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:


How Bad Would Anarchy Have to Be to Justify Unjust Government Activity?

Michael Huemer is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and is the author of the book The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. The following is the body of an email I sent to him questioning the specifics of the criteria he uses to determine whether or not the relative consequences of not having a particular rights-violating government program are bad enough to justify having the program. His response can be found here.

In your Cato essay “The Problem of Authority” you write:

“If we really stand in danger of some sort of all-out Hobbesian war, then the state would be justified in employing the minimum coercion necessary to prevent the state of war from occurring.”

Allow me to clarify: Why? Because a society without law and order (a Hobbesian war) is a sufficiently disastrous outcome that aggression would be justified to avoid it.

In a Goodreads review of your book (that everyone should buy, like I just did two days ago) a critic writes:

“The second half of the book sketches how ‘law and order’ might work without government, and why a military might not be necessary, but there’s not even the briefest attempt to explain how things like roads and water supplies would be dealt with.”

Michael Huemer(Note that Bryan Caplan thinks this is a legitimate criticism.)

Is a road-less society or a society with poor water supply a sufficiently disastrous outcome that a minimal-road-building state or a minimal-water-supply-system state would be justified to avoid it?

In other words, if the critics were right that there would be very few roads in a stateless society, would a minimal-road-building state be justified?

As another example, if it were true that there would be very few schools and most people would be much less educated than they are today in a stateless society, would a minimal-school-system state program be justified?

To generalize this question: How bad must the free market disaster outcome be to justify extortion-funded state program intervention?

I am not sure how to answer this question.

On the one hand if I say that no outcome, even a society lacking “law and order,” is disastrous enough to justify a rights-violating minimal state fix, then you’ll accuse me of biting the bullet again. [UPDATE 08/07/2013 4:30 PM: This time, unlike the first time, I believe he would be correct to accuse me of biting the bullet.]

On the other hand, if we accept that a road-less society and a society with a slightly less educated public is a sufficiently disastrous outcome to justify an extortion-funded state school system and road system, then we’re faced with granting that all political authority is justified to the extent that it is beneficial. In other words, we risk conceding that the answers to these two questions are identical:

“The question is not, ‘Why are those programs beneficial?’ The question is, ‘How are those programs justified by the threat of the Hobbesian war that would supposedly result from anarchy?'”

Any state program that is shown to be “beneficial” can be claimed to be justified in light of the fact that it avoids a more disastrous outcome, just as you say a government that “make[s] laws against violence and theft and provide[s] a court system to adjudicate disputes [is justified] in order to prevent a Hobbesian war of all against all [assuming it is true that such a Hobbesian war would occur without government].”

My guess is that you will say that the solution to this problem is, instead of taking either extreme position, simply to draw an arbitrary line somewhere and say, in the words of Bryan Caplan, that aggressive government programs are justified only if they are “highly likely to lead to much better consequences.”

If this is the solution we pick then the task of the anarcho-capitalist ideologist is to show that no aggressive government program is “highly likely to lead to much better consequences” than the consequences that would occur without the aggressive government program.

In addition to debunking the myth that there cannot be law and order in a stateless society, this may or may not include debunking other factual beliefs that people have, such as that the state school system is necessary to educate the nation’s children, etc, since people may or may not think that these other government programs are “highly likely to lead to much better consequences.”

[End of email]

See Prof. Mike Huemer’s response here.

An Explanation of the Title: “How Bad Would Anarchy Have to Be to Justify Unjust Government Activity?”

The title of this post may sound contradictory. To clarify, it uses the term “justify” in the same way that Mike Huemer uses the term when talking about how minimal states would be justified if it were true that anarchy would necessarily be a Hobbesian war of all against all. The term “unjust” is used to refer to government activity that involves violating peoples’ rights as defined by libertarian principles. I believe the law should always uphold peoples’ rights, but if we lived in a world in which the consequences of the law upholding peoples’ rights all the time were somehow very terrible then I would be willing to consider making an exception and support making it legal to violate someone’s rights in order to avoid this terrible outcome. But how terrible would this outcome have to be for me to support making it legal to violate a person’s rights? Hence the title question, since all states necessarily make it legal to violate peoples’ rights by definition, since all states make it legal for them to imposes taxes on their subjects and outlaw competing rights-enforcement agencies, both of which necessarily involve employing aggression.


This is the second of three related blog posts featuring discussion between Prof. Mike Huemer and I. All three posts deal with the question of when it is moral to support or commit aggression:

(1) Morally Permissible Unjust Acts: Defending the Rights-Based Approach to Defending Libertarianism

(2) How Bad Would Anarchy Have to be to Justify Unjust Government Activity?

(3) Mike Huemer: “We’re nowhere close to the case where government would be justified.”

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WWYD?: Good People, Peaceful Parenting, and Agorism Today

What Would You Do?: A Television Show that Reveals Human Nature

There are more good people in the world than many anarchy-skeptics would have you believe, the ABC television series “What Would You Do?” shows.

