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:


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The Conscience of an Anarchist | Gary Chartier

“Today’s the big day; make sure you vote,” said my professor in class today.

“I voted today,” said a sticker with an American flag on it that one of my other professors was wearing on his shirt pocket.

When I got back from class I was delighted to learn that Gary Chartier’s book The Conscience of an Anarchist had arrived in the mail. The book is only 120 pages long so I was able to read it all this afternoon. It was very good.

Interestingly, Gary Chartier choose to avoid using practically every controversial word except “anarchy.” He avoids terms such as “libertarian,” “free market,” “capitalism,” and “socialism.” He often calls peoples’ “property” their “possessions,” presumably because many leftists have negative preconceptions about “property rights.”

Chartier is a self-identified leftist and it is clear from his book that he is a leftist. I don’t consider myself to be left wing (nor right wing) yet I agreed with almost all of the leftist views that he expressed. Something I noticed as I read his book is that there appear to be a lot of issues that leftists and rightists actually agree on, but appear to have different views on simply because they stress different aspects of the issues.

For example, on the subject of tariffs Gary Chartier writes:

I remember arguing about tariffs with dad when I was a high school student. I didn’t understand basic economics then. But I knew there was something wrong with treating goods and services differently because they came from other countries. It was chauvinistic, nationalistic, discriminatory.

Now I realize too how much tariffs disadvantage ordinary people in the territory of a state that imposes them–while benefiting elites. Tariffs are, effectively, subsidies by the state to favored industries and firms. A state’s tariffs may not actually exclude goods or services from outside its borders. But tariffs can make these goods and services a lot less attractive to purchasers inside its borders. In so doing, it props up wealthy, well-connected businesses that don’t want to be undersold by foreign producers. The foreign producers become victims of nationalistic bigotry–but so do the state’s own subjects, who cannot obtain goods and services as inexpensively as they otherwise could and who are forced to subsidize privileged businesses. A particularly stark example: agricultural subsidies, which prop up inefficient agribusinesses at the expense of foreign agricultural producers, and which therefore constitute significant, ongoing sources of poverty around the world. [page 33]

It definitely appears that a leftist wrote this, not a rightist, but do right libertarians or anarcho-capitalists actually disagree with it? I don’t think they do. How then can we even tell that a leftist wrote it?

I think the answer lies in the fact that Chartier stressed that the consequence of the tariffs is that they are effective subsidies that prop up domestic “elite” businesses by protecting them from competition.

I don’t think right wing people would deny that this is an effect of tariffs, yet at the same time I don’t think that the right wing people would necessarily stress this effect. Rather, I think the right wing people would focus on the small part of Chartier’s above quote that says, “The foreign producers become victims of nationalistic bigotry.”

The rightists would stress that tariffs are unjust because the state violates peoples’ rights–it makes them victims–when it threatens to forcefully prevent them from selling goods unless they submit to the state’s demands by giving a certain portion of the money they get for each good to the state.

The rightist may leave his explanation of why tariffs are unjust at that and thus possibly appear to leftists as if he doesn’t care about the ordinary people who now have to work for and shop from firms that manage to be artificially large, bureaucratic, “fat and lazy [page 27],” thanks to the protection from competition provided to them by the tariff.

But the rightist definitely might actually care about these effects on people. And if the rightest does care, does that make him a leftist? What if he cares, but does not always mention that he does? Does this make him a leftist that looks like a rightist?

Arguing over semantics is pointless. However, I just wanted to mention that I think many of the alleged differences in views between anarcho-capitalists and left libertarian “freed market anti-capitalist” anarchists do not truly exist. Their views just appear to be different because they stress different things. Of course, this is not to say that anarcho-capitalists and left anarchists don’t hold any different views. Some of their views definitely are different. I just think that they agree on more issues than it may seem.

