Review by Perry Metzger

[This review of The Problem Of Political Authority by Perry Metzger was originally posted at Samizdata.]

The book is a gem, destined to become a classic, and any serious student of the field should have it on their shelf. They should even, dare I say, read it.

The topic that Huemer’s astonishing tour de force concerns itself with is the moral and ethical underpinnings of state power, an area known in political philosophy as the “problem of political authority”.

In considering the justification for the state, a nagging question naturally arises. Most people would claim it is morally impermissible for your neighbor to force you to give money to a charity of his choice at gunpoint. However, in stark contrast, most people would claim it is permissible for the state to do essentially the same thing, that is, to extort taxes from you using the threat of force in order to spend those funds on projects other than your own.

Most people appear to claim there is an important difference between these cases — otherwise, they would not believe in the legitimacy of the state.

The eponymous problem of political authority is the question of what the distinction between these cases might be — on what basis, if any, might we justify this difference in treatment between the behavior we consider ethically justified from individual actors versus the power we accord to the state.

Huemer systematically addresses the justifications that have been articulated for political authority over the centuries, from hypothetical social contract theory to consequentialism and everything in between. I will give away the punchline by noting that his arguments would appear to fatally damage all of them.

Political philosophers often start by attempting to construct a complete moral framework within which they justify their positions. Huemer takes an entirely different approach. He does not assume that we all agree on a single universal moral framework. He only assumes that most of us generally share similar moral intuitions about certain sorts of situations in the average case. (The strongest sort of assumption he demands is that his reader agree that beating people up without provocation is usually bad.)

Because he demands that the reader agree with him on so few things and so weakly, Huemer’s argument gains enormous strength, since there is no need to accept an all-encompassing ethical theory to believe the rest of his arguments.

On the basis of very pedestrian ethical assumptions, Huemer manages to build a case against any moral justification for political authority whatsoever. He engages, attacks and destroys arguments of all sorts with panache. Even John Rawls famous “A Theory of Justice” (perhaps the most cited work written in philosophy in the last century) is mercilessly examined under bright lights and staked through the heart.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the simplicity and lucidity of his prose. Unlike many of his academic peers, Huemer’s writing is crystal clear and (nearly) jargon free. A bright ten year old would have no difficulty with the language. He does not seek to conceal weakness beneath an avalanche of polysyllabic words and mile long sentences. Instead, he makes his arguments so straightforward to understand that there is little or no room to disagree with him.

I am uncertain as to whether Huemer will persuade many people. As Swift once observed, “it is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” Most people hold their political positions not as a result of rational contemplation but because they were exposed to a set of ideas at an early age and have an emotional attachment to them that is not easily altered. The fact that Huemer is arguing for unfamiliar idea that goes against most conventional wisdom is probably more important to the average reader than the razor sharp edge to which he has honed his arguments.

Never the less, in a hypothetical world in which all chose their views on the basis of rational consideration, Huemer would be changing hearts and minds by the trainload.

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