Peace Requires Anarchy


“The Problem of Political Authority” by Professor Michael Huemer

The Problem of Political Authority | Michael Huemer

The Problem of Political Authority

Michael Huemer is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he has worked since 1998. He is also an anarcho-capitalist.

His book “The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey” is divided into two parts. The thesis of Part One is that no government (nor other person or group) genuinely possesses the special moral status called political authority. I already agreed with the thesis before I began reading, but I must say that I have never seen it argued so well. I interrupt my reading of the book to tell you about it.

Huemer bases his argument on common sense moral premises that essentially everyone already accepts. He has said that he believes this approach of arguing for libertarian political views is superior to using rights-based arguments or economic arguments. Two weeks ago I wasn’t so sure. I said that I would wait until I read his book to decide whether or not I agree that the common sense approach to arguing for libertarianism is best. Now that I have read Part One of his book I can say confidently: I agree, definitely. This is the kind of argument that is most likely to be effective at converting the masses of intelligent people to libertarian anarchism.

Bryan Caplan has said:

I’ve read almost every major work of libertarian political philosophy ever published.  In my view, Michael Huemer’s new The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey is the best book in the genre.

I assumed this was exaggerated, but surprisingly it may not be. Of the books I have read, including Murray Rothbard’s “For a New Liberty,” David Friedman’s “The Machinery of Freedom,” Gary Chartier’s “The Conscience of an Anarchist,” Gerard Casey’s “Libertarian Anarchism: Against the State” and many essays and other works related to libertarianism including classics such as Lysander Spooner’s famous essay “No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority,” Part One of Michael Huemer’s “The Problem of Political Authority” is simply the best.

Michael Huemer

Professor Michael Huemer

Whether you are a libertarian or not, you should purchase a copy of Michael Huemer’s “The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey.” I recommend it, more highly than I’ve ever recommended any book, essay, article, or other work before.

After you buy it on Amazon, you can read the first chapter which is available online.

Now I am going to read Part Two, in which Huemer argues the practical case for anarcho-capitalism. His thesis is that “a livable society could exist with no recognized central authority.” Note that, in addition to the thesis of Part One, it is necessary to argue this thesis to convert the reader to anarcho-capitalism, because without it minimal state libertarianism would be justified since common sense morality dictates that aggressive coercion can be justified if it is necessary to avoid a sufficiently great harm. Huemer’s lead essay for Cato, “The Problem of Authority,” which summarizes the content of his book well, elaborates on the need for this second thesis.

UPDATE 08/21/2013: I finished reading Mike Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority today. It is better than any other book on libertarian political philosophy I have read. I highly recommend it.

I really think his “common sense morality” approach to defending libertarianism (as opposed to the rights-based approach or the consequentialist economic argument approach) is most likely to be the most effective way to persuade people to reject political authority and embrace libertarian anarchism.

Other Blog Posts on The Problem of Political Authority:


The Machinery of Freedom | David D. Friedman

I just read The Machinery of Freedom by David Friedman. It’s a great book and I highly recommend it.

Perhaps the most important part of the book is Part III: Anarchy is Not Chaos (pages 58-84). In this section of the book Friedman illustrates and defends his system of anarcho-capitalism. He discusses private police, private courts, private law, and private national defense. He gives his reasons for supporting anarchy over limited government and explains how we might get to anarchy from our present society.

One important thing to point out is that in the book Friedman argues for libertarian positions from a utilitarian or consequentialist perspective, rather than from libertarian principle. He explains why he does this:

[O]ne reason to base my arguments on consequences rather than justice is that people have widely varying ideas about what is just but generally agree that making people happy and prosperous is a good thing. If I argue against heroin laws on the grounds that they violate the addicts’ rights, I will convince only other libertarians. If I argue that drug laws, by making drugs enormously more expensive, are the chief cause of drug-related crime, and that the poor quality control typical of an illegal market is the main source of drug-related deaths, I may convince even people who do not believe that drug addicts have rights.

A second reason to use practical rather than ethical arguments is that I know a great deal more about what works than about what is just. This is in part a matter of specialization; I have spent more time studying economics than moral philosophy. But I do not think that is all it is. One reason I have spent more time studying economics is that I think more is known about the consequences of institutions than about what is or is not just—that economics is a much better developed science than moral philosophy. [page 93]

As much as I would love to now write down my thoughts on many of the interesting things he said in the book, I would love to keep reading even more (Gerard Casey’s Libertarian Anarchy: Against the State is next) (UPDATE: Here is my post on Casey’s book). Perhaps I will come back to this at some point in the future.

