Peace Requires Anarchy

Political Authority is an Illusion: The State is Not Special

3 Comments

In his book The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey Professor Michael Huemer asks “Why should 535 people in Washington be entitled to issue commands to 300 million others? And why should the others obey?”

He examines several leading answers to these questions—theories about social contracts, the authority of democracy, fairness, and consequentialism—and concludes that none of them is satisfactory, meaning no person or group genuinely possesses the special moral status called political authority.

The implications of this are substantial: Taxation is theft or extortion, war is mass murder, military and jury conscription are forced labor or enslavement, imprisonment of those who perform so-called “victimless crimes” is kidnapping, and so on.

This conclusion is very controversial today. Nearly every political philosopher and layperson supports the idea of having some government with the special kind of authority Huemer describes. While most people disagree with some of the government’s laws, few people other than those who identify as voluntaryists or libertarian anarchists would describe most of the government’s actions as crimes.

But if we want to explain to others why taxation is theft and why most of the government’s other activities are unjust, we must explain why political authority is an illusion and the state is not special after all.

The above is my entry for The Voluntaryist’s 2013 Essay Contest on the question “How Do You Explain to People That Taxation Is Theft?” My answer is to show people that their explanations for why governments have political authority are not satisfactory.

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Author: PeaceRequiresAnarchy

“A consistent peace activist must be an anarchist.” – Roderick T. Long

3 thoughts on “Political Authority is an Illusion: The State is Not Special

  1. I’m reading this book right now. It’s really interesting. I would describe his arguments as very subtle (stole that from a book review I read). Sometimes I have to re-read it. I found specifically the hypothetically social contract chapter very difficult to grasp. any thoughts on the book as a whole?

  2. Hi Jared, here’s the blog post I wrote on Huemer’s book: https://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/the-problem-of-political-authority-by-prof-michael-huemer/

    I have very high praise for it. There are a few things in the second half I would change to make the argument possibly more persuasive. For example, I think the chapter on Societal Defense could benefit from a discussion of the effects of peoples’ beliefs / ideologies on defense. Jeffrey Roger Hummel did a fantastic job discussing the role of ideological factors in societal defense here: https://peacerequiresanarchy.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/how-an-anarchist-society-would-provide-national-defense-the-solution-to-libertarianisms-hardest-problem-jeffrey-rogers-hummel/

    But overall I think what Huemer has provided is a strong argument for anarchist libertarianism. The argument Huemer makes is essentially the same reason why I became a libertarian / anarchist three years ago. It’s great to have found a book that carefully lays out the argument. It’s *the* book I would recommend to nonlibertarians interested in hearing good arguments for the position.

    re: “I found specifically the hypothetically social contract chapter very difficult to grasp.”

    Yes, I had to read that section slowly to grasp it. I imagine that several believers-in-political-authority who read Huemer’s book would agree that it’s the most difficult argument to grasp in the book. But the thing is, unless these people believe that a hypothetical social contract theory accounts for political authority, there is no need for them to understand his argument. In fact, Huemer simply skipped over the subject of a hypothetical social contract theory in this lecture ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlTyOC32-vs ) that he gave on the subject of his book, due to the fact that only a few people–mostly academic political philosophers–believe that a hypothetical social contract theory could possibly account for political authority. Thus, the vast majority of laypeople reading his book need not understand Huemer’s argument in this section since they don’t even believe that a hypothetical social contract theory could account for political authority in the first place. Similarly, Huemer’s audience in the talk didn’t need to hear the counterargument since they presumably didn’t believe a hypothetical social contract theory could account for political authority.

  3. Pingback: “The Problem of Political Authority” by Professor Michael Huemer | Peace Requires Anarchy

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