Jason Brennan On Political Authority

In this lecture philosopher Jason Brennan discusses the idea of political authority. He says that the median position among contemporary philosophers is that the state is legitimate (meaning the state is justified in imposing some coercive laws) but that the state lacks authority (meaning there is no content independent obligation to obey such laws). Philosophers sometimes refer to the latter position as philosophical anarchism. It’s not clear to me from what Brennan says here just what sort of laws such academics think the state may legitimately impose – they surely don’t think all laws are legitimate.

Brennan’s lecture is well worth watching.

I think there is something important missing from one of Brennan’s examples.

Imagine we’re all at a party together and I say, “Here’s the deal, at the end of this party you all have to help me clean up the mess that we make, and if you don’t like that leave right now.” If you continue to stay at the party it seems like you have agreed to clean up at the end.

As Huemer has pointed out elsewhere it’s really property rights that seem to do the moral work here, not implicit agreement. If the party is at Brennan’s house when he makes the announcement then it seems like those who stay do indeed have some obligation to help clean up. But if Brennan makes the same announcement at a party at Huemer’s house then there does not seem to be any such obligation, unless party goers have reason to know Brennan speaks on Huemer’s behalf.

This distinction is crucial because it requires that to rely on such an argument the state must demonstrate demonstrate that it owns the territory in question, or else that it legitimately speaks on behalf of the owners.  In The Problem Of Political Authority Huemer demonstrates that such arguments tend to be circular and thus invalid.

Read More

Review By Nick Ford: Political Authority with a Good Sense of Huemer (Part Two of Two)

[This review by Nick Ford was originally published at Center for a Stateless Society.]

Whether anarchy is good or not isn’t important. It’s whether it’s comparatively better than the alternatives.

Or at least that’s what Michael Huemer begins arguing in chapter eight of The Problem of Political Authority.

We have now reached the second part of Huemer’s book. You can find the first part of my review which covers the first half of Huemer’s book here.

In this part, I will primarily focus on whether Huemer’s particular model of anarchism is preferable to statism. I will also focus on whether there are viable alternatives to Huemer’s model. And whether Huemer’s model of anarchism — anarcho-capitalism — is a desirable model at all.

Just to spoil things a bit, I will say that Huemer has certainly made the strongest case for anarcho-capitalism I’ve seen, but I find it insufficient in the end. While it persuades me that anarcho-capitalism would likely be better than the alternative of statism, it doesn’t persuade me of much more than that. As a left-wing market anarchist, I believe there are alternative market systems that don’t involve any form of capitalism.

Now, comparing a form of anarchy to anything is difficult because we haven’t had anarchism in the way that Huemer or I advocate. At least not in any genuine, systematic sense. So to compare the two, I’ll rely on Huemer’s argumentation and my own ideas on what could improve his sketches. Ideas that I hope will aid them become less capitalistic and more anarchistic.

Even though Huemer’s argument here is weaker than in the first portion of the book, I don’t want to underplay how fantastic this section still very much is. Even if I reject Huemer’s ideal version of a stateless society, there’s plenty in it that seems preferable to a statist society. And further, some of what Huemer says is worth incorporating into any stateless society.

As in the first half of his book, Huemer’s arguments are clear, perceptive and beautifully argued. This is another point in his favor.

But now, on to the main attraction. (more…)

Read More

Against Euclidianism

In a live talk, Michael Huemer describes a regrettable detour in the history of philosophy:

Something unfortunate happened early in the history of philosophy, which is: Philosophers discovered Euclid’s Elements which is this wonderful mathematics book, wonderful book of geometry. People used to have to study it in school in their geometry classes.

It starts with these geometrical axioms and then proves all these geometrical theorems. And it’s very convincing. There are all these things are very convincingly proved, and interesting claims as well that are not obvious before they’re proved.

And philosophers looked at it and said okay so that’s how all human knowledge should be. And then they start thinking that philosophy should be that way and so we’re going to lay down the philosophical axioms and so here are the axioms of ethics, okay?

Well, to burst the philosophers’ bubble, most of human knowledge does not work like Euclid’s Elements. Even geometry doesn’t work like Euclid’s Elements. What actually happened was Euclid’s Elements came thousands of the years after the beginning of geometry.

Geometry started with a series out much more concrete formulas for calculating areas and volumes and perimeters which were mostly empirically derived, or they were guesses are, or things that sort of seemed intuitively right to people.

It started in ancient Egypt. It was mostly for surveying reasons that people needed geometry, they needed to know how much land somebody had.

It was thousands of years after the beginning of geometry that Euclid came along and, having seen all of these little formulas and these little geometrical discoveries, then he tried to systematize it.

Geometry did not start by somebody saying “Well, let’s see , you know, a point is something that has no parts, is indivisible and any two points have a straight line between them…” It started out with all these little formulas and then somebody tried to systematize it.