From Wikipedia:

“In the series, actors act out scenes of conflict or illegal activity in public settings while hidden cameras videotape the scene, and the focus is on whether or not bystanders intervene, and how. Variations are also usually included, such as changing the genders, the races or the clothing of the actors performing the scene, to see if bystanders react differently. Quiñones appears at the end to interview the bystanders about their reactions.”

Host of the television show “What Would You Do?”

A few weeks ago I discovered this fascinating show on YouTube and have already watched a significant portion of the episodes.

Many of the people on hidden cameras who witness the scenarios the actors act out are revealed to be mean, vicious, racist, sexist, ignorant, or intolerant people, while others are revealed to be very kind, caring, generous, and loving people.

Sometimes we observe the bystander effect, but on other occasions we witness people go out of their way to selflessly help strangers in need.

Since the producers of the show act out each scenario several times over the course of one or a few days of filming and yet only select a few of these run-throughs to be included in the show, we viewers cannot always gather accurate information about how most people respond to each scenario.

However, the show host usually fills us in on how people tended to react, often with specific numbers: “Of the 22 shoppers we confronted, Chris is the only one who really questioned our authority figure.

This means that in addition to providing proof that there are some good people in the world, the television show also provides us with evidence that a large number of people are not the evil selfish kind of people that Thomas Hobbes believed would fight against each other in a war of all-against-all were it not for the “common Power [state] to keep them all in awe.” Continue reading

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George Can Always Leave, But Taxation Is Still Theft

George Ought to Help is a wonderful short animation made by Tomasz Kaye that illustrates the fact that the organizations called states or governments are all guilty of theft or extortion. People call this legalized theft “taxation,” but Tomasz shows why taxation is no different than theft and suggests that it is consequently illegitimate.

After over two years of discussing the short video with people in the comment section on YouTube, Tomasz made a new sequel animation called You Can Always Leave to address many of the common objections to the first video. Bryan Caplan called it, “One of the best philosophy videos I’ve ever seen”:

I would be happy to discuss anything in either video here, however I also encourage you to check out the comment sections on YouTube to see what discussions have already taken place.

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Rich Paul Found Guilty of Non-Aggressive Acts: Some Have No Sympathy

Over at Free Keene, Ian Freeman reports the sad news that activist Rich Paul, the creator of the historic 420 celebrations in downtown Keene, New Hampshire, was found guilty on April 18 for selling cannabis:
Rich Paul Found Guilty

Even though Rich Paul knew that what he was doing was illegal according to the criminal enterprise known as the State of New Hampshire, a lot of people were still sad to see him caged since the acts he performed were peaceful in nature.

Some people seemed to forget their consciences, however, and had no sympathies for Rich Paul simply because he did something the government said not to do. Thomas Clement was one such heartless person:

Offer to Hire Thomas ClementClement is not the only person who stops opposing aggression when government commits the aggression. I’ve encountered countless others who make this exception for government as well.

I sometimes wonder how personal slavery, a very serious form of aggression, existed for so long. Weren’t people repulsed by it? How did they stand by and let it exist? One hypothesis is that many people were obedient to government. Since government supported slavery many people may have consequently gone along with supporting slavery as well.

I wonder what Thomas Clement would think of Frederick Douglass‘ story if he read his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Would he agree with most people of our time and say that it was unjust for people to enslave him? Would he agree that the government’s fugitive slave laws were unjust? Would he have sympathy for Frederick Douglass?

If so, would he retract his comment pictured above that knowingly breaking a law is reason enough to not have sympathy for a lawbreaker?

It’s hard to imagine that many people in today’s world would not have sympathy for Frederick Douglass and his peers who were beaten or killed for breaking unjust laws. I bet that Thomas Clement would feel sympathy for them and I bet that once he realized this he would be more inclined to be sympathetic to other heroic people who bravely break unjust laws for the sake of their own freedoms and everyone else’s freedoms.

People like Frederick Douglass and Rich Paul make the world a better place. It’s sad to see them harmed, especially when so many people support the aggression against them.

Activists standing outside the Cheshire County Courthouse in Keene, NH a few days before Rich Paul's trial.

Activists standing outside the Cheshire County Courthouse in Keene, NH a few days before Rich Paul’s trial.

Free Keene

Consider moving to New Hampshire for the Free State Project to help achieve Liberty in Our Lifetime.


Implicit Contracts as an Argument Against Evictionism?

The first time I encountered the argument that there exist implicit contracts between mothers and their fetuses that make it so the mothers do not have the right to evict the fetuses from their bodies was when Mark Stoval made the argument in his post, “Murray Rothbard and I Disagreed on Abortion and Child Abandonment.”

