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. (more…)