The Problem of Authority

Sam has a problem. He has a number of very poor nephews and nieces. He has been working with a charity organization to help them, but the organization needs more funding. So Sam goes out and starts demanding money from his neighbors to give to the charity group. If anyone refuses to contribute, Sam kidnaps that person and locks them in a cage.

Though charitable giving is laudable, as is the effort to care for one’s nephews and nieces, almost everyone who hears this story finds Sam’s extortion program impermissible. This includes both Democrats and Republicans, people who believe in a personal moral obligation to donate to charity, and even people who have a theory of “distributive justice” that says the current distribution of wealth in our society is unjust because the poor have too little.

Interestingly, however, many of the people who agree on the impermissibility of Sam’s behavior nevertheless support seemingly analogous behavior on the part of a certain other Uncle Sam. Some think it not only permissible but obligatory for the state to coercively seize funds to aid the poor.

This is just one of many activities of government that are generally accepted despite the fact that seemingly analogous behavior would be widely condemned if carried out by anyone else. Two other examples: those who kill large numbers of people to bring about some political change are dubbed “terrorists” and are widely condemned, regardless of whether their goals are desirable … unless they work for a government, in which case they are called “soldiers” and may be praised as heroes. When an individual is forced to work for someone else, this is called “forced labor” or “slavery” and is widely considered unjust … unless it is imposed by a government, in which case it may be called “conscription,” “national service,” or “jury duty.”

The philosophical questions with which I began my book The Problem of Political Authority, then, were these: what gives the government the right to behave in ways that would be wrong for any non-governmental agent? And why should the rest of us obey the government’s commands?

Failed Theories of Authority

The first part of the book addresses what I considered the most important answers to these questions. For instance, it is often said that the government derives its powers from a “social contract,” whereby the people have granted these special powers to the government. The only problem with this theory is that it is factually false—I have not in fact agreed to have a government, to pay taxes, or to obey the government’s laws.

A number of suggestions have been made as to how, despite my protestations to the contrary, I really have agreed to all those things. Here I will just mention one, because it is the one most often heard in conversation. This is the suggestion that I have “implicitly” agreed to have a government merely by residing in the government’s territory. (“If you don’t want a government, simply move to Antarctica!”) Very briefly, the problem with this suggestion is that it presupposes that the state owns all the territory over which it claims jurisdiction, or that for some other reason it has the right to exclude people from that area. But there is no way to establish such a right on the part of the state, unless one has already shown that the state has legitimate authority. This therefore cannot be presupposed in an argument designed to establish the state’s authority. In this case, the statist’s claim seems analogous to the leader of a protection racket claiming that his victims have voluntarily agreed to pay him protection money, merely by living in their own houses. There are other ways in which social contract enthusiasts claim that we have accepted the social contract, but as I explain in the book, each of them falls to equally serious objections, which show that the social contract does not come close to satisfying the generally accepted principles of real, valid contracts.

Another popular suggestion is that, in democratic nations (about half the world today), the democratic process confers authority on the government. The motivation behind this view is initially puzzling. Recall that the problem is to explain why the state may undertake actions that would be considered rights violations if anyone else were to perform them. Typically, if some type of action violates someone’s rights—for instance, theft, kidnapping, or murder—the action will not be converted into an ethically permissible, non-rights-violating one if a larger number of people support the action than oppose it. If you’re in a group of friends, and five of them decide they want to rob you, while only three oppose robbing you, this does not make it ethically permissible to rob you. Similarly, even if every law were directly authorized by a popular referendum of everyone affected by the law, it is unclear why this would render legitimate a law that would otherwise have been a rights violation. Matters are only more problematic in a society in which a minority of people vote, and they vote merely to select representatives who may or may not keep their promises, and may or may not do what their supporters wanted.

But doesn’t the government have to coerce us in the ways that it does in order to maintain itself in existence, so that it can provide law and order? And without government, wouldn’t society degenerate into a constant war of everyone against everyone? The first thing to note about this argument is that it could at most justify a tiny minority of all the powers claimed by any modern state. Perhaps the government must make laws against violence and theft and provide a court system to adjudicate disputes, in order to prevent a Hobbesian war of all against all. But why must the government control what drugs you may put into your body, what wages you may pay your employees, how much wheat you may grow on your farm, and whether you buy health insurance? Why must they subsidize agribusiness, send rockets to Mars, fund the arts, provide college loans, and run their own school system? The question is not, “Why are those programs beneficial?” The question is, “How are those programs justified by the threat of the Hobbesian war that would supposedly result from anarchy?”

Granted, sometimes it is necessary to use coercion to prevent some disaster from occurring. But having done so, one is not then ethically permitted to continue using coercion beyond the minimal amount necessary to prevent that disaster. If we really stand in danger of some sort of all-out Hobbesian war, then the state would be justified in employing the minimum coercion necessary to prevent the state of war from occurring. This would not justify their continuing to employ coercion whenever it strikes their fancy, or whenever they think they can achieve some benefit by doing so.

I can’t here discuss all the theories of authority addressed in the book. But the above should give a general sense of the approach.

