powerful than another, the more powerful agency will triumph. Recognizing that it is better to be protected by the stronger agency, the customers of weaker agencies will migrate to stronger agencies, making the latter even stronger. Since this sort of process tends to amplify initial differences in power, the natural end result is that one agency holds all the power; that is, a monopoly of the industry. (p. 225)
But as Huemer has already addressed there are little incentives for agencies to do battle with each other. Even in my opposition to private firms as panacea I don’t see it likely that firms would do this. The moral and economic costs in the long-term would clearly and obviously outweigh any short-term benefits.
What I mean by that is that in a conflict with firms roughly your size (just like when we discussed individuals of relatively equal size) it’s unknown in the short-run (and down right dangerous in the long-run) to have such a strategy to conquer a market. Going against a weaker one might prove for easier prey but it could just as easily team up with sympathetic communities or other firms and fight back. And fighting against a stronger one would be financial and perhaps literal suicide.
More foundationally, as Huemer points out, these firms aren’t designed to fight other firms. They’re meant to protect people from crime and that’s about it. Adding to Huemer’s point, they thus likely wouldn’t have the necessary weaponry to start a war with other firms in order to get a monopoly to begin with. So in addition to all of the economic and moral issues of contemplating war with other agencies, it just doesn’t seem mechanistically likely. As these firms are mostly based around defense and not offense.
Switching gears, a welcomed discussion by Huemer is on the topic of scale.
Huemer mentions economies and diseconomies of scale and references Kevin Carson’s book Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective chapters 3 and 5-9 in relation to the diseconomies.
While discussing this however, I believe Huemer makes a mistake when he seemingly presumes that certain industries simply need larger firms:
In the automobile industry, the most efficient firms are very large because of the nature of automobile factories, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars. (p. 226)
Although it’s true that cars still cost a lot to make (and this was true in 2012, when this book was published as well) thanks to 3D printed technology it may become much less costly. Anything from cars (see also here), to houses and of course, guns.
Granted, 3D printed technology may not have been as popular or well-developed as when Huemer wrote this. That, I think, gives Huemer a bit of room to say something like this at the time. But in the time since, the gains that 3D printing has been making in the years since have been huge. And they don’t appear to be slowing down. At the rate their going, once “necessarily” huge firms will be severely downsized due to costs being radically reduced.
This argument is fairly intuitive. Think of how many devices you used to need that are all on a smartphone alone. A clock, a map, a calendar, the dictionary, a phone and so on. The popular saying, “there’s an app for that” has remained a popular saying for so long for a reason. Technology has largely digitized and reduced the costs of owning things in the modern economy.
This isn’t to whitewash the fact that these devices are usually built by large corporations who get lots of their funding or legal privileges via the state. But in the end, the fundamental powers of technology mixed with markets has meant a better life for people on average.
To Huemer’s credit however, he can see the protection industry being much smaller:
The fixed costs for a protection agency are minimal. The business owner must have sufficient funds to hire a few employees and equip them with weapons and tools for enforcement and investigation. No expensive factory, large land area, or large reserve of capital is required. There are no obvious significant economies of scale. It therefore appears that there is no economic pressure towards the formation of large firms in this industry, and the industry will most likely contain a very large number of small and medium-sized firms. Large firms would be at a disadvantage, as they would suffer from the usual diseconomies of scale without reaping significant compensatory economies of scale. (p. 226)
The rest of the chapter focuses on cartels and homeowners associations (HOAs) and whether they resemble a small government. Given that cartels mainly revolve around coordinated criminal activity, violence or some sort of inefficient monopolistic economic behavior I feel that it’s been well covered.
What’s more interesting to me is that Huemer explicitly states he doesn’t care whether, in the end, HOAs are analogous to “small governments” or not. All he cares about is that the contracts are explicit, the HOAs are competitive and its small size means that influence from below can come more easily.
Once again, I think Huemer undercuts his own case for anarchism. At its heart, Huemer’s case for security, much like any of the other services, only really relies on it being voluntary and private. There doesn’t need to be an attention to cultural norms, power dynamics and in many cases (HOA being a notable exception) size isn’t much an issue either unless it’s merely economically inefficient.
I’ll conclude this section by saying that Huemer gets most of his basic presumptions about anarchism and how situations might play out in it correct. But I believe his idea of how anarchism itself will function is off by a bit and his way of defining (or indifferently defining) anarchism leaves open for many notable problems.
The World Under Anarchy: Justice
In an anarchist society, how would arbitration work?
Presuming that both participants want peaceful solutions and the most effective ones, Huemer suggests that they’ll likely choose an impartial judge. If they don’t care about peaceful resolutions then they’ll likely fight it out and in that case there’ll be no need for arbitrators to begin with.
Part of the problem with Huemer’s logic is that people have all sorts of biases. Some of these biases are obviously known and well understood. If I get my (hypothetical) cousin Freddy to dispute between my friend Gina and I then that seems obviously unfair. But what if I pick someone who I’ve got known shared interests with? Or I’ve got certain characteristics that they like or even prefer over Gina that no one is aware of?
In these cases it seems like Gina is still likely to be treated in an unjust way because I am more likely to get preferential treatment for legally arbitrary reasons.
Now, Huemer might respond (as he tends to) that social systems are imperfect, that the state would likely do worse and that at least some amount of injustice would most likely exist in anarchist societies.
All of these points are valid and well-taken but they don’t really address the issue. How do we deal with problems where subtle biases might affect people’s chances? How do we address arbitrary distinctions between two people? If these problems are obvious such as the case with my earlier hypothetical with Freddy, then we might be okay. But not all cases are so clear cut. So what do we do in those cases?
Huemer gives us no answers and more troubling is that these cases of subtle biases are much more likely compared to more obvious cases involving something like nepotism.
On the other hand, Huemer does suggest reputation systems:
Based on this understanding of the logic of arbitration as a solution to conflict, an arbitrator has one critical asset: his reputation for honesty, impartiality, and wisdom. That reputation is the central determinant of the perceived quality of his product, and only if he jealously guards that asset can he expect that contentious parties, frequently unable to agree upon anything else, will be able to agree upon him as the person to resolve their disputes.
If an arbitrator acquires a reputation for corruption, bias, or capricious decision making, his business will quickly disintegrate. An arbitration company, therefore, would need to be careful in its choice of arbiters, knowing that a corrupt judge could ruin the business. (pp. 234-235)
In this case it seems likely that even those with subtle biases would become more obvious over time. Such judges would unlikely to keep getting repeat customers and their ideas of justice and injustice would become less attractive to new customers upon hearing of their reputation.
Of course, this isn’t a perfect strategy even still. This is more or less the “to make an omelet you have to break a few shells” strategy of justice. Then again, I’m not sure of any other way to figure out what works and what doesn’t then through experimentation and trial and error. No pun intended.
But okay, people have good reasons, generally, to accept arbitration. In the cases that people don’t accept it what happens? What incentives do they have to voluntarily accept a private arbiter over their dispute?
Here, Huemer makes the point that security companies could easily write provisions into their contracts. They could say that to be a customer of their company you must accept arbitration if another person requests it. If you do not then the security company may send you a fine or it may stop being your provider. In extreme cases (though Huemer doesn’t specify it as such) they may even absolve themselves of responsibility if something happens to you, should you refuse arbitration.
