Symposium on Huemer's Problem of Political Authority, Academic Philosophy

Michael Huemer’s Defense of Anarchy

I said I’d hoped to have some thoughts about Part II of The Problem of Political Authority and I do have some reactions. I have a soft spot for anarchism, and I suppose I was an anarchist for some time in my youth (New Left anarchist, quite individualistic). I think the fact that political philosophers don’t take it seriously is deplorable. At the same time, I find the case for anarchy rather weak, and the second part of MH’s book is no exception.

It’s easy to show that anarchy is possible. We can describe a possible world where there are no states, government, and legal systems (in something like Hart’s sense). And we can also tell a story about how such a world could emerge and maintain itself. Contemporary game theory even provides the elements of the story: in repeated games with large numbers of players there are multiple outcomes that are stable (i.e., Nash equilibria); indeed, just about any outcome can be stable. This is the folk theorem (potted version). So there should be such a story for anarchy. But are we seriously to believe that anarchist communities could emerge and sustain itself in our world? In either the last couple of centuries or the next fifty or hundred years? I am quite sceptical. MH does not claim that anarchy could come into existence in any or even many circumstances; he only wants to show that it is feasible under some realistic conditions, where most people are anarchists. He may be right, but I wonder whether some of the feasible and desirable forms of anarchy might not resemble some of our polities (e.g., small states with little coercion, medieval city-republics).

Concepts. I am a fussbudget about concepts. MH is not. “Semantic questions about the use of ‘government’ and ‘anarchy’ are of no great importance.” (p. 232) I complained earlier about conceptual problems, and Part II really worries me in this regard. Distinctions are needed if we are to assess the merits of anarchy (see the thoughtful comment by ScottA under my first post). We need to know what anarchy is. Voluntariness and competition (p. 232) are not quite enough; some small political societies might satisfy these conditions and still be state-like in some important respects. As I noted in my first post, a distinction between ‘state’ and ‘government’ is needed. The government in many systems can fall with a vote of confidence in parliament, but the state remains intact. The French and Iranian revolutions changed a lot, but they did not put an end to one state and give birth to another. Why are distinctions needed here? For one if a state like France can undergo a serious revolution and be in its fifth republic, then states may be much more durable than governments. They may also be the locus of legitimacy.

In addition, it’d be useful to distinguish between states and empires. The two aren’t the same, and empires are much older forms of political rule, preceding the emergence of states. And the longest-lived empires were much older than any state. Some empires were more tolerant of “diversity” than other polities of their time. In his discussion of war MH notes, with some hope, “The decolonization movement of the twentieth century shows it is particularly difficult for a foreign state to keep control of a territory in modern times.” (p. 294) The “modern times” had better be post-1918 if this statement is to be true. Note that the colonial empires referred to were ones where the “core” did not or could not integrate “foreign” peoples into its polity. Many European states did precisely that with the peoples inside their current state borders. With the exception of the Corsicans and the Basques, the French state stomped out regional languages and cultures; that’s an effective way of making possible rule by foreigners once the age of foreign monarchs was over (e.g., the European monarchies, the House of Hapsburg). How can we judge the effectiveness of states if we do not know whether Rome was a state, or whether China was a couple of centuries ago? (Neither were.) How can we take heart from learning that “Vatican City has never been at war.” (p. 296) Vatican City is just the remnant of one of the greatest empires of Europe – or perhaps two, if we include Rome. That’s a bit like saying that Saddam Hussein was peaceful once in chains.

MH needs distinctions, and they do slip in from time to time. In a discussion of recent events in Egypt he notes that “Mubarak was expelled from office as a result of a predominantly peaceful protest movement.” (p. 293) Mubarak is said to been part of a corrupt regime, his government to have many members, and his administration to collapse suddenly. It is hard to make sense of political events without these concepts. Note of course that the Egyptian state is still in existence. (I add a political comment: the expulsion of Mubarak could hardly be attributed to protest movements; it was a military coup d’état.)

