In a comment on this post, “Ross” writes,
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. [emphasis added]
That does capture my position. Let us try this formulation:
1. The way I see it, political authority (the right to coerce and the duty to obey) is a social convention that has evolved over time.
2. In the United States (and in other democracies), this authority is treated as residing in offices (positions that are recognized as carrying authority, such as policeman, judge, or legislator). The people holding those offices do not have the authority when they leave those offices.
3. The authority that resides in offices is partly formal. There exist documents, such as Constitutions or statutes, that describe the responsibilities, powers, and boundaries of the offices.
4. However, there is also an informal, “common law” component to authority. This evolves over time. (Not necessarily for the better, I might add.)
5. If you come at the issue with the belief that no one should have the right to coerce, then the social convention of political authority seems absurd. However, for most people, this social convention seems natural.
6. People see this social convention as natural because they believe that it makes coercion predictable and arguably benevolent. Few people can envision a coercion-free utopia. Instead, what most people expect in the absence of government is coercion that is malevolent and unpredictable.
7. The libertarian’s task of demonstrating the falsity of the ordinary person’ belief is quite difficult. There are few, if any, examples of successful societies that have done away with government. In fact, the ordinary person may have the sounder empirical model.
8. If we grant that the social convention of political authority is legitimate, we can still argue that the social convention has evolved in adverse ways. We have endowed offices with powers of coercion that are too broad and too readily abused. But that is a more painstaking case to make, and there is plenty of room for disagreement about where and how lines should be drawn.
9. It would be neater and cleaner to convince people that political authority is a moral absurdity, but that claim seems to be difficult to ground on assumptions that most people would share.