This post was written by Nur Baysal. It is part of ESFL’s Intellectual Thought Series, a weekly blog series dedicated to the introduction of different branches in the classical liberal tradition.
Justifications of political systems, ideologies or mere policy reforms are often based on lengthy accounts of different theoretical frameworks. Arguments in favor of anarchy, embedded in this structure, sometimes seem quite controversial.
In his pursuit of delegitimizing political authority, Michael Huemer tries to avoid using controversial arguments and excessive utopianism.
By appealing to implicit values shared among most people, he aims to justify anarchy on grounds of widely held ethical intuitions. The bottom line can be described like this: Huemer presents uncontroversial examples on which most people share similar intuitions. Those same intuitions are then applied as universal principles in instances in which the acting agent is not an individual, but the institution of government itself.
If one act undertaken by an individual is morally rejected by most people, the same action is just as morally questionable if done by the government.
The illusion of authority
Through the method of exclusion, he goes on to refute some of the main justifications of authority in contemporary political philosophy – e.g. the social contract theory, the democratic process, deliberative democracy, and utilitarianism.
He concludes the first part of the book with two observations based on psychological and historical evidence:
1. Most people have a strong pro-authority bias that renders their intuitions about authority untrustworthy.
2. Institutions of authority pose a clear danger. Therefore, undermining trust in political authority is highly socially beneficial.
Society without authority
The second part primarily goes on to describe the practical viability of an anarcho-capitalist society. Huemer sees the democratic process as a method that succeeds in preventing the worst government abuses, but eventually fails to establish a robust system that delivers its intended results. This is mostly due to widespread ignorance and irrationality on the part of the voters. Restrictions imposed through constitutional elements will often be ineffective, since the government has usually no incentive to diminish its own power. On similar grounds, the separation of power is unlikely to be followed through entirely:
The separation of power fails because the branches of government can best promote their interests through making common cause in expanding state power rather than protecting the rights of the people. (p.335)
As a superior alternative, he proposes a system based on contractual arrangements in which government functions are completely privatized. This would include police duties, which would be taken over by private security guards. The incorporation of meaningful competition among security providers would ensure higher quality, lower cost and less potential for abuse in comparison to the current coercive monopolistic system.
As for the resolution of disputes, the main institutional structure would consist of private court systems in the form of arbitrators. This includes general disputes about committed crimes, as well as whether a given type of conduct ought to be tolerated.
Huemer is careful not to present anarchy as an utopian concept. Rather, he is convinced that it is reasonable to believe that anarchy may be established in due time. The main obstacles to overcome here are public opinion and inertia – and since public opinion is more likely to accept a single straight forward philosophical idea, general skepticism about authority and the state would realistically lead to a gradual abolishment of the state.
In comparison, reforming the state would require people to constantly inform themselves on the myriad flaws of specific policies and laws.
Huemer suggests anarchy would be achieved through a process of gradual adaption – unlike Rothbard , he would refuse to push a button that would lead to the instant establishment of anarchy, if given the option. Such a significant and rapid change without the necessary institutional adaptations would most likely lead to chaos and instability.
Against presentist bias
Advocating anarchy may seem extreme from a contemporary point of view. But this doesn’t constitute a proper argument to dismiss it. Neither does it take into account that current mainstream attitudes would be regarded as just as extreme, compared to the spectrum of opinion of earlier centuries. As Huemer points out, “The average citizen of a modern democracy, if transported back in time 500 years, would be the most wild-eyed, radical liberal on the planet – endorsing an undreamt-of equality for both sexes and all races; free expression for the most heinous of heretics, infidels, and atheists; a complete abolition of numerous standard forms of punishment; and a radical restructuring of all existing governments. By current standards, every government of 500 years ago was illegitimate.” ( p.337)
Furthermore, he describes how an evolution of values took place throughout history. Over time, people have shifted more towards positions opposing violence. It’s reasonable to assume that this development will continue until eventually, skepticism of authority will prevail in most people’s value system:
“We have not come to the end of history (pace Fukuyama). The evolution of values can proceed further in the direction it has moved over the past two millennia. It could proceed to an even greater distaste for the resort to physical force in human interactions, a fuller respect for human dignity, and a more consistent recognition of the moral equality of persons. Once we take these values sufficiently seriously, we cannot but be skeptical of authority.” (p.338)
Anarchy based on ethical intuitions and common sense
Huemer’s methodology  is probably the most striking feature in his justification for anarchy. By focusing on moral intuitions and value judgements shared by most people , intuitive reactions in specific situations represent the grounds on which he rejects the legitimacy of political authority. Abstract and theoretical accounts of these values play a minor role.
Oftentimes, proponents of anarchy justify their preferred system through controversial arguments and implications. Huemer is particularly keen to rely on very uncontroversial and implicit values. For example, even if an employer draws up an exceptionally fair and reasonable employment contract, he is not entitled to force potential employees to sign it. Most people would agree with that, not only libertarian ideologues.
Examples of this kind demonstrate how most people, despite not being libertarian, tend to agree with those specific values that Huemer uses to argue in favor of anarchism. Beginning with uncontroversial ethical prohibitions, he applies the same principles to the institution of government as a whole. If one individual decides to go on a killing spree, steal money, forces others to work for him, threatens, imprisons or kidnaps them, governments around the world would not only condemn this behaviour, but actively seek to punish the individual. Yet these same governments are obviously undertaking those actions on a national level. If you intuitively oppose these actions on an individual level, Huemer argues, it is only coherent to judge those same actions by governments as just as ethically objectionable.
 Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey, 2013, Palgrave Macmillan.
 Murray Rothbard, For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, 2006, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
 Michael Huemer, Some Opening Replies: Coordination, Intuition, and Positive Rights, blog post at cato-unbound.org, 2013.
 Michael Huemer, Ethical Intuitionism, 2005. Palgrave Macmillan.
Michael Huemer, Ethical Intuitionism, 2005, Palgrave Macmillan (especially chapter 5, see here)
Michael Huemer’s blog posts at Cato Unbound
Bryan Caplan, The Problem of Political Authority by Michael Huemer, blog post at econlog.econlib.org, 2013
Kling v. Huemer debate
Nur Baysal currently lives in Leuven, where she is studying philosophy. She is the founder of Rheinische Liberarier, a classical liberal student group based in the region of Cologne, Germany. Currently, she is an executive board member of European Students For Liberty.
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