Michael Huemer Responds, I Reply, Bryan Caplan Rejoins, etc.

Reacting to my essay, Huemer emails (my response follows his quote),

Dear Arnold,

Thanks for your blog post. There are several important points raised there. Here are a few comments; I cc Bryan [Caplan] in case he’s interested.

1. Did I identify the reason why most people believe in authority? You suggest that the real reasons are not well articulated by political philosophers.
I suspect that the real reasons are better covered by the chapter on psychology than by the philosophical chapters. I suspect that philosophical theories of authority are just rationalizations.
It sounded like maybe you thought there were other reasons, which might be real reasons and not just psychological causes, for most people’s belief in authority. So I’ll just express my skepticism that ordinary people have something more sophisticated or more rational in mind than anything that any of the experts have been able to come up with.

2. What is my view of human nature? Well, there are lots of different people with lots of different traits. With regard to any trait, there will be a variation, with some people having surprisingly high or low amounts of it. Hence, I would say that most people are basically prudent most of the time, but that there are a small number of people who are frequently reckless and violent; and also, ordinary people can be gotten to act in irrational ways in special circumstances. I hope these sound like uninteresting, banal remarks.
I really don’t think that disagreements about “human nature” are at the core of most political disagreements. I think people like to say that because it sounds profound. But I really didn’t arrive at any major views by contemplating “human nature”, except in fairly trivial, banal ways. In particular, I don’t think I disagree with liberals or conservatives because I have a different view of human nature. I think I have a different analysis of how *social systems* work.

3. Thus, you say progressives think the government needs to protect people from those with the ability to intimidate or manipulate others. And they think the government can nudge approximately-rational people in the right direction. Okay, I don’t think I disagree with the progressives about the frequency of manipulators, intimidators, or irrational people in the population. I think I just disagree with the claim that political institutions somehow screen out those people. I just think the manipulators, intimidators, and irrational people are at least as likely to be *in* the government as anywhere else, because I don’t see how our selection mechanisms prevent that. On the contrary, I think we have mechanisms that screen out honest and rational people.

4. But anyway, I think that’s all fairly irrelevant, because even if someone is rational and can protect you from bad people, that doesn’t give them authority. Take the vigilante example from the first chapter. The vigilante protected his neighbors from some vandals. That doesn’t give him authority over the neighbors. So again, what’s going on isn’t that the progressives have a special view about human nature that makes sense of their political position. What’s going on is that they are applying a moral double standard: they are exempting the state from the moral principles that they apply to everyone else.

5. If conservatives really think that the government is on the brink of collapse, such that one more person disobeying the law might cause it to collapse, then I think they’re just wildly irrational. I don’t know how many law-violations occur every year, but it’s definitely in the millions. Probably hundreds of millions. So the probability that we’re just now on the brink where one more violation causes a collapse … well, let’s just call it “negligible” and leave it at that.

6. You suggest that conservatives think the branches of government won’t cooperate in extending government power, because conservatives think people are just too prone to conflict. Well, I could see thinking that people will start conflicts *to gain something*. I can even see thinking that people will attack *the weak* purely to demonstrate their own power. But these conservatives would have to think that these government branches want to take up conflicts *with extremely powerful adversaries* (viz., each other), *where they have nothing to gain*, rather than preying on the ordinary people. I just can’t see that as a reasonable theory. (And then, incidentally, we have to hope that this conflict remains perpetually balanced at just the right point, rather than any side winning, or all sides preventing the others from carrying out their legitimate functions, etc.)

There’s a lot more that could be said in response to your comments, as you raised a lot of interesting issues, esp. about human nature. And I perhaps haven’t made my views about human nature entirely clear (mostly because I don’t have very detailed or specific views about it and don’t think we need such). But in the interests of time, I should leave it at that. Thanks again for your thoughts about my book.

My response (Bryan Caplan’s rejoinder in italics):

A. Go back to your point 3, where you say that you don’t think our political system is effective at screening out “manipulators, intimidators, and irrational people.” This is a very strong point. However, it is not a matter of simple moral intuition. It is a hypothesis concerning how political institutions work. [Of course. Mike never claimed that *everything* was based on moral intuition. In fact, the whole second part of the book is intended to answer the consequentialist critique of anarcho-capitalism.] I would argue that progressives have a different hypothesis, which is that it is possible within our political system for good to triumph. [Mike probably shares the hypothesis that this is "possible." The question is whether it's *likely*. Given progressives' endless complaining, it's not clear even they believe the latter.]

B. Similarly, on point 6, you may be right that the separation of powers fails to prevent government officials from acting in concert to the detriment of ordinary individuals. However, once again, this is not a moral intuition. It is a hypothesis about how political institutions work. [Mike isn't claiming moral intuition is everything. He often combines moral intuition with factual claims.]

