Michael Huemer, *The Problem of Political Authority*

University of Colorado philosopher Michael Huemer’s book The Problem of Political Authority deservedly made a large splash when it was released last year. The book consists of two parts, the first making the case that states enjoy no moral right to rule and that subjects have no moral duty to obey them, and the second laying out a new case for anarcho-capitalism, a justice system based on competitive, private security agencies and arbitration services.

Huemer’s great strength is his ability to bring together arguments in the literature and add a few of his own to make a compelling case for surprising conclusions. The writing is clear and easy to follow. Huemer relies heavily on commonsense intuitions to make his case. He concedes that commonsense intuitions hold political authority to be real, and that his position against political authority therefore faces a burden of proof, one that he meets. While I don’t think that ethical intuitionism is the One True Moral Methodology, starting with commonsense intuitions has the advantage of making the argument relevant to people working from all sorts of different moral theories, from deontology to consequentialism.

Huemer’s method is to think of things that governments do, and ask if individuals who are not part of the government would be justified in doing them. For instance, governments purport to make drug possession by consenting adults illegal and punish violators of these laws with imprisonment in cages. Would it be justifiable for me to declare X substance illegal and kidnap and confine in my basement those I find in possession of X? If not, why not? Any answer would depend crucially on a persuasive account of political authority.

Huemer goes through various accounts of political authority and carefully and patiently explains where they go astray: consent, democracy, gratitude, good consequences, etc. None of them succeed in showing that people who are part of the government have rights that people who are not part of the government lack. Huemer’s book is certainly the best summation of the case for philosophical anarchism that has yet been written.

Part 2 of the book, on the other hand, is considerably less successful. Huemer does give a fresher argument for anarcho-capitalism than heretofore found, along the way addressing some recent critiques of the idea. Yet his rejoinders to these critiques are not wholly successful.

One example of this is his response to Cowen and Sutter’s argument that under anarchy, competing justice providers would have incentives to form a cartel, jacking up prices and threatening to punish defectors with violence. Huemer says that new entrants will try to undercut the cartel, and that individual members of the cartel will be reluctant to refuse arbitration with these new entrants, because war is costly, and the benefits of sanctions would accrue to the whole cartel, not just the individual agency bearing the costs of conflict with the plucky entrant.

Maybe. But Huemer ignores the possibility that to make the cartel effective, its members would form a government. They would create institutions to divide the spoils of monopoly and to give the power to make decisions about punishing breaches of the monopoly to a single decision-maker (whether individual or collective). Clever institutional design solves collective action problems – this is an insight of Elinor Ostrom. Anarchists can’t claim simultaneously that private individuals find it easy to solve collective action problems by setting up institutions and that private justice agencies find it difficult to solve the same kinds of collective action problems in the same way.

Huemer is also too optimistic that dominant service providers and remaining governments will not use the threat of force to crush upstart competitors. Huemer appeals to the significant costs of war to argue that resort to force is unlikely. But this is not good enough. Even threatening to use force can win concessions when one side is clearly stronger than another. Therefore, whenever significant power differentials among competing justice agencies emerge, the system seems likely to tilt toward government.

Huemer never addresses the burden of proof in this part of the book. All humans used to live under anarchy; today, almost all humans live under government. This simple observation is powerful evidence against anarcho-capitalism’s feasibility in a modern society. If Huemer is merely trying to establish that anarcho-capitalism could conceivably work, he has done so. But he goes further, claiming that anarchy is the “best society.” How could one come to such a confident view in the complete absence of evidence? The claim smacks of Rousseauvian constructivist rationalism.

Finally, Huemer’s examples of how anarchy could handle interpersonal disputes are all small-scale stuff: murders, assaults, frauds, etc. How would anarcho-capitalism handle large-scale externalities like the ozone hole or overfishing? Perhaps Huemer would respond that governments can solve those problems better than anarcho-capitalist justice agencies, but that the other advantages of anarcho-capitalist justice agencies outweigh this deficit. Are we sure about that, though?

In short, Huemer persuasively argues for philosophical anarchism, but his case for political anarchism remains highly speculative. Read this book; it’s important.

9 thoughts on “Michael Huemer, *The Problem of Political Authority*

  1. I disagree with one comment you made in your analysis. “All humans used to live under anarchy.” That is a fallacy concocted by Rousseau’s unsupported idea of the nature of man in the wild. My belief (supported first by common sense consideration of the nature of man and the necessities of survival in the wild), is that man by necessity needed to form some type of group dynamic from his very beginnings and that a type of “government” would arise almost immediately to adjudicate disputes between members of the tribe. This is supported by anthropological studies, and by empirical studies of primitive tribal societies discovered in the last 400 years.
    Of course, we cannot return to the very first moment of homo sapiens to study if he actually acted as an independent (anarchistic) agent before forming into tribes for survival. However, understanding man’s natural limitations in a competitive wild environment including other predators, the possibility of an individual or family unit surviving and thriving without any cooperation from some group seems very slight if not nil.

    1. There was governance, but not formal government as defined by scholars in the Weberian tradition (territorial monopoly on legal legitimation of the use of force), let alone a territorial state (internally functionally differentiated, territorially exclusive government with international legal personality). See Tilly & Spruyt on this.

      After all, anarcho-capitalism is a kind of governance – method of resolving disputes – as well. So in evaluating its likelihood of success, we have to consider the fact that it lost out in the historical struggle to monopolistic states.

      1. I would have left out the comment about “all humans used to live under anarchy.” It does not contribute to your argument. More to the point: Huemer’s premise is based on the error of enlightenment thinking which attributes rational action to men in trade situations, something which is patently false and has been disproved in every society and age, under every governance system. We are NOT rational, do not operate from a level of fairness and goodwill (not without the impact of Christian value systems in place. See de Touqueville.)

        Every system of governance is flawed. The best so far was our original economic system as set up under constitutional law. That system, however, has been so polluted by special interests that it no longer functions to the benefit of the individual, nor even of the overall society today. It is, it seems to me, slowly or quickly unraveling towards a type of anarchy or totalitarian choice.

        I have not studied Huemer’s text or others. I am only responding to your post, so I am not qualified to fully analyze his arguments. From what you say above, I would conclude that the crucial problem with Anarcho-capitalism is its assumption that the same people who acted for private interest governance groups would be more rational than if they acted for monopolistic legal entities. The folly of that position can be fully proved simply by examining the activities of the many NGO’s that operate independently under the auspices of the U.N. Some work fine. Most have become tyrannical quasi-dictatorial entities pursuing their own agendas apart from any oversight. Most are out of control. That is how Anarcho-capitalism would function in the real world.

      2. In fairness to Huemer, he does address the issue of bounded rationality or just downright ill will. He argues that competitive governance is even more necessary if people are naturally evil, because government can be trusted even less. I actually don’t think anything in this debate among anarchism, minarchism, and constitutional government turns on broad generalizations about human nature. We need to investigate the evidence on each matter of debate separately.

      3. Thanks for the exchange. I enjoy reading the Pileus posts. I’ll look forward to reviewing more of Huemer’s writing when I get the chance. Regards,

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