[Review] The Problem of Political Authority by Michael Huemer

Link post

The state is often ascribed a special sort of authority, one that obliges citizens to obey its commands and entitles the state to enforce those commands through threats of violence. This book argues that this notion is a moral illusion: no one has ever possessed that sort of authority.

Anarchists face a catch-22: most people will not give anarchism a serious hearing because they are convinced that the position is crazy; they are convinced that the position is crazy because they do not understand it; and they do not understand it because they will not give it a serious hearing.

Bryan Caplan, who went to Berkeley with Huemer, writes:

I’ve read almost every major work of libertarian political philosophy ever published. In my view, Michael Huemer’s new The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey is the best book in the genre.

Michael Huemer’s genius is that he so often presents the kind of arguments that aren’t on your radar at all but are obvious as soon as they’re presented to you. The Problem of Political Authority is like that. Unlike Nozick or other deontological libertarians, he doesn’t begin with any strong premises about property rights. He just begins with common-sense beliefs:

  1. A presumption against coercion—People shouldn’t attack, kill, kidnap, steal from, or defraud other people outside of a few special circumstances (like with consent, or to prevent those other people from harming third parties, or to prevent much worse consequences).

  2. A recognition that the government is coercive—While direct physical violence isn’t a routine punishment, the threat of violence underpins the incremental series of penalties that governments do routinely impose. For example, drivers who run red lights on empty streets might be fined $200, but if they repeatedly fail to pay, their driver’s licenses may be revoked, and if they continue to drive anyway, they may be ultimately imprisoned (kidnapped?).

  3. The imposition of the burden of proof on the government—If the state claims to have an authority to do what ordinary individuals can’t, then this claim has to be justified by some special property of the state per se.

The first two are clear, and the second is introduced with a story (Nozick tells a similar story in Anarchy, State, and Utopia called “The Tale of the Slave”) about a random vigilante who resolves to deal with local vandals by capturing and imprisoning them in his basement. When he goes door to door demanding payment from confused neighbors, on threat of similar imprisonment, the neighbors obviously have no obligation to pay for this scheme planned without their consent. This obligation doesn’t materialize even if the vigilante is particularly effective, if he operates with the support of 67% of your neighbors, or if he has been operating for a long time.

So the statist is put on the defensive, forced to justify the morally relevant difference between the vigilante and the state that would (1) uniquely entitle the state to enforce broad, content-independent rules on its citizens and (2) create an obligation on citizens to obey the government even when they wouldn’t be obligated to obey the same commands from an individual.

Huemer distinguishes philosophical anarchism, the view that there are no political obligations, from political anarchism, the view that the government should actually be abolished. Political obligation is not on strong footing and the dominant view towards it in the academy today is skepticism, but Huemer wants more. He aims to prove that no one has any obligation to obey any modern state, and that they should all be abolished.

In the first half of the book, he refutes all of the common arguments for political authority, leaving the only justification for the state’s existence the consequentialist argument that an anarchist society would be much worse. The second half of the book tackles this problem by outlining how essential functions that are currently government-operated—the police, courts, and national defense—could be effectively privatized.

The first half is the smoother one. Huemer comprehensively destroys theories that justify political obligations through a social contract or democratic ideals of fairness. First, the social contract theories all purport that citizens somehow meaningfully consent to their political obligations:

A Real Social Contract: Locke argues that we are currently constrained by an unwritten covenant on the land in our borders that was made explicitly at the founding of our society in the distant past. American high school civics courses describe the social contract along these lines as well. But this is reserved for historical interest (or maybe in the future for the colonization of outer space?) since there are no modern states that weren’t founded on “usurpation of conquest.”

An Implicit Social Contract: You consent through one of a few non-explicit means.

  1. Passive Consent: You consent by not objecting, the same way you’d consent to a choice of restaurant by not objecting when I ask the group “Any objections?”

  2. Consent by Accepting Benefits: You consent by receiving government services, the same way you consent to pay a restaurant simply by eating their food, since it’s well known that you have to pay for the food afterward.

  3. Consent by Participation: You consent by voting or running in elections, the same way you consent to pay into a lottery by entering your name, if that scheme was well known beforehand.