But this raises more questions. Does this mean the anarcho-capitalist society is based on an implicit threat of force to keep people agreeing to the system? Admittedly this implied threat of force is by voluntarily contracted companies and people you’ve presumably wronged in some way.
Still, does this pose problems for an anarcho-capitalist society?
Huemer doesn’t say.
Huemer does address why individuals would have reasons to obey an arbiter:
For the same reasons that security agencies would not agree to defend criminals, you could expect your security agency to leave you to fend for yourself if you violated an arbitration decision.
Beyond that, arbitration companies could maintain lists of individuals who had violated an arbitration agreement. There might be criminal-record-reporting agencies, functioning analogously to credit-reporting agencies, providing reports of past criminal activity for a nominal fee.
Given knowledge of your past violation of an arbitration agreement, it would not be rational for others in the future to enter into business relationships in which you might attempt to cheat them and then refuse to pay compensation. It might therefore become very difficult to find a job, get a credit card, take a bank loan, rent an apartment, and so on. (p. 239, emphasis added)
There’s something slightly disturbing about this sort of train of thought. I know this first-hand because I myself have sometimes relied on saying, “well they’ll probably just be killed”. But is that any way to deal with matters of justice? Does it seem fair to just leave people to fend for themselves if they violate one arbitration decision?
I suspect that arbitrators will likely craft certain policies. I can’t imagine if someone committed one minor offense in the course of their agreement that everything would (or should) fall apart for them. Would a security company likely leave you on your own if you forgot to cross your t and dot your i? Unlikely.
And I doubt Huemer is suggesting this either. But the way he explains these ideas makes it seem like these arbitration schemes are the anarcho-capitalist caricature of a “social justice warrior”. Private firms are just waiting to be “offended’ and for someone to do something that’s wrong so they can shame them into submission.
After all, who would want to lose access to trade, security and their home over an arbitration?
And while these things may prove powerful incentives for someone to agree to arbitration are they the best reasons? Ideally, shouldn’t people be agreeing towards arbitration because they see it as the just thing to do?
If they’re only doing it because they’re worried they’ll lose access to their credit or house or anything else then they’re mostly acting out of fear. Is a culture of fear or something approximating it the best way to get people to get in the long-term?
Even if people do cheat other people out of compensation once and fail to follow through with arbitration, I don’t see it as absolutely necessary to (more or less) cut them off from society. Because that’s what Huemer and other anarcho-capitalists advocate for. A privatized community where people, if they make a few too many mistakes, can lose everything. And that seems to me to be a community that’s largely based on fear and the centralization of our own resources into the hands of third parties.
It should be noted that it’s obvious people could potentially defend themselves. But all this sort of community then seems to be doing is creating a disgruntled underclass that has little money, security or anything else. In the end, these sorts of societies would likely create stratified classes of people. Yes, they might be based on rights-violations but creating an entire underclass of them that are ostracized or crippled monetarily doesn’t seem like the healthiest way to deal with the problem of crime.
In fact, the whole notion of punishment (also see here, here and here) and shame (also see here) seem to me to be very powerful tactics that should only be used when absolutely necessary. A just and healthy society shouldn’t be one that constantly relies on shame, fear, dispossession and so on to keep people in line.
Instead, if we want to cultivate communities based around amicable forms of justice I’d recommend it being less private and more peer to peer. Individuals in a given community may have the choice to go for private firms if that’s their preference. But they can also attempt to organize a community of their peers to resolve disputes.
They could use such frameworks as transformative justice and restorative justice instead of using the implied threat of force or fear of loss. In either case Huemer and other anarcho-capitalists may protest that this runs into the issues of bias that Huemer has already discussed. And while it’s true that the peers in your community may be more biased one way or another, it’s likely in a big enough community that their biases are more akin to the subtle sort.
These would be the sort of biases that I’ve already talked about. The ones that private arbitration would need to deal with as well. And given that private arbitration isn’t usually trying to do much more than resolve the dispute at hand and not address fundamental dynamics or causes in society, these approaches of transformative or restorative-justice seem preferable on those grounds.
To use a rather nerdy analogy: Batman tends to be a mediator between the cops and supposed justice. He’ll beat up a given criminal and then bring them to the police. The police will then throw them in jail and the criminal will be prosecuted. They’ll eventually either escape from prison or die there. In either way there’s little chance for (sustainable) reform among the criminal.
Squirrel Girl, a Marvel super hero, tends to instead appeal to the criminals in question. She’ll offer them a job that goes along with their talents. Or she’ll offer them a bigger and better challenge that is less likely to get anyone hurt. In other words, Squirrel Girl understands the role conflict resolution has in society better than Batman does.
More to the point, however, the lines between commercialized or private forms of arbitration and more communal and social ones need not be separated. A restorative justice-based approach can likely happen within a market context.
I agree with fellow C4SS writer, Jason Lee Byas in his essay, Towards an Anarchy of Production that:
Furthermore, within more communal institutions and mutual aid projects, the existence of a surrounding market society is important for internal efficiency. When the resources you’re using have corresponding market prices, those prices can serve as a guide for resource allocation even when that allocation is not done through trade. Having some idea about the relative scarcity between two goods is crucial to ensure that you don’t run out of an important resource.
In addition, more communal and social models of justice may fall prey to the most charismatic, able-bodied or generally well accepted people taking the lead. This was a problem during Occupy Wall Street when participants would claim that there was no hierarchy involved because the people up top weren’t wearing business suits.
Instead, the people on top were more able-bodied, white, of a higher class and so on. They tended to be better spoken, less likely to make social faux pauxs and so forth. The hierarchy of #OWS was informal but it was still along certain problematic lines that made marginalized groups feel unheard as they typically do. This was especially the case in larger #OWS groups where it was much easier to see stratified classes among leadership. This is also known as the tyranny of structurelessness, as coined by the feminist Jo Freeman in her essay of the same name.
So given these problems I have no issue with private firms or independent contractors competing with more communal experimentation. I think that this sort of social experimentation would provide better results for both methods and allow for a much more diverse and open society.
It may also impel other organizations to rely less on punishment, shame and fear and more on trust, open communication and having needs met.
To Huemer’s credit he does prefer restitution based systems over punishment based ones. But this is only on the surface level if both participants agree to arbitration.
We’ve examined what might happen to criminals if they won’t submit to arbitration but what if they can’t afford restitution?
Here Huemer makes potentially the biggest misstep in his book: He advocates for private prisons.
Admittedly, Huemer doesn’t give us much to work with in his advocacy. He doesn’t lay out in much detail how they’d work (most likely due to page constraints) other than they would be based on people who did serious harm to the community or individuals involved in the crime. They’d likely be murderers, thieves on a very large level or rapists for example.
For criminals who can’t ever repay what the individuals involved or the community at large (or both perhaps) agree to that they might be indefinitely housed in a private-prison facility. Or else, they might be executed.
Later, Huemer cites the competitive nature of private firms and their productivity-focused nature to (briefly) explain why recidivism and inter-prison violence wouldn’t occur. But it’s not clear to me that, even if this was true, it wouldn’t stop people from assuming the guard personas they did in the Stanford Prison Experiment. The competition element is important but it doesn’t mean that authority isn’t any less of a drug for people.
