Symposium on Huemer's Problem of Political Authority, Uncategorized

Michael Huemer Responds to Critics, Part 1

Many thanks to Kevin Vallier (here), Chris Morris (here and here), Bas van der Vossen (here and here), and Massimo Renzo (here) for their very thoughtful and interesting posts. I have some replies to Kevin and Massimo below. Replies to Chris and Bas will follow in a separate post.

Eight comments on Kevin’s post:

1. As I understand it, the notion of “political authority” involves placing one agent above other agents. It involves postulating a special moral status for a particular agent, “the state,” such that (a) other agents have duties to obey the state in a wide range of circumstances in which they would not owe obedience to any other agent, and (b) the state is entitled to do things that would be clearly wrong for any other agent. This violation of the ideal of moral equality calls for an explanation. What is so special about this one agent?

No parallel question naturally arises about property rights. In claiming that there are property rights, one is not claiming that there is any agent who is special in those ways. When I say that I own a car, I am not placing myself above all other agents, and it is not at all natural to respond, “What’s so special about you?”

Now, you might say that I am claiming a special status, namely that only I and no one else am entitled to decide how the car is used. That I may use coercion to prevent others from taking the car. That others must obey my wishes with regard to how the car is and isn’t used. But this would be a pretty contrived way of arguing that I have a “special moral status,” since other people have exactly parallel rights with respect to their own property.


2. I certainly agree with Kevin that none of the philosophical theories of authority can be used to defend property rights, any more than they can be used to defend the authority of the state.


3. It isn’t my job to give a theory of property rights, for two reasons: first, because it is a reasonable thing to take for granted in this context. Second, because my main theses probably hold even if there are no property rights.

On the first point: there is only so much you can do in one book. (Literally – the publisher had a word limit. Various people have listed things that I “should have” discussed. To fit all of them in, I would pretty much have had to delete all the existing chapters.) To make progress in political philosophy, one has to be able to take some norms for granted. Similarly, I didn’t give an account of why violence is bad, or why human life is valuable, or indeed why we should believe in any norms at all.


4. Now, if the notion of property were highly controversial, or something that only right-wing ideologues accepted, then it would be a problematic starting point. But that is not the case. Only a tiny, extremist minority (perhaps overrepresented in the academy) reject property. This doesn’t prove that those people are wrong. But it does make it reasonable for me to address myself to those with the consensus view.

Kevin raises the case of a person who steals from a very rich person to prevent herself from suffering “a life of serious material deprivation.” This characterization is too vague and abstract for me to evaluate the action. But no doubt there is a range of cases in which ordinary people would disagree about the permissibility of theft.

Kevin seems to take this problem as a challenge to the notion of property as such, but I don’t think so. To believe in rights of some kind, one need not be an absolutist. Clearly, in common sense morality, property rights are not absolute. As I explain on p. 94 in the book, in some circumstances, a person may violate another’s property rights to prevent something much worse from happening. Now, exactly where the dividing line is – which harms one may avert by violating another’s property rights – is controversial. But I don’t see why I would have to take a stand on where that line is.


5. Perhaps the problem is that an anarcho-capitalist society might fail to correctly identify the line. True enough. But I don’t see any more reason to think that a state would correctly identify the line, so I don’t see a reason so far for preferring government over anarchy. The question is not whether anarchy is perfect but whether it is better than government.


6. But now suppose that extremist minority is right and there are in fact no property rights. This wouldn’t explain how any state has legitimate authority, nor would it undermine any of my arguments against theories of authority in part 1 of the book. So part 1 of the book would still be correct.

What about part 2, which defends anarcho-capitalism as a desirable social order? Anarcho-capitalism would perhaps be seriously flawed, insofar as it is a type of social order that enforces property rights. However, it’s not really clear that the anti-property theorist should prefer some form of government, since every government in the world also enforces a scheme of property rights. Whether anarcho-capitalism would be better or worse depends upon what the anti-property theorist thinks the correct social order would be – I can’t usefully address that without knowing more about what the propertyless society would be like.


7. In truth, Kevin read the manuscript before publication, and he told me then something like what he said here in his section IV on “justificatory liberalism.” At the time, I didn’t understand his point. After reading his latest comments, I still don’t. I (still) don’t see the difference between the “justificatory liberal” approach to which Kevin alludes and the version(s) of “hypothetical contract theory” that I addressed in sections 3.3-3.4.

This is from Kevin’s characterization of the justificatory liberal approach:

 [T]hey only appeal to hypothetical consent stories as a heuristic for what people have most reason to do. […] [H]ypothetical models are evidence of what rules are most fair or just […].

But that’s precisely the sort of view I meant to address in sections 3.3-3.4 of the book. My guess is that Kevin was thrown off by the fact that I labeled this a form of “hypothetical social contract theory,” whereas he would not have called it that. Could the whole problem be that I mislabeled the view?

