Symposium on Huemer's Problem of Political Authority

Property and Authority: Reply to Huemer

Let me begin by thanking Mike for being part of our symposium. I think we’ve been able to get into a lot of deep philosophical issues and that the discussion has perhaps the highest philosophical quality of any other symposium we’ve run. In that vein, I would like to reply to some of Huemer’s criticisms of my post on his book.

The key point of disagreement between Mike and me, after reviewing his post and our brief exchange in the comments section, is not whether a defense of the authority of property is important, but whether an account of the authority of property is necessary to vindicate market anarchism. Mike thinks even without a theory of the authority of property, he still has “a strong defense of An-cap.”

First, let me note that I don’t think a defense of market anarchism must give a full-blown theory of property rights. Instead, we just need some reason to think that while states can’t coerce without justification, that property owners can. I admit there are some paradigm cases where we think property owners can coerce with authority in ordinary interactions, but these are relatively simple cases where holding onto your property is necessary for your survival and basic well-being, rather than cases where, say, we exclude people who have very little.

So with that, I think Mike needs to show how market anarchist arrangements are authoritative, and not just workable. I think this for two reasons.

(1)  Dialectic Effectiveness

Many of Huemer’s opponents in The Problem of Political Authority are in the contemporary democratic theory camp, from Rawlsians to deliberative democrats to Tom Christiano. To be dialectically effective, then, Huemer can’t simply refute their theories of state authority; he needs to answer what will be their first or second most pressing objection to his view, namely market anarchism. The most pressing objection is probably the issue of workability, which I think Huemer more than adequately addresses. But the second most pressing objection, if not the most pressing, is one that draws from the political tradition of the continental left that starts with Rousseau and runs through Hegel and Marx. These thinkers see the system of private property as a system of governance that stands in need of justification and that lacks such a justification. Such folk are tempted to agree with Noam Chomsky that, say, large capitalist firms are similar to states in the authority that they exercise over others. Perhaps they wouldn’t go so far as to call many corporations “totalitarian private tyrannies,” but they will argue that the systems of directives required to operate a market anarchist society rests on the widespread use of coercion and manipulation. And even in a private context, coercion and manipulation require justification apart from the fact that they bring about good consequences. Since Huemer does not address the objection, I predict that his opponents will take the book less seriously than they otherwise would. It’s the sort of oversight that will lead, I worry, to outright dismissal.

(2)  Asymmetric Authority is Problematic because Authority is Problematic

In our exchange in the comments on his post, Mike stated that the problem of authority he worries about is trigged by an asymmetry of authority between state officials and everyone else.

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.

For Mike, then, the features of the nation-state in the most pressing need of justification are the huge range of rights and permissions it claims for itself and systematically denies to everyone else (even if in theory anyone can get elected to run the state, assuming it is democratic).

But we only have reason to worry about an asymmetry of authority because we already have concerns about authority, that is, coercive authority to impose your judgments on others about how social life should be conducted. If we were not worried about authority, we just wouldn’t be that worried about the asymmetry of authority claims.

Mike will probably reply that authority is worrisome in itself, but that an adequate defense of market anarchism needn’t address it. After all, no book can do everything. And more importantly, everyone has authority problems, not just market anarchists. So why does the anarchist bear some special burden?

My point is that the anarchist’s burden isn’t special – it’s a lot like the statist’s. Everyone who argues for the use of coercion needs an account of how coercion is justified, even if the coercion is committed by non-state actors alone.

After discussing the matter with J-Bren on Facebook, I suspect Mike will reply that a libertarian property system is justified based on the fact that it is the only system of coercion that is compatible with the moral facts, that is the non-naturally, mind-independent moral truth about politics. Natural property rights are simply a fundamental feature of the moral universe, one that everyone but social democrats blinded by ideology can intuit.

That’s a tried and true answer, with a respectable lineage. I don’t think it will satisfy Mike’s critics, but at least it’s an answer.

(3) Are Natural Rights Answers Good Answers to the Question of Authority?

The following isn’t a direct reply to Huemer, but here’s why I don’t think natural rights answers are very attractive. Basically, they just don’t answer the questions that Locke raised about how to handle disagreements about how to understand and apply natural rights. In any free society, there will be significant controversies about property, not just economic, but moral and philosophical. Natural rights-market anarchism deals with this disagreement entirely within the bounds of a system a great many people find profoundly unjust, which should lead us to wonder how it can be justified to them.