Now if, as I claim, all theories of political authority fail, what political conclusion should we draw? If there is no political authority, this does not immediately mean that we must abolish the state. Since this point is often misunderstood, it is worth repeating: the question of political authority is not “Should we have government?” The question is: Should the government be subject to the same moral constraints as apply to private agents? The failure of theories of political authority means that we must apply to the state the same moral standards that we apply to private agents. If a private agent would not be justified in using coercion to achieve a particular goal, then the state is also not justified in using coercion to achieve that goal. Thus, for example, if it would be impermissible for an individual or private corporation to threaten to kidnap and imprison people for consuming unhealthful substances, then it is also impermissible for the state to do so.

As the preceding example suggests, the rejection of authority leads to generally libertarian political views. This is because common sense morality—comprising the ethical principles that almost everyone applies to non-governmental agents—tends to be strongly opposed to coercion in a wide variety of circumstances. If we applied to the state the same ethical constraints that we apply to everyone else, almost everyone would be a libertarian.


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.” Most of those who easily dismiss anarchy, however, do not know what any anarchist theory actually says.

In the second half of The Problem of Political Authority, I consider how an anarchist society might work, specifically, an “anarcho-capitalist” society. In this society, the services now provided by governmental police would instead be provided by competing protection agencies, hired either by individuals or by associations of property owners. Protection agencies, knowing that violence is the most expensive way of resolving disputes, would require their customers to seek peaceful resolutions of any disputes with other individuals. Agencies would decline to protect those who either willfully initiated conflicts with others or refused to seek peaceful resolutions; any agencies that acted otherwise would find themselves unable to compete in the marketplace due to the soaring costs created by their troublesome clients. The services presently provided by government courts would instead be provided by private arbitrators, hired by individuals who had disputes with one another. Laws, rather than being made by a legislature, would be made by the arbitrators, in the manner in which the British common law actually developed.

In the book, I address numerous objections to this vision of society, which I cannot go into in this space. Here, I just want to emphasize a few very general observations. To begin with, the anarcho-capitalist system is not as far from our current system as “anarchy” is usually assumed to be. In particular, libertarian anarchists do not propose a world without law, nor do they propose to eliminate the functions of police and courts. Libertarian anarchists simply believe that the provision of law and order could best be structured in a different way. The anarcho-capitalist mechanism for providing law differs from the governmental mechanism in two key ways. The first difference is one of voluntariness versus coerciveness: in the anarcho-capitalist system, people choose to hire protection agencies and arbitrators, signing actual, literal contracts with them. In the governmental system, individuals are simply forced to buy the state’s services. The second difference is one of competition versus monopoly: in the anarcho-capitalist system, protectors must compete with alternative providers of the same service. In the governmental system, one provider holds a monopoly. The chief practical contention of anarcho-capitalism is that a voluntary, competitive system for providing security is superior to a coercive monopoly.

Many find the anarcho-capitalist vision a troubling one, chiefly due to a distrust of corporations. I will just make one suggestion for reflection. Imagine that someone proposed that the key to establishing social justice and restraining corporate greed was to establish a very large corporation, much larger than any corporation hitherto known—one with revenues in the trillions of dollars. A corporation that held a monopoly on some extremely important market within our society. And used its monopoly in that market to extend its control into other markets. And hired men with guns to force customers to buy its product at whatever price it chose. And periodically bombed the employees and customers of corporations in other countries. By what theory would we predict that this corporation, above all others, could be trusted to serve our interests and to protect us both from criminals and from all the other corporations? If someone proposed to establish a corporation like this, would your trepidation be assuaged the moment you learned that every adult would be issued one share of stock in this corporation, entitling them to vote for members of the board of directors? If it would not, is the governmental system really so different from that scenario as to explain why we may trust a national government to selflessly serve and protect the rest of society?

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Michael Huemer advances two broad theses: First, we should judge government actions using precisely the same standards that we commonly employ in judging individuals’ actions; governments and their agents get no special moral status. Second, he suggests that a society without a monopoly government might not be as different different as is sometimes imagined. Those who fear corporate power should question whether government, which bears a striking resemblance to an especially large, ill-behaved, and overbearing corporation, can ever be a vehicle for social justice.

Response Essays

  • Bryan Caplan praises Michael Huemer’s work on the problem of political authority because it avoids the extremes of both rights-based and consequentialist reasoning. Each has notoriously foundered on difficult problems in the past, as is well-known to students of political philosophy. Huemer instead resorts to commonly shared moral intuitions, thus establishing a strong foundation for his still quite radical libertarian politics.

  • Tom G. Palmer suggests two areas where Huemer’s argument may need elaboration. First, he suggests that a monopolistic government authority may indeed be necessary at times in order to solve coordination problems. Rules can help coordinate behavior, but they can only do so if nearly everyone knows about them and follows them. Second, Palmer suggests that the intuitionist method may only be of limited use, as people in other times and places will not share the common intuitions of present-day westerners. If we are to make the case for human liberty, we need to make the case to them as well.

  • Nicole Hassoun makes the case for positive rights. Without adequate water, food, and health care, questions of consent cannot be reached in the first place. A government that does not help all its citizens to secure these things is not one we could ever reasonably consent to. Somalia suggests that in the real world, anarchy can be horrible. Pre-tax income is not a thing we own as a property right; it is simply an accounting figure. These conclusions, she argues, follow from common sense.