Given what I have said, I don’t think that “state” (or “government”) and “anarchy” exhaust the possibilities. If that is the case, an argument against one does not establish the case for the other. MH does not quite do this, but of course early modern political thinkers often made the case for the state in that manner. The founding father of modern political philosophy, Thomas Hobbes, argued for the state by arguing against anarchy. He tried to define them so that the two logically exhausted the possibilities. MH says that “The standard solution in social philosophy begins by proposing a radical inequality: a single institution with power over all other individuals and organizations. For Hobbes, the solution ends there.” (p. 228) I agree this is a bad way of thinking about possible ways of organizing political life. But I think finding better ways require more distinctions; we need a clearer idea of the alternative forms of political organization. There may be more choices than “government” or “anarchy”.

Constitutions. I am a fan of the 9th and 10th amendments to the (second) American Constitution, and I am quite sad they have been ignored. But if we are to evaluate how successful the American constitution has been, we need to know what it is? For MH a constitution seems to be something like the American document that bears its name. The question then arises, “Who will enforce the constitution?” This question answers itself: “No other organization has the power to coerce the government. Therefore, we will have to rely upon the government to enforce constitutional restrictions against itself.” (p. 221; see also p. 335). Some questions: does a “constitution” need to be enforced? Is there no agent other than “the government” who could enforce it? And, of course, what is a constitution to begin with? Take the US Constitution: does it consists of the text approved or the text + the first ten amendments? The tradition says the latter. This document needs to be interpreted; are the interpretations in some way part of the constitution? Many think so. Can the ignored 9th be said to be part of the Constitution any more? I know that MH’s main point is that the constraints on government and federal power in the US Constitution have proved ineffective in a number of ways. I think he is largely right. But the idea of a constitution is not examined, and this has consequences for our understanding of state and anarchy.

The older idea of a constitution points to the structure of a polity. On Hart’s theory this might be something like the set of secondary rules, in particular the rule of recognition. I mention his account, as the important rule of recognition does not need to be enforced; it is essentially a convention among officials. Other accounts would have constitutions be self-enforcing or, more technically, coordinative equilibria (e.g., R. Hardin. B. Weingast). If a constitution, in the important sense of the structure of the polity, is self-enforcing, then that should have some implications for the project of evaluating anarchy. It might even be a fact that lends some support to the anarchist. And it might show that many states depend less on coercion than is thought.

The case for anarchy. The libertarian tradition has distinguished itself in pointing to and devising all kinds of ways of doing without states. And it is to be regretted that that this literature is not better known outside of libertarian circles. The first job of states is to provide security, and the biggest problem facing anarchy seems to be security (see David Friedman’s little book on anarchy). Robert Nozick’s book introduced many political philosophers to protective agencies, and we are now all familiar with competition between such agencies. MH thinks these agencies will be a more promising way of providing security than states. His arguments are not bad, but it is hard to evaluate the case for or against. On one hand the casualties of states are not negligible; in the twentieth century they are breathtaking. On the other it is hard to be optimistic about the prospects for anarchist communities. MH thinks that competition between protective agencies will have a moderating effect; he speculates that “it is unlikely that a protection agency would wish to staff itself with” murderers (p. 235). I note that many do in fact do just that. It’s not just that big law firms hire bullies with legal training; the mob employs murderers. If one’s business is predation – call it “protection” – then competition may not help us very much. In many part of the world, clans and their “protective agencies” battle away, none of much inspiration to lovers of liberty and the result horrific.

As I argued in my book on the state, the history of the world has been a running experiment regarding anarchy, with results hardly encouraging. (The short section is entitled “History of the World”, and I have just reread it and recommend it!) Thousands of years ago all humans lived in anarchist communities. Today the only thing close to them are semi-anarchist communities like kibbutzim, most of them sheltered by states. Forms of centralized governance replaced them, culminating in the modern state. The latter’s history is quite remarkable. In medieval Europe multiple forms of political rule co-existed, with overlapping authority. In early modern times the state started replacing these. Older “feudal’ structures, independent cities or city republic, leagues of cities, federations, empires were conquered or assimilated – and the Church, a power over kingdoms and other polities, was weaked. Today virtually the entire landmass of the globe is the territory of a state (or what is misleadingly called a “nation-state”). That’s as close as we can get to a controlled experiment. In fact, it’s better than a controlled experiment. We want to know how anarchy would fare in the world of humans, and we do know: anarchist communities get gobbled up. Americans should know this better than many, as we are well aware of the fate of the multiple communities that preceded us on this continent.