To remind readers of what I said about that sort of view: typically, it is not a sufficient justification for coercing someone into accepting some arrangement, to point out (even if this is true) that the person had most reason to accept the arrangement. It does not suffice that the arrangement have been fair, reasonable, and just. That doesn’t make coercion permissible. I gave the example of a potential employer who makes you a completely fair, reasonable, and favorable employment offer. You’d have to be irrational to reject it. Nevertheless, you reject the offer. May the employer now force you to accept it? Certainly not. Here, we see that the appeal to what you had reason to accept really cuts almost no ice at all.

Now, if the “justificatory liberal” has some explanation for why this appeal would cut more ice when used on behalf of the state, I’m going to need to hear more about that. Kevin has said, understandably, that he can’t work out the justificatory liberal view here now. But I’m going to need to hear at least a bit more to be convinced that I didn’t already refute the view.


8. One last thing that I’m going to need to hear more about. Kevin laments that I have ignored the empirical evidence showing “that people agree on general principles”. Okay, Kevin doesn’t have to reproduce all the evidence that he’s talking about here. For now, I just want someone to tell me one example of a useful political principle that all reasonable people agree on.

Once someone has done that, then we can talk about whether that principle can be used to justify the state.


Eight comments on Massimo Renzo’s post:

1. Massimo mentions a potential defense of government based on coordination problems (in the game theoretic sense). Roughly, it goes like this:

a. For us to live together peacefully and justly, we need an agreed-upon set of rules of conduct.

b. Coordination cannot be achieved through each person relying on their individual judgment, independent of others. This is because (a) human beings will disagree on what the best rules are, and (b) there may not even be a best set of rules. Furthermore, it must be assumed that this situation will continue to obtain in any realistic human society.

c. There is no other way to achieve coordination without a state.

d. Therefore, we need a state.

I have two main problems with this line of thought: first, premise (c) is false; second, even if it is true, conclusion (d) does not establish political authority.


2. Why is (c) false? There are many cases where coordination is achieved without anything like state intervention, even though there is no uniquely best alternative. Start with a small example. When I was in high school, I took a class where I learned to touch type. I learned on an IBM Selectric typewriter. Since then, for the last 25 years, this skill has never failed me. Every time I see a keyboard, no matter who made it, I can sit down and start typing, and I don’t have to check where the keys are located. The same experience is shared by every typist. What benevolent governmental statute established this coordination among all the world’s typists, typing class teachers, and keyboard manufacturers?

Of course, there is no such statute. It is perfectly legal to make a keyboard with keys in funny locations. No one is exerting coercion to maintain this coordination.

Ah, then it must be that there is some one arrangement of keys that everyone can see to be objectively correct? Again, no. Some arrangements are better than others, but there is no one layout that everyone would arrive at, if designing a keyboard independently.

So what maintains the coordination? Well, it wouldn’t pay to be the iconoclastic keyboard manufacturer who puts keys in a different arrangement from everyone else. Nor would it pay to be the iconoclastic typing teacher who teaches students a different layout from the one used on most keyboards. The convention is maintained by the fact that individuals want to be in step with others. How did the convention get established in the first place? The first typewriter manufacturer chose a layout. Subsequent makers followed that layout because they wanted to coordinate with existing makers. Typing teachers teach that layout because it is found on most typewriters.

That is one example. A more momentous example is provided by natural language. Members of a given society tend to make similar noises with their mouths, and to assign similar meanings to these noises. This represents a vast and extremely complex coordination. This is not because a coercive monopoly punishes people who invent their own words or who use words with nonstandard meanings. Nor is it because everyone can intuitively identify a single, objectively correct language. It is because people want to coordinate with each other – in this case, because we want to understand and be understood.

There are many more cases. Advocates of the Coordination Argument need to explain specifically why they think coercion is required to establish coordination.


3. But now suppose you’re unconvinced. For some reason, you still think that we need a state in order to coordinate. This still doesn’t establish political authority. Let’s focus in particular on the content-independence condition for political legitimacy. This is the condition that the state is entitled to make and enforce laws, even when the laws are useless or wrong (hereafter, I’ll call these “bad laws”). Here is Massimo:

I believe that authorities must be “accorded some leeway in the form of a content-independent entitlement to make rules as long as its rules are not too unreasonable” […]. Authorities perform the valuable functions that justify their existence […] despite the fact that they are not perfect. No authority is infallible. This is why infallibility should not be adopted as the standard of their justification.

There seem to be two points here: (a) the state can perform its functions, even if it sometimes enforces bad laws; (b) every state is fallible – that is, it sometimes enforces bad laws.


4. About point (a): it sounds as though the argument is that the state will still be desirable overall, even if it sometimes enforces bad laws. But how would this even appear to support the desired conclusion, that it is ethically permissible for the state to enforce bad laws? The reasoning seems analogous to the following: suppose Starbucks is a good company, which brings a lot of value to society. Suppose also that, even if Starbucks were to fire one employee on the basis of that employee’s race, it would still be, overall, a good company that brings a lot of value to society. Could we infer from this that it is ethically permissible for Starbucks to fire that employee?

Perhaps some work is supposed to be done by the assumption that the state is not only beneficial but necessary for any decent society. Okay. Suppose that farmer Al Falfa is the only person who knows how to grow food. His farm is necessary for his society to survive. Suppose also that, if Al were to steal a lollipop from a little girl, Al would still perform his necessary function of growing food. Does it follow that it is permissible for Al to steal the lollipop?