  4. Consent through Presence: You consent by simply staying within the country’s borders, the same way you consent to follow my rules about removing your shoes when you’re at my house party.

These all fail to satisfy the normal understanding of consent, which requires reasonable ways of opting out, including explicit dissent. If anarchists explicitly decline the services of the state, the state will insist that they have political obligations anyway. Receiving government services or participating in the political system can’t be taken as consent to the social contract since taxes and obedience to the state would still be enforced otherwise.

The strongest of the passive consent arguments is consent by presence, even though it requires the dubious claim that the state literally owns all of the territory over which its claims jurisdiction, in the same way that I own the house in which I conduct my house party. This still has two issues:

First, that most people don’t think of the state as literally owning all of the land in their country in the same way that citizens do, but merely that states have a kind of political authority over it. In fact, most (all?) modern states would struggle to justify ownership of their territory since they gained it through conquest (this is different from criticizing individuals for indirectly owning land that was once conquered unjustifiably, since the state claims to be the same entity that did the conquering).

Second, and less importantly, I might be unjustified in enforcing arbitrary rules on my party guests if it was well known that they would likely die or lose their whole livelihood in leaving the party, which could be a better analogy for emigration from some states.

Hypothetical Consent: While you can’t dissent to the social contract, you would certainly have consented under certain hypothetical conditions. This is akin to how a doctor would be justified in operating on an unconscious patient in an emergency, since any reasonable patient would have consented to this procedure if awake.

Notice that this is already suspicious. For example, if it was well known that the patient had a stated objection to undergoing surgery under these circumstances, then the doctor would at least be unable to use any kind of consent-based argument to justify operating.

A Hypothetical Social Contract: While you can’t dissent to the social contract, this is fine because you would consent under “ideal conditions of deliberation,” if you were well-informed, skilled at reasoning, disposed to make fair agreements, and not motivated by self-interest. Rawls says that if you weren’t influenced by your position in society, then you would consent to some social contract.

This doesn’t make sense either. Rawls, the most important political philosopher of the last century, argues that people with different religious, moral, and philosophical views would somehow agree on a political system, but doesn’t really explain how this would happen, unless you suppose that differences in political philosophy are driven entirely by self-interest. Huemer takes offense:

Anarchist thinkers do not, as a rule, appear particularly less rational, informed, or reasonable than partisans of other political views. They do not, for example, refuse to offer reasons for their views, refuse to consider objections, or refuse to take into account the interests of others. It is therefore difficult to identify any non-question-begging rationale for excluding them from the class of people whose agreement is sought. Unless anarchists are to be simply excluded from the agreement, hypothetical social contract theorists owe us an account of how political anarchists could be convinced to accept government.

. . .

Rawls’s conclusion does not follow from his stated premises. Rawls assumes that, once all particular inclinations and all individual characteristics (or knowledge thereof) are excised, all reasonable and rational people will be convinced by the same arguments. This assumption rests on a particular diagnosis of the phenomenon of widespread intellectual disagreement: that such disagreement is due entirely to such factors as ignorance, irrationality, and biases created by knowledge of one’s individual characteristics.

Maybe even more pressingly, the fact that a reasonable person would agree to your contract doesn’t by itself justify you imposing that contract by force.

Imagine that an employer approaches a prospective employee with an entirely fair, reasonable, and attractive job offer, including generous pay, reasonable hours, pleasant working conditions, and so on. If the worker were fully informed, rational, and reasonable, he would accept the employment offer. Nevertheless, the employer is not ethically entitled to coerce the employee into working for him in the event that the employee, however unreasonably, declines the offer. The reasonableness of the offer, together with hypothetical consent, would bear very little ethical weight, at most slightly mitigating the wrongness of imposing forced labor.

Similar judgments apply to other exercises of coercion that would normally require consent: it is not permissible for a physician to coercively impose a medical procedure on a patient, even if the patient was unreasonable to refuse the treatment; nor for a vendor to extort money from a customer, even if the customer was unreasonable to refuse to buy the vendor’s product; nor for a boxer to compel another boxer to fight, even if the latter was unreasonable to reject the offer of a match.

