A Review of Michael Huemer’s ‘The Problem of Political Authority’

The Problem of Political Authority

The Problem of Political Authority

The following review of Michael Huemer’s book is by John T. Kennedy. Michael Huemer is a professor of philosophy at The University of Colorado Boulder.

Michael Huemer has delivered the most persuasive and comprehensive refutation of the supposed legitimacy of the state. This book should revolutionize libertarian argumentation.

Lysander Spooner provided the arguments that originally persuaded me that the state was illegitimate in principle. He did it most succinctly in his essay No Treason VI: The Constitution of No Authority. Spooner started by observing that the state did things which everyone would recognize as crimes if performed by any non-state agent, and then went on to show that the state had no valid contract with most individuals that could overcome this objection. Spooner was specifically refuting the notion that the U.S. Constitution had any moral authority, but the argument clearly had general application to any state.

This is also the core of Huemer’s argument, but Huemer strengthens the argument in two crucial ways: First he lays a stronger foundation and then he systematically addresses and refutes all the most popular attempts to justify state authority.

Huemer shores up the foundation of the argument by adopting weaker, less sweeping premises – this is one of his crucial insights. Rights-based libertarians typically argue from moral premises like the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) which is usually held to mean that aggression is never justified. That was also essentially Spooner’s position. As Huemer has said, “The problem with this view is that it’s false.” It’s easy to imagine unusual situations where aggression is justified and even a single counter-example refutes a supposed principle. But you don’t even need to agree with Huemer on that point: Even if you think the NAP is correct or salvageable you will still strengthen your argument by starting from a weaker premise, like “Aggression is unjustified in normal circumstances”. Doing this leads to stronger arguments because the weaker premises are less controversial. Many reject the NAP as a general principle because they can think of situations where they don’t believe it applies, but few of them think it is justified to forcefully interfere with the life, liberty, or property of another in normal circumstances. And you can’t reasonably expect someone to be persuaded by an argument if they don’t accept its premises. A weaker premise is more easily accepted and harder to deny.

Almost everyone agrees that no private individual would be justified in compelling others to pay for services they had not agreed to pay for, in normal circumstances. The burden of argument is thus shifted to defenders to of supposed legitimate state authority – they must now demonstrate why the situation with respect to the state is different and how it overcomes the normal presumption that such behavior is unjustified.

Huemer then persuasively demonstrates they can’t do it. It is typically held that the state may legitimately do things that private individuals may not, because the state has legitimate authority, which entails a right for the state to compel and a duty for the individual to obey. Huemer shows that authority is in principle “content independent” at least to some degree, meaning that the right to compel and the duty to obey are supposed to apply even when the state is wrong. For instance, you are supposedly obliged to pay your taxes even if the state is charging you too much for services rendered, and the state is supposedly entitled to collect.

Where is the justification for such presumed authority? Huemer addresses all the most popular arguments for justifying it: Explicit, implicit or hypothetical social contract, argument from democracy, argument from equality, consequentialist arguments, rule consequentialism, and arguments from fairness. Huemer methodically demonstrates how all of these arguments fail to justify political authority.

The final argument to justify authority is that, without some such authority, society would be highly unstable and would likely descend into violent chaos. Huemer takes this objection seriously and devotes the latter half of the book to showing that the balance of evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the conditions of society would improve under anarcho-capitalism, not deteriorate. In this, he builds on arguments presented by David Friedman in The Machinery of Freedom, among other sources.

This is a radical book that doesn’t seem at all radical as you step through it. While Lysander Spooner strongly engaged his reader’s emotions when appealing to moral sentiments, Huemer diligently eschews any appeal to strong emotion. Huemer may clinically observe that certain things the state does are outrageous, but he never appeals to outrage. With Huemer, all you get is patient, dispassionate reasoning and that makes this book seem far less radical than it is. Huemer persuasively reaches radical conclusions from uncontroversial premises, buttressing his argument with appropriate empirical evidence along the way.

The book is written in clear language that a layman should have little trouble understanding. No part of his argument is complicated or difficult to understand. There is much more of value in this book, I’ve only sketched out the framework of his case against the state.

Buy this book if you’re interested in the best arguments for liberty.

John T. Kennedy can be found at LibertyHacker.com.

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2 thoughts on “A Review of Michael Huemer’s ‘The Problem of Political Authority’

  1. Great review. Allow me to make one criticism of it. You write:

    “The final argument to justify authority is that, without some such authority, society would be highly unstable and would likely descend into violent chaos.”

    This is not an argument that would justify political authority, but rather is an argument that would justify a minimal state.

    By the second part of the book Huemer has already completed his case against political authority and now is making a case for anarcho-capitalism by showing that anarcho-capitalism would work well enough that a (necessarily rights-violating) minimal state wouldn’t be justified.

    As Huemer writes in his lead Cato essay “The Problem of Authority”:

    “But most people, if they rejected the idea of political authority, would only become minimal state libertarians; they would not become anarchists. This is because most people have a set of factual beliefs, roughly to the effect of “anarchy could never work” and “anarchy entails constant violence and chaos.””

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