It’s important to point this out because doing so makes it easier for all anarchists to work together for the same cause of achieving a free society. In a free society anarcho-capitalists and left market anarchists like Chartier may live very differently, but so long as we share the same goal of living peacefully and interacting with one another voluntarily I see no reason why we can’t work together. As Chartier said:

Anarchy as a Discovery Process

I’ve got fairly strong convictions about how I’d like to see things work without the state. Some of my convictions are moral–I think some things would be unjust and exploitative and subordinate and exclusive. Some of them are practical, empirical–I think authoritarian bureaucracies aren’t very adept at managing the production and distribution of goods and services. I wouldn’t hold those convictions if I didn’t think they were plausible. But I recognize that I might be dead wrong about any number of them.

Indeed, that’s one reason I find anarchism so appealing. Without a little cognitive humility, it’s easy to assume that I’ve got a model, a plan, that’s just right for everyone, that all I need is the right sort of benevolent philosopher-queen to implement it. But of course it’s that kind of naïve idealism about the capacities of states and the motivations of state actors that’s gotten us into the mess we’re in now, the mess in which the state tyranizzes [sic] us–supposedly for our own good.

Embracing cognitive humility, recognizing that I might well be dead wrong, is a crucial reason not to support some kind of cookie-cutter standard to be imposed across the board on communities in a stateless society. Anarchy will give people the freedom to experiment, to figure out what works, to test ideas and ideologies and figure out what happens when they’re actually put into practice. Some options will work well–people will improve on and refine them. Others will likely be disastrous–people will abandon them with relief. And others will likely prove stable enough that people who are attached to them will preserve them, and muddle through. The point is that, only by trying them out will people really discover effectively just how much merit they really have. (One advantageous feature of this kind of experimentation is that, if it goes badly wrong, the results won’t, can’t, be as catastrophic as they would be if a massive, powerful state apparatus messed things up dramatically. A large-scale, coercive state can do far more harm than a voluntary, small-scale, virtual or geographic community.) [page 91]

UPDATE 12/9/2012: Jacob Huebert’s Introduction to Chartier’s Conscience of an Anarchist is very good.

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Just Say “No”

This article was originally published by Gary Chartier on the Libertopia Underground, September 7th, 2012.


People who want to live in a society organized on the basis of peaceful, voluntary cooperation don’t want to be ruled by monopolists—by states. State authority is illegitimate, unnecessary, and dangerous.

But that obviously leaves open the question: what do we do now, while we’re still under the state’s rule, to make our lives more bearable and help to dismantle the state?

One answer, for a lot of people, is: vote. And that’s an answer about which I’m increasingly skeptical.

In The Conscience of an Anarchist, I talk about electoral politics as offering one avenue for positive social change. I’m not saying it can’t play that role. But I am saying there are good reasons to pursue alternatives.

Some people oppose voting because they think it’s immoral, as if the sheer act of voting placed an imprimatur on the political process or as if the voter were responsible for everything someone for whom she voted did in office. I think that’s silly. Voting can be a defensive act; the harmful results of decisions made by politicians can reasonably be treated as unaccepted, unwelcome side-effects of voters’ choices; and politicians have to be seen as responsible for their own actions. The problem with voting isn’t that it’s inherently wrong; no doubt, in principle, voting or even campaigning for office could be a reasonable defensive act.

But even if that’s true in principle, the reality is that there’s good reason not to vote.

Start out with the ineffectiveness of voting.

As we’ve seen in previous elections, governments can determine the outcomes of elections by eliminating some people from the voter rolls. And this means, in practical terms, that the victims of the drug war and other campaigns against victimless actions will be poorly positioned to influence electoral outcomes. The deck starts out stacked against anyone who wants to roll back state policies responsible for unjust imprisonment. The effect is similar to the one exerted when death penalty opponents are prevented from serving on juries; the full range of conscientious positions isn’t represented.

Campaign advertising is often deceptive and manipulative. Like other lies that don’t involve the fraudulent transfer of title, advertising ads shouldn’t be actionable at law, but that doesn’t mean they’re not harmful. Many voters depend on them, often to the exclusion of other sources of information, with the result that lies are persistently disseminated and electoral outcomes distorted.

