Michael Huemer's Challenge to the Legitimacy of Government
By Arnold Kling
“Huemer’s central insight is that what political scientists call legitimacy, or what he calls political authority, is the most important stronghold that advocates of anarcho-capitalism have to overcome in order to win the intellectual battle.”
In 2012, the libertarian bookshelf was expanded by a number of notable academic works. In order of publication date, we were presented with John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness,1 James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism,2 Jason Brennan’s Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know,3 and Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority.4 Each represents an important contribution to libertarian thought and argument. All four authors seek to reach and to persuade an audience of intelligent readers who are not already inclined toward libertarianism, although the authors differ considerably in their visions for a libertarian society and in their methods of persuasion. Each manifesto warrants an extensive review, but in this essay I will focus on Huemer’s work, which I found to be particularly stimulating, engaging, and incisive.
What Huemer means by the problem of political authority is suggested by the book’s subtitle: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. He views these as fundamental characteristics of what he calls political authority.
I can illustrate Huemer’s concept of political authority with an example. In the fall of 2012, my wife was pulled over by a policeman, who had noticed that the registration sticker on her license plate was out of date. (The current sticker had either fallen off or been stolen.) Nearly everyone would agree that the policeman had a right to make my wife pull over and stop. Nearly everyone would agree that my wife had a duty to obey the policeman. These consensus beliefs, in the policeman’s right and my wife’s duty, are what Huemer means by political authority.
Note that if an attempt to get my wife to pull over and stop had been made by an ordinary citizen, or even by a policeman off duty and driving a personal, non-official car, nearly everyone would deny the right to coerce and the duty to obey. Thus, the right to coerce and the duty to obey are unique to persons acting in an official government capacity. As one learns in political theory 101, government has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.
Huemer would like to see government as we know it replaced by something closer to the version of anarcho-capitalism found in David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom,5 with competitive private provision of all government services, including police protection and dispute resolution. Huemer’s central insight is that what political scientists call legitimacy, or what he calls political authority, is the most important stronghold that advocates of anarcho-capitalism have to overcome in order to win the intellectual battle. He writes,
As I see it, libertarian political philosophy rests on three broad ideas:
i) A non-aggression principle in interpersonal ethics. Roughly, this is the idea that individuals should not attack, kill, steal from, or defraud another and, in general, that individuals should not coerce one another, apart from a few special circumstances.
ii) A recognition of the coercive nature of government. When the state promulgates a law, the law is generally backed up by a threat of punishment, which is supported by credible threats of physical force directed against those who would disobey the state.
iii) A skepticism of political authority. The upshot of this skepticism is, roughly, that the state may not do what it would be wrong for any nongovernmental person or organization to do…it is the notion of authority that forms the true locus of dispute between libertarianism and other political philosophies. Libertarians are skeptical about authority, whereas most accept the state’s authority in more or less the terms in which the state claims it… nonlibertarians assume that most of the moral constraints that apply to other agents do not apply to the state… Most people never pause to question the notion of political authority, but once it is examined, the idea of a group of people with a special right to command everyone else fairly dissolves6
In order to refute the argument that political authority is necessary, Huemer has to try to guess what that argument might be. His success or failure in doing so will determine whether or not he is persuasive.
Huemer starts by trying to locate the argument for government in political philosophy. For example, some political philosophers have tried to use “social contract” arguments to defend government. Huemer points out that when private contracts are just, people know what is in them, they have a choice about signing, and they have recourse when the other side fails to honor its obligations. The “social contract” fails to live up to such standards.
Another strand of political philosophy seeks to justify democratic voting as a social choice mechanism. Huemer argues that a monopoly government that reflects popular sentiment is neither sufficiently desirable in theory, nor realized in practice to justify political authority.
I came away from Huemer’s chapters on political philosophy with the sense that he was shadow-boxing. I suspect that the real reasons that people buy into political authority cannot be found in the work of political philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes, John Rawls, or James Fishkin. The true reasons are implicit, and someone needs to undertake the task of teasing them out. Until we know what the real reasons are, we will not be able to refute them.
I think that Huemer is on the right track when he says, “When social systems are evaluated, it does not matter how a system is supposed to work; what matters is how it can be expected to work under realistic assumptions about human nature.”7
Do those of us who would prefer competition and choice to monopoly coercion in the provision of government services have a different view of human nature than those who are less skeptical of political authority? I suspect that this is the case.
When it comes to Huemer’s take on human nature, readers may have difficulty pinning him down. In one section, he lays out some explicit views. He states that his central assumption about human nature is that “humans are approximately rational.8” Most of the time, we can explain behavior in terms of conscious intentions.