Sure, prison guards may be carefully selected based on reputation and level of sensibility but so were the Stanford students. None of them were particularly bad people or people with abnormal psychological profiles. Yet within a week the experiment was shut down due to the level of violence, harassment and abuse from the part of the guards towards the “prisoners”.
I can’t see how competition is going to somehow prevent people from acting malicious with so much authority. The whole institution of prison needs to be burned down to the ground. It’s not simply enough to privatize it as if the issue is that prisons aren’t “competitive” enough with each other. It’s not simply enough to claim that somehow focusing on prisoners being “productive” will stop them from attacking each other.
After all, what do they have to lose? Prisons who are going to be kept indefinitely, those who can’t make it up to the victims, what do they have to gain here?
Honestly, it seems more merciful to execute them then to put them in a place where authority is likely to become abusive, where prisoners are likely to abuse each other, and the whole institution causes more harm than good. Not that I generally prefer executions, but I think they’re most likely preferable from a moral and economic stance than prisons.
A perfect case study of this is the Joker in Batman.
He’s a convicted mass murderer several times over and is a clear and present threat to almost anyone around him (sometimes that includes himself as well). There seems to be no use in ostracizing someone like that as they’d likely just come back or terrorize another town. But there’s also no point in locking them up because they’re going to be more trouble than it’s worth. And that’s presuming they don’t somehow find a way out.
So again, the more reasonable choice here seems clear: You kill the Joker.
But thankfully, most people aren’t the Joker and thus I don’t think there’s a likely chance we’d need to go down that route. Or have a society where people who cross certain lines can be executed on the spot because of their crimes. I may not be religious but I do believe in redemption and forgiveness to a certain extent. I don’t think these forms of punishment are likely to help establish better terms with people who commit even heinous crimes.
The ability to execute and to imprison also play on some of our biggest prejudices. Being able to not only “other” individuals but justifying killing them or else putting them away for the rest of their lives is a very powerful drug that shouldn’t be taken lightly. This option for people in the modern justice system is often what causes people to let their emotions override their rationality and go for the strictest measures possible.
If we want to minimize irrationality, as I know Huemer does, we should abolish prisons.
I’ve spent much of this section being critical of Huemer’s approach to justice. So with that in mind I’ll step back from that for a second to utterly praise him for his engagement with Paul Birch, a British “ultraminimal monarchist” with libertarian sympathies.
Huemer proceeds to address Birch’s arguments against restitution and anarcho-capitalism by giving reasons why they’re unlikely to be an issue and then proceeding to give more likely problems that would exist. This has the benefit of making Huemer look like he’s not only taking Birch’s claims seriously but makes his claims about anarcho-capitalism being desirable more modest.
Huemer generally concludes that while it’s possible anarcho-capitalism may suffer from some issues of injustice that these problems will likely pale in comparison to the problems caused under a state. And to the extent that these problems do exist they will likely be moderate and tolerable.
Huemer only does this for a few of his own responses but it’s surely a notable and praiseworthy element of this section that deserves at least some modest attention. Huemer, in general, is a very charitable and reasonable debater and I hope to have at least done half as well in my attempts to counter some of his claims so far.
While we draw to a close on this section, I want to comment on Huemer’s perception on what prisons are supposed to do:
Imprisonment serves two main functions: first, it protects society from convicted criminals for a limited time by separating the criminals from the rest of society. Second, it punishes the criminals by forcing them to live in highly undesirable conditions. The suffering on the part of the criminals may be valued intrinsically as a form of retributive justice or it may be valued instrumentally as a means of deterring future criminal behavior. (p. 248)
Huemer then goes on to explain why the state does an awful job at this. And of course, as an anarchist, I agree with Huemer about this. But he spends little to no time at all explaining why private prisons in an anarcho-capitalist society wouldn’t fall victim to similar issues.
Again, I understand that Huemer literally had a space limit on his book. But this section is where it really starts to show. He has to shorthand many important topics and conversations that, while they may be second-level discussions, are still very important. Just dropping here and there that private prisons, execution and isolation of prisoners via private facilities seems glib at best, especially compared to Huemer’s other fastidious work.
>An interesting note is that if Huemer (or any other anarcho-capitalist) advocates house arrest then what is the difference between this and the intense harm Huemer mentions putting prisoners in isolation would do? It’s possible that the prisoner could have your usual amenities, maybe guests if they are good and these are things that would make it different than your general isolation. Perhaps they’d organize under a more Norwegian model to lessen the effects of isolation.
But for the most part it’s still just isolating a person except on a larger scale. At some point most of us crave to go outside, to escape our confines and be social with other people. What happens then to the person’s mental health? Are we so sure that we’re not just condemning people to deteriorating mental health over time?
I have many many questions about Huemer’s system of justice and I recognize he had neither the time and perhaps the knowledge (as I don’t myself) to answer all of them. But I hope in a future book he will make his vision of justice more comprehensive, clearer and better argued for.
As it stands I am increasingly convinced that even the best arguments and vision for an anarcho-capitalist society (Huemer’s) isn’t good enough.
The World Under Anarchy: Defense
Huemer starts the chapter off in an odd way.
He claims that it is unlikely that anarchism will not come all at once and thus it is likely we will deal with a transitional period. One where anarchist societies and nations are co-existing in some way and presumably this must be dealt with. This is a fairly controversial claim among anarchists. The question of not only how we will get to an anarchist society but whether it needs to be a global revolution or one that happens in disparate areas (or perhaps something else) has been a debate for a while now.
But, very uncharacteristically, Huemer sidesteps this debate and merely presumes that this is obvious. This is not the same sort of argumentation we saw from Huemer in the first section. And it is even more so disappointing to me because I actually agree with Huemer about his premise and would’ve loved to see some more argumentation for it.
Sadly, Huemer just takes it as a given and proceeds from there and more reasonably states that an anarchist society likely couldn’t hold a candle to a government’s level of investment in their “defense” spending.
He adds that:
But the focus on relative military power may be misdirected, for two reasons.
First, the requirements for effective defense may be more modest than the requirements for effective aggression, and the military expenditures of most modern governments may be far greater than defense requires.
Second, as in the case of interpersonal relations, the strategy of avoiding armed may prove more important than that of attempting to win armed conflicts. (p. 253)
Huemer’s aim with this chapter is, wisely, to not prove that an anarchist society could survive any realistic scenario that might happen. But instead that it could survive in some realistic scenarios that others might imagine. Going this route, Huemer tries to identify as many commonly believed realistic scenarios under which people think anarchism will fail.
To do that, Huemer first considers non-governmental means of defense. This includes guerrilla warfare and non-violent resistance as well as the consideration of how difficult it is for an ungoverned territory to be conquered in the first place. That last one is a sort of sociological defense that an anarchist society could employ that’s based on its own merits of decentralized and distributed means of organized would be difficult to conquer in a traditional sense.
Historically, guerrilla warfare has been very effective against much larger nation states. Consider the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, or the United States and Afghanistan, or the United States and Vietnam, etc. etc. In each of these cases a huge military power (often connected with other military powers) took on a considerably weaker power.
And in all of these cases the larger military forces lost.