5. What about point (b)? Again, I can’t see how this could support the desired conclusion. From the fact that every state sometimes does x, it just does not follow that x is permissible.

Take another analogy. Suppose it’s true that not only all states, but all human beings are fallible. Suppose this is true specifically in the sense that all human beings at some point in their lives do something wrong. Does it follow that it is permissible to perform wrongful actions?


6. What about points (a) and (b) in conjunction? Okay, assume that all human beings are fallible (in the sense of sometimes committing wrongs) and that Al is the only one who can grow food. It does not follow that it is permissible for Al to commit wrongs.


7. Massimo’s last remark in the quoted passage – “infallibility should not be adopted as the standard of their justification” – suggests that he was not actually arguing for content-independence. Perhaps he is merely arguing that a state can be justified even if it sometimes enforces bad laws – that is, the existence of that state may be justified. That is quite a different thing from saying that those actions by the state (namely, its enforcement of bad laws) are permissible – which is what content independence commits one to.


8. In the book, I gave the following analogy (p. 175): It would be unreasonable to expect that any large corporation (which exists for many years) will never do anything wrong. But it does not follow from this that it is permissible for the corporation to commit wrongs. Similarly, even if we agree that it is unreasonable to expect that a state will never enforce a bad law, it does not follow that it is permissible for the state to enforce bad laws.

Massimo discusses this argument of mine. As far as I understand it, his response is something like this: “Oh yes, I agree. The corporation isn’t entitled to perform wrongs. And similarly, I agree that the state is not entitled to commit profound injustices. (But they’re still entitled to commit small to moderate injustices.)”

This reply would make sense if my claim about the example was (only) that it is wrong for a corporation to commit profound injustices. But that isn’t my claim. It is wrong for a corporation to commit any injustices, even small ones. Similarly, it’s wrong for the state to commit even small injustices.

Now return to the case of Al. Stealing a lollipop is not a profound injustice. It is a small injustice. Nevertheless, it is impermissible. This is not changed by the fact that all human beings are fallible (in the sense that they sometimes commit small injustices), nor the fact that Al continues to perform his necessary task of growing food even after stealing the lollipop.

These examples are merely for illustrative purposes. My main point is that the argument for content-independence is simply a non sequitur. “All states do x” and “the state can still perform its functions if it does x” just obviously do not establish “x is permissible.”


In sum: Coercion is not required to establish coordination. And even if it were, this would not establish content-independent authority.

Published on:
Author: Michael Huemer
  • M Lister

    Members of a given society tend to make similar noises with their
    mouths, and to assign similar meanings to these noises. This represents a
    vast and extremely complex coordination. This is not because a coercive
    monopoly punishes people who invent their own words or who use words
    with nonstandard meanings. Nor is it because everyone can intuitively
    identify a single, objectively correct language. It is because people want to coordinate with each other – in this case, because we want to understand and be understood.

    For good or bad, this is a pretty ahistorical example, and accurate to only a limited degree. In fact, there is lot of coercion in getting people to speak the same way (schools, as well as social norms) and in the past (and in some places still) lots of much more explicit and wide-spread coercion like this. (See, for example, the way that “standard” French only became a “national” language in the 19th Century, through the concentrated effort of the French government. Other examples are easy to find.) I’m not sure which way this cuts, really, for the book, except to say that, from the sound of things, the book would have been better if more realistic. (We can leave aside the question of whether a more realistic approach would have supported the conclusion or not.)

  • Fernando Teson

    Another example to buttress Michael’s point on spontaneous coordination: custom, especially in international law.

    • wophugus

      International customary law gains force by states recognizing it, enforcing it, and/or not objecting to it. It does not gain force by the spontaneous ordering of billions of humans.

      I don’t think the argument is that spontaneous order is impossible or unimportant, just that it is insufficient in the modern world.

      • “[The free market’s ability to coordinate] is insufficient in the modern world.”

        As Huemer asked, what examples do advocates of the Coordination Argument have to prove this point?

        • wophugus

          They point out that most stateless environments have been dominated by tribalism and the lack of trust with outsiders, and that widespread societal trust is almost always (or just always?) coincident with a state.

          • “They point out that most stateless environments have been dominated by tribalism…”

            But the state is merely institutionalized tribalism.

          • Not legally, no. For example, tribal customary law is normally personal (individuals carry their law with them when they travel, at least when they are defendants), whereas state law is normally territorial (you are governed by the law of the new state you are in when you travel). This is not the only significant example.

  • Kevin Vallier

    Hi Mike, thanks for your comments. I’m (perhaps predictably) not satisfied with your first reply to my comments. The problem of political authority is not raised primarily because states or other entities claim that others have duties to obey them “in a wide range of circumstances in which they would not owe obedience to any other agent” but rather because states and other entities claim that others have duty to obey them period. At least, that’s how I understand much of modern political philosophy, such as what we see in the great social contract theories. If so, then the problem of political authority still arises for property rights, since the issue is not the number of range of cases in which obedience is demanded but rather than grounds that justify obedience in the first place.