Another important issue regarding human nature concerns the propensity for violence. Huemer writes:
… the risks of attacking your neighbors will normally greatly outweigh the potential benefits… most human beings are not sociopaths. Most care about others, particularly their family and friends. Most have both strong moral objections and strong negative feelings about violence and theft… The general game-theoretic principle is this: Equality of power breeds respect. No rational person wishes to enter violent conflict with others who are of equal strength to himself…. For these reasons, rational individuals fight only defensive battles.9
In other words, because humans understand game theory and that violence is against our self-interest, we can be expected not to initiate violence.
Given the assumptions that humans are approximately rational and self-interestedly pacifist, I think that Huemer’s conclusion that anarcho-capitalism is feasible follows quite readily. But how plausible are these assumptions, particularly to someone whose inclinations are progressive or conservative, rather than libertarian?
In thinking about this issue, I find myself wondering, how could these approximately rational, self-interestedly pacifist creatures ever get saddled with monopoly government in the first place? In other words, it strikes me that the very existence of government may be evidence that Huemer’s account of human nature is missing something.
Near the end of the book, there is a passage that leads me to wonder whether Huemer himself believes his assumptions. He writes:
If anarchy had to be achieved through a sudden abolition of all government, it would be a remote prospect. Such a rapidly achieving anarchy would also likely have disappointing results—if government were to suddenly disappear, without any prior development of such alternative institutions as private security and arbitration firms, chaos would likely ensue. Perhaps alternative institutions would arise spontaneously in due time, but it is also likely that chaos would give rise to immediate demands for a new government. For these reasons, it is desirable to develop a gradualist model of the abolition of government in which alternative institutions grow at the same time that government shrinks.10
In this passage, Huemer reveals his intuition is that with a sudden collapse of political authority, “chaos would likely ensue.” Indeed, in historical examples that come to mind, the term “chaos” understates the catastrophic impact of a collapse of political authority. Consider the examples of France in the 1790’s, Russia in 1917-1920, or Germany in the 1920’s.
To explain “chaos,” civil wars, and reigns of terror, I think that the assumptions of approximate rationality and self-interested pacifism are inadequate. Some other account of human nature is required.
Huemer does give an alternative account of human nature, in a chapter on the psychology of authority. There, he interprets two famous experiments in social psychology, the Milgram Obedience Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment. Concerning the former, Huemer writes:
Because most individuals are willing to go frighteningly far in satisfaction of the demands of authority figures, institutions that set up recognized authority figures have the potential to become engines of evil. Milgram draws the parallel to Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler, working alone, could perhaps have murdered a few dozen or even a hundred people. What enabled him to become one of history’s greatest murderers was the socially recognized position of authority into which he maneuvered himself and the unquestioning obedience rendered him by millions of German subjects…. very few Germans would have decided, on their own, to go out murdering Jews. Respect for authority was Hitler’s key weapon.”11
The model of human nature presented here is one in which humans have an irrational propensity to defer to authority, in the sense that “authority figures” can get people to behave in ways that are contrary to their prudential and ethical norms. If, through bad luck of the draw, a Hitler or Stalin ends up in a position of authority, mass murder results.
There are a number of problems with this account. First of all, the Milgram experiment itself may have been artificial. Elsewhere, Huemer writes:
… there are some general conditions that render various failures of rationality more likely: human beings are most likely to make mistakes when facing unfamiliar, complex situations or situations in which abstract reasoning is required to work out the right choice. They are also likely to make errors in decisions that are unimportant to them, where they do not care to devote sufficient thought to identify the best option… The assumption of instrumental rationality is most likely to hold good when people are facing simple, familiar situations in which the best option is easy to work out.12
In the Milgram experiment, the subject is placed in an unfamiliar and complex situation. A man wearing a lab coat tells the subject that he must administer painful shocks to someone else in order to get the person to perform a task. The subject is deceived about the purpose of this. The subject is not told that the other persons involved are actors. The subject is not warned ahead of time that the man in the lab coat is going to progressively demand that the subject administer increasingly painful punishment as the task goes unperformed.
If you knew ahead of time that you were going to be asked to administer increasingly painful shocks to someone else, chances are that you would make plans to defy the experimenter. More likely, you would choose not to participate in the experiment altogether.
Most of us take directions from people wearing white lab coats because our experience teaches us that these people are benign and skillful. We are not prepared to find them incompetent, much less malignant.
Another concern I have with Huemer’s interpretation is that being an “authority figure” and having what Huemer calls “political authority” are not the same thing. The man in the white lab coat is an authority figure, but he does not enjoy the political authority of a government official. There is no ultimate threat of coercion backing his demands, nor is the subject legally obligated to obey the man in the lab coat the way that my wife is legally obligated to obey when a policeman pulls her over.
