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.