    And if I’m right about that, I think you’re wrong to say this:

    “Now, you might say that I am claiming a special status, namely that only I and no one else am entitled to decide how the car is used. That I may use coercion to prevent others from taking the car. That others must obey my wishes with regard to how the car is and isn’t used. But this would be a pretty contrived way of arguing that I have a ‘special moral status,’ since other people have exactly parallel rights with respect to their own property.”

    Perhaps with respect to car ownership, it would be contrived to say that as an owner you have a “special moral status” with respect to their property, though the locution seems fine to me. But it would not be contrived at all to say that you have authority over others to demand that they submit to your judgment in a wide range of cases concerning how you use your car. And surely that raises an important question parallel to the problem of political authority. And it is one contemporary libertarian political theory’s most powerful and influential opponents will immediately jump to, especially those who draw on Rousseau and/or Marx. Perhaps you think you’ve sufficiently engaged them by refuting their theories of state authority, but I don’t think you have until you’ve addressed what (I suspect) will be their most immediate and pressing objection.

    Now, you deny that you need an explanation of the political authority of property rights (understood in my narrower sense) in a book meant to criticize state authority. Of course, I grant that a book can’t do everything. But I read the book as proposing a defense of market anarchism. And a defense of market anarchism requires more than showing (a) that theories of state authority are false and (b) that market anarchy will work well. It requires defending two of market anarchy’s most critical features – its extremely restricted number of cases where property redistribution is permitted and the enormous range of cases where property directives are authoritative.

    Defending anarchism seems to me a positive project, not something you get for free once you’ve refuted the case for the state and shown that in some circumstances market anarchy might work. Leftists as theoretically unsophisticated as Chomsky acolytes will ask what justifies the “private tyrannies” that will dominate a market anarchist social order. I guess I think they need an answer for the defense to succeed.

    • JoelKatz

      The quintessential anarchist objection to the existence of the State is its monopoly on the non-emergency use of force. If States didn’t claim that they were entitled to special broad rights other entities do not get, there would be no problem of political authority. The problem is, specifically, explaining what it is that is special about a State that entitles it to special rights other entities do not get.

      • Kevin Vallier

        It sounds like you’re just asserting what I deny.

        • JoelKatz

          I don’t follow. Are you saying there would be a problem of political authority even if States only claimed ordinary rights like owning property and defending themselves?

          • Kevin Vallier

            As I said in my earlier post, political authority problems are raised by entities other than states, such as ordinary property owners.

          • JoelKatz

            Problems of all kinds are raised by all kinds of things, but that has nothing to do with the unique political authority problem raised by a State’s claim of unique rights.

          • Kevin Vallier

            … But I argued that the problems were analogous in the post Huemer is responding to. So again, you’re just asserting what I deny.

          • JoelKatz

            And I argued that they’re not analogous. The argument that all moral agents are entitled to the same rights is fundamentally different from the argument that some moral agents are special and get special rights other moral agents don’t get. The former is the null hypothesis. The latter requires some argument that some distinction between the moral agents justifies the distinction in rights.

          • good_in_theory

            “Stating” and “arguing” aren’t the same thing. I see your statements, but if you made an argument perhaps you could point it out.

          • JoelKatz

            It’s in the very comment you are responding to. The argument that States are somehow special and entitled to special rights requires refuting the null hypothesis that all moral agents get the same fundamental rights.

            You do make an argument that property rights and the rights States claim are quite similar and the arguments made in defense, or criticism, of each are comparable. I don’t disagree. But that’s not the point. The point is that to defend the unique rights of States requires an additional argument that States are entitled to unique rights to which individuals are not.

            Whether property rights live or die, you have a political authority problem if you can’t justify special rights for States. To defend the State, you must explain why the State has the right to enforce the law and I do not. The defend property rights, you don’t need to explain why they’re denied to any particular moral agent.

      • martinbrock

        What is special about the state that entitles it to special rights that other entities do not get is its power to overcome other contenders for this title. If you want some sort of moral justification for this power, you might as well want a moral justification for the Earth circling the Sun and not the other way around.

    • Michael Huemer

      I’m not sure why we’re disagreeing. Part of what you’re saying seems to be “there’s an interesting theoretical question as to why there are property rights.” I agree with that. And I agree that I didn’t answer that question. But I still think I have a strong defense of An-cap. (Note: I also think there’s an interesting question as to how we know any moral facts at all, and I didn’t address that in the book. But I don’t think that really impugns my defense of an-cap.)

      So let me try some accounts of why you’re disagreeing:

      a. Maybe you think that it is not rational to start by presuming that there are property rights?
      b. Maybe you think this is a rational presumption, but it’s been defeated by … some arguments given by some left-wing thinkers?
      c. Maybe you think there is a tension between endorsement of property and rejection of political authority, i.e., that if one thinks the state lacks authority, then this either entails or at least supports the idea that there are no property rights.
      d. Maybe you think the *reasons* I give for rejecting authority would also be reasons against property rights.
      e. Or maybe you think the reason I give for why we need a theory of authority are also reasons why we need a theory of property rights.