This gets to another disagreement between me and Mike, which concerns the forms that justifications for coercion must take. I think they must satisfy a kind of internalist test – all adequate justifications for coercion are ones that people can under some suitably idealized conditions appreciate. I suspect Mike thinks a satisfactory justification for coercion must meet an externalist test – coercive claims must match the mind-independent moral facts, which do not themselves include an internalist test of the sort I and other public reason types endorse (in contrast to Charles Larmore, who shares Mike’s views about moral metaphysics and moral epistemology, but is a political liberal).

This disagreement, about whether the use of coercion must be justified internally or externally, is one that Mike rightly leaves out of the book. But I think it helps explain why one might worry about Mike’s (presumptive) answer to the problem of the authority of property rights.

(4) No Statism Here

There are good reasons to think that property rights can ground authority claims, even in some market anarchist arrangements. My point is merely that a defense of market anarchism needs an explanation of property’s authority just as statism needs an explanation of state authority. I can acknowledge that states require more justification, not only because, as Mike rightly notes, states claim asymmetrical power for themselves, but also because they claim enormous power for themselves. And I think, as a result, that most states are unjustified.

  • adrianratnapala

    If I understood MH correctly, the main thrust of Part I of his book is something like:

    If we reject our traditional belief in the authority of the state (where
    authority is defined in a very particular, precise way), but keep our
    other common-sense moral intuitions, then a whole lot things which seems
    like reasonable support for the state starts to lack justification.
    Therefore the state’s legitimacy rests on this narrow foundation.

    Now we can ask MH why he wants to reject this traditional belief and not others,
    and his book makes a brief argument for preferring common-sense morality to
    common-sense politics. But even if (like me) you are unconvinced about this
    distinction, the question above is logically coherent and interesting.

    But you are asking him to discuss what happens if we reject that traditional belief (in state authority) AND ALSO the traditional belief in property rights. That’s also a logically coherent question and (somewhat) interesting question, but that doesn’t mean MH has to bother with. As MH said on this site, he is addressing the common-sense view that there exist property rights at least within some limits. Just because he should be looking over his shoulder at such philosophical success stories as Karl Marx?

    Also it is just not true that “Asymmetric Authority is Problematic [merely] because
    Authority is Problematic”. There is a world of difference between
    organisations having rights over a limited number of things, under conditions
    where other people can gain more or less similar rights vs. having some
    institution with an exclusive and effectively unlimited right to make up rules
    about anything and to command anybody.

    • Kevin Vallier

      (1) In part, I’m asking what it means to reject state authority – does it mean that we are left with an authoritative system of property rights or not? If not, it’s hard to see how MH has defended market anarchism at all, since market anarchism assumes that property claims are authoritative. If so, then we still have features of authority similar to a state in a social system that have gone unjustified. Why is that so hard?

      (2) Why, then, on your view should we care about asymmetric authority? I take it a necessary condition for caring about the asymmetry is that we’re worried about authority claims in general. I’d be interested to hear your alternative.

      • adrianratnapala

        (Please note that here I am only pretending to be an anarchist, …)

        (1) I think you are right that any decent Anarchy still have something like state authority, but that it belongs only to the law. Under anarchy that law is not upheld and maintained by a state or
        any other monopolist, but by various mechanisms which MH writes about. I am comfortable with the rule of law, and in that sense less “anti-authority” than MH can be construed as being.

        Conceivably, an anarchist system of law might not have property rights. But it is at least as plausible to think it is quite similar to existing private law, which certainly does include property rights.

        (2) I find it difficult to grapple with this because it seems close to a bare assertion, so maybe I am not addressing your real point. But here goes:

        Suppose you don’t like any kind of authority, and object to (a) the authority of the law, (b) the secondary authority it grants people over their persons and their property. This is a pretty radical position, which I don’t think either you or MH holds; but even such a radical should still be relieved that this authority is still limited by (a) being a fixed set of rules, and (b) being bounded to just that tiny fraction of the world’s wealth which any one entity owns. Government authority is even scarier.