C. In point 4, you talk of the “double standard” that people apply to public officials and private vigilantes. However, ordinary people do not sense that they are guilty of a double standard. Barack Obama has authority that ordinary people do not have, but that is not because Barack Obama is judged differently from other men. It is because of the office that he holds. [An interesting point. But Mike's critique still holds. Suppose your friends decide to create an "office" and select someone to run it. This person starts giving you orders and threatening to injure you if you don't respect the "authority of his office." Would this seem all right to normal people?] When he leaves that office, he will no longer have the authority to order drone strikes, change immigration enforcement procedures, threaten to veto budget legislation, etc.

In theory, any one of us could become a policeman, a legislator, a judge, or an official at a government agency. The authority resides in those offices, not in the individuals who hold those offices.

Most people find it intuitively appealing to have everyone around them ultimately subject to a single authority, rather than having competing authorities. To most people, having competing “protection agencies” and competing judiciaries is as inconceivable as two football teams playing a game without using the same rules and the same referees.

In fact, try making your double-standard argument in the context of the football metaphor. “We don’t let any ordinary fan run onto the field, blow the whistle to stop play, and call penalties. Why do we let referees do that?” Well, because that is what we want referees to do. [When pressed, wouldn't the answer be, "Because the players and audience actually consented to follow the rules"? If a football team started playing in my backyard without my permission, the referee wouldn't get to ignore my request to vacate in virtue of his office. And I think even football fans would admit this.] Unfortunately, the same holds for government, at least to some extent. A lot of people want government to do many things, and the scope of government reflects that. I wish it were not the case, but I do not think that there is any plain, philosophically intuitive argument that is going to make a difference. ["Make a difference" in the sense of actually persuading normal unreasonable sheeple? You're right. "Make a difference" in the sense of persuading people of common sense and common decency? I say Mike's case is overwhelming.]

[For those of you have read this far, I also recommend the comments on my earlier post.]

Huemer adds,

I was basically going to say what Bryan said. But there’s more to say.

I think what Arnold is responding to is my idea that the disagreement between libertarians and others turns on beliefs about authority. So you (Arnold) are trying to identify other beliefs that the disagreement (also?) depends on.

Okay, maybe progressives disagree with me about how the political system works. But I don’t think that’s the main disagreement. Because I also think that *even if politicians were wise, rational, and benevolent*, they still wouldn’t have authority. Compare: suppose I’m really wise, benevolent, and rational, and I’m issuing some commands that are similarly wise, etc. Does that mean that I get to demand money from you and use violence against you if you don’t pay?

A similar point goes for the conservatives: let’s say they’re right, and separation of powers prevents most abuses. (Aside: I’m pretty sure conservatives think that the government screws up a lot of things and oversteps its bounds, so they can’t think separation of powers is completely effective.) I still don’t think there would be authority. Compare: Suppose that Bryan and I start demanding money from you. But suppose that Bryan and I restrain each other from asking too much or abusing you too much. Does that mean that you’re now obligated to pay us? And that we can use violence against you if you don’t?

So again, I don’t think you can’t explain why leftists and rightists reject libertarianism except by appealing to their common belief in a special sort of authority for the state.

I certainly agree with the last sentence. That is, non-libertarians (and even minarchist libertarians) believe in the authority of the state.

I think that the intuitive theory of government legitimacy is that there are certain offices that can legitimately exercise authority. It is not because Obama is particularly wise, benevolent, and rational that he has authority. He has authority because he occupies the White House, and from a progressive point of view we hope that the occupant is as wise, benevolent, and rational as we can find.

How are these offices, in which authority is vested, created? To some philosophers, they are created formally, by a contract. However, I would argue that they emerge as a social convention. True, many countries have constitutions, which are attempts to formally define the expectations about authority. However, in my view, constitutions are merely one part of the collection of social conventions. Constitutions act like statutory law, but ultimately it is common law that rules.

What Huemer wants to argue against are the social conventions whereby we obey the laws and commands of people holding certain offices and whereby the people holding those offices are allowed to use force against those who do not obey. My claim is that most people like those social conventions, for the same reason that they like the social convention of having a referee for a football game. As I see it, the conservative argument for government is that having such a convention keeps people from descending into tribal barbarism (Lord of the Flies). The progressive argument is that it enables wise, benevolent leaders to emerge, overcoming what otherwise would be a world of oppression and individual folly.

I think that most people believe that without the social convention(s) of government they would be much worse off. Nearly everyone believes that without these social conventions, violent gangs would run around terrorizing the population. Influenced by progressives, many people believe that without these social conventions, their children would not be educated, their elderly parents would not have health care or adequate incomes, etc. Influenced by conservatives, many people believe that without these social conventions, barbaric foreigners would overrun our country.

