Peace Requires Anarchy


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

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 response he sent me addressing the question I asked him in a previous email: How Bad Would Anarchy Have to Be to Justify Unjust Government Activity?

Your question is an instance of the broader question: “How large must the benefits be to justify a rights violation?” (For instance, for what number n is it permissible to kill one innocent person to save n innocent lives?) One extreme answer is “Rights violations are never justified,” but for various reasons, I think this answer [is] indefensible. Another extreme answer is consequentialism, “Rights violations are justified whenever the benefits exceed the harms” – which is really equivalent to saying there are no such things as rights. This is not indefensible, but it is very counter-intuitive. So we’re left with a seemingly arbitrary line somewhere in the middle. Obviously, no one knows precisely where the line is. Fortunately, we also don’t need to answer that question to choose a political philosophy.

Patrick Stewart

Patrick Stewart

Analogously, you don’t need to answer “exactly how many hairs must a person have on their head in order to not count as ‘bald’?”, in order to say whether Patrick Stewart is bald, because Patrick Stewart is nowhere near the borderline; he’s deep into “bald” territory. If you have a 2000-pound pile of sand in your back yard, you don’t need to answer “exactly how many grains of sand make a heap?” in order to know that you have a heap in your back yard.

Similarly, we don’t need to answer “How Bad Would Anarchy Have to Be to Justify Unjust Government Activity?” because our predictions for how bad – or rather, how good – anarchy would be are just going to be nowhere close to the line. We’re nowhere close to the case where government would be justified.

Now, I did not discuss roads or schools in my book, as you (and another reviewer) mentioned. That is because the book was already at the word limit, there are about two dozen other things that someone thinks I should have put in, and they couldn’t all go in. (For example, should I have deleted the chapter on national defense, so I could talk about roads?). However, there’s really no reason to think that roads or schools in the anarchist society would be worse than in a governmental society.

The argument from schools strikes me as particularly lame. I think it’s mainly professional educators, who are worried about losing their huge government subsidies, who are worried about this. If you learn that your next door neighbor isn’t sending his kids to school, would you be justified in kidnapping the kids to force them to go to a school run by you?

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This is the third 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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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.

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

Michael HuemerLiterally minutes ago I purchased Professor Michael Huemer’s newest book “The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey,” which, in the opinion of Prof. Bryan Caplan, is “…the best book [in the genre of libertarian political philosophy].”

In other news, Michael Huemer pointed out in a presentation he gave at Porcfest X called “Defending Libertarianism: The Common Sense Approach” that there are three main ways to defend liberty: One can use economic arguments, rights-based arguments, or common sense. Huemer believes the common sense approach is best in some sense. I will wait until his book arrives and I have read it to decide whether or not I agree with him.

In the mean time, I would like to explain why I disagree with a criticism of the rights-based approach to defending libertarianism that Huemer gave in his presentation. See the relevant portion of his presentation here:

In summary, Huemer criticizes the rights-based approach by arguing that in some extreme situations we do not intuitively agree with the rights-based libertarian position that peoples’ libertarian rights should be upheld. In other words, “rights can be overridden.” Continue reading


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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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The Free State Solution (2013)

This 20-minute documentary is the best introduction to the Free State Project I have seen.

Please share it far and wide to help achieve Liberty in Our Lifetime. Peace.

Free State Project - Community Liberty Peace