I recently encountered the argument again in Jakub Wisniewski’s essay, “Response to Block on Abortion, Round Three,” and felt the need to respond more clearly, since I still do not believe the argument succeeds. Wisniewski writes:

[Walter] Block tries to show the supposed untenability of my reliance on the principle of pacta sunt servanda on the grounds that “at the time of intercourse (…) there is no one for the voluntarily pregnant woman to have a contract with!” True, but why should we treat intercourse rather than conception as the moment at which the relevant, binding decisions take place? since, obviously enough, no contract (even an implicit one) can be made with the fetus before it comes into existence, it seems only natural to think of the moment at which it comes into existence–i.e., conception–as the moment at which the mother, who voluntarily invites a new potential human being into her womb (i.e., voluntarily allows it to appear there), makes an implicit contract with it. Block’s attempt to portray intercourse as the relevant point of focus appears to involve a significant mischaracterization of the situation.

But the mother does not necessarily “voluntarily invite a new potential human being into her womb (i.e., voluntarily allow it to appear there)”, even if she did have consensual intercourse. At the moment of conception and perhaps the moment right before conception, the mother may be thinking, “Oh no, there are sperm cells and an egg cell inside me. I hope they don’t fuse and form a human being because I don’t want a human inside me. If I could do something to prevent a human from appearing inside me I would, but it is out of my control whether the sperm and egg fuse together or not.”

It’s clear that she’s not inviting a human inside her (i.e. voluntarily allowing it to appear inside her) since she is explicitly stating that she doesn’t want the sperm and egg to fuse together (i.e. she doesn’t want a human to appear inside her) and since she can’t control whether or not the sperm and egg happen to fuse together and cause a human to appear anyway.

So I disagree with Wisniewski’s position that whenever a woman has consensual intercourse and gets pregnant, she makes an implicit contract at the time of conception with the new human in which she agrees to carry the fetus to term.

Allow me to make the argument again in the form of a hypothetical conversation between Wisniewski and a woman for the sake of clarifying the argument:

Woman: I recently voluntarily allowed some sperm cells into my body. Currently they are moving around and there is a chance that one of them will fuse with an egg cell and form a new human being. There is nothing I can do to prevent one of them from fusing with an egg cell causing a new human being to form. If a sperm and egg do fuse together forming a new human, I will evict the human from my body.

Wisniewski: But that would be unjust to evict the human from your body.

Woman: Why would it be unjust?

Wisniewski: Because you would have formed an implicit contract with the human in which you agreed not to evict it from your body.

Woman: When would I have made this contract?

Wisniewski: At the moment of conception.

Woman: But I am saying right now that I don’t want the human to appear inside me and that I don’t agree to let it stay inside me if it happens to appear. And soon, when the moment of conception arrives (assuming it does arrive), my will won’t be any different. So how can you say that I would make an implicit contract with those terms if I am explicitly stating now that I do not agree to the terms of the contract and if at the time you say the implicit contract is made I am still explicitly stating that I do not agree to the terms of the contract?

Wisniewski: That’s a good question. Maybe my argument is mistaken. I think I might have assumed that the fact that you consensually had intercourse means that you would later (at the moment of conception) agree to have the human appear inside you. But now that you point out that it does not make sense to say that a person makes an implicit contract if that person is explicitly stating (at the time that the alleged implicit contract is made) that they don’t agree with the terms of the contract, I realize that this was a false assumption.

So in summary, I disagree with Wisniewski’s position that an implicit contract between the mother and new human obliging the mother to carry the fetus to term is made at the time of conception.

However, I am not sure that I fully agree with Walter Block. In Wisniewski’s essay, “A Critque of Block on Abortion and Child Abandonment,” he writes:

Further, he [Block] denies that the voluntariness of the pregnancy obliges the woman to carry the fetus to term; such an obligation could stem only from there being an implicit contract between the two, and Block denies the existence of any such contract on the ground that one cannot consent (even implicitly) to any decision made before one came into being.

While I agree with Block that no such contract (even an implicit one) between the mother and fetus exists (as I argued above), I disagree with Block in that I don’t think that such an obligation for the woman to carry the fetus to term could only stem from a contract between the mother and fetus.

For example, could such an obligation not also stem from a contract between the mother and father? The father could say, “I will not have intercourse with you unless you contractually agree that if you get pregnant as a result then you will carry the fetus to term (unless doing so threatens your own life, etc.).”

If such a contract is legitimate, this would not mean that all evictions should be illegal, because it would not necessarily be the case that all fathers and mothers would make such a contract. However, for those possibly-soon-to-be-fathers concerned about eviction, they could make contracts like this with their partners and if their partners ended up becoming pregnant they would not have the right to evict their fetuses.


Libertarian Humor: Taxation Without Consent

Tony Liberté recently began publishing some very good libertarian-themed comics on his Facebook page Libertarian Humor. Here is one from today titled Taxation Without Consent that I found particularly great:

UPDATE 02/17/2013: Today Tony released another comic called Social Contract in response to a popular criticism:

I encourage anyone who believes that taxation is legitimate to read Lysander Spooner’s No Treason, a series of three essays: No. I (1867), No. II: The Constitution (1867), and No. VI: The Constitution of No Authority (1870).

Lysander Spooner’s quote from the first comic is from A Letter to Grover Cleveland:

If taxation without consent is not robbery, then any band of robbers have only to declare themselves a government, and all their robberies are legalized.