Response to a Response: Intuitions and Conventions

Before picking just a few more nits, I’d like to emphasize what an accomplishment Michael Huemer’s book is. The Problem of Political Authority was a delight to read. It helped me to think about difficult problems. Unlike most works in the genre, the examples were clear, plausible, and—a bonus—even amusing, rather than bizarre and disconnected from the actual problems people are likely to face.[1]

It reminded me of reading Lysander Spooner at his best. I disagree robustly with Spooner’s arguments on intellectual property, but wrestling with them was immensely helpful to me, for each time I thought I had a good counter-argument, I’d turn the page and found Spooner had anticipated me and would then proceed to hammer my counter-argument into the ground. Reading Huemer is like that, but with more of a sense of huemer.

I’d also like to draw attention to a central element of his book, which is a reasonable and calm demystification of the state. It’s easy to miss, because it’s so reasonable, but it’s also remarkably powerful. Huemer is, in some ways, an updated Frédéric Bastiat. One of Bastiat’s most important contributions to clarity of thought was his famous essay “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen,” in which he not only explained the vitally important idea of “opportunity cost,” but also artfully revealed the violence behind state actions, violence that would be condemned if carried out by anyone without a hat or uniform or metal badge issued by “the state,” whoever they are. Bastiat considered the case of “Mr. Protectionist,” a maker of iron implements, who did not like the fact that his neighbors went to Belgium to buy nails and plows and suchlike, rather than buying them from him. As Bastiat notes, “Mr. Protectionist did not like this at all.”

His first idea was to stop this abuse by direct intervention with his own two hands. This was certainly the least he could do, since he alone was harmed. I’ll take my carbine, he said to himself. I’ll put four pistols in my belt, I’ll fill my cartridge box, I’ll buckle on my sword, and, thus equipped, I’ll go to the frontier. There I’ll kill the first metalworker, nailmaker, blacksmith, mechanic, or locksmith who comes seeking his own profit rather than mine. That’ll teach him a lesson!

At the moment of leaving, Mr. Protectionist had a few second thoughts that somewhat tempered his bellicose ardor. He said to himself: First of all, it is quite possible that the buyers of iron, my fellow countrymen and my enemies, will take offense, and, instead of letting themselves be killed, they might kill me. Furthermore, even if all my servants marched out, we could not guard the whole frontier. Finally, the entire proceeding would cost me too much, more than the result would be worth.

Mr. Protectionist was going to resign himself sadly just to being free like everyone else, when suddenly he had a brilliant idea.

He remembered that there is a great law factory in Paris. What is a law? he asked himself. It is a measure to which, when once promulgated, whether it is good or bad, everyone has to conform. For the execution of this law, a public police force is organized, and to make up the said public police force, men and money are taken from the nation.[2]

Besides helping us to see the fallacies in the arguments Mr. Protectionist advances, Bastiat helps us to see through the mystical clouds of political incense, to tear away the masquerade, and to listen past the incantations of politics: in reality, it’s just people interacting with other people. And that raises an important question: do some people have rights that others don’t have to hit their fellow human beings, and do those who are hit have obligations to obey those who are “authorized” to threaten to hit them, and not others (or to submit to being hit by them and not others), independently of any other reasons for hitting people? It’s really not an easy question to answer for those who favor state authority. As Huemer argues, “the belief in political authority is incompatible with common sense moral beliefs.”[3]

So let me turn for a moment to “intuitions” and “common sense moral beliefs.” Huemer states in a footnote to his book that “Herein I use ‘common sense’ for what the great majority of people are inclined to accept, especially in my society and societies that readers of this book are likely to belong to.”[4] In his response to my suggestion that perhaps one could do more, he quotes an article I published in the New York Times, which is also addressed to a similar group of readers. My point was not to reject all such arguments, but to wonder whether one could do more. Perhaps in another book Huemer could address the question of whether one could argue with, say, a communist, or a politicized Islamist, or a Christianist, and argue him or her out of coercing people. It’s been done before.