When mentioning this to a friend of mine a few weeks back she countered that the people in Afghanistan and Vietnam both have topological benefits. Afghanistan has a lot of desert and harsh conditions and Vietnam had its jungles and hidden terrain which the locals knew much better. How could such things be replicated in America?
Luckily, you don’t have to do much guess work here. Back when the British were invading America (before it was even America) the “army” (such as it was at the time) was more or less a rag tag group of militia men who weren’t very well organized. But they were still fighting for something (as Huemer points out this can be a powerful motivating factor) and they knew the terrain around them.
They may have not had forests or deserts, but they had back alleyways and side streets to take the Red Coats by surprise.
Both of these factors would still be relevant if parts of the US (or if the US itself) became an anarchist society. Locals would know that they were fighting for themselves and their freedom from an oppressive state. It wouldn’t be a magical motivator that would somehow guarantee victory. That’s not my claim or Huemer’s. But it would likely be a motivator that the opposing side wouldn’t have. And the additional bonus of knowing your own territory better than the enemy is always a big advantage even if it’s not as large as in other contexts.
In any case, I think the topological concern is overstated due to the more pressing sociological defense I mentioned before. Namely, the strategical problems in conquering an anarchist society given how an anarchist society would be organized.
David Friedman, noted anarcho-capitalist has countered this by saying that societies could potentially be bribed. But it’d be a lot harder to bribe societies that are already thriving and doing well on their own. As well as it’d be difficult to bribe enough people to significantly halt an anarchist society. An anarchist society would likely need to be bribed individually to some degree rather than collectively or in a centralized way via a government.
Which again, ties back into the issues of conquering an anarchist society.
…the task of taking control of an ungoverned society is more complex. In the absence of any central authority structure, the society must be conquered one neighborhood at a time. To control each neighborhood, the aggressor will need either to station troops in the neighborhood or to hire the equivalent of police from the local population. Either option is likely to be expensive, and in either case, those charged with enforcing the conquerors’ will are likely to be frequent targets of guerrilla attacks. In addition, if the conquering state wishes ultimately to govern the conquered people, it will need to set up all the apparatus of government. (p. 255)
We can see this sort of dynamic in the country of Somalia which, even after decades and decades of nation states trying to impose a government, has only in the last few years become a “fragile state” instead of a “failed” one.
Now, Somalia obviously isn’t some sort of anarchist paradise or something we should be aiming towards. But the issues that outsiders have had in imposing centralized rule on a very ethnically and religiously diverse society highlights how difficult this may be for other decentralized societies.
But if violence and topology aren’t useful weapons Huemer also suggests non-violence.
This seems counter-intuitive (no pun intended on Huemer’s ethical theory of choice) but appealing to notable figures such as Gandhi, MLK and the more recent Arab Spring (more specifically Egypt) may make the case seem more plausible.
The problem with using these events as short-handed historical narratives is that they get shortchanged by Huemer. A lot of the historical context gets lost and the fact that violence did happen in Egypt, for example, gets basically whitewashed. In addition, while it’s true that MLK’s peaceful resistance and Gandhi’s as well did good it also was often backed up by the threat of more radical violence.
As MLK said in his famous letter from Birmingham Jail:
I am convinced that if your white brothers dismiss us as ‘rabble rousers’ and ‘outside agitators’—those of us who are working through the channels of nonviolent direct action—and refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes, out of frustration and despair, will seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies, a development that will lead inevitably to a frightening racial nightmare.
More broadly, Peter Gelderloos, author of How Nonviolence Protects the State (see a good introduction to his arguments here) and The Failure of Nonviolence: From the Arab Spring to Occupy has argued at length about how non-violence tends to aid the state. In just those two interviews alone Gelderloos puts into question some of the ideas Huemer highlights to point out why we’d be able to defend ourselves non-violently and possibly win.Huemer at least moderates his claim by saying,
This is not to encourage a Pollyannaish optimism about nonviolent action. Nonviolent resistance has achieved some dramatic successes, but it has also often failed, as in the case of the small pockets of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis in Germany or the 1989 protests in China. (p. 257)
And though this is a welcome admission by Huemer it doesn’t negate that his advice to use non-violence relied on whitewashing history. After all, the violently focused activists are sometimes the folks who made those peaceful victories more possible to begin with. Non-violence may have moral and strategic worth at times, but the examples Huemer gave are far too brief to be the argumentative punch he wants them to be.
And although Huemer is surely right when he says:
When an injustice is sufficiently large and obvious, there often arise large numbers of protesters who are willing to defy the state, despite the threat of repression. In response, tyrannical governments usually resort to violence. Yet this violence often backfires by legitimizing the protesters and delegitimizing the state in the eyes of previously uninvolved agents. This can have the effect of expanding rather than suppressing the resistance. (p. 257)
There are also plenty of systematic abuses in the US that happen from the police that happen near-weekly (if not daily). And while these events can sometimes legitimize the individuals in question it often doesn’t do enough to do anything but patchwork reform.
This is another of Gelderloos’ points: The “victories” of non-violent struggles are usually reformist and liberal efforts at bettering the state.
And as anarchists we should be highly suspicious of these ends as well as tactics that tend towards those results. This is the case even if that’s not the intended goal of the given actions. None of this means we should engage in offensive violence or try to kill cops in the street. But it does mean that when people say a “diversity of tactics” we should make sure that they don’t just end up disarming the ones who need the ability to defend themselves the most.
For example, trans folks, people of color, immigrants, youth, the disabled and others are more at risk of being assaulted and arrested. Largely because of cultural stigmas or lack of being able to fight back against the cops themselves. Trying to pressure such people into non-violence is potentially a one-way ticket to getting their ass kicked and thrown in jail.
I’m not accusing Huemer of having these desires or advising anyone to do something like this. My purpose here is to point out that quite often the sometimes perfectly laudable goal of non-violence is a great way to give the state the upper hand. As such we must be more careful in advocating for the utility of non-violence in radical movements if we want it to actually be effective.
But perhaps we’ve jumped the gun in our assumptions. What if there’s no need for violent conflict at all and violence can be avoided?
To see whether this is possible Huemer looks at the most likely causes of war to begin with. For obvious reasons Huemer cannot explore the likely causes of wars that happen within anarchist societies or from one society to the other. Instead, he relies heavily on “the historical warfare of actual warfare” (p. 258) to predict whether warfare is even likely to begin with.
As a matter of a starting point Huemer reviews whether humans are naturally aggressive. This is an easily disproven theory given that there are many tribes that never engaged in war. There are also modern day countries that have stayed neutral, notably Switzerland, for hundreds of years. In addition, most people, in their everyday, don’t go around using violence to get their way. I don’t use the threat of force or some sort of weapon to get what I want from a given store owner. I trade peacefully with them because (among other reasons) I know that’s the best thing for me to do in the long-run.
A more moderate claim would be that there’s a tendency for humans to be aggressive.