      (e) sounds to me most like what you said. But then I think my posted reply shows why that’s a mistake. A large part of the reason why I think we need a theory of authority has to do with the *double standard*, the fact that we’re applying different moral standards to different agents, and that just strikes me as puzzling on its face, and in need of explanation. Also, of course, I think there are psychological explanations (see ch. 6) for why people would believe in authority even if there were no such thing. And it just seems to me that you can’t say the same thing about property.

      Now maybe there are puzzling things about property. But I don’t think they’re *the same* things. Also, I don’t think that many people would try to justify property rights by appealing to any of the theories of political authority that I discussed in the book. Prima facie, we would think that it is most likely that, if there is a correct account of political authority, it would be in the neighborhood of one of the leading accounts of political authority that the experts have advanced. But it’s not plausible on its face that, if there is a correct account of *property*, then it would be in the neighborhood of one of the leading accounts of *political authority* that the experts have advanced. No, it would probably be in the neighborhood of one of the accounts of *property* that experts have advanced.

      Now, maybe someone could write another book in which they refute all the leading theories of property. Maybe that book would be persuasive, maybe not.

    • “But I read the book as proposing a defense of market anarchism. And a defense of market anarchism requires more than showing (a) that theories of state authority are false and (b) that market anarchy will work well.”

      I’m still confused about your position. Do you think Huemer successfully argued for (a) and (b)?

      If so, is your position thus that there is no state political authority, but there does exist a second kind of political authority, namely a property rights political authority?

  • martinbrock

    I’m not satisfied with your first reply to Kevin’s comments either. Claiming a car doesn’t make the car your property. Everyone else’s respect for your claim makes the car your property. You are not an entity above everyone else in this scenario. An entity granting your claim (as I “grant” you a point in a debate) and forcing everyone else to respect it is above you and everyone else. You are the agent of an organization defending your claim against competing claims, not the other way around.

    • Michael Huemer

      Sorry, I don’t see the point. I did not say that claiming something makes it legitimately your property. This doesn’t address the point I was making.

      • martinbrock

        I could have written, “Claiming a car for any reason, Lockean propriety or any other reason, doesn’t make the car your property.”

  • John J. C. Anderson

    I’d just like to say that this has been a fantastic discussion so far.

  • Hume22

    “In sum: Coercion is not required to establish coordination. And even if it were, this would not establish content-independent authority.”

    This is the problem with stipulating definitions of “authority.” Razian arguments based on coordination do not claim that *coercion* is necessary to establish coordination; rather, the claim is that practical/normative *authority* is required. The question of coercion is secondary. Michael’s focus on coercion mischaracterizes the nature of the enquiry. Consider. Issue 1: you have a moral obligation to perform x (authority, political obligation). Issue 2: if you fail to perform a given moral obligation, it is morally permissible/justifiable/legitimate to coerce/punish/threaten, etc. By downplaying the fundamental importance of Issue 1, Michael does not get at the nature of the problem of legitimate coercion. He skips over the question of moral obligation and conflates arguments regarding coercion with arguments regarding obligation. It’s as if we can probe the legitimacy of parent/child coercion without any view regarding the moral obligation of children to obey the dictates of their parents. This is especially problematic in light of Huemer’s intuitionist methodology.

    • Christopher Morris

      Yes!! “The question of coercion is secondary.”

      This does not mean that the question of coercion is unimportant or uninteresting. But it is to point up that in these contexts the question of the justice of coercion normally or often presupposes a prior norm; may coercion (or force) may be used to enforce that norm? This question often requires an evaluation of the authority of the norm creator.

      Hume22, like his namesake, has put his finger on something important.

    • Tyler Mittan

      Hm. I didn’t read all of the post so I may be totally out of context here, and you can correct me if I am wrong.

      In Mike’s book, he does somewhat address issue 1. We may have a moral obligation to perform some act. That is a duty. Virtually everyone believes in some sort of duty. However, this does not show why the state is legitimate. Furthermore, issue 2 is linked strongly with issue 1. If we said that anybody can punish someone for not fulfilling a duty then we’d probably have some strange moral views. The point of the book is to show that if morals are objective then they must apply to everyone. There is no special grants given to some entity known as government automatically. That “special grant” must have some kind of positive proof.

    • Michael Huemer

      1. I didn’t conflate anything. I was very clear and explicit about the distinction between political legitimacy and political obligation in the book. That I chose to discuss A at certain times does not show that I was confusing A with B (even if you would prefer that I had been talking about B).

      2. I refuted the leading accounts of political obligation at length in the book.
      3. I discussed the idea that you can move from political obligation to legitimacy on pp. 77-9.
      4. I’m going to need an argument for the claim that “the question of coercion is secondary.”