Before I get going, however, let me mention one of Friedman’s statements that I added to the Quotes page:

Why don’t we have libertarian anarchy? Why does government exist? The answer implicit in previous chapters is that government as a whole exists because most people believe it is necessary. [page 83]

And let me also mention one of his honorably honest, yet disappointing statements that I did not add to the Quotes page. Note that I am placing the above quote and the following quote together intentionally because they are very related:

What will I do if, when all other functions of our government have been abolished, I conclude that there is no effective way to defend against aggressive foreign governments save by national defense financed by taxes—financed, in other words, by money taken by force from the taxpayers?

In such a situation I would not try to abolish that last vestige of government. I do not like paying taxes, but I would rather pay them to Washington than to Moscow—the rates are lower. I would still regard the government as a criminal organization, but one which was, by a freak of fate, temporarily useful. [page 75]

In short, Friedman realizes most people support unjust government actions because they erroneously believe that those actions are necessary, yet he says that he would support unjust governments as well if he believed they were necessary.

How smart does he think he is? Isn’t it possible that he could be mistaken as well? Could he really be comfortable supporting certain evils in the name of necessity despite knowing that they may not actually be necessary? Apparently so. I think Rothbard was right: He doesn’t Hate the State.

To be fair to Friedman, he wrote The Machinery of Freedom a long time ago (“Most of this book was written between 1967 and 1973.” – page 3) and may quite possibly have a different view today.

Also, to be fair to 1970 Friedman, he’s almost certainly not nearly as bad in this regard as most of the people who support the state as a necessary evil. Specifically, I am sure that he would be far more careful in his analysis of the necessity of the state than the vast majority of other people. While most others would simply assume that the state is necessary, Friedman would only take such a position after putting a substantial amount of careful thought into the question. I have to give him credit for that.

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David Friedman On Medieval Iceland

David Friedman, son of Milton Friedman, is an economist and anarcho-capitalist.

In his 1979 essay Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case Friedman examines “the legal and political institutions of Iceland from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries.” These political institutions of medieval Iceland are of interest to the anarchist because, as the title of the essay suggests, they involve private enforcement and private creation of law. Once one understands how the service of law can be provided privately in a society without a government, then everything else seems to easily fall into place. (Note: Medieval Iceland was not quite anarchy, but the fact that creation and enforcement of law were provided privately means that an examination of medieval Iceland can be a good way of understanding how an anarchist society could potentially provide law.)

Upon completion of his examination, Friedman reaches the following conclusion:

Whatever the correct judgment on the Icelandic legal system, we do know one thing: it worked–sufficiently well to survive for over three hundred years. In order to work, it had to solve, within its own institutional structure, the problems implicit in a system of private enforcement. Those solutions may or may not be still applicable [to today’s societies], but they are certainly still of interest.

According to his Wikipedia page: “Friedman advocates an incrementalist approach to achieve anarcho-capitalism by gradual privatization of areas that government is involved in, ultimately privatizing law and order itself.” He offers how this gradual privatization might occur in the appendix of his essay:

The first step in applying the Icelandic system of private enforcement to a modern society would be to convert all criminal offenses into civil offenses, making the offender liable to pay an appropriate fine to the victim…. The second step would be to make the victim’s claim marketable, so that he could sell it to someone willing to catch and convict the offender…. Once these steps were taken, a body of professional “thief-takers” (as they were once called in England) would presumably develop and gradually replace our present governmental police forces.

Unlike some anarchists, I am optimistic that one day governments will be abolished and peace and anarchy will be achieved. Having said that, I would not be too surprised if 100, 200, 300 or more years from now, most societies are still ruled by coercive governments. So anarchy may be a long way off, but I am optimistic that one day the status quo will be that the vast majority of people will not consider government aggression acceptable. While it is possible that humans will go extinct before this stage in our social evolution I do not think it is very likely. Truth has a way of spreading, slowly but surely.

So having said this, what is the most likely way that a free society will be achieved? Perhaps it will be achieved by gradual privatization as Friedman advocates. Who knows? In any case, a necessary first step will be to spread the idea of anarchy far and wide to everyone.