Still More on Political Authority

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.

This entry was posted in Libertarian Thought. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Still More on Political Authority

  1. Curt says:

    For me at least, point 7 is the crux of the matter. While at various times I suspect that almost everyone (in America) encounters a situation where the coercive powers of the government seem too great, unfair, etc. But it is hard for most of us to imagine the government-free situation, and we don’t see examples of it (or the examples we do encounter seem even more unfair or arbitrary). And in a world where many companies hold significant power over employees, I think government may be seen as the only potentially powerful counterforce (even if it does overreach, or get captured).

  2. Midwesterner says:

    Regarding point 4, it is important to distinguish between traditional common law, which is the legal recognition of accepted convention, and stare decisis, which is the judicial creation of law. In true common law, law serves the ‘common’ individuals. But once the judicial process starts creating its own law that lacks a foundation in those to whom it is applied, laws serves the interests of the state (as that is judicial systems’ source of sustenance).

    Like a good dictionary recognizes and reflects common usage rather than imposing usage rules, common law evolves along with the people. Stare decisis law evolves along with the government.

  3. Philip says:

    The discussion is in serious need of some Weber, who investigated legitimate authority as a sociological fact and extensively investigated where it came from and how it is justified and sustained as we move from the traditional state (grounded in transcendental claims of authority, i.e. revelation) to the modern (grounded in beliefs about bureaucratic rationality). I think Arnold basically has it right: if you just ignore all that, and start from the assumption that people are basically rational pacifists, the whole construct of the state looks very strange and misguided (only accepted by “sheeple,” in Bryan’s most unfortunate term). But there have been few people indeed who start from this premise, and those who start from somewhere closer to Hobbes (which would definitely include Locke, the American framers, and most other older classical liberals, by the way) will look at the long course of history and conclude that a people without a strong state protector is in an unfortunate position indeed–that the “mutual protection societies” that form in its absence are unlikely to coexist peacefully or act judiciously.

    Given Arnold’s big concession in point 7, it seems to me that libertarians (and especially those who go well beyond the classical liberal tradition in demanding the abolition of the state) ought to see what a hard empirical case they have to make. The paucity of such efforts speaks volumes.

  4. Michael Huemer says:

    I think Arnold is arguing that my book shouldn’t convince people who start from ordinary beliefs (not even if they’re rational). Why not? The best I can figure is that he’s misunderstood what the book says.

    Two clarifications:

    a. *Libertarianism is not the same thing as anarchism!* Thus, all the stuff about why most people think we should have a government explains why people disagree with anarchism. It does not explain why they reject libertarianism!!
    b. *“Political authority” does not mean “government”!* Nor does it mean “the belief that we should have government.” It’s a technical term defined in section 1.5 (note the list of 5 conditions needed for political authority).

    This was the structure of the book:
    Part 1 uses purely philosophical arguments to (a) refute the idea of political authority (NOT the belief that there should be government!) and (b) get the audience to moderate libertarianism (NOT anarchism!).
    Part 2 uses practical arguments (drawing on economics and history) to explain why an anarchic society could actually work.

    Now, Arnold seems to be objecting (ostensibly to me) that one can’t establish anarchism by purely philosophical arguments, without confronting practical issues about how anarchy would work. That is, he’s objecting that *Part 1* of the book doesn’t by itself establish the conclusion of *Part 2*.

    • Arnold Kling says:

      I would say that I do not think that Part 1 succeeds in refuting the idea of political authority. I think it refutes the idea that political authority comes from a social contract.

      I do not think it refutes the idea that political authority is a social convention that pretty much everyone plays along with. That is, pretty much everyone likes the fact that there are offices with coercive power. We have a set of expectations for how that power will be used. Those expectations are, from our perspective, far too generous in encouraging coercion (over the size of soda drinks*, for goodness sake). But that generosity is not necessarily due to a psychological deformity or to a failure of people to appreciate that there is a moral double-standard involved. It is a generosity that people probably justify by thinking, “Most of the time, the office-holders get it right. They do good things with their coercive power. And if they do bad things, we have ways of removing them from office.” I do not share that view, but I do not consider it refuted a priori.

      *Most people I know *approve* of Mayor Bloomberg’s ban.

      • david says:

        I think that in Huemer’s terminology, this would be understood as saying that most people believe that the coercive office ‘owns’ the right to dictate the size of soda drinks, conditional on some consultative process (democracy, technocracy, etc) that isn’t universal consent.

        In his Q&A on Caplan’s blog, Huemer then argued that the onus is on those people to defend why that might be the case, but this is hardly obvious. It is the status quo.

        Full self-ownership is not a common starting point. When people vote about Bar Tabs, in real life, they simply allocate some rights to “the assembly” and other rights to “the group”. You’re not allowed to vote that someone pay the tab. You’re allowed to vote that we leave the bar and go to another one. etc.