But as Huemer says:
This thesis seems sufficiently weak and vague that few could object to it (indeed, the general thesis may simply follow from the observation that there are wars, along with other trivial background facts) …
This moderate thesis, however, is of little use for present purposes. Our aim is to determine whether and how a society may avoid war. If human nature contains a propensity for aggression, but this propensity erupts in warfare only under certain conditions, then we must examine the other theories of the causes of war to determine what these conditions are, since this would seem to be the key to avoiding war … (p. 259)
Here are the theories Huemer addresses:
Land and resources: This is perhaps the easiest to recognize historically, especially given the United State’s own penchant for both. But such wars are currently limited to specific regions where the land and resources are particularly rich and often already in conflict to some degree. Said conflict typically comes from outside nation states interfering in people’s affairs, putting more arbitrary boundaries (also called borders) which tends to also cause more conflict.
These conflicts are often of a racial or religious nature and some of which still continue to this day (Palestine and Israel is a prominent example). But from this historical data Huemer smartly avoids the easy conclusion that some social conservatives might have. That society should therefore be segregated or that, for whatever reason, racial and religious harmony of any sort are near-impossible.
Instead, Huemer concludes that an anarchist society must fulfill three prerequisites:
(i) founded by indigenous movements rather than imposed by foreign nations, (ii) located in regions with relatively peaceful histories, and (iii) occupied by people with minimal racial and religious tensions.
Leaving it up to indigenous movements also has the Hayekian benefit of utilizing localized knowledge in a given society. It allows the locals to self-organize from the bottom up and distribute their knowledge more effectively than a top-down approach imposed on the outside would.
Conflict spirals: Other than sounding like a cool album/band title, conflict spirals are the process whereby governments tend to accelerate the odds of going to war. This occurs through one state doing something another state perceives as hostile and then that state does something hostile in turn. We can see this in both of the world wars as well as most modern warfare.One nation will mobilize their army and another will take that as a threat and respond in turn, etc.
Huemer’s response: Let’s abolish the government.
So yeah, that seems to take care of that cause of war.
More seriously however, it’s unthinkable (as Huemer says) that such a conflict could still happen. But it’s very unlikely given that a given anarchist community or individual would much less likely be taken seriously by a government then another government.
Whether said community or individual mobilized themselves or enforced sanctions, etc. it seems unlikely a government would invade based on that alone. Particularly because, as discussed before, the costs of trying to conquer an ungoverned territory would prove costly and time-consuming. And the costs of said trade sanctions would not likely be big enough to warrant such expenses on the part of the government that’s involved.
Power Relation: As with the previous theory there’s an easy answer (in a theoretical sense) to the question of what to do about the power struggle between states: Abolish yours.
As Huemer explains:
…the society would possess no standing military forces; second, because the society would possess no central authority and hence would not behave as a unitary agent. There would be only a large number of distinct individuals, businesses, private clubs, and so on; none of these is likely to be perceived as a contender for dominance alongside nation-states. Because wars for dominance are normally fought between the dominant nation-state and a challenger, there would be no reason for an anarchic society to be involved in a war for dominance. (p. 263)
Lastly, democratic peace is a theory that has to do more with why peace tends to win out in so-called “liberal” countries. Huemer argues that dictators do not personally bear many of the costs of war, thus they are less likely to go to war. But this obviously directly contradicts most of the history of the United States, for starters.
And, in fact, it’s not clear to me that democratic presidents do substantially take on the costs of warfare more than dictators. In a dictatorship I can see the public having even less to do with what’s going on than in a majoritarian democracy. But I’m not sure how that relates to the costs a president of a liberal country would or wouldn’t incur from getting into the war.
Contrary to that, it seems like at this point it’s a well known political trope that the rich send the poor to die for them. For as long as modern warfare has been around it’s usually the senators, presidents and so forth drafting or else encouraging (once the draft was abolished anyways) for (mostly) young men who are almost certainly of a lower class than they are.
And what has the punishment been for these presidents? Perhaps some amount of social shame for president Bush and perhaps many people don’t like him. But has he personally lost money? Has he lost much of his personal fortune because of nearly 10 years of war that happened under his watch? Not to my knowledge. And even if so, not nearly on the scale that everyone else lost.
So, I’m not exactly convinced that liberal democracies, even if they do tend to destroy non-liberal democratic countries, are having their presidents suffer much more as a result.
Granted, Huemer is correct that liberal-democratic countries do not tend to get into wars with each others.
Thus, I’m not disputing his central claim necessarily, but I’d suggest caution about reading into it how Huemer does.
Given that all of these countries share similar cultures and norms, have certain economic alliances and generally bear vested interested in each other, of course they’re not going to declare war on each other. As such, it seems reductive to treat the lack of war between, say, the US and Canada when there so much cultural overlap and economic mutual interest.
Huemer also seems guilty of glamorizing liberal-democracies to a certain extent. This is surprising for a self-described anarchist, but Huemer seems to treat the rise of so-called “free trade” as one of the reasons why liberal-democracies are less likely to go to war.
But as many of us at C4SS have argued, there is no such thing as free trade:
The “free trade” agreements that now govern much of global commerce (the United State-South Korea treaty being a representative example) mock the very idea and moral justifications of laissez faire. Where market anarchists champion freedom and individual rights as a means to a peaceful and just society, so-called “free trade” accords routinely include all manner of outrages against those principles. (David S. D’Amato, The Truth About “Free Trade”)
It’s amusing to note that Bernie Sanders back in 2012 complained about the benefits of “free trade” and the havok it’s done to the world. But here is Huemer, an anarcho-capitalist, committing a similar fallacy except on the other side of the equation. Both right-libertarians and state-liberals, not to mention conservatives, treat our current “free trade agreements” as somehow representing a free market.
One of the most recent supposed “free trade agreements” (at least if Reason is to be believed) is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP, as most things that involved “free trade” is actually a huge boon to corporations through intellectual property.
As Kevin Carson recently wrote in At Reason, War is Peace … and TPP is “Free Trade”:
[Free trade agreements] purpose, rather, is to drastically increase the form of protectionism most central to the dominant corporate business model today: So-called “intellectual property.” The draconian IP provisions of contemporary “free trade” treaties serve the interests of global corporations the same way high industrial tariffs served American corporations a century ago.
These treaties, by facilitating the movement of means of production across borders, enable corporations to contract production to independent sweatshops in low wage countries, pay them $2 for a pair of sneakers, and import them for sale at Walmart for $200. And because patents and trademarks give them a monopoly on sale of the product, they’re protected against the independent contractors deciding to produce identical shoes and selling them for $10 on the local market.
Since the movement of goods across borders is now mostly an internal affair of global corporations themselves, outmoded tariffs that impede the movement of goods have become an inconvenience. What they need, instead, is a form of protectionism that still gives them a monopoly over selling a particular product in a particular market — but operates at corporate boundaries rather than national ones.
That’s what “intellectual property” does.
And in general this is what “free trade” does.
It consolidates power into the hands of the wealthy and powerful through state granted privileges. This isn’t anything new, it’s a historic process that’s been going on for hundreds of years now. The libertarian thinker Roy Childs Jr. in his Big Business and the Rise of American Statism carefully details the subsidy of history, as Kevin Carson calls it.
So when it comes to notions of “liberalism” and “democracy” I don’t think Huemer has much ground to stand on. Not just with “free trade agreements” (yes, it deserves as many quotations as I’m giving it) but with his general notion that liberal-democracies are some sort of ideal in some sense. At least culturally that’s what he seems to be suggesting when he says things like, “This type of society is generally liberal, democratic, and economically developed and has low barriers to trade and modern, pacific values.”