“Arjun Panickssery is the greatest book review writer in the history of book review writers, maybe ever.” -Aristotle of Stagira

Next are the democratic arguments for political obligation:

Thomas Christiano has developed the Argument from Equality as an argument for political obligation, roughly as follows:

1. Individuals are obligated to treat other members of their society as equals and not to treat them as inferiors.
2. To treat others as equals and not as inferiors, one must obey democratic laws.
3. Therefore, individuals are obligated to obey democratic laws.

Why should we accept the premises of the Argument from Equality? Begin with premise (1). Christiano advances the following subargument, in paraphrase:

1a. Justice requires giving each person his due and treating like cases alike.
1b. All members of one’s society have equal moral status.
1c. Therefore, justice requires treating other members of one’s society as equals.

Next, why should one accept premise (2)? There appear to be two subarguments for this. The first appeals to the idea of placing one’s judgment above that of others:

2a. To disobey a democratic law is to place one’s judgment above that of other members of one’s society.
2b. To place one’s judgment above that of others is to treat those others as inferiors.
2c. Therefore, to disobey a democratic law is to treat other members of one’s society as inferiors.18 (from 2a, 2b)

The second subargument appeals to the obligation to support democracy:
2d. Treating others as equals requires supporting the equal advancement of their interests.
2e. Democracy is crucial to the equal advancement of persons’ interests.
2f. To support democracy, one must obey democratic laws.
2g. Therefore, treating others as equals requires obeying democratic laws.19 (from 2d–2f)

This argument seemed so silly to me that I was concerned I misunderstood it. Huemer for his part attacks the idea that “respecting others’ judgments” can generally override individual rights, that “treating others as equals” requires deference to their opinions on coercive laws, and that there is any strong duty to “support the equal advancement of others’ interests.” This last claim would imply that just as Christiano would support an obligation to obey a $50 tax instead of spending it on personal consumption, he would have to support an obligation to donate $50 to an effective antipoverty charity instead of personal consumption for the same reason, to promote equal advancement of everyone’s interests.

Even more important is that deliberation by itself doesn’t change the unacceptably coercive nature of the state. Huemer presents a thought experiment:

Imagine the following scenario, which I shall call the Bar Tab example. You have gone out for drinks with a few of your colleagues and graduate students. You are all busy talking about philosophy, when someone raises the question of who is going to pay the bill. A number of options are discussed. A colleague suggests dividing the bill evenly among everyone at the table. You suggest that everyone pay for his own drinks. A graduate student then suggests that you pay for everybody’s drinks. Reluctant to spend so much money, you decline. But the student persists: ‘Let’s take a vote.’ To your consternation, they proceed to take the vote, which reveals that everyone at the table except you wants you to pay for everybody’s drinks. ‘Well, that settles it’, declares the student. ‘Pay up.’

The only option left is a consequentialist account of political authority. Governments deter crime, promote social welfare, provide rules of social conduct, and defend against external threats, and if obedience to the state was necessary to prevent a much worse outcome on these dimensions, then this could create political legitimacy for the state and political obligations on its citizens.

Huemer brings up the Drowning Child case: you have an obligation to save other people from great harms if you can do so at minimal cost to yourself. This might be analogous to an obligation to obey the state in order to prevent the great harms if the state were to collapse, except that your disobedience of the law won’t actually cause the state to collapse. A closer analogy would be a drowning child already being approached by several muddy strangers who will rescue him regardless of what you do.

One response is that this is unfair, the same way it would be unfair to rely on others to bail water in a lifeboat simply because they could clearly succeed without your specific contribution. Huemer lists relevant features that make this unfair:

i) There is a large good being produced by the actions of others – in this case, that the boat remains afloat. In contrast, if the others were doing something harmful (say, scooping water into the boat), useless (say, praying to Poseidon), or merely of trivial value (say, entertaining each other by telling stories), then you would not be obligated to help.

ii) The others assume a cost that is causally necessary to the production of the good. In this case, the cost is the effort involved in bailing water.

iii) You receive a fair share of the benefit being produced. In this case, you avoid drowning

iv) Your participation in the cooperative scheme would causally contribute to the production of the good.

v) The costs to you of participation would be reasonable and not significantly greater than the costs undertaken by others.

vi) Your participation would not interfere with your doing something more important. For example, suppose that instead of bailing water, you decide to tie down the supplies on the boat to prevent their being thrown overboard. Assume that this is more important than helping to bail water. In this case, it is not unfair to refrain from helping to bail water.

