Making Progress?

In reading Huemer’s initial reply to my comments, I also had the feeling that we were, to some degree, talking past each other. But I believe we are now making some progress.

Part of the problem appears to have been that Huemer was using terms in a technical sense explained in the book but not in the article. So when he assumed I was giving arguments intended to establish content-neutral obligations to obey the law, I did not see why. I thought it was fairly clear that I was only talking about what would give a state the right to exercise coercive force. This would be sufficient to undermine anarchism if it is understood to include the claim that states have this right (whether or not people have an obligation to obey).

I should explain, however, that my main argument was not that states can exercise coercive force just because that allows people to be free under their rules. Rather, the claim was that we need to work together—solve a collective action problem—to fulfill positive rights. If states can help us do so efficiently (leave us free under their rules), that provides some justification for their action. If this argument works, it is sufficient to undermine the case against authority (at least in principle). Huemer is not convinced that this is a good argument, but I am not convinced that he has given any good reason to reject it. Moreover, I do not think he is right to suggest that conservatives are generally against positive rights to aid—they generally think states should help at least the deserving poor and probably also starving children in other countries. The most recent president Bush certainly did a lot to help poor through PEPFAR (though he also did a lot to harm poor people by, e.g., waging war in many countries). In any case, I think the dialectic on what constitutes common sense is clear enough so we can leave it at that.

I do not think the issue is what I think justifies authority (if anything)—it is about whether Huemer’s arguments can show that authority is not justified. That said, I do think it is an interesting question, and I am genuinely not sure what, if anything, justifies authority even in principle—though I defend some necessary conditions for legitimacy (understood just as a justification right to rule) in several papers and my book and hold that legitimacy comes in degrees.

Now here is the interesting part: There is a strange move in Huemer’s work between arguments about what is in fact the case and what should be the case. I think he has things backwards.

Huemer argues that in fact there are no states with authority, but this is not at issue in most political philosophy—so he’s not really arguing against the main theories of political legitimacy—he is, at least at times, misconstruing them. The point of suggesting his theory might have to deal with my argument against libertarianism was this: There is an open question about what Huemer would say about what would legitimate states in principle. If Huemer allows (as he seems to) that in principle consent would justify authority, then he should agree that people have to be able to consent and my argument will get a foothold. (Of course, he also needs to deny that in principle consent would justify authority to reject libertarianism traditionally understood.) His response to this argument is to suggest that states would not have to be as legitimate as possible if they could not be fully legitimate. But states will violate rights (that they could avoid violating by securing consent) if they are not as legitimate as possible. Of course, they may also violate rights if they do whatever is necessary to be as legitimate as possible. So libertarians have a problem (interested readers can check out my book and articles on the topic). I’ll let this point go now, too, and just say that I think Huemer should argue that even in principle consent would not justify authority.

On the other hand, Huemer gives theoretical arguments about the prospects for anarcho-capitalism where I think he should give empirical ones about these matters of fact. His last post suggests that he thinks this is impossible because anarcho-capitalism has never existed. I am not sure why he does not think there are examples of anarcho-capitalist societies—Somalia certainly seems to lack a government, to have organizations from which people can purchase protection, and to have a basically capitalist economy. But even if there have never been any completely anarcho-capitalist societies some are closer to anarcho-capitalism than others—so a regression might be able to pick up correlations between features of such societies and whatever else makes them good according to Huemer. (Less importantly, my off-hand remark about Somalia wasn’t meant to suggest anything like the argument Huemer suggested in his reply. I was taking a stab at the earlier Cato article he noted praising anarchy in Somalia and amongst pirates. In my opinion, trying to make a case for anarchy by comparing Somalia’s development pre- and post- war—and by praising pirates—just makes Cato look bad. I just noted that even post-war Somalia is much worse than average compared to other countries. I did not compare Somalia to the United States as someone suggested in an earlier post.)

Finally, I think that Huemer should take my point about the importance of providing empirical evidence to establish matters of fact where possible much more seriously than he does in general. For instance, he asserts many empirical claims that are important for responding to public goods arguments (e.g. about whether states or anarcho-capitalism will in fact best help the poor). Although I understand that he cannot really provide sufficient evidence to support these claims in a blog post, his arguments should be appropriately qualified so that they are made contingent on the empirical propositions he advocates turning out to be veridical or he should at least cite some evidence. (Although I have not tried to answer the question of whether state aid is generally helpful for the poor, I examine empirical evidence regarding what actually helps the poor here: Empirical Evidence and the Case for Foreign Aid. Incidentally, the programs I discuss are funded in part by states and international organizations as well as by non-governmental entities.) It is true that if a strong case could be made against state-funded aid and for the extremely implausible assumption that anarcho-capitalism would be better for the poor, the particular right (to aid) that I use as an example in my critique of Huemer’s argument is not a good one. Moreover, I suppose Huemer could reply that to prove that his argument does not work in the way I propose one would have to offer empirical evidence and that would be true enough. Since, however, he is the one who is trying to argue against authority, I am not entirely sure where the burden of proof should lie.

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.