Politicians themselves like, too, or cast their positions in ways likely to mislead the unwary. Consider candidate Barack Obama’s appeals to the peace vote, and his seeming opposition to the growth of the national security state. Politicians say what they think voters want to hear; but, once in office, they can be counted on to do whatever they think will boost their chances of reelection, help them raise money, and benefit their cronies.

And of course there’s the fact that votes often don’t count because elections can easily be stolen; just ask Coke Stevenson. That’s especially true now that hackable electronic voting devices are increasingly common. And counting errors can occur even when people act in good faith, too (thanks to Sam Hays for this point).

Gerrymandering decreases the likelihood that the outcome of a given election will be dependent on individual votes, and it’s been common as long as there have been electoral contests. But even in its absence, the likelihood that your vote will determine the outcome of a race is very small indeed when the number of relevant votes is large.

Suppose it does: what then? It’s clear that the outcome of a race may make little difference at all. Most politicians operate within fairly narrow ideological confines, and are most unlikely to do particularly radical things. The sorts of people who are likely to become successful politicians are unlikely to rock the boat—and are, indeed, likely to be unprincipled and ambitious. But even if a genuinely radical politician is elected, that doesn’t mean that radical changes will be enacted. After all, once in office, a politician becomes the target of enthusiastically rent-seeking elites and their cronies, who will be adept at influencing her or his actions to their benefit.

And even if a politician doesn’t bend to the will of any of these various interest groups, there’s the obvious fact that individual politicians have considerable difficulty accomplishing things. A legislator is only one member of a sizeable group, many of whose members will be largely uninterested in basing decisions on principles, especially defensible ones, so the odds that a continuingly principled radical legislator will be able to make substantive change happen are very low. The odds that an elected executive will be a principled radical are even lower, given that more people have to be satisfied to ensure that a successful campaign for governor or president is managed and funded, and more principles will often have to be sacrificed to win a campaign for executive office. But, again, once in office, a radical executive would have no choice but to work with a legislature that was unlikely to be radical at all.

A further problem: a genuine radical, someone who really cared about making the world a better place, might find the temptation to use power, not to liberate people, but to control and manage them, almost irresistible. Even in the absence of effective manipulation by special interests, the desire to change the world by force could corrupt an initially principled politician.

In short, therefore, there is little reason to believe that voting will effectively lead to the actual enactment of policies that enhance freedom and justice. We may sometimes, rarely, see, ex post, that it did; but as a general ex ante policy, it’s safe to assume it won’t. Emma Goldman was surely right: “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

Even if you have doubts about the effectiveness of voting, there will be good reason to avoid it.

Doing so can be a useful means of protest—an expression of one’s disgust at the limited options, the deceit, the hypocrisy of campaigns and the aggression and manipulation, the theft and murder, of governing. And it can give one a great opportunity to highlight the awfulness of the state. Imagine people’s reactions when they see you wearing a sticker that says, “I’ve avoided voting. Have you?”

It’s especially useful to avoid voting because of the rush of team spirit that accompanies every election campaign. If you’re going to vote for a politician, you should at least hold your nose. But otherwise sane and sensible people fall victim to charisma and breathe in the seductive pheromones of murderers and thugs. They announce, without a second thought, that their candidate is wise and good and heroic. They cheer for their team’s inanities, and dramatically exaggerate the good any rational person could expect an election might accomplish. If you want to avoid being caught up in mass hysteria, stay away from the ballot box.

Electoral democracy helps to convince ordinary people that they are the state’s masters rather than its subjects. It conceals factional disputes within the power elite and frames them as popular contests in which the people’s will is done. It deceives people into supposing that they really have consented to the state’s dictates, and prompts them to dismiss critics of the status quo with shibboleths like, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” Refusing to vote helps to reveal the fact that the emperor has no clothes.

Just say “no.” This year, vote for nobody.