So now in moral philosophy we are not yet at the stage of somebody being able to write down the axioms, we’re still at the stage of collecting the little formulas. And if somebody tries to set down the axioms before you’ve done sufficient work, before thinking enough about more concrete propositions they are almost certainly going to get it wrong.

– transcribed from Huemer’s talk on his common sense defense of libertarianism.

Read More

Review By Nick Ford: Political Authority with a Good Sense of Huemer (Part One of Two)

[This review by Nick Ford was originally published at Center for a Stateless Society.]


The Problem of Political Authority, by Michael Huemer (2012) was collecting dust on my bookshelf until a month ago. I received it from a friend around a year ago, and like most of my books, decided to keep it for later. If there’s any benefit to working at my new job, it’s that there are a lot of quiet moments. So I decided to start taking advantage of those moments and read it. I chose Huemer’s book partly because I was already familiar with some of his work. I enjoyed his “Common Sense” defense of libertarianism when I first saw him at Porcfest. But even before that, I knew about him through his work on ethical intuitionism and moral knowledge.

Now, not being an anarcho-capitalist, I was interested to see his basis for it. Part of the case he makes seemed shaky, and led me to not give this book perfect scores. Overall though, I’d heartily recommend it to just about anyone who wants to understand some core arguments against the state.

The way Huemer has divided his book is superb. So in an effort to give a little order and sense to this review I’m going to somewhat mimic Huemer’s style. I’ll have this, Part One of the review, with Part Two to follow — just as the book itself is divided. And like Huemer, I’ll divide each part into numbered sections which correspond roughly with his chapters and sub-chapters, though not precisely. For example, there’s two chapters in part one that deal with different ideas of social contract theory to justify the state. In an attempt to bring them together, I’ll try to put them under a single decimal pointed section. In this case it’d be 1.2 instead of two different sections, as in Huemer’s book. Either way, if you haven’t noticed by now, this is going to be a long review and I’m not going to sugar coat that fact. Stay tuned for the second part sometime this later month.

Part of the reason for this comprehensiveness is because I love the book enough to write at length about it. The other reason is that it deserves (more…)

Read More

Why Property Doesn’t Require The Same Justification As Authority

Time and again I’ve seen people argue that while Michael Huemer’s argument against state authority is strong, he fails to recognize a similar burden of justification for property rights. Here I’ll explain why there is less need for a justification of property in Huemer’s argument.

This is how Huemer typically sets up his argument:

“Sam has a problem. He has a number of very poor nephews and nieces. He has been working with a charity organization to help them, but the organization needs more funding. So Sam goes out and starts demanding money from his neighbors to give to the charity group. If anyone refuses to contribute, Sam kidnaps that person and locks them in a cage.

Though charitable giving is laudable, as is the effort to care for one’s nephews and nieces, almost everyone who hears this story finds Sam’s extortion program impermissible. This includes both Democrats and Republicans, people who believe in a personal moral obligation to donate to charity, and even people who have a theory of “distributive justice” that says the current distribution of wealth in our society is unjust because the poor have too little.

Interestingly, however, many of the people who agree on the impermissibility of Sam’s behavior nevertheless support seemingly analogous behavior on the part of a certain other Uncle Sam. Some think it not only permissible but obligatory for the state to coercively seize funds to aid the poor.”

If you simply don’t see a problem with Sam’s behavior then Huemer’s argument will have no force for you. Huemer observes that nearly everyone finds Sam’s behavior morally impermissible for a private individual and addresses his argument to those who do recognize it as impermissible.

And that’s what puts the burden of justification on those who agree Sam is wrong, if they propose similar behavior for the state. If you agree that it’s wrong for Sam to take money from people by force to give to charity then the burden is on you to explain how it would be justified for another party, in this case the state.

Huemer is certainly not arguing here that since it is wrong for Sam to do X it must be wrong for the state to do X, he’s merely identifying the burden of justification.

When it comes to property though, it’s simply not the case that nearly everyone would find it morally impermissible for Sam to keep property and do with it as he sees fit, thus no similar burden of justification arises.

Huemer has no need to persuade people that what Sam did in the example is wrong, because almost everyone immediately recognizes it as wrong. If you think property is immoral you do need to offer an argument to convince people of that, because it’s not something people overwhelmingly believe.

Read More

Huemer And The NAP

The gentleman in the video below explores the NAP in light of a Huemer lecture he heard at Porcfest, which I’m pretty sure was Huemer’s common sense defense of libertarianism. In that lecture Huemer said the NAP is false.

On the other hand, in The Problem of Political Authority Huemer explicitly grounds his arguments on a NAP. There’s no real contradiction, Huemer was criticizing the NAP as an absolute principle often invoked by some libertarians, whereas the NAP he relies on is a body of common sense moral principles.

My own view is that rather than refuting the NAP, Huemer rehabilitates it by reconstructing in in a weaker, less controversial, form, which leads to stronger arguments. In so doing he has almost completely rehabilitated most NAP based arguments against government action.


Read More