      • JoelKatz

        One alternative would be that we’re worried about asymmetry in general. I don’t see any particular reason to care about authority claims that are universal and equal for all moral agents. On the other hand, I would worry about claims that treat moral agents differently, claims of privilege, whether in authority or any other arena.

        Which seems more defensible to you, a society that denies all property rights or a society that allows only left-handed people to own property?

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      The problem with a common sense defense of any part of anarchic arguments is that they defy “common” sense on it’s face. My common sense understanding is that a stateless society of more than say ten people will break down pretty quickly. Unless there is some way to enforce the “rules”. (and when you have that, you have a government). That is why a family, clan, or perhaps a close knit religious community can exist without any outside government, but an actual city of unrelated people? That goes against my common sense.

      • adrianratnapala

        Huemer’s part I is talking about moral common-sense, not about common-sense judgments in general. That’s a pity, but is normal for philosophers. I find the practical speculations in part II more interesting – though less convincing. But they are not totally unbelievable. He does discuss non-government mechanisms for enforcing rules. And they are prima face plausible.

        It is dogmatic to say say “My common-sense says Anarchy breaks down, therefore any argument favouring it is a priori unreasonable”. Intellectual fairness requires you to at at least suspend that single tenent of your your common sense while you study the arguments.

        • Les Kyle Nearhood

          No doubt you are correct. However, whether the system is plausible or not, It faces yet another nearly impossible hurdle, that is, how will such a system ever be enacted in a world already filled with nation states jealous of their power?

  • BenBachrach

    Second paragraph typo’s

    The key point of disagreement between me and Mike, …..

    Mike thinks even with not theory of the authority of property, he still has “a strong defense of An-cap.”

    should read:

    The key point of disagreement between Mike and me, …..

    Mike thinks even without a theory of the authority of property, he still has “a strong defense of An-cap.”

  • rrelph

    I’m FAR from the philosopher you all are, and this may seem a trivial observation, but please indulge me.

    I observe that Kevin agrees that some property rights are, well, obvious:
    “I admit there are some paradigm cases where we think property owners can coerce with authority in ordinary interactions, but these are relatively simple cases where holding onto your property is necessary for your survival and basic well-being, rather than cases where, say, we exclude people who have very little.”

    I don’t see how he can have it both ways, as he attempts to in this one sentence. He seems to be saying if I have food I own in my hand, and someone else attempts to take it from me, he admits that I can defend, using force, with authority. But then he complicates the “rule” by adding a qualifier based on the neediness of those excluded from my food.

    As I see it, It is this complication that needs justification, not the simple rule. That we need rules to know who owns what and when force is appropriate is a given. So we start with a widely distributed “rule” – defensible property rights – that has applied for quite a long time (Thou shalt not steal.) The simplicity and universality of “what’s mine is mine” and the wide dispersion of control of the whole of property that results from that simple rule gives rise to a great deal of opportunity for experiments that lead to progress. 2 people – by themselves – can decide to use their property to invent the airplane. That’s simply not possible absent property rights. I don’t know if Kevin will accept as a suitable justification for the simple rule the economic progress that enables us, as a society, to afford more than 1 PhD in Philosophy.

    Kevin’s argument seems to imply every act of coercion involves a balancing test… the needs of those who have wants against those who have. And while as a human being I completely admit that’s true (Thou shalt love thy neighbor as theyself) and that I will apply that test in situations in which I am a participant, there is a heck of a lot more to that balancing test than simply how much either person has or needs, and the “balancing test” required is one that is so situationally complex that no “complex rules” from a state (or any other third party) can possibly get the “right answer” all the time. Given that, and given the impossibility of any set of rules to yield the right answer all the time, the question becomes what justifies a) complicating the simple rules; b) depriving property owners of the right to exclude in some cases, but not all cases; c) thereby imposing a duty on everyone to learn and apply someone else’s “rules”; and d) backing up that imposition with force in cases where someone else’s rules are misapplied.

    A person’s need for food is unrelated to how the need came about. However, justifications depend on those reasons. A person who is unwilling to take care of themselves is vastly different than one who is unable. And so we begin our descent in to extremely complicated moral and situational questions that, fundamentally, I do not believe any one not a direct participant in the proposed “transaction” can fully appreciate.

