Some Opening Replies: Coordination, Intuition, and Positive Rights

I want to thank Bryan Caplan, Tom Palmer, and Nicole Hassoun for their insightful commentaries on my work. I can’t respond to everything that has been said without writing an unreasonably long post. I respond here to a few of the larger and (to me) more interesting questions and criticisms.

I. Coordination Problems
Palmer raises the question of coordination problems, which can be solved by a central authority with coercive power. One issue here is whether this class of cases supports the idea of content-independent political authority. For example, if the state has made a law that one must drive on a particular side of the road, then one has reason to drive on that side of the road, whichever side it may be.

Two brief points, then a main one. First, although this exemplifies a weak sort of content-independence, defenders of political authority commonly claim much more. They claim not only that the state may pick one among a set of equally good solutions to a coordination problem and impose that solution, but that the state may actually impose morally wrong or unjust rules. Thus, we read that “the democratic assembly has the right to do wrong”[1] and “it is … a familiar situation … that a person finds himself morally obligated to obey an unjust law.”[2] This strong sort of content-independence remains elusive.

Second, the appeal to coordination problems cannot be used to defend the overwhelming majority of government activities, because only a small minority of the state’s activities could be construed as necessary to solve coordination problems.

Third and more importantly, coordination problems are frequently solved without resort to a coercive, monopolistic authority. The process is aided by the fact that individuals want to and try to coordinate with each other out of self-interest; in the relevant cases, it is in one’s interest to conform to whatever rule a plurality of others conform to.

In the interests of time, I will just briefly mention several examples. Speakers of a language coordinate with each other on how words are to be used. In the British common law tradition, judges coordinate with each other by embracing essentially the same set of laws, which were created by the judges themselves. Today, manufacturers of screws and screwdrivers coordinate with each other on a limited number of shapes and sizes for screw heads and screwdriver tips. Web developers and companies that make web browsers coordinate with each other on the elements of HTML and how each should be interpreted by a web browser. Manufacturers of computer keyboards coordinate with each other and with teachers of typing classes on how keys are arranged on a keyboard. And so on. None of these cases of coordination require coercive state enforcement. In each case, the solution to the coordination problem is established by voluntary means and is self-enforcing, since it is in no one’s interest to diverge from the currently accepted standard.

The last case—that of keyboard layouts—is often used to illustrate a type of market failure, because the standard layout of keyboards is claimed to be inferior to other possible layouts, resulting in slower typing and more errors than some other layouts.[3] Here, I just want to make the general observation that suboptimal solutions are also likely with a coercive central authority. There is no reason to think, for example, that we would now have the ideal keyboard layout if only the government had designed a layout and mandated its use in the early days of typewriter manufacture.

II. Intuition and Common Sense

A surprising number of people, in discussing my work on authority, have raised questions about my ostensibly unconventional and controversial methodology of relying on “common sense morality” and “ethical intuitions.” Can we really trust these intuitions?

To be clear, the recommendation to “rely on common sense morality” is just another way of saying: “start from normative premises that seem obviously right to almost everyone.” What is controversial about that? What else could someone say we should do? It seems to me that there are the following possible alternative views:

  1. It is better to start from normative premises that seem doubtful or false, rather than ones that seem obviously correct.
  2. It is better to start from normative premises that seem true only to some smaller number of people, such as perhaps the partisans of a particular ideology, rather than premises that seem true to almost everyone.
  3. We may only use normative premises that seemed true to almost everyone throughout history, or across all human cultures.
  4. We may only use normative premises that seem true to absolutely everyone.
  5. We should start from no normative premises at all.

Alternatives (1) and (2) seem, well, obviously wrong.

Option (3) has one obvious problem: it leaves us with virtually nothing to work with. Or more precisely, those who object to my common sense moral premises on the grounds that they are not universal across cultures and times would have to say that almost nothing, perhaps nothing at all, is universal across cultures and times. So if (3) is to be a genuine alternative to my own methodology, (3) will have to be a methodology that is extremely unpromising, in the sense that it is extremely unlikely that any political philosophy could be supported using only the meager materials that this methodology sanctions. A defender of (3) might claim that the justified conclusion here is one of skepticism, rather than a rejection of the methodology. But let’s be concrete here. I rely on premises such as “One should not physically attack, rob, kidnap, imprison, or enslave people, without having a good reason.” Now, it might be objected that people in some cultures and some historical time periods in fact attacked, robbed, kidnapped, imprisoned, and/or enslaved people without having any good reason for doing so. Therefore, … what? We don’t know whether any of those practices were good or bad? It’s illegitimate in a political argument to assume that attacking people for no reason is bad? It seems to me that if someone draws those conclusions, that person must be a moral skeptic, or close enough as makes no difference.