In looking at human nature, you can argue that inflicting pain at the demand of a man in a white lab coat who lacks political authority is even worse than following the orders of a government official. But in that case what you find troubling is the fact that people give undue respect to any authority figure. The fact that some authority figures are government officials is merely incidental.
Finally, not everyone would be convinced by the “bad luck of the draw” account for how Hitler obtained power. (To be fair, “bad luck of the draw” is my phrase, not Huemer’s.) Hitler’s articulation of grievances resonated with many German people, and his diplomatic and military accomplishments filled many Germans with pride.
The Stanford Prison Experiment suggests that people in authority positions tend to abuse those over whom they have authority, and people who are subject to authority tend to tolerate abuse. Huemer writes:
[Philip] Zimbardo’s central conclusion, from this study and much other evidence, is that the determinants of good or evil behavior lie more in the situations that individuals are placed into than in those individuals’ intrinsic dispositions.13
Later, Huemer says:
… given the existence of government, the people who are most likely to wind up in control of that government are those who (a) have the greatest drive for power, (b) have the skills needed for seizing it (for example, the ability to intimidate or manipulate others), and (c) are unperturbed by moral compunctions about doing what is required to seize power. These individuals are not in the game for the money. They are in it for the pleasure of exercising power. The way one feels the exercise of power is, all too often, by abusing those under one’s power while observing their helplessness to resist. This is among the lessons of the Stanford Prison Experiment.14
With this passage, some new characters appear on Huemer’s stage. In addition to the approximately rational and self-interested pacifists, we now have people with a “drive for power,” who have “the ability to intimidate or manipulate others,” who are “unperturbed by moral compunctions,” and who “are in it for the pleasure of exercising power.” I am afraid that these new characters have the potential to complicate the play considerably.
I believe that a progressive would argue that it is a main task of government to defend citizens against those with “the ability to intimidate or manipulate others.” The progressive sees this ability to intimidate or manipulate as residing in large corporations and bigoted individuals. In addition, progressives see a potential for government to “nudge” people who are only approximately rational in a better direction.
Implicit in the progressive outlook is a much more optimistic view of the social construction of government than is found in Huemer’s interpretation of the Stanford Prison experiment. Progressives picture government officials as civic-minded, not power-crazed. Progressives have some faith in the ultimate ability of voters to choose the civic-minded and remove the power-crazed from office.
I believe that conservatives, on the other hand, would echo Huemer’s concerns about human nature in the context of power. However, they would by no means share Huemer’s otherwise optimistic take on human nature in general. Conservatives tend to view man as a “beast” that must be tamed by traditional institutions, such as family, church, and respect for the law.
It is plausible that there is some level of disobedience that would cause a governmental collapse. But as long as we are far from that level, any given individual can disobey with no consequences for the survival of government… while governmental functioning requires obedience, there are already more than enough people obeying the law so that the government is in no danger of collapsing if you disobey.15
I doubt that conservatives would agree with this assessment. Conservatives generally do not think that the collapse of civilization is a possibility too remote to warrant concern. On the contrary, they view that threat as real and imminent.
Compared to Huemer, conservatives attach more significance to the propensity of man to engage in conflict. This belief in the propensity for conflict shapes the conservative view of the design of government. Huemer writes:
… the separation of powers is of limited utility, since the separate branches of government stand to gain more by making common cause in extending government power than by vigilantly restraining each other’s power.16
Conservatives would argue that separation of powers can work, because human nature runs counter to “making common cause.” For conservatives who fear the abuse of authority, separation of powers has the virtue of receiving reinforcement from the human propensity to engage in conflict.
Read more about Huemer’s book in a series of EconLog posts by Bryan Caplan, beginning with The Problem of Political Authority by Michael Huemer and ending with Huemer’s Common-Sense Libertarianism.
To summarize, I believe that Michael Huemer has put his finger on an important question, namely: What justifies having an institution with special privileges to coerce and to which we have special obligations to obey? The explicit justifications given in the literature of political philosophy are not very satisfying. One’s views on the issue ought to be tied to one’s views on human nature. Unfortunately, readers are likely to have difficulty buying in to Huemer’s own views on human nature, and I believe that this will limit the persuasiveness of his arguments.
John Tomasi, Free Market Fairness. Princeton (Princeton University Press), 2012.
James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play. Princeton (Princeton University Press), 2012.
Jason Brennan, Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford (Oxford University Press), 2012.
Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority. London (Palgrave Macmillan), 2013.
David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to Radical Capitalism. LaSalle (Open Court), 1989.
Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority, pages 176-178.
Ibid., page 196.
Ibid., page 187.
Ibid., pages 201-202.
Ibid., page 324.
Ibid., page 108.
Ibid., page 188.
Ibid., page 132.
Ibid., page 206.
Ibid., page 84.
Ibid., page 229.
For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.