  5. Paul says:

    “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”

    This, times a thousand, is exactly where I think that Huemer’s arguments fail. There will always be sociopaths looking to use any means at there disposal to take advantage of others. Coercive, collective action (a.k.a. government) is how we beat them into submission. This is why people support government yet at the same time claim that they don’t believe that anyone has right to steal, kill, etc. No person has the right to do those things, but the tribe has always had the right to do those things. And per Steven Pinker, a strong, centralized state has had led to very large declines in violence. Government makes a whole lot of sense from a game theoretic perspective.

    • eccdogg says:

      “There will always be sociopaths looking to use any means at there disposal to take advantage of others. Coercive, collective action (a.k.a. government) is how we beat them into submission.”

      Or allow them to become mass murderers. When state power goes wrong it can go REALLY wrong.

      But more to Arnold’s point. I agree that a belief in the authority of govt is a social convention that most people agree to, but why does that make it morally correct? That women could not vote was a social convention that most folks agreed to at one time, as was slavery, as was executing homosexuals. Then folks made moral arguments similar to the ones that Heumer is making and ultimately changed what was the common belief.

      That is what Heumer seeks to do and in the conclusion of his book he indicates that he thinks it will be a tough long job, one that may never be successful. I think many commenters on this book are commenting on summaries that they have read without understanding Heumer’s argument.

  6. Larry says:

    Let’s add a little biology. We are apes. Other apes organize themselves hierarchically, according to physical strength, etc.

    Isn’t government an attempt to extend that hierarchy to a broader realm and a larger scale? And doesn’t our relative comfort with being ruled come from those roots?

  7. James says:


    This is what you miss: Huemer’s argument is, in part, an appeal to silence. He does a pretty good job showing that there can be no such thing as political authority if we judge the actions of the government by the same moral intuitions that we apply to every single other human being. In order to make a case for political authority, it would be necessary to show that the government is a special case, morally speaking.

    They might claim to reconcile the inconsistency by claiming that the government is a special case because the government has some special autority generating set of attributes. If appealing to some special set of attributes is really the only argument that believers in political authority can make, then the next question is: WHY does having the collection of attributes confer authority in the forst place? So far, all you’ve offered is something along the lines of it’s what people are used to but Huemer’s point is one about morality, not history, so you are only changing the subject.

    Unrelatedly, I really like the caption “taking the most charitable view of those who disagree.”

  8. James says:


    I’ll condense my last post: Many people believe that people acting on behalf of a government are morally entitled to initiate violence against others in circumstances where initiating violence would be immoral in an otherwise identical situation if the people initiating violence were not acting on behalf of a government.

    To get to such a conclusion, believers in political authority need (at least) a normative premise about initiating violence, and a normative premise about governments, and a normative premise about exceptions. Believers in political authority consistently fail to articulate and defend either one when pressed and instead resort to changing the subject to psychology, history, etc. This is strong evidence that believers in political authority have no rational basis for their moral position, even if they are right about historical facts such as that anarchy has been rare or psychological facts such as that most people seem to want a government.

  9. wiki says:

    Most of us are unconvinced by arguments about morality without reference to history or empirics. If a theoretical “moral” position leads to immoral/unacceptable outcomes, it is not in my view “moral.” That is especially the case for philosophical doctrines where the outcomes of libertarian utopians may move us in the direction of barbarism. I believe that most people, and especially most conservatives, do not like to make arguments about the morality of complex social arrangements on the basis of abstract reasoning unsupported by history. In this sense both libertarians and progressives are “liberal” in their desire to promote a morality of the state derived from abstract reasoning that is only weakly informed by tradition and observed human nature. In contrast, the conservative places greatest weight on history and the status quo with abstract reasoning being employed that is not too far removed from actual experience. To do otherwise is both foolish and ultimately immoral.

  10. Kenneth A. Regas says:

    Wow! Talk about being charitable to those with whom you disagree!

    Your 9-point summary does a great job of describing my objections to libertarianism ideals as I understand those ideals. You describe them so well, especially the concession in point 7 and its consequences, that I wonder why you aren’t on our side.

    Suppose that as a father you were forced by circumstances to put your children’s fate into the hands of either (1) democratic government as we know it or (2) a society committed to the absence of political authority, both sight unseen. How could you review your 9-point summary and not choose the former instantly?

    So, when the dust settles, where are you, Dr. Kling? Do you assert that ordinary persons’ belief in political authority is false, notwithstanding the apparent lack of empirical support (7)? Or do you concede that political authority can be legitimate and make case-by-case arguments (8)? That would make you a libertarian-inspired conservative in my book. There’s plenty of room here in that boat. I’m pretty sure that you don’t have to give up your coersion-versus-non-coersion axis. You just have to concede that there really are barbarians out there willing and able to deprive you of the luxury of the discussion, absent some form of political authority.


Comments are closed.