If “modern, pacific values” means a lot of anti-foreign bias (as Bryan Caplan calls it), then I’m not particularly interested in a freed society having such values. Why should we idealize these societies that think that other people deserve to be in poorer countries because they were born on a different plot of land?
Why should we idealize these societies that by Huemer’s own admission in his TEDx talk on ignorance and politics, generally breeds ignorant people? Ignorant people who then go on to make bad choices about terrible policies with even worse candidates. All of which isn’t internalized by these same people who are making perfectly rational choices given the system that is in place.
Why should we idealize these societies that constantly benefit off of the labor of third world countries? And, to add insult to injury, then have some of its biggest economists stating that this is how things must be. As if we’re in some sort of weird Marxist mirror world. One where the capitalists are saying that certain stages of history must be gotten through if we are to have “progress”.
These economists then whitewash the history of why things like sweatshops exist or why Walmart is actually really great for third world countries, etc.
This defense and perhaps even idealization of so-called “free markets” in liberal-democracies just strikes me as a form of vulgar libertarianism. Perhaps one of a particularly crude order given how much Huemer is trying to get us to praise liberal-democracies for not fighting with each other. Though he never really seems to mention how they treat non liberal-democracies in this section. Despite mentioning it in other sections when he talks about how poorly the government tends to handle war.
What’s even funnier is that Huemer, in his TEDx talk actually mentions protectionism as one of the notable examples of irrationality in politics. This is a clear indicator that our “free trade agreements’ are not particularly free relative to what libertarians should actually be celebrating.
Let’s conclude this section by reflecting on Huemer’s three conditions for how anarchism should work:
First, the society should be located in a region surrounded by strong liberal democracies. This would render it highly improbable that the society would be attacked by nonliberal nations. Wars between distant nations are rare in general, and in this case an invader would have to cross through one of the
liberal democratic states.
Second, the society should share the characteristics of liberal democracies apart from those that inherently require government. It should be affluent; it should share broadly liberal, peace-loving values; and it should possess numerous and strong commercial relations with its neighbors.
Third, the society must be established with the consent – or at least without the opposition – of the surrounding liberal states.
One at a time then:
- This makes sense and actually makes it likely that the US is a great place to advocate for anarchism. But of course, as a US resident, I’m biased.
- Is Huemer suggesting that absent the desire for government liberal democracies have values that an anarchist society need to thrive? If so, as I mentioned before, then he’s making a much thicker argument for anarchism than he was previously. And while that’s appreciated it seems to me to be an argument that needs more argumentative substance to it. How would commercial relations work with other states? Affluent for whom? Liberal-democracies are peace loving? Does he mean the governments or the cultures broadly speaking? Neither seems particularly true though I suppose the culture would be a bit more arguable. But I’m not sure I want anarchist to love peace in the same way your average citizen in a liberal-democracy does…
- Huemer admits this is controversial and it definitely is because most people don’t even know what anarchism is let alone want it to happen. Even Scott Alexander, a very intelligent blogger who has sympathies towards David Friedman style anarcho-capitalism wants it to happen…very far from him. Huemer admits the preceding easily but it still doesn’t help the matter go down much easier. We’d need some sort of argument that it’s somehow in a states interest to allow experimentation. Unfortunately the state is based around snuffing out social experimentation. So what do we do to reverse this historical trend? Build alternative institutions and networks through mutual aid, solidarity, agorism, direct action, dual power, etc. But this is all very broad and abstract. I’m not sure how we would convince a state to be okay with an anarchist society co-exiting within it or next to it.
Most of the rest of the chapter is (again) criticizing the state for various things its done wrong.
And I’ll admit it’s getting tedious and it tends to detract from Huemer’s case for anarcho-capitalism. Especially when it seems that he’s constantly having these tangents and asides about how the state does things worse. For me and presumably for his audience, he’s already proven that the state can’t be philosophically justified. Given that he’s already done this, why does he keep returning to things the state does wrong?
Especially as an anarchist myself it’s frustrating. I’m much more interested in his specific sketches for an anarchist society than whether the state is (to use an example of the next part) fighting the war on terror effectively or not. Not only is that an easy one for an anarchist it’s probably a pretty easy one for most people at this point. Most people are aware at this point that the war on terror has been (much like the war on drugs) an absolute failure.
So why does Huemer need to lament for nearly 10 pages about the US government’s failures? It not only seems wildly unnecessary but also somewhat out of place. The switches from what the anarcho-capitalist society might look like or how it would deal with a given situation to what the government can’t deal with is an interesting dynamic. But in a book like this, with the word count it has, it just feels unnecessary and like it’s taking away valuable space from what could be more anarchist sketching.
Do We Ever Really Get to Anarchy?
The title of this section comes from Alfred Cuzan’s Do We Ever Really Get out of Anarchy? which argues that we’re always living in a sort of anarchy. It just depends on whether it’s a type of anarchy that benefits us all or an anarchy that benefit a privileged group. This privileged group is the legislatures, governors, senators and presidents who decide what rules they live by and which they don’t.
Although I don’t find the essay particularly compelling as it merely switches the term “statism” for “non-market/political anarchism” it is an interesting look at how certain types of anarchism can be very non-anarchistic.
In Michael Huemer’s last chapter in The Problem of Political Authority, Huemer describes how we can get from our current society to his model of anarchism.
In standard Huemerian fashion he starts off by moderating his chapter, saying that his claim is not that anarchism is inevitable but that it also isn’t impossible or “exceedingly improbably” (p. 279).
Huemer’s main reason for thinking this is the trajectory of history:
Three broad observations contribute to my optimism.
First, many radical changes have occurred in human history, including major political and cultural changes.
Second, the future will most likely see even more rapid change than the past.
Third, some of the most important long-term social changes have been in a direction consistent with the eventual emergence of anarcho-capitalism. (p. 279)
For most of human history, we’ve lived in aristocracy, feudalism, autocracy, monarchies, dictatorships and so on. But only a few hundreds of years ago this thing called democracy happened. And of course, at the time, no one thought it would work. Even the founding fathers thought that under certain conditions that democracy would surely fail and that this was a great danger.
The same could be said of anarchism under a democratic society.
Most people in the world do not understand anarchism. To the extent that they do know about it, they are doubtful of its sustainability. Yet, in a matter of hundreds of years, democracy has overcome these same biases and become one of the most widely accepted political systems. And this is certainly true in most of the prosperous countries that exist.
Besides these radical political shifts we’ve also constantly had technological shifts. Things like the internet, portable phones, 3D technology and much more have contributed to increased personal wealth. This is true for even amongst the poorest in the US where having things like a cell phone is still very common. This is slowly, but perhaps surely, becoming the case for the more recent smartphone.
As Huemer is suggesting, who is to suggest that more radical change cannot happen?
Of course also as Huemer is suggesting, that doesn’t necessarily mean that anarchism is the one thing that’ll happen. Both Huemer and I agree of it as being one possibility and not necessarily an eventuality. On the other hand it seems like a promising possibility given the historical trends we’ve undergone.