Political obligations aren’t very much like this. Most laws are unrelated to the essential functions that would we would be much worse without, like protection from crime or invaders. Item (vi) above would also be refuted by cases where you could safely evade $1,000 worth of taxes and spend it in a more socially valuable way than the government, such as to an effective private charity.

As for political legitimacy, consequentialist accounts are even weaker at justifying any modern state. While coercion is intuitively justified to prevent much worse outcomes in a variety of situations—stealing a car to urgently drive someone to a hospital or brandishing a gun to force lifeboat passengers to bail water with you—Huemer paints a more unhinged scenario to illustrate how real states operate:

Let us extend the story of the lifeboat a little further. You have forced the other passengers to bail water out of the boat, thus saving it from sinking. While you have your gun out, you decide you might as well accomplish a few other desirable goals. You see a passenger eating potato chips, which will elevate his risk of heart disease. Pointing the gun at him, you order him to hand over the chips. Then you notice a pair of passengers at the other end of the boat playing a card game. When you see that they have bet money on the game, you threaten to hurt them if they don’t stop gambling. Another passenger has some expensive jewelry, so you take it from her and distribute it to some of the poorer passengers. You also collect $50 from everyone and give it to your friend Sally. You threaten to shoot any other passenger who tries to do the same things you are doing. Then you decide that it would be nice to have some art, so you force the other passengers to hand over some of their belongings so you can make a sculpture out of them. Finally, you have an uneasy feeling about one of the passengers – you don’t like the way he looks – so you order the other passengers to throw him overboard.

Consequentialist arguments fail to justify the political obligations and legitimacy of real states. True political obligations are broadly content-independent whereas fairness-related obligations are particular to each situation. Political legitimacy is generally held to be comprehensive but the lifeboat analogy only justifies very narrow coercion. Political authority is also supreme, but there’s nothing to prevent any lifeboat passenger from being equally justified in forcing the others to bail water.

The second part of the book explains how an anarcho-capitalist society would function. Part II of David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom, appropriately titled “How to Sell the State in Small Pieces,” is a better treatment. Huemer meanders around S.L.A Marshall’s work on fire rate (which I think has been refuted) and Milgram’s obedience study (which I think has replicated) but focuses on police-style security, which would be privatized under security agencies, and the court system, which would be privatized under arbitration firms. He addresses the most common immediate objections but is necessarily a little handwavy since there isn’t much empirical data to go off (most of these are verbatim):

  • Would security agencies be in constant wars? Violence is very costly and security agencies wouldn’t have an incentive to fight wars.

  • Would criminals form their own security agencies? Protecting ordinary people is more profitable than criminals, who by definition enter conflicts on purpose.

  • Would the poor have access to security agencies? Most industries are dominated by production for low- and middle-income customers.

  • Would arbitration firms just unfair judgments? They would depend on a good reputation to attract customers.

  • Could criminals reject arbitration? Security agencies would refuse to protect clients who reject arbitration.

He does well at drawing attention to the fact that the standard of comparison is the modern state, in which most crimes are not solved, the poor are already disadvantaged, and most people can’t cheaply navigate the court system. Private agencies can be expected to outperform the government in the same ways that it does in other industries.

He claims that other countries would have less incentive to invade an anarchic society since the anarchic society wouldn’t pose as much of the threat to them, and that they would be more costly to invade since there would be no existing government structure to co-opt. I’m not sure what to make of this.

He imagines a timeline where, after most people in a country embrace anarchism, the government gradually removes paternalistic laws, rent-seeking regulations, immigrations restrictions, and then gradually integrates more arbitration into the legal system, abolishes the standing military, privatizes the police, and finally “someone would probably figure out how to make the politicians go home.”