As I have suggested, option (3) is in danger of collapsing into (5). Option (4) collapses into (5) immediately: there is no moral premise that seems true to absolutely everyone, including psychopaths, the mentally disabled, primitive tribes, and Adolf Hitler.

So we come to option (5): use no moral premises. Since it is not possible to (correctly) infer moral conclusions entirely from non-moral premises,[4] this option simply entails moral skepticism – we draw no moral conclusions at all. Now, some people think that is the correct result. But it is not my job to refute moral skepticism in a book about political philosophy,[5] any more than it is the job of an author to refute skepticism about the external world in a book about physics. Political philosophy books are for people who accept that it is sometimes possible to say that something should or should not be done. If you reject that, then you don’t have a problem with my book. You have a problem with the entire field of social and political philosophy.

Tom Palmer, of course, is no moral skeptic. In the interests of an argument ad hominem, we can look at some of his own political work to see whether it represents an alternative methodology that I have overlooked. Obviously, I cannot review all of his arguments. But let us take one case where Palmer clearly and directly addresses one of the same issues that I addressed in my own book. In Realizing Freedom, Palmer considers the question of taxation, writing:

Suppose someone were to stop you at gunpoint and demand that you hand over half of your hard-earned income. Wouldn’t you consider him a thief and consider yourself justified in resisting the robbery? Now suppose that the thief is carrying a paper certifying him as an agent of the state. In addition, he claims that the robbery is being carried out for your own good. Is his act any different now?[6]

I submit that Palmer is not only appealing to ethical intuition; he is appealing to the very same intuition that I appeal to in my own discussion of taxation. (In fairness, the quotation is from an editorial in the New York Times, a forum that affords little space for theoretical background.)

This is not an accident or a momentary slip on the part of one author. It is the nature of normative discourse. All claims about what “should” be done rest, directly or indirectly, on ethical intuition. Often, the people who (falsely) claim to be opposed to the use of ethical intuitions are utilitarians. They think that the way to decide what ought to be done is to empirically investigate which policies result in the greatest happiness, or the greatest preference-satisfaction, for the greatest number of individuals. They presuppose such intuitions as “happiness is the sole good” and “we ought to maximize the good.” The real methodological difference between utilitarians and me is that utilitarians rely on intuitions that only a small number of people share, whereas I rely on intuitions that a great many people share.

III. A New Methodology?

Apropos of this, what should we make of Bryan Caplan’s characterization of The Problem of Political Authority as embodying a new approach to the defense of libertarianism? Can the idea of starting from obvious, uncontroversial premises really be a new idea?

Bizarrely enough, yes. Almost everyone in political philosophy, libertarians and non-libertarians alike, starts from premises that, at best, seem vaguely plausible to most people while being rejected outright by many (reasonable) other people. These premises are usually vague, abstract, and controversial generalizations about such things as human nature, fairness, rights, or the nature of goodness and rightness in general. Political philosophers are often disappointed when I refuse to do the same. They are skeptical because I do not appeal to some grand abstract theory—or they simply impute some grand theory to me.

The epistemological issues implicated by this discussion deserve a separate book. Here, I will just state my epistemological perspective without argument. In my view, (a) premises that seem obviously correct are better than premises that merely seem sort of plausible; (b) premises that are widely shared regardless of one’s political ideology are better than premises that are not widely shared or that vary according to ideology; (c) philosophical reasoning should generally proceed from the concrete to the abstract, not vice versa. In no area of human intellectual endeavor do we start out by knowing a grand, abstract theory and then proceed by merely deducing its consequences. We start out in a given field of study by collecting relatively specific facts, and then try to devise ever more general principles that fit those facts, moving gradually towards a theory of the field as a whole. Once we have established such a theory, we can deduce further consequences from it. But in moral and political philosophy, no such general theory has been established. We are—or should be—still in the stage of reasoning from concrete judgments to modest generalizations.

IV. Positive Rights

What can common sense morality tell us about doctrines of positive rights and arguments for wealth-redistribution by the state?

Nicole Hassoun is of course correct that many people today have insufficient wealth to meet their basic needs. I am also sympathetic to the idea that we are ethically obligated, as individuals, to render aid, for example by voluntarily donating to antipoverty charities.[7] I recommend GiveWell, which conducts studies of relative cost-effectiveness of a variety of charity organizations.