Huemer lists four trends:
- The decrying of brutality sports relative to gladiatorial sports
- Aristotle’s claims about “natural slaves” compared to our views on slavery now,
- The outrage George Bush and the torture his administration engaged in compared to the Middle Ages and how milquetoast it would’ve been seen then
- And the increasing abolition of the death penalty compared to how death used to be treated.
Huemer concludes on this point that:
Broadly speaking, the evolution of values has been in the direction of greater respect for persons, a stronger presumption against violence and coercion, and a recognition of the equal moral status of all persons. This shift in values has driven the trend away from authoritarianism and towards liberal democracy.
But these moral values are ultimately not consistent with government in any form. All governments are founded practically upon unjust coercion and philosophically on a claim by the state to a special moral status that sets it above all nongovernmental persons and groups.
Equal respect for persons is not compatible with the doctrine of political authority. It seems plausible, therefore, that as these trends in moral attitudes advance, the realization may one day dawn on humanity that in fact no one possesses political authority. (p. 281)
My reactions to this reasoning are mixed, to say the least.
On one hand I want this to be true but there seems no reliable way to really test that this is the case. Yes, we can say that various things have gotten better but as Huemer himself says we can also point to certain ways that governments have only centralized in the past hundred years. We can point to many wars on the part of the US, the surveillance, the torture, the police brutality, the unfair legal system and much more.
So, how can we conclude from all of these things that things will get better?
On the other hand, gay marriage has recently been legalized, marijuana most likely isn’t far behind at this point. And when both of these things would seem ludicrous to be legalized even 10 years ago that seems like a big deal. But on the other hand these are still piecemeal reforms at best. In addition, these legalization movements are often based around the state taxing and regulating these things.
As such neither is a particularly good example of us moving towards anarchism.
After all, the state can now just grant privileges to more married people over non-married people. Not to mention that polyamorous and polygamous and other sorts of non-monogamous marriages are still excluded. And none of this is even taking consideration the structural issues of marriage itself.
And the legalization of marijuana, while a good thing in the sense that less people will go to jail, is still a mixed affair. Having the state being able to tax, regulate and play favorites with certain corporations who want to distribute it.
None of that spells the beginning of a freer society by any means.
On the other hand, it may encourage safer black markets where soft drugs can still be bought and traded but unfettered by intrusive state regulations. And due to the legalization it seems plausible that these drugs would be safer than they were before. By that, I don’t mean to suggest marijuana is normally unsafe but rather when even soft drugs are illegal, dealers sometimes dilute the product or even mix in other unwanted drugs to “spice” it up.
Legalization would hopefully cut such an unfortunate phenomenon down.
I’m not trying to claim that these changes in culture (and eventually in law when it catches up) aren’t good but rather they aren’t clear indicators that things are moving towards a freer society. It’s possible that as people embrace more and more that people should be autonomous and free in their personal lives we can extend this to things like trade and so on. But again, it’s not exactly clear that this is going to happen.
And to be fair Huemer is at least honest about that fact too.
At the very least, Huemer takes a position I can solidly agree: The gradualism proposal.
Basically, if we had anarchism tomorrow things would be awful.
Without alternative institutions in place and a culture that understands and respects the ideas of anarchism, it seems likely that anarchy would (for once) be synonymous with chaos.
Since Huemer is an anarcho-capitalist, a few of his ideas revolve around “outsourcing” the functions of the state to private institutions. Unfortunately, for Huemer he conflates “private” with corporations and manages to celebrate the VISA corporation as a sign that we’re moving past governmental control.
This is another mistake that anarcho-capitalists make: Mistaking corporate control of the economy for market control of the economy. Corporations gaining more power over the economy isn’t some sort of victory for the free market since corporations are creatures of the state. They owe their very existence and their history to the state to begin with.
But let’s agree to Huemer’s terms and see what his train of thought is:
Why would any government agree to promote its own eventual obsolescence by outsourcing one of its most central functions?
One reason is that courts are severely overburdened and would welcome the lightening of their caseloads. Some state legislatures and courts in the United States already require certain disputes (particularly those involving automobile insurance claims) to be resolved by arbitration.
Another possible reason is public opinion. Should the public become sufficiently disenchanted with the government’s court system, a democratic legislature might pass laws requiring the sort of changes described above. (p. 283)
To me, this makes even less sense than relying on things like the VISA corporation as a positive showing of how the market is slowly winning. Huemer’s own earlier logic about government cuts against his own logic here where he states that the government-run courts would (for some reason) want to be less burdened.
And as Huemer says during his summary of part two:
The separation of powers fails because the branches of government can best promote their interests through making common cause in expanding state power rather than protecting the rights of the people. (p. 289)
So why have things suddenly changed?
The second option seems even hazier as I’m not sure about current public opinion on the court system.
I don’t think it’s very favorable but I haven’t seen anything to suggest it’s very disfavorable either. Given popular depictions of legal systems on TV shows, news reports and people’s general reactions to the courts it seems to be a mix of dissatisfaction with exasperation. But having some statistical data on this would be helpful here.
And why is the democratic aspect of our current society so emphasized by Huemer all of the sudden? He spent most of part one of the book decrying democracy and its failures. And he’s even sprinkled in more of that in part two where it sometimes feels unnecessary or excessive. So why is something being “democratic” going to increase its chances of listening to the public? Maybe relative to non liberal-democracies but that’s hardly saying anything.
Further, historically speaking the people have to build their own resources, institutions and networks. They can’t rely on the state to somehow cede their power. In one way or another they must make this happen for themselves and for other interested parties. Waiting on the day that the legislature of wherever they live is going to take mercy on them or somehow cede power seems unlikely.
Moreover, it seems to me that if you want to build counter-power to the state you don’t rely on the state to notice it and adjust itself accordingly. You appeal to the people who you think you can influence. Maybe its friends, already-existing anarchist groups or networks, neighbors, family members, online communities that may be sympathetic, etc. But you don’t try to influence a group of privileged people who have very little incentive to decrease their own power.
But okay, perhaps Huemer is mistaken here but what about when it comes to the police?
Once again, Huemer falls short.
He takes select examples speculates based on this that perhaps it will be become more popular as time goes on. Huemer also mentions citizens arrest but as far as I know this is strongly discouraged and not many people actually do it. If there was going to be a liberalization of citizens arrest laws we may as well take justice in our hands in more meaningful ways.
What I mean by that is not giving fuel to the current justice system but divesting from it in meaningful ways. Operating outside of its punishment based level and going more towards restitution and transformation which would ideally involve dialogue, not handcuffs.
Huemer at least appreciates that corporate monopolies could happen too:
Care would need to be taken in making this transition. If a state or local government were to give up its monopoly on policing only to grant that monopoly to a private corporation, the private corporation could be expected to exhibit the same problems as government police, possibly even more problems. (p. 283)
But if Huemer can recognize this important insight why can he not recognize that the current level of competition is heavily determined by the state as well? The corporations he’s touting as signs that change is on the way, while aren’t as stark as this example, are certainly also not products of a free market. They’re products of a whole litany of state interventions as well as certain cultural norms based on expert culture.
Though, given Huemer tends to think we should all defer to experts if they have certain opinions, I suppose I can’t be too surprised that he wouldn’t consider that necessarily an issue.
Huemer, sadly, uses the same reasoning why this would happen as before.