    Because we are not all PhDs in Philosophy, and because spending TOO much time on questions of whether I should eat my last meal, give it to you (who may be closer to death – or already too far gone to save), or something else; whether my final decision is premised on the coercive authority of property rights; or whether your forced attempt to take it from me is justified based on your situation only deprives us of TIME to do something potentially of greater value in a world where the 2 of us are about to starve.

    In short, the simplicity and efficiency of property rights feels to me like a possible justification. It is cluttering up of the simple rule that requires greater justification, not the simple rule itself – a rule which Kevin himself admits makes sense in “paradigm situations.” Requiring that every person in a state’s jurisdiction know and be able to properly apply the state’s complex rules for when the simple rule does not hold – or be subject to civil or criminal liability – seems to be a recipe for ensuring lawyers end up with all the wealth.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      Very thoughtful, and you bring up an important argument.

  • Michael Huemer

    Thanks, Kevin. I’m not convinced that “we only have reason to worry about an asymmetry of authority because we already have concerns about authority”. Suppose S says, “I and no one else have a right to life.” That strikes me as a problematic claim, regardless of whether the idea of a ‘right to life’ is problematic. I think those who believe in a right to life, as well as those who are skeptical, would all find the claim problematic. (Cf. J Katz’ remarks.) I suggest that there’s an intuitive idea of moral equality, which the asymmetry violates.

  • Michael Huemer

    Why do I believe in property? Basically, intuition. It just seems to me, and a lot of other people, that one shouldn’t mess with other people’s stuff. Of course, there can be debates about which stuff is whose. But to note that point is quite different from challenging the whole idea of property.

    Who denies property rights, and why? Presumably, Karl Marx? Except I don’t think so. Caveat: I am very, very far from a Marx scholar; nevertheless, I will say that I think the Marxists are against *private* ownership *of capital*, not against all ownership. To be against property as such is to say that *no one* may own *anything*. I have no idea how such a society would work (would anyone be entitled to use any object at any time? would no one be entitled to use anything?), and I’m not sure anyone actually has that view.

    With respect to people who believe in property, but believe in some special restrictions on it (like “you can’t own goods that are useful for making other goods”), the burden is on them to justify the special restrictions. And a lot could be said about that. I could have responded to the Marxist theory as to why ownership of capital is Really Bad. But that just seems like that would have been going off on a very different topic.

    • Les Kyle Nearhood

      It seems that the only real problem most people (not me) have with private property ownership is the accumulation of property in the hands of a few. That is where most restrictions come from. The only other is the use of property for public goods such as eminent domain law. Supposedly that could be agreed upon ahead of time by contact in any new society.

    • One can agree that basic property right are intuitive–they are–without agreeing that any scheme of property rights is acceptable to intuition. One difficulty the edges of which I think Kevin is poking around is that basic political authority is just as intuitive to lots of us as basic property rights. E.g., me and my neighbors identify some public goods problems in our neck of the woods and unanimously agree to take them on. We also unanimously agree to a basic constitution that affirms a non-unanimity decision rule, and grants certain special powers to an executive appointed to carry out the policies determined according to the agreed-upon decision rules. Seems like we’ve established rudimentary political authority. This seems as easy, intuitive, and non-controversial as rudimentary rules of possession, exclusion, etc. Simple property rights are easy to justify intuitively, but so is a simple polity, and the attempt to enlist moral intuition to support one but not the other is bound to come down to special pleading, and in any case is not going to persuade those with different intuitions. The appeal of the public reason position is that it takes this sort of disagreement as a datum, as one of the things an adequate theory of morally decent social life has to address, and not something to be sidestepped by ultimately dogmatic claims about what is and is not supported by intuition.

    • PhilosophyLines .

      But the point is, once you’ve concluded that state authority isn’t justified, why are you left with capitalist market anarchism as opposed to anarcho-communism, which is a competing system of property arrangements, or anarchistic market socialism, a system of cooperatives and self-directed enterprises that is non-capitalistic, say.

      If you haven’t given an argument for why anarcho-capitalism is just when anarchistic market socialism or anarcho-communism isn’t, then it appears that you simply haven’t made a case for market anarchism. You’ve made an argument for anarchism.

  • famadeo

    I intuit the issue arises from a tired reductionism typically employed by libertarians to the effect of “gun-or-no-gun-to-your-head” as the sole barometer of freedom.