This is all to say that I did not find Part II entirely convincing. MH makes a good attempt to show the feasibility of anarchy under favorable conditions. Appealing as the picture may be, it’s not clear it has much importance for our world, where anarchist communities can’t last long. More importantly, we need to know what sorts of forms of political organization are both reasonably favorable to liberty and possible for us. And this task requires more analysis than that provided.

  • Fallon

    If one ignores the great revolution taking place over these recent centuries, the rise of the market, and only apply political empiricist analysis to history, then Christopher Morris will seem more right than not. But state and market are two very separate phenomena. The state is a set of ideas informing particular actions, and the results of these actions. The market, if used similarly to make the point, is also a set of ideas informing particular actions, and the results of these actions. One can readily see that each may result in a form of government. What kinds of government? The state tends to tax, displace market property and the price system, and assume one-sided privilege in deciding conflicts, including ones involving itself. No matter if 100% of the human race approved of the state– it would not erase its inherent deleterious effects of government. Government without a price system either has to be extremely small and local, or it is destructive chaos. The market is relatively voluntary and productive. Its governing structures emerge from a basic recognition of a uniquely superior division of labor. The state may spur cooperation too- but slavery and privilege cannot compete with market. The most powerful states today are those that have, or once had, strong market production to pilfer. e.g.USA. But state and market should never be seen as needing one another or conflated. The state wants a market to live off of; but the market has no need of the state.

    The question of ideological support is the same for state as it is for market. In the long run, the battle for hearts and minds will never end.

    It is only logical to infer from market theory, especially Austrian, that market societies will tend to balance political necessity with realistic and legitimate means of achieving ends. This includes security and the use of coercion. This cannot be said of states and their governments.

    • Christopher Morris

      “… but the market has no need of the state.” I argued above the unoriginal claim that national defense — defense against aggressive neighbors — is the Achilles heel of anarchism. The proof, so to speak, is in the number of genuinely anarchist communities that exist today. The second weakness of the case for anarchy is the thought that anarchist societies can have productive and complex markets w/o a developed legal system. But I don’t think that the debate over this thesis is easy to resolve, though I am not very confident in the conjecture that markets have no need of states or, better, complex legal systems.

      • CT

        I think an anarchist could easily respond by saying that anarchic societies were taken over because they were the minority. If the majority of people can be convinced of the benefits of anarchy, they will be able to defend themselves against the minority.
        Most anarchists, if I interpret them correctly, also argue that our legal system was not created by the state but sprang from the invisible hand and hence anarchy does not mean no developed legal system.

        • Christopher Morris

          Of course, if most people are anarchists AND virtually all anarchists are committed to non-aggression and respecting the liberty of others, then the prospects for anarchy are not at all bad. But being “convinced of the benefits of anarchy” is not enough if anarchists don’t also respect the liberty of others. So if this is the position, it’s much more plausible, and I should have recognized this in my note about Part II.

          Yes, anarchist societies can have law, and depending on how we understand them, legal systems. But this is another reason to need to take more care with our concepts. Will such legal systems have legal authority (in the sense that Massimo Renzo and I have in mind)? Will the practices of such anarchist societies violate the relevant voluntariness conditions? These are interesting questions, and the answers will tell us more about anarchy.


          • CT

            “So if this is the position”
            The thing is, I think if the large majority of people are not committed to the respect of liberty, we can forget about any kind of libertarianism (including anarchism).

          • Christopher Morris

            I expressed myself in quite general terms, talking about “respect for liberty”. Much will depend on the appropriate conception of liberty and in what respect for liberty will consist. Some republican (in the classical sense) conceptions of liberty will permit moderate welfare states; some libertarian conceptions of liberty will allow different kinds of minimal states; and others will block everything other than forms of anarchy. A lot of hard questions will be found in the details of the story.

      • Fallon

        “National” defense? Anarchists are not trying to defend a French Revolution, are they? It’s the ability to adapt to environments, incentivize trade, and produce security with accountability that makes market based defense a superior means. I say this as one not altogether unfamiliar with Tzu, Jomini, Clausewitz, Moltke, Michael Howard and John Keegan, btw.