The government is overburdened and the public (an “enlightened” public) may demand reform.
Both are still heavily ironic from an author who has entire sections of this book dedicated to the folly of reform. Does this suddenly changed once people become anarchists or understand the values? If we have enough power to change the fundamental nature of the state then why don’t we do so much more than that? Why would we engage in reform?
If such is the case then let’s just collectively and cooperatively build the society we want to see.
The next section on militarism is almost not worth talking about. I don’t say this lightly and I don’t mean to demean Huemer but it has almost no actual recommendations for how we’d get rid of the military. He suggests the state could easily slash the budget for military expenditures.
But why on Earth would the US government ever do that?
The problem is that Huemer has just spend hundreds of pages trying to prove why states cannot be justified. He has spent much time talking about how inefficient they are. How “utopian” (his own words) activism and reformism around the state tend to be. But when it comes to getting to an anarchist society it somehow seems to make more sense.
So much of Huemer’s argumentation here is cut down by his earlier argumentation that I’m unsure what to say.
In the next section which Huemer calls “The Rest of the Way” he remarks at one point:
Exactly how this would come about is unclear. Would the legislature vote to disband itself? It is hard to imagine any politician supporting such a move. (p. 285)
But if this is unlikely why is cutting the military budget any more likely? Outsourcing the police? The Courts?
Why would any of this be likely to happen on any conceivable level?
Huemer gives us very few reasons or even sources to think that this is likely. I understand this is speculation and I understand he (unlike me, obviously) is constrained by word count. But if he was so constrained I wish he had just focused on beefing up part one with some extra chapters.
Maybe he could’ve focused more on popular theories of what justifies the state. Or perhaps he could’ve taken Bryan Caplan’s proposal:
My proposal: Huemer’s Part II should be relabeled Part III. The new Part II should be a chapter-by-chapter critique of mainstream consequentialist arguments for government intervention.
Some obvious chapters to include: Economic efficiency, economic growth, poverty, externalities, discrimination, imperfect information, and paternalism.
In each case, Huemer could have combined (a) a fair-minded review of mainstream social science with (b) the moral principle that coercion is only morally justified if coercion is highly likely to lead to much better consequences.
By the end of Part II, skeptical readers would be psychologically prepared to at least consider the truly radical thesis of Part III.
This belies another point I keep implicitly arguing:
Huemer did not have enough room in this book to make a case for anarcho-capitalism.
I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment with any certainty here, but based on Scott Alexander’s review (which I mentioned earlier) of The Machinery of Freedom by David Friedman it seems to suffer a similar problem. It goes from “101 to 501” to paraphrase Alexander. It doesn’t “psychologically prepare” (to use Caplan’s term) readers to consider anarchism.
This fault, I originally considered minor when I first read it. But upon re-reading it and writing this review I’ve concluded it is the flaw of the book. The book is simply not long enough to make a compelling enough sketch of anarcho-capitalism, let alone a full-on defense.
It’s still the best case for anarcho-capitalism due to its lucidity, emphasis on rationality, intuition-based ethics and penchant for many footnotes. But even with that the book simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
At this point, Huemer discusses how anarchism might spread geographically, the importance of education being the first step and summing up the rest of his book.
But most of it is reiterating things he’s already said: The spread of democracy and the march forward from it, the historical trend towards not valuing violence, the ease of convincing people about a singular moral theory (anarchism) rather than specific policies by the state.
I’ve already discussed those things (and so much more) at length.
So it’s time to, at last, conclude.
Despite my criticisms, The Problem of Political Authority by Michael Huemer remains one of the most enlightening political books I’ve ever read.
That’s no exaggeration — I consider the first part of this book to be nothing less than a masterpiece of deconstructing how the state has no authority over us. We owe the state nothing and we should take Captain Jack Sparrow’s motto to heart here: “Take what you can and give nothing back”.
The state does not “own” its taxes or the money it gives out via welfare. It’s theft, plain and simple. The privileges and benefits we take from it in the form of welfare, for instance, are hardly worth moral condemnation. I say this with a certain bit of self-interest having been on food stamps myself. But even Walter Block has argued as much which is saying … well, it’s saying something I guess.
The benefits that the corporations typically take, on the other hand, tend to limit competition. They lobby the state so it can crush the competition and gain as large a profit as possible. This is the history of capitalism and the state, and Huemer’s periodical ignoring of this highlights how much even the best anarcho-capitalist approach falters.
Huemer’s approach is also at once thin in some ways and thick in others.
He claims that there is not much more to anarchy besides voluntariness, competition and a lack of a government. But later he claims that the culture must have certain traits if it’s to survive (strategic thickness) and at its foundation must follow liberal-democracies if it wants to be coherently liberty friendly (foundational thickness).
Additionally, Huemer’s sketch of the anarcho-capitalist society leaves much to be desired.
Particularly his defense (such that it was) of private prisons is startling and even more startlingly less defended.
Which brings me to my oft-repeated problem: The length in this book.
Although the first part of this book felt near-perfect this second part feels rushed in comparison. I don’t accuse Huemer of actually rushing it but it often seems like he’s actively trying to make the most of the space he was given. And while that’s certainly the wisest thing to do, I’m not sure that he ended up doing it in the most effective way possible.
I’ve already remarked on this several times throughout the review and cited Bryan Caplan’s remarks more particularly so I’ll leave it there.
After writing a nearly 10,000 word review and now a much longer one, people may wonder why I wrote so much about this book.
Hopefully by now it’s obvious how fascinating, entertaining and all-around great a thinker Huemer is and shows himself to be in this book. He makes the finest case for both philosophical anti-statism and anarcho-capitalism I’ve ever seen. And that’s owed to his terrifically lucid writing, his (usually) non-controversial premises and often right on the money conclusions.
Where Huemer makes the biggest missteps they are more often due to external constraints than his own. I believe that if Huemer had even had another 100 pages he would’ve made a far superior case for anarcho-capitalism. As it stands though, his sketch is woefully incomplete and unsubstantiated throughout much of it.
All of this and more influenced me to write at severe length about this book. It is an important book that should not go ignored in libertarian circles. We need more thinkers like Michael Huemer in this movement if we are to spread our ideas. We need more clear, lucid and all around well-spoken thinkers who rely on evidence, rationality and good old fashion common sense to argue for anarchism.
Even if Huemer’s model of anarchism isn’t my preferred one and it isn’t the one many readers of C4SS might share, I still think there is much to be taken from the book. The first part is a very good introduction to why the state can’t be philosophically justified and why we have no obligation to follow its laws. And for other anarcho-capitalists it’s likely that this book could help them become more rational in the elaboration in some of their ideas.
But no mistake, the problems in the second part are there and are not trivial. I’ve criticized them at length and don’t feel it’s worth going over. But I also want to note that as problematic as Huemer can sometimes be there is also much to be gleaned here for anarcho-capitaists and other anarchists.
I’m not sure whether I’d argue it’s a good introduction for a non-libertarian, but it’s certainly written clearly enough for both academics and so-called “laymen”.
If you’re not sure how to make a great case for the state to be defied, this is your book.
If you want a clear explanation of some of anarcho-capitalism’s ideas (for ill and for good), this is your book.
It’s not perfect, but it’s damn good.