Perhaps it’s a matter of finding intuitions at a sufficiently “deep” level that no one could reasonably deny them. That could take either a causal argument of the form “If you want X, you should do Y,” which would require evidence and argumentation (which I do think is possible to assemble), or an intuition deep enough about the relationship between personal identity and moral status that it is “immune to error through misidentification.”[5]

That was the argument behind the famous Leveller pamphlet “An Arrow Against All Tyrants,”

To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself….”[6]

Self identity via bodily ascription is a solid foundation of responsibility, of how, in John Locke’s words, a person “owns and imputes to it self past Actions, just upon the same ground, and for the same reason, that it does the present.”[7] It is one’s responsibility for one’s acts, that grounds one’s moral agency, and one’s moral agency grounds one’s right to fulfill, at the least, one’s responsibilities.

I won’t go through the argument that did in fact, historically, play a significant role in converting many people to the position that Huemer now considers “common sense moral belief.”[8] I should mention, however, that it is a transcultural realization and can be found in the work of Stoic philosophers (notably Epictetus), Chinese sages, and Islamic thinkers;[9] that it is difficult to deny; and that it offers foundations for arguing to the kinds of conclusions that Huemer takes as starting points.

That said, for the purposes of convincing those “in my society and societies that readers of this book are likely to belong to” to question political obligations, I think that Huemer’s arguments are powerful. I hope he will consider turning his intellect at some later date to the arguments that might lead others to the conclusions with which he begins.

Now, on to conventions! I’m in general agreement with Huemer’s conclusions and approach, as might be suggested by a presentation I made some time ago on “The Case for Ordered Liberty Without States,” but I do think that something important was missing from the arguments he made in The Problem of Political Authority. In his response to my criticism, I think that Huemer has adequately addressed why coercive authority is not needed to generate the social conventions and coordination that Kant considered the ground for the hypothetical social contract. Conventions of that sort are likely to be self-enforcing, simply because most people prefer most of the time not to bump into other people; they prefer to coordinate their behavior.

I think that such arguments as he offered in his response would have strengthened the book. I consider it a minor weakness of the book that in the arguments in chapters 10, 11, and 12, Huemer adopts the language of Murray Rothbard, made famous by Robert Nozick, and writes of “protection agencies” as the basic units that create social order and protect justice. I do consider those chapters perhaps the best treatment I’ve ever read of the issues involved, but I also think that the focus on profit-seeking firms misses the point that the context of social order within which we rely on guards and courts and adjudication is a result of self-enforcing conventions, and not merely of firms offering services for profit. Rothbard’s language might suggest to some that “justice” is something one buys like cheese or pool cleaning services, whereas the conventions that set the bounds of justice and rights are preconditions for the exchange of rights, including money for protective or adjudicative services; they are not, in general at least, themselves “for sale.” Justice creates markets, but justice as such is not a commodity for sale. Huemer’s treatment might have benefited from some of the social science literature on conventions and cooperation articulated by Michael Taylor, Robert Sugden, and Anthony de Jasay, among others.

I will turn my attention to the interesting points and criticisms made by Nicole Hassoun in another response, but I’d like to wait until after she has responded to Huemer.


[1] Contrast Michael Otsuka’s case against mainstream libertarianism, Libertarianism without Inequality, in which we are asked “to imagine a highly artificial ‘society’ of two strangers, each of whom will freeze to death unless clothed. Unfortunately, the only source of material for clothing is human hair, which can be woven into clothing. One of the two is hirsute and capable of weaving, whereas the other is bald and incapable of weaving.” Um, right. I reviewed Otsuka’s worthy contribution in Reason magazine.

[2] Accessed from on 2013-03-16

[3] Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), p. 17.

[4] Ibid., p. 15.

[5] Gareth Evans, “Self Identification,” in Self-Knowledge, ed. by Quassim Cassam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 198.

[6] Richard Overton, ‘‘An Arrow against All Tyrants and Tyranny,’’ in The English Levellers, ed. Andrew Sharp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 55.

[7] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H, Nidditch 91684; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), bk. II, chap. XXVII, sec. 26, p. 346.

[8] I review the argument in Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 20009), especially pp. 41-83.

[9] Consider the claims of Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri in the classic manual of Islamic sacred law Reliance of the Traveler, “Eligibility for obligation is the capacity of a human being to have rights and duties. … Every human being, whoever he or she may be, has eligibility for obligation and none lacks it because one’s eligibility for obligation is one’s humanness…. Full eligibility for obligation means a person has rights upon others and obligations towards them. Every human being acquires it at birth.” (Beltsville, Maryland: Amana Publications, 2011), pp. 43-44.

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.