        Again, it appears that your history 1) misses the economic angle and 2) narrows further to make a weak claim that somehow history has been a lab test between state and anarchy. Two can play the game pertaining to “2”. e.g. Why is it that the Byzantine bureaucracy, its centralized efficiency, failed to stop eastern invasions, while the post Roman West developed seeds of liberalism within its decentralized and fragmented polity?

        (Byzantium ref from BHL’s very own Prof. Long, here: “Why Objective Law Requires Anarchy”)

        At any rate, there were and are pieces of anarchy that provide valuable wisdom for what might yet be created. Elements of Medieval Ireland and Iceland, Law Merchant, Hanseatic League, common law, James C. Scott’s Highland peoples, Somalia even… These historical situations do not need to be functioning utopias to weigh in as relevant. What if one were to fuse some of the historical wisdom gained from their examination with elements of social theory as developed by the likes of Long, Chartier, Rothbard, Mises, Hoppe, the younger Friedman, Spooner, Thoreau, Benjamin Tucker, Bastiat, Molinari….?

        History happens all the time, too. As I mentioned earlier, state and market are separate actions. In spite of the USA being the largest state in all human history, voluntary relationships still make up the better part of most people’s productive day. Here is Jeffrey Tucker:

        “Anarchy is all around us. Without it, our world would fall apart. All progress is due to it. All order extends from it. All blessed things that rise above the state of nature are owned to it. The human race thrives only because of the lack of control, not because of it. I’m saying that we need ever more absence of control to make the world a more beautiful place. It is a paradox that we must forever explain.”

        Okay, to law. I see you are not challenging the ability to create law under statelessness, only its possible quality and complexity. But how does the lens of state even allow for the most socially valuable law? If I have state power I am going to make laws to suit myself– create immunities, taxation, a central bank with control of a fiat money supply, courts to rule in my favor, a monopoly on security production, and so on… Only then will I allow for some market freedoms– just so there will be something for my state to loot. I want free range chickens. Anyway, what are the costs of state law production? In contrast, a market society will tend to produce law that helps market production. The price system and competition helps in weeding out bad law. “Market” already implies property and exchange as key bases by which to build specific law. The state has other things on its mind first.

        “Complexity” then, only gains relevance where it can be given some kind of rational context. ‘The Federal Register is thousands of pages long, the state must be doing something right/wrong’. How does one know? Maybe simplicity is more effective. Maybe not. Without a price system and market accountability, all bets are off.

        Alright, I have rambled past 2 cents.

        • Libertymike

          Keep going, like the national debt, you will never have to pay it back.

        • Christopher Morris

          A good 2 cents.

          I don’t think that law exists only in states. I don’t even think that states are the only form of political organization. I am delighted to hear you mention the Hanseatic League; independent cities (e.g., city-republics) and leagues of cities could have been a model for the political organization of much of Europe. But they were eclipsed by… modern states. The state has swept the world; little of pre-modern forms of political organization is left. Does that not make one pause? If independent cities, small principalities, decentralized empires, and other medieval communities could not withstand the state, how can small anarchist societies survive?

          I don’t like the term ‘national defense’ — anarchist societies are neither nations nor states — but I was thinking of one of the most important chs. of David Friedman’s book, the one entitled, “National Defense: the hard problem”. Everyone cites the same examples: Iceland medieval law, the Lex mercatoria, etc. But their day too has passed.

          My claim here is that anarchist communities can’t withstand the organization force of states. The latter defeated them, as well as the independent cities, the numerous princes and dukes, the Church. It defeated all competing forms of political organization. Doesn’t that make one pause? I’d be delighted to see anarchy flourish. But it’s easy pickings for well- organized big predators. The first features I want in a desirable form of political organization is the capacity to survive.

  • ieiunus

    For someone who’s a stickler for concepts and how we differentiate among them, there was no second “constitution” to the United States, as it is typically referred. If he refers to the Articles of Confederation as the first “constitution,” that could be problematic. Does Morris differentiate between “constitution” and “confederacy?” Or are the ‘Articles of Confederation’ and ‘the first constitution’ synonymous? How important is the distinction?

