Huemer Unbound

Michael Huemer writes,

the question of political authority is not “Should we have government?” The question is: Should the government be subject to the same moral constraints as apply to private agents? The failure of theories of political authority means that we must apply to the state the same moral standards that we apply to private agents. If a private agent would not be justified in using coercion to achieve a particular goal, then the state is also not justified in using coercion to achieve that goal.

The state is an institution, not an individual. Individuals play roles within this institution, such as legislator, policeman, or citizen. These roles are defined partly by law and partly by custom. When one talks about applying moral standards to the state, what I think this means is that we are applying moral standards to its laws and customs. For that purpose, using the metaphor of the individual to characterize these laws and customs may be helpful but it is not obligatory.

Consider another institution–a business. Should we say that a business is like a family, and the owner should be subject to the same moral standards as apply to a parent? Some people might find that analogy attractive, but I do not.

I think that the term I am looking for here is “category error.” Saying that a business or “the state” belongs in the same category as an individual strikes me as such an error. Instead, I think that “the state” belongs in a category that is closer to “relationship” or “institutional arrangement.” Within that institutional arrangement, we give authority to firemen to break traffic laws in the line of duty. When they are off duty, they are subject to the same laws as the rest of us. There are many relationships and institutional arrangements in which we authorize people to do things to us that differ from what we would permit a random stranger to do.

The problem I have with government is with the scope and scale of monopoly control. I think that the laws and customs in the United States today give too much authority to government officials. I wish that everyone had much more freedom to choose laws and customs without being forced to accept the territorial monopolies that we call government. However, I would not lean on Huemer’s arguments to make that case. Instead, I focus on the knowledge-power discrepancy.

I wrote about Huemer’s book here, and we had a follow-up exchange here.

This entry was posted in books and book reviews, Libertarian Thought, links to my essays. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Huemer Unbound

  1. Eli says:

    I don’t think this is an apt reading of Huemer. Huemer is not making an analogy between state and individual action, he is simply denying that there is anything special about the state that should give it a pass on basic moral obligations.

    Moreover, we do not object to firemen violating traffic laws in the line of duty, but this has nothing to do with the authority bestowed upon them by the state and everything to do with the serious nature of the emergency to which they have been called. We would afford private actors the same deference if they were responding to a similar emergency.

  2. Eric Hanneken says:

    I agree with Ell. The state may be an institution, but all of its acts are carried out by individual human beings. How should we evaluate a person who locks up another person for ingesting a particular plant? Most people have more than one answer, depending on whether the abductor in question is a police officer or someone else.

  3. Brent says:

    Isn’t it even worse in the United States, because “we the people” are the government? At the very least, politicians are supposed to be regular people and they make laws… How can they make laws that are contradictory? How does that square with Equal Protection under the law?

  4. Ben Southwood says:


    I am a long-time loyal reader and I respect and enjoy your commentary on pretty much everything under the sun but I think you’re missing Huemer’s point here, possibly because you’re not familiar with the literature on political authority.

    Have you read MBE Smith’s 1973 essay “Is there a prima facie obligation to obey the law?” (

    Consider the firefighter example. They are justified in asking others to let them past, to slow down, etc., not because they are agents of the state, but because they are on their way to fight fires and save lives, property and so on. If they weren’t on their way to do that – or at least if they didn’t have a reasonable expectation of being able to do etc. – then even if there were a law requiring other drivers to slow down and let them pass, they would not be justified in asking other drivers to do so. And drivers would not be required by justice to do so. The law, them being agents of the state, means nothing. MBE Smith explains these points much more clearly than I do.

    Huemer’s argument here has nothing to do with putting people in categories or using analogies. He is just saying that being agents of the state makes no difference to the morality of an act. Being a firefighter, or a doctor, or a redistributor may make a difference – but not whether that firefighter, doctor or redistributor is working for the state.

    Again: if the state’s goals are morally good, and if it’s morally OK to do the things it is doing to achieve those goals, then it is permitted to do them – but so is anyone else. Since loads of the things the state does are indistinguishable from other things that we have strong intuitions are wrong when other actors do them, the state is also prohibited from doing them.

  5. JKB says:

    Government in the democratic sense has certain privileges not afforded individuals because it is suppose to be for the common good. That our government is exceeding the “common good” limits is a problem. Just as other forms of government not “of the People” are less legitimate and more like the individual acting.

    Look for example at the “organized crime” of the form attributed to the Italian mafia as set up by Lucky Luciano. Movies often associate the idea with a corporation but in reality the “commission” was more like the UN which brought together the various heads of government (families) who controlled different territories. A government for criminals. Where warring factions could negotiate disputes to limit warfare, join in mutual defense pacts, trade resources, control markets, etc. Each family however, controlled the criminals and criminal activity in their territory, exacted taxes, dealt out “justice” of a sort and was responsible to not offer refuge to any insurgents acting against other families. They didn’t have big marble buildings but is it any less of a government because it is run out of the back of a restaurant?

  6. DVE says:

    Decades ago Reinhold Niebuhr (sp?) dealt quite well with this issue in his “Moral Man and Immoral Society”. One of the minor classics of 20th century thinking and a work that holds up. Bears rereading, especially in view of H’s resuscitation of the moral parity of men and social institutions.

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