Taking such beliefs as given, a libertarian gets nowhere by arguing that there is something morally wrong with allowing government officials to use coercion. Until you challenge those beliefs, you are making arguments that appeal only to those who already are inclined to agree with you.

4 thoughts on “Michael Huemer Responds, I Reply, Bryan Caplan Rejoins, etc.

  1. I thought Part II of the book was all about challenging the belief that without political authority, society would dissolve. It is true that Huemer does not spend much (any?) space addressing progressives’ concern that authoritative force is needed to educate children, care for the elderly, etc. But perhaps that argument is better left to books that defend markets in general.

  2. If I understand Arnold’s position correctly (I guess this response is to clarify it for interested parties), the prevailing reason for the belief in authority (offices, people, what have you), is rooted in the desire for a “rule of law” or, more concretely, predictable coercion over unpredictable coercion. This is at least what I understand when I read “people like those social conventions,” for what is a convention, but a more or less predictable and more or less stable system of rules, in this case, rules for the application of force.

    I think this is why the distinction between “person” and “office” is rather important. An “office” is more than just a funny hat someone wears, but also a set of common expectations about what that hat means held by a great number of associates.

    Huemer might be correct that any particular convention is morally arbitrary, but I believe Arnold is arguing that arbitrary or not, most humans have some “slot” in their minds for having some mediation of force. I guess a better analogy could be language. Our brains are wired for language, though just what kind of language can fill that slot is widely variable. If my neighbor began babbling in something he and his friends constructed, I might very well refuse to learn the babble and stick with English. Am I applying a double standard? It could very well also be the case that most of my associates submitting to this authority is a good reason for me to submit to it.

    I think that Arnold’s criticism is that Huemer’s examples of individuals who spontaneously declare themselves to have new official powers only goes to show that one usually rejects governmental “innovation” (usually, because in the absence of government, innovations might be accepted). In that sense, we have a commonsense justification of a limited government, not anarcho-capitalism.

  3. I generally agree with Arnold’s critique, but I want to take it a step further.

    Arnold says, “What Huemer wants to argue against are the social conventions whereby we obey the laws and commands of people holding certain offices and whereby the people holding those offices are allowed to use force against those who do not obey. My claim is that most people like those social conventions, for the same reason that they like the social convention of having a referee for a football game.”

    That sounds right to me. But furthermore, Huemer (and Caplan) are arguing against the social convention of state authority by citing *other* social conventions — such as the ownership of property and the wrongness of initiating force. But if people maintain multiple conventions (which sometimes conflict), why should we privilege some over others in all cases? Why not say, instead, that humans maintain a complex set of overlapping conventions?

    Indeed, even the conventions that Huemer and Caplan champion are not without internal contradiction. The law of contract, for instance, includes many principles of interpretation that don’t always point the same direction, and when that happens, there are rules and standards whose purpose is to determine which principles prevail. Similarly, one might argue that we have conventions of state authority and conventions of personal liberty that sometimes conflict, and when they do, we have rules and standards to resolve the conflict — sometimes resolved in one direction, sometimes in the other.

  4. I thought this passage from Huemer was telling:

    “But I really didn’t arrive at any major views by contemplating ‘human nature’, except in fairly trivial, banal ways. In particular, I don’t think I disagree with liberals or conservatives because I have a different view of human nature. I think I have a different analysis of how *social systems* work.”

    He doesn’t seem to even be able to think in terms of human nature. Now he may be right and that term may just be a way to sound “profound,” ie any arguments about human nature are too general and therefore banal, but what matters is that liberals and conservatives, hell, even most libertarians, do seem to have an overriding sense that human nature is important and that they have a special view of what that nature looks like. They will always talk about alternatives to their favorite solutions by saying, “People just won’t respond to your solution, oppressors will oppress/barbarians won’t be civilized/free people won’t be cowed,” ie the 3 axes. So by just sloughing off that dominant view, rather than debunking it or defining what you believe our true human nature to be, Arnold is right that you’re unlikely to convince anyone.

    More specifically, libertarians like Bryan and presumably Michael have this silly notion that if they can just construct some axiomatic argument of how liberty is best, everybody, or at least the non-“sheeple,” will have an “Aha!” moment and come around to their way of thinking. I find this extremely naive and deeply ignorant of how most people think about these issues. Rather, those who are even willing to listen are only convinced after years of arguments of all sorts, but mostly empirical and simple; work in the trenches that Bryan and Michael imagine they won’t have to put in, so they look for a shortcut.

    There is no shortcut. The entire vast sweep of history consists of people choosing narratives that suit their own purposes, from the Inquisition to the flat earthers to global warming, and only yielding long after mountains of evidence and argument have been heaped on top of them. At best, you might be able to convince their kids, if only as a rebellious pose against their parents, who go to their grave clinging to their silly “beliefs.” But that is the trench war that has to be fought, issue by issue, if you want to get anywhere.