Bryan Caplan on Huemer’s New Trousers

I agree with Bryan Caplan that many readers may initially think that Huemer brings nothing new to the philosophy of liberty, that he is merely rehashing arguments they are already familiar with – but in this they will be wrong. Caplan writes:

“When people criticize The Problem of Political Authority, I often want to quote John Maynard Keynes on Huemer’s behalf:

Thus those who are sufficiently steeped in the old point of view simply cannot bring themselves to believe that I am asking them to step into a new pair of trousers, and will insist on regarding it as nothing but an embroidered version of the old pair which they have been wearing for years.

Huemer’s “new pair of trousers” is a libertarianism designed to be plausible to non-libertarians as well as libertarians.

How does he make his brand of libertarianism plausible to non-libertarians? He starts with moral premises most non-libertarians already accept, argues methodically and transparently, and generously considers a wide range of objections. When social science is relevant, Huemer appeals to mainstream economics, political science, and psychology – not the heterodox approaches that libertarians love so well. While I don’t expect The Problem of Political Authority to make millions of converts, it as broadly convincing as a reasoned argument for an unpopular conclusion can be.

How does Huemer make his brand of libertarianism plausible to libertarians? He escapes objections to rights-based libertarianism by turning the “Non-Aggression Axiom” into a “Non-Aggression Presumption.” He escapes objections to consequentialist libertarianism by taking this Non-Aggression Presumption seriously. The result is a position immune to all of the standard counter-examples to rights-based and consequentialist libertarianism.

As a free bonus, Huemer dulls the urge consequentialist libertarians often feel to stretch the truth, to make stronger claims about the benefits of libertarian policies than the evidence warrants. Thus, libertarians who oppose a war with Iran don’t need to confidently assert, “This war will clearly make matters even worse.” We should just stick with what we really know: “We shouldn’t murder thousands of innocent people unless we have strong reason to believe doing so will make matters vastly better. And we don’t have a strong reason to believe this.”[9]

When libertarians want to appeal to a broader audience, they usually dial down their rhetoric and their radicalism. The Problem of Political Authority dials down the rhetoric, but leaves the radicalism intact. Libertarians don’t need Aristotelian metaphysics, exceptionless moral axioms, or heterodox social science to call the entire status quo into question. Michael Huemer shows that common sense, common decency, and careful observation are more than up to the job.”

– Bryan Caplan, Plausible Libertarianism: Philosophy, Social Science, and Huemer

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2 thoughts on “Bryan Caplan on Huemer’s New Trousers

  1. I’ve had a few problems with the comments because of spam, but things seem to be working properly now. I just found the text of a comment on this post that never got approved.

    “Clarence P.

    1. Is Huemer bringing to the table anything that A. John Simmons hasn’t already covered?
    2. Will the good old NT ever come back to life? I don’t see why the old NT and this site can’t live side by side.

    Clarence P.”

    1. Clarence P.,

      1. My sense is that he does but I’ve not yet read enough Simmons to answer your question well. I’m currently reading _Is There A Duty to Obey The Law?_ and next will be _Moral Principles and Political Obligations_. The influence on Huemer is clear.

      2. You’ll be happy to know that NO TREASON IS BACK, BABY!

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