- Paperback: 365 pages
- Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan; 1st edition (October 29, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1137281650
- ISBN-13: 978-1137281654
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 63 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #594,867 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey 1st Edition
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'Huemer has produced not just a brilliant work of political philosophy, but a gripping page-turner. With an engaging style and sharp wit, Huemer demolishes two entrenched dogmas: that we have a duty to obey the law, and the state has the right to force us to obey. Huemer's conclusions may be controversial, but he makes them seem like commonsense.' - Jason Brennan, Georgetown University, USA 'Michael Huemer is my favorite philosopher. The Problem of Political Authority is his best book yet. Using moral premises you probably already accept, and clear but subtle arguments, Huemer leads you step-by-step to a radical yet compelling conclusion: government as we know it is an unnecessary evil. If you're tired of political books that merely preach to the choir, prepare to be amazed.' - Bryan Caplan, George Mason University, USA
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The topic that Humer’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.
Here's the question in a nutshell: is there anything government (of any kind) does that wouldn't be judged morally wrong if done by private actors? (For instance, can I decide that some of your property is mine because I decided to keep you safe, or promise to spend the money to do good for others, or because most of your community decided that way?) Huemer rehearses several commonly heard justifications of why government actors have the right too coerce (where privvate actors don't): namely, real social contracts, hypothetical social contracts, democratic legitimacy, and utilitarian legitimacy.
The idea that government literally began as a social contract is clearly wanting: not only do we have no record of any such social contracts ever taking place (yes, even in the United States), but real contracts have no power to bind anyone but the signers. Hypothetical contracts suffer from (a) the fact that they are completely hypothetical and depict people under very ideal (and dubious) conditions, and (b) suffer from some of the problems of postulating a real social contract (was anyone ever free to opt out or not sign without very difficult consequences, etc?). Appeal to good consequences as a justification for political legitimacy is strange because, among other things, it overlooks many of the bad consequences of government (or dubious ones, like distributing tax money to farmers via subsidies or banks via 'bailouts'), and assumes that these good things have to be done by government (in order for good consequences to justify x, you have to show that nothing but x can generate those consequences). Lastly, democratic authority suffers from such flaws as (like social contract theory) idealizing constituents (immpartial deliberators) and the results democracy often generates (lest we forget, many unjust and grossly non-egalitarian laws and regimes have been the product of democracy). Democratic theories of political authority also have to convincingly argue why it is that "has the consent of the majority of voters" implies "is appropriate to coerce onto those who morally object." (One can clearly see this by thought experiment: imagine that my fiends and I are fighting with a rival group, and we all vote that you should be thrown into the ring first. Why, you may ask, does that justify them coercing you into the ring when I am not voluntartily part of your group to begin with?)
Of course, assuming the reader buys Huemer's arguments (and they are very solid), what then? Does that mean no authority exists and disorder reigns? Yes to the first part, and no to the second part. The later part of Huemer's book argues a positive case for "anarcho-capitalism" or "market anarchism." Essentially, things like police protection, "national" security, and help for the poor can be more effectively administered via a voluntary "pay for service" market system. Huemer's arguments, quite often, rest on the quite solid idea that any problem that markets will generate (potential for justice to go to the 'highest bidder,' for "protection companies" to become corrupt or to cheat customers, etc) are much more likely to exist in governments, largely because of governments' monopoly status. (If a private arbitrator becomes corrupt, taking bribes in exchange for favorable rulings, they have the chance of going out of business because of people's refusal to use them. Corrupt government judges literally have no competition and people HAVE to use them.) For Huemer, markets may have problems, but they have far fewer problems that monopoly governments, and competition often breeds innovation, cost efficiency, and consumer choice.
This section, unfortunately, is where I do have a few problems with Huemer's arguments. I'll give a few examples. First, every time Huemer (or other anarchists) say "well, that problem x exists just as much in governments," I am a bit uneasy. Why? Because if the goal is to prove to me that anarchism is MORE just, MORE efficient and MORE fair than governments, the fact that the same problem exists in both anarchy and government rule doesn't get there at all. For instance, I am concerned that markets will leave justice to the highest bidder. You point out that governments do that too. Okay, but if we both agree that "justice to the highest bidder" is bad, then should we prefer a system where (anarchy) that policy is pretty explicit, or one (government rule) where the idea (even if it doesn't work in practice) is "the same level of justice for all?"
Two other concerns with Huemer's case. First, he admits that if we are postulating an anarchist society, we really have no idea how x (security, justice system, aid to the poor) will be delivered. After all, the market will generate the plans it generates - the plans that people create and support. But, that also opens a fairly large potential for an anarchist order to be quite a bit worse than governments, too. Even if political authority doesn't have good reasons behind it, could it be that at the end of the day, improving the devil you know may be better strategy than jumping into the great unknown? Second, Huemer's final chapter is an optimistic argument as to why anarchy is achievable; if people gradually start to realize that political authority rests on faulty arguments, they may start reducing the size of governments ("outsourcing" some of them to industry, as already happens), and gradually realizing that political authority is not necessary. However, an earlier chapter spends time rehearsing the plethora of data showing that people almost naturally defer to authority. My concern is that, however justified an anarchic order is, do these two chapters ultimately contradict each other?
In the end, I took off only one star for the book; despite my disagreements, this book is a VERY interesting and well-argued case for something that isn't often argued. We often think as if government authority is just a given, and the only question is how we decide who gets to coerce who. But the problem of coercion is a very serious one, and coercion should only be employed if there is really solid reason to justify it. In The Problem of Political Authority, Michael Huemer levels a mighty challenge to the idea of political authority and what could take place in its stead. This book should not be missed by anyone interested in political philosophy.
I'd like to see Dr. Huemer create a webpage which lists all the questions he gets after this book and his responses.