    • good_in_theory

      Pedantry: you’re doing it wrong. The Articles of Confederation are not a confederacy. They formed a confederacy. The “Articles of Confederation” was a document establishing the rules by which a confederation operated. It was a constitutive document, i.e. a constitution.

      You seem to suggest that equating the first constitution and the Articles of Confederation equates constitution and confederation. This is like thinking that saying, “/A Study in Scarlet/ is the first Sherlock Holmes novel” equates “scarlet” and “novel.”

    • Christopher Morris

      The Articles may or may not be a constitution. But first we’d have to have to a fix on the idea of a constitution.

      A constitution constitutes something. I’m not sure it could not constitute a confederacy as well as a confederation, which is goodintheory’s point below.

      But the point is not important; we need not think of “the Constitution” as the second one; let it be the first and only one. But I find it surprising that libertarians would resist the point implicit, that the current US Constitution might have been, well, unconstitutional. That’s the inference that worshipers of “the Constitution” wish to avoid, but why would anarchists or libertarinas want to help them?

  • TracyW

    On the point of foreign territory, it’s interesting that people in Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands are very keen to remain part of the UK.

    • Christopher Morris

      Very nice examples.

      Lots of secessionist movements in Europe were more active after the fall of the Soviet empire than before. It would be hard to imagine that 1950 or 1960 would be have been a good time for Slovakia or Crotia to try to go off on their own. Decades later was not a good idea for Georgia to make a move either. Security in a world of nasty neighbors is a problem.

  • I read Part II of MH’s book today.

    “Appealing as the picture may be, it’s not clear it has much importance for our world, where anarchist communities can’t last long.”

    Anarchist communities can’t last long now in today’s world because almost nobody is an anarchist–nearly everyone believes in political authority and supports having states. I think MH should have addressed the question: if the general public stopped believing in political authority, would anarchist communities shortly come about or would there still be other obstacles preventing anarchist communities from forming / lasting long, and if so, what are these obstacles?

    MH didn’t make discussion of the role of peoples’ beliefs / ideology his central focus, which I think is a mistake. I wish he had brought up the subject of 13.4 “The importance of ideas” (p. 331) much sooner. Ideas are incredibly important, yet he waited until 7 pages before the end of the book to discuss their role outright, despite their great importance to the question of how much societal defense is necessary to protect an anarchist society from invasion (Chapter 12) and their great relevance to the question of the likelihood that anarchist societies could come about (Chapter 13).

    I also would have liked to see a discussion of what factors might cause the general public’s beliefs to shift from an acceptance of political authority to a rejection of it. Seven pages before the end of the book (p. 331) Huemer writes “If the theory of anarcho-capitalism is true and well justified, it will come to be generally accepted.” He then takes the next page and a half to elaborate on this point, but does not do much more than describe “the general tendency for correct ideas to win out in the long run.” A more detailed analysis of what might cause the idea that states lack political authority to become more popular would have been beneficial.

  • Benkarkis

    What do you mean by Kibbutzim being semi anarchistic? The kibbutz was very structured in his organization. And at the same time outside of the formal structure, certain families typically dominated the decision making process.
    I can not comment on the rest of your story. I personally would like to see more down to earth let’s discuss like real world/people situation. You are creating a tight little community of Philosophy majors who certainly don’t appear to live or work in the real world. If it sounds offensive so be it.
    I would like to see practical applications of Liberal Libertarianism rather than who can use the biggest words to make one sound more academically educated than the next person. I was hoping this group could present some ALTERNATIVE to our current, stagnated Democrat/Republican crap. A new political agenda and visions.

    • Christopher Morris

      I labelled kibbutzim “semi-anarchist” communities as their survival seems dependent on the protection of a state. Please supply other examples of anarchist communities for us, and make them real-world as you can.

      I am sorry not to offer a new political agenda or vision, as I too am not enthusiastic about the Democrat/Republican stuff, which I agree is largely crap.