      • Hume22

        I will respond at greater length later. But quickly regarding #4. Focusing on coercion is like trying to investigate the nature of the contractual relationship by first providing a theory of contract damages. Or it’s like trying to the answer the question of promissory obligation (“is there a general obligation to keep promises?”) by first focusing on the permissibility of possible moral/social responses to the breaking of promises. The proper investigatory route, however, is to first ask “am I morally obligated?” and then to ask “given that I am morally obligated, what are morally appropriate responses to the breaking of promises?”

        Back to political authority/legitimacy/obligation. One should first ask “is there a moral obligation to obey the dictates of one’s political community/institutions?” Then one should ask “what is the scope of this authority and what are the morally permissible responses to a failure to obey?” We cannot obtain a proper perspective or understanding of these questions without first having a proper understanding of the nature and structure of the moral/normative relationship between citizens of a political unit (horizontal relations) and between citizens and the political institutes/offices (possibly a type of vertical relationship). Even if we never get to the second question, the first question is extremely important. It is a significant finding, if you were to so conclude, that one is morally obligated to obey one’s political institutions. If one is morally obligated to pay your taxes even if the political community may not threaten one with coercion, this is as significant a conclusion as the claim that one is morally obligated not to instigate physical aggression against others. *Both* are questions of what our moral obligations are. (to be clear, I personally believe that most of us do *not* currently have such obligations, and this is irrespective of the question of coercion; this is an a posteriori claim; I side with Simmons here).

  • Massimo Renzo

    Thanks, Mike. Two quick points:

    1) I think I agree with everything you say about typewriters. What I disagree with is the assumption that the sort of coordination problems raised by the manufacturing of typewriters is significantly similar to the sort of coordination problems raised by the need to act according to justice. An important difference is this: people tend not to care much about how keys are distributed on the
    keyboard (as long as they are distributed in the same way across different
    manufacturers, maybe…). Moreover, if someone starts producing typewriters that have keys in a position they don’t find congenial, this is unlikely to bother
    anyone. People can simply not buy the typewriter in question. Things are
    different when it comes to justice. People have strong views and care deeply
    about things like: what the exact limits of their entitlements are; whether
    abortion or euthanasia should be allowed (and when a certain conduct can be
    classified as an instance of abortion or euthanasia); what their enforceable
    duties to help others consist in exactly. Interestingly, people who disagree
    about these issues have not converged on a single view in the same way in which different typewriters manufacturers have converged on a single keyboard layout, and they are unlikely to do so in the near future. The problem is not that they don’t want to coordinate. They do. The point is that, contrary to what happens in the word of typewriters, not any coordination point will do. States that
    enjoy legitimacy are those that provide an acceptable framework within which
    people can coordinate in a way that will enable them to act according to justice despite the persistence of these disagreements.

    2) Your discussion of states’ right to enforce “bad laws” ignores most of the
    distinctions I have introduced in my post. There I suggest that scope of the authority is delimited by a) the nature of the task that authorities have been appointed to complete, b) requirements of natural justice. So I don’t think your examples create any problems for the view I have suggested – the behaviour of both Starbucks and Al is ruled out on both counts (we might discuss more about the first if you want, but stealing and discriminating on the basis of race are obviously ruled out by natural justice).

    There is a more general worry here, though, which gives me an opportunity to address your final point. You write that given that it is impermissible for corporations to commit not only serious, but also minor injustices, so it is for states. But this doesn’t follow. Although both states and corporations have some authority within their domain, their authorities are profoundly different in their justifications. My claim is that states derive their authority (when they have it) from the fact that they perform a special function, which consists in enabling individuals to discharge important duties of justice. Since there is no way in which states can perform this function without making mistakes, the fact that they do sometimes make mistakes does not undermine their authority. Whatever the merits of this claim, I don’t see how it can be rebutted by pointing at what corporations, farmers and typewriters companies, which are not designed to perform similar functions, can or cannot do.

    • Michael Huemer

      Thanks, Massimo. Very brief points:

      1. True, people have stronger preferences with regard to legal codes than typewriters. But note also that the incentives to coordinate are also stronger. The consequence of typewriter non-coordination is no big deal; the consequence of legal-code non-coordination is along the lines of violent conflict. I suggest that people in the anarchist society would follow the convention of submitting disputes to arbitrators in order to avoid the terrible consequences of violent conflict. The arbitrators then decide on other details.

      2. My examples of Starbucks and Al Falfa were not supposed to positively prove that content-independence is false. They were to illustrate the following logical point, which you can see directly: the things you said in defense of content-independence just don’t support the conclusion.

      3. It again sounds as though you’re not actually defending content-independence. It sounds like you’re saying, “If the state sometimes makes mistakes, it’s still okay for it to continue to operate.” I’m not disputing that. I’m disputing this idea: “It’s *ethically permissible* for the state to make those mistakes, and to enforce them with threats of violence.” Do you see the distinction I’m drawing?

      • Massimo Renzo

        Hi Mike — two quick replies:

        1. I appreciate that the incentives to coordinate about justice (this, rather than coordination about legal codes seems to me the point) are higher than the incentives to coordinate about keyboards. And yet, no coordination about the former has been achieved, in light of the sort of moral disagreements I have mentioned (despite the fact that people have had much longer to work on it than to work on typewriters keyboards, we might add…).