Whether victims of poverty have a right to receive aid is less clear to me. But I am not going to try to resolve that question here, mostly because I do not know how to resolve it. Instead, I just want to focus on what the state may do. My argument against government antipoverty programs is not a theoretical argument. I do not appeal to the premise that there aren’t any positive rights. I do not lay down an axiom of absolute property rights or absolute rights against coercion. Truth be told, I do not have a theory of property at all. I just have some unsystematized intuitions. As I suggested in my initial essay, it seems to me that a person who extorted money from ordinary people in order to send that money to an antipoverty charity would generally be judged to be acting wrongly. That is “just” an intuition—but one that I think most people would share. It is not just a libertarian intuition. If I met some Democrat on the street and told her I was robbing her to send her money to Oxfam, I don’t think the Democrat would say “Oh, that’s alright then.” So it seems to me that the advocate of government antipoverty programs needs to explain why those programs are acceptable—is it that the initial intuition is mistaken, and that, in the example with which I opened my initial essay here, Sam would be justified in robbing his neighbors? Or is it that the government isn’t really doing the same thing as Sam does in that example? Or is it that the government has some sort of special moral status that exempts it from the ethical constraints that apply to individuals or other private agents?

That being said, I think that the case against antipoverty programs—in particular, programs that would aid the desperately poor in the developing world—is much less strong than the case against almost all other non-libertarian government activities (that is, other activities to which libertarians object). As I suggest in the book (pp. 159–60), some such programs may be justified. I would nevertheless maintain that every existing state lacks political authority in the sense defined in the book. The justifiability of certain kinds of antipoverty programs would not ground any content-independent, comprehensive, supreme authority on the part of the state.

V. Anarchy in the Real World?

Here is an unfair way of choosing political systems: compare the worst form of anarchy to the best form of government; one then finds that government looks pretty good. The comparison between Somalia and the United States would be a case in point. A fairer comparison would be between Somalia before and after its government collapsed, or between Somalia and other societies in the same region that have governments.[8] Even better would be to compare the best feasible governmental system with the best feasible nongovernmental system. That is what I suggest in the book,[9] and that is the comparison that I tried to conduct over the course of part II. Anarchists do not hold that all anarchic situations are desirable any more than advocates of government defend all governments, including those of Nazi Germany, Uganda under Idi Amin, and the Khmer Rouge.

VI. Who Has Authority to Protect Rights?

Hassoun writes, “If states lack the authority to protect rights, it is not clear why Huemer thinks other agents can have this authority.”

To be clear, I do not think that anyone possesses “authority” in the sense defined in the book. No individual, state, or corporation has ever had it. On the other hand, I think it ethically permissible for anyone to protect rights (within certain limits). It is permissible for a government to use force (of certain kinds, in certain situations) to prevent (certain) rights violations. And it is also permissible for a private individual, or a security agency, or anyone else, to use force of the same kind, in the same situations, to prevent the same sort of rights violations.

If I grant that some of the government’s activities are permissible, then why am I an anarchist rather than a minimal statist? Because I think that to count as a state, an organization must have a coercively enforced monopoly within a given country, and I think it impermissible to enforce such a monopoly. Well, that is part of my reason. The rest is explained in part II of the book.

VII. Are States Like Corporations?

To clarify, my analogy between the government and a huge, monopolistic corporation was not intended by itself to show that anarchy is the best social system. The argument for anarchy does not consist of a single analogy, or a single paragraph. The argument for anarchy is given over the course of the second half of the book. It can’t be fit into a web posting.

The government-corporation analogy was, however, intended to stimulate thought in a way that I hoped would be interesting and illuminating. If there were a corporation such as I described at the end of my initial post—the multi-trillion-dollar, monopolistic, coercive corporation with vast arsenals—I think almost everyone would anticipate some bad results. I wanted those who support a large and active government to think about that. In particular, think about the reasons why bad results would occur. (Perhaps they have something to do with incentives, accountability, the corrupting influence of power …?) And then ask: would those reasons somehow cease to apply if the organization is a “government” instead of a “corporation”? If one wants to answer, “Yes, they would cease to apply,” then I think some sort of explanation is required.

I am not advancing some sort of general axiom that all things monopolistic are bad. I simply don’t see why a monopolistic government would escape the evils that surely the monopolistic corporation in my hypothetical would be subject to.


[1] Thomas Christiano, The Constitution of Equality (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 250.

[2] John Rawls, “Legal Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play” in Law and Philosophy, ed. Sidney Hook (New York Univ. Press, 1964), p. 5.

[3] Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis dispute the standard criticisms of the QWERTY keyboard in “Typing Errors,” Reason, June 1996.

[4] See discussion in my Ethical Intuitionism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), sections 4.3–4.4.

[5] But see my Ethical Intuitionism, ch. 5.

[6] Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2009).

[7] I discuss aid to the poor in The Problem of Political Authority, pp. 148–60.

[8] See Peter Leeson’s “Better off Stateless: Somalia Before and After Government Collapse,” Leeson argues that Somalia, while obviously much worse off than Western democracies, is better off than it would be had the government not collapsed.

[9] See The Problem of Political Authority, pp. 183–5.

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.