  • Chris Bertram

    Fascinating discussion, from which I’m learning a great deal: thanks (for both posts). One question: you assert that the French and Iranian revolutions did not put an end to one state and replace it with another. But something a bit more drastic than replacement of one government by another seems to have happened. What’s the implicit theory of the existence and identity conditions for states here? Was the Soviet state a new state? And why is this a different case (if it is)?

    • Christopher Morris

      I have too much to say, and too much of that is speculative or otherwise inadequate. So I’ll say a little.

      Let’s think of three revolutions. The American one (or the war of independence from our “unfeeling Brethren”) constitute a state. So we shouldn’t say that a state preceded it, though connected political communities did. The French and Iranian revolutions didn’t create states; they transformed existing ones. You rightly point out that they did more than replace one government by another. They aimed to do much more and to considerable extent did (though with regard to the French revolutions we are still debating the question of what changed!). Did the Russian revolution create a new state? This is hard, in part because of my ignorance.

      States (in the modern sense) are distinguished from other forms of political organization in part because of “territory”. A territory in this sense is an expanse of land, usually contiguous, with clear, relatively fixed borders (at any one time), and the state’s authority is territorial in the sense that it applies in the first instance to agents who find themselves in this territory. It is to distinguished from property, even if its origins are in the sovereign’s estate (État). The borders of the new Soviet Union were not identical to those of pre1917 Russia. But the polity seems largely continuous. (A larger than normal planks of the boat were replaced at once?) So I’m inclined to say that in these cases — the French, Russian (or Soviet), and Iranian revolutions — the state may have been transformed but it pre-existed the transformation, unlike the American case. It’s hard to say how much of a transformation is involved in, say, a revolution before it is a case of a new state being created. But I can’t think of a revolution or similar phenomenon which extinguished one state and created a new one in its place. I suppose if Saddam Hussein had destroyed Kuwait, bulldozing the country as it were, and then created a new state on the ashes, with a new population, that would be a case in point. (Did this happen to cities like Troy?)

      Not a very systematic story, I fear. But the concepts are not simple or clear. This seems better than the way I put it before, I hope.

      • M Lister

        I can’t say that I feel very certain about this, but the case for saying that the Russian revolution created a new state (the Soviet Union) is perhaps best made out on the grounds that the old “state” wasn’t a proper state at all, but an empire. (It was so-called, by the people, and that old entity, whatever it was, is so-called now by the people living in the current state of Russia- “The Russian Empire”. That is, the current residents refer to the old entity that way, but not the current one.) And, the relationship of St. Petersburg to the periphery- especially in central Asia and the far east, but also in the Caucuses and even the once and future Poland, was in many ways more like Rome to the provinces or even Brittan to India than, say, Washington DC to Nebraska, or London to Scotland, or Moscow to the Uzbek SSR. If this is right, then there might be a case to be made that a new state was formed, in part because there wasn’t truly a state in the modern sense before that. I’m pretty sympathetic to this view, really, but can’t say I feel certain about it.

        • Christopher Morris

          Resolving the questions Matt Lister raises are hard for two reasons: the history is complicated and the concepts aren’t clear. I also don’t know enough about the history to comment (the same with China which was an empire and gradually became a state).

          Consider the fictitious case of a state R with an empire E which is contiguous to R. A revolution occurs which declares R+E the new state of R. Did this revolution create a new state? It may depend on some additional details to the story (e.g., how did the rulers of R conceive of E? How did the people in E conceive of R?). But it may be hard to distinguish state and empire in these situations.

          Consider the American case, with which I am more familiar. Jefferson early on conceived of the united former colonies establishing an “empire of liberty” in North America. Its edges were the Western frontier (the concept of a frontier is distinctive of empires). Later this idea of an empire of liberty was used for some of the late 19th and early 20th c imperial ventures of the US (e.g., the Spanish American war). The US incorporated the western territories that it acquired, first as (imperial) territories, then as states (in the American sense of the term). So the transformation of imperial acquisitions to a (large) state was gradual. It’s not clear that the concepts of state and empire are sharp enough to say when this transformation occurred. Normally something is an empire only if there is a core (e.g., Athens, Rome, the UK) and a periphery (the colonies). If the colonies are slowly incorporated into the state, the state thereby enlarged, then it’s hard to say during the transition if it is empire or state.

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