        I enjoyed the second part of the book and I would have liked to address it in the post but wasn’t able to for reasons of space. I see many problems with the arbitrator system. Here I’ll mention just two. First, the arbitrator system does not even begin to address the issue I’m talking about because the sort of disagreement about justice that I discuss is not one that is triggered only in cases in which individuals are personally involved in a dispute. Take those who protest about the permissibility of abortion or euthanasia: they are not necessarily in the process of trying to get an abortion or euthanasia. They rather believe that abortion or euthanasia are wrong and that this is why they should be stopped, whether or not they are directly affected by them. Second, arbitrators can decide disputes only to the extent that they can appeal to duties of justice that have a reasonably clear content. But the idea that natural duties of justice have a clear content is precisely what I’ve been trying to

        2. On Starbucks and Al Falfa: I still fail to see how what you say about them is supposed to show anything about content independence. My point is that content-independence comes with some constraints (authorities can issue directives that are content-independent only within certain constraints) and those constraints are ignored in your examples.

        3. More generally on content-independence: as you mention in the book, accepting authority typically involves accepting some form of content-independence. (Do you think it would be possible to conceive a political authority that does not involve any sort of
        content-independence?) If so, while of course I appreciate the distinction you are drawing, I am not sure how it undermines the line of argument I have suggested. I’ve been focusing on trying to show that states can have political authority, despite the fact that they occasionally make mistakes, because if it’s true that political authority requires some form of content-independence, then
        showing that states do have authority is also showing that they enjoy content-independence.

        • M Lister

          A bit on arbitration: While “private” arbitration is increasingly popular, two things need to be kept in mind. First, while arbitration allows parties to pick rules and the method for settling disputes, it only really works (and is only popular) because it’s backed by states who will enforce the awards. Without backing, arbitration is worth very little. Secondly, the idea that arbitration allows parties to choose the terms for settling their disputes is, at least, contestable. What really happens in most cases is that the powerful party dictates terms that are highly favorable to it. So, for individuals and less powerful companies, arbitration tends to give them less freedom and less choice than would the typical state run system. I don’t see any reason to think this second feature would be better w/o the state, and more than some reason to think it would be worse. Given this, I don’t think the any of our actual experience with arbitration supports the argument of the book, as far as I understand it. Perhaps it’s some sort of ideal arbitration that’s meant, but I don’t see why that should carry any normative or persuasive weight.

  • Michael Huemer

    Other important point about coordination on legal codes:

    Anarcho-capitalists (myself included) have _described a specific mechanism_ by which coordination might be achieved. It’s the system of private arbitrators. And we’ve explained why this would work, in terms of the incentives facing each of the relevant agents in the system. So if someone (I’m looking at you, Massimo) wants to claim that coordination requires a state, that person needs to explain specifically where the mechanism proposed by the anarchists would fail.

    • wophugus

      1. Because pre-agreeing to choice of law is impossible when the parties don’t have a contractual relationship (ie, torts). 2. Because agreeing on choice of law post-dispute makes no sense. You pick the law where what you did was legal, I pick the law where it wasn’t, and what, we settle? You could force a settlement out of anyone. 3. Because pre-selecting legal regimes without pre-agreement is prone to abuse. If I am more likely to be a tortfeasor, I will pick the pro-defendant regime. 5. Because the historical experience shows that judicial bodies without state power that have to police intentional torts are bad at forcing agreements and avoiding violent self-help, despite the occasional, laughable claim to the contrary. See tribal customary law.

      • To add to what Huemer said, I think that the person claiming that coordination requires a state also needs to argue why the state can be expected to do a better job at coordinating than the anarchist system.

        Perhaps the anarchist system would fail to coordinate at times, but it could also be the case that the state system would fail to coordinate even more often, even though it’s theoretically possible that the state could coordinate things correctly.

        For example, your reason 5 may have truth to it (although the case of Medieval Iceland may provide evidence to the contrary), but it seems to me that the state’s failure to coordinate would be even more severe, since the state could just force an unjust agreement in its own favor, in a dispute involving itself. Isn’t the problem of forced agreements that are unjust more severe with power is centralized in a state rather than decentralized in the anarchist system?

        • wophugus

          The most famous medieval Icelandic saga, Njáls saga, is almost entirely about blood feuds spiraling out of control into cycles of revenge and violence. So no, Icelandic customary law was not an exception.

          Anyways, it’s a purely empirical question whether states or anarchy work better along dimension x. Since the best societies throughout human history have almost always had states, the argument sort of defaults to states winning. For example, if you told me behind some Rawlsian veil of ignorance that I am going to be born into the territory that is now America, but let me pick any date, I pick yesterday. Yesterday, The standard of living, civil rights, and meaningful personal freedom were all, compared to previous decades, at a high watermark. It seems weird to reject a key element of that best-of-all-historical-Americas, its government, unless anarchists can show me something better, either by pointing to another, more felicitous society or else by carefully analyzing data to prove that no government is better than government. And neither of those things have really happened.

          Meanwhile, we know one possible outcome of anarchy is the rise of tribal customary law. I look at those societies from behind my veil of ignorance and say, “no pashtunwali for me, thanks. Put me in one of those western liberal democracies.” Rather than pointing to happier societies, anarchists have to explain a host of problematic, suspicious, unfree, hidebound, violent little tribes.

          Anyways, to answer the specific question, no, states are not necessarily worse than “failure to coordinate” when failure to coordinate means private violence. Medieval murder rates in the era of tribal customary law, for example, were many times modern European murder rates, with state-sanctioned killings not making up the deficit.

          Which doesn’t mean anarchists have to admit defeat. Go seastead a utopia and all of a sudden there is evidence anarchy works. It just means that, right now, the evidence for liberal democracy is stronger than the evidence for anarchy. If anarchy can’t score a knockout with some sort of deontological argument, it can’t expect to come out ahead on the consequentialist scorecard.

          • JuHoansi

            And if you asked me to pick a date to be born in America, I would pick about 9,000 yrs BP. As I’m sure most people would if they knew anything about anthropology or paleo-environments. There is more actual, as well as threat, of violence now, than at any other time in human history. There was no totalitarian surveillance, no militarized police, no armed check point borders, no poverty, no contaminated air, water, land, etc, no forced labor (called a ‘job’), no security guards, no copyright laws, no threat of nuclear war, no wealthy class controlling lower classes, no monopoly ownership of resources, no superfund toxic sites, and almost no slavery.

    • Massimo Renzo

      I say something about this in my reply to your comments above.

  • wophugus

    “Now, you might say that I am claiming a special status, namely that only I and no one else am entitled to decide how the car is used. That I may use coercion to prevent others from taking the car. That others must obey my wishes with regard to how the car is and isn’t used. But this would be a pretty contrived way of arguing that I have a “special moral status,” since other people have exactly parallel rights with respect to their own property.”

    This doesn’t convince me. It is theoretically possible for anyone to acquire property and assert ownership rights over it, true. But in a democracy it is theoretically anyone could acquire office and assert the powers of that office.

    And you can’t distinguish it on the grounds that everyone has property but not everyone has political power. Not everyone has property (ie, children) and in a democracy almost everyone has some degree of political power (ie, the ability to vote, sue people, etc). To the extent some people have more political power, it is, as with property, supposedly because they earned it.

    Short story: in modern democracies offices, not people, have the special moral status. Just like some people can fairly earn more property (ie, by exchange or labor), some can fairly earn higher office (ie, democratically and side constrained by human rights), but no person is inherently more special.

    I am pretty sure Arnold Kling has made this argument too.

    That’s not an argument free from attack, I am just saying most of the attacks (why is that way of acquiring office “fair” and/or just) also apply to property (why is property “fair” and/or just).

    • “I am just saying most of the attacks [on political authority] […] also apply to property.”

      Even if this were true, it does not follow (as far as I see) that one need defend property rights before attacking political authority. So I don’t see the relevance of this to Huemer’s arguments against political authority.

      • wophugus

        He isn’t arguing against political authority, he is arguing for anarchic-syndicalism, which requires some buy-in that people should respect property rights. If he just wanted to argue “it’s really hard to justify any political regime from first principles. So go with what works I guess?” Then I would totally agree with him.

        • Marshall Eubanks

          Disagree with this. Anarcho-capitalism (nor syndicalism) is not assumed at the onset. It is merely a potential solution to the problem of social organization absent government.

          Moreover, “go with what works I guess” is a totally valid reading of voluntaryism, and therefore of Huemer’s fundamental position. There is no need for theoreticians to formulate, dictate, impose, or establish anarcho-capitalism in any of its details. Voluntaryism essentially requires that all of these things happen in a spontaneous fashion. At best, anarcho capitalism is nothing more than a prognostication of the eventual form all this spontaneity will produce.

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  • Will McLean

    You might equally ask what puts the board of a corporation above an individual minority shareholder. The board can give the corporation’s money to charity in spite of the individual shareholder’s objection, including that shareholder’s portion. The reverse is not true. So special moral status of certain agents is not just a state issue.

    • Marshall Eubanks

      An obvious rebuttal is that the shareholder made explicit and prior agreement to this arrangement when he purchased shares. Government cannot make the same claim.

  • Will McLean

    I see Seven Samurai as an instructive parable for how Anarcho-Capitalism would work in practice. Beginning in a state of anarchy, a small group of individuals hire other private individuals to protect them. Soon, a small group of the protected decide to defect and make a different plan. They are quickly coerced and conscripted to join the common defense. I think most viewers would agree that the hired protectors were more just and moral than the defectors. Still, coercion happened.

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  • ” It involves postulating a special moral status for a particular agent,
    “the state,” such that (a) other agents have duties to obey the state in
    a wide range of circumstances in which they would not owe obedience to
    any other agent, and (b) the state is entitled to do things that would
    be clearly wrong for any other agent. This violation of the ideal of
    moral equality calls for an explanation”

    The explanation is pretty simple, it’s because too many people want (or have been persuaded to accept the necessity of) an exception to common moral restrictions. Anything after that is justification.

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