Book review: The Problem of Political Authority

Earlier in the year, I had a wonderful conversation on the doorstep with a lady who, like so many members of the public, despairs at the conduct of all politicians. I asked if she had followed my own actions and could give me a personal example. The truth was, as I expected and perfectly reasonably, that her views were formed by press reporting of the political battle amongst generals far above this foot-soldier’s level.

The pattern is quite common. Increasing numbers of people are losing faith in politics and politicians in general.

Unfortunately, many still have faith in the state. There seems to be a tendency to believe in the omnipotence of government and to have contempt for the politicians who appear to be failing to put it to good use. In the past when people have maintained faith in authority but not representative democracy and freedom, tyranny has resulted.

Why the state so often fails to meet its goals is an economic question. The origin of the right of politicians to coerce and the public’s duty to obey is a question of political philosophy. Where once the divine right of kings gave an easy answer, today democracy has become the god-like source of political power. A crucial question is to what extent this is legitimate.

Through Samizdata, I recently discovered Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. The back cover claims the book is a “gripping page turner”. I was sceptical.

I was wrong – I raced through this engaging, brilliant book.

Huemer’s subject is the moral basis for state power. Why is it that we would think it wrong for our neighbour to force us at gunpoint to give to their favourite charity but we think it right when the state does it? What is the important moral difference?

The conclusion of part 1 of the book is shockingly radical. It is that no state is legitimate and that no individual has political obligations. Huemer considers the social contract and finds there is no actual contract. The hypothetical social contract also fails: there is no reason to believe that all reasonable people could agree on even the most basic political theory. A merely hypothetical contract is not ethically relevant, he finds: “However fair, reasonable and impartial a contract might be, one is not typically thereby entitled to force others to accept it.” Perhaps most controversially, he argues democracy fails to ground authority because “one typically does not acquire a right to coerce someone merely because those who want one to coerce the victim are more numerous than those who want one to refrain.” Deliberative democracy — genuine deliberation by the electorate, not just voting — is dismissed because no actual state remotely resembles a deliberative democracy and no method of deliberation can legitimately negate the rights of individuals. And so on.

In part 2, Huemer argues that centralisation of power invites abuse in contrast to systems of decentralised and therefore more equal power in which aggression is irrational. He finds democracy inhibits the worst government abuses but it remains imperfect. Constitutional restrictions are impotent because there is only the government to enforce them. Separation of powers fails because the branches of government make common cause. The rest of the part argues that a superior system would be one in which every function of government is privatised. It’s a breathtaking conclusion hardly anyone will accept.

Ultimately, he argues that people may come to believe that abolishing government is a good idea. He writes, “Abolishing the state is more realistic than reforming it, because abolition requires people to accept only a single philosophical idea — skepticism about about authority — whereas reform requires people to familiarise themselves on an ongoing basis with the myriad flaws of specific policies.”

Huemer recognises that his position is extreme but points out that generally-held opinion today would have been extremely liberal a few hundred years ago. Indeed, David Cameron said recently,

Much has been said about the battles that Margaret Thatcher fought. She certainly did not shy from the fight and that led to arguments, to conflict and, yes, even to division, but what is remarkable, looking back now, is how many of those arguments are no longer arguments at all. No one wants to return to strikes without a ballot. No one believes that large industrial companies should be owned by the state. The nuclear deterrent, NATO and the special relationship are widely accepted as the cornerstones of our security and defence policies. We argue—sometimes very passionately—in this House about tax, but none of us is arguing for a return to tax rates of 98%. So many of the principles that Lady Thatcher fought for are now part of the accepted political landscape of our country.

It is therefore not ridiculous to believe that one day most people may think that coercion is fundamentally the wrong basis for society.

Where the book falls down is that it bases its arguments on common sense morality without adequately considering the reality of contemporary dependence on the state. Many thousands of people rely on the government’s coercive power for their livelihood, health and education. It is clear that a sudden withdrawal of the welfare state would cause the most profound suffering, which is obviously immoral. Huemer proposes gradualism, but he pays altogether too little attention to this issue, despite the United States’ huge liabilities to Social Security (pensions), Medicare and Medicaid (US social programmes alone cost more than their tax revenue).

Huemer recognises that the vast majority of people accept political authority, the right to coerce and the duty to obey. I observe the fact that the state exists everywhere is itself a source of de facto authority. The fact that so many are dependent on it creates its own moral imperatives.

However, there is a distinct trend in society amongst everyday, normal people to reject all politics and all politicians. It may be that an important question in the medium term is whether the public also reject political authority or whether someone will be chosen whose strength gives hope that state power can at last answer our problems.

Most likely, we’ll just muddle through. In any event, The Problem of Political Authority is a fascinating and relatively easy read which I thoroughly recommend.

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Comments & Responses

6 Responses so far.

  1. Gary says:

    Steve – the above is a brilliant post , and in fact some of your musings were actually thoughts I had considered even before I had read this. This must easily be one of the best politicians website available on the net…..great stuff, I ve picked up a load of knowledge from it !!

  2. Gary says:

    The truth was, as I expected and perfectly reasonably, that her views were formed by press reporting of the political battle amongst generals far above this foot-soldier’s level.

    Maybe if more voters watched MPs at work in the Select Committees, they would change their views on politicians. I myself have watched a whole raft of Transport Select Videos, its very good viewing indeed….

  3. Boom Bust says:

    A very good post. I agree to a large extent. Wish we had politicians like you in Norway.

  4. Edward Henning says:

    Steve – you wrote: “Constitutional restrictions are impotent because there is only the government to enforce them.” Surely, the best solution to this would be a strong constitutional court. Because of the structure of a state such as ours, politicians all too easily fall into the trap of short-term thinking and action. With the right wording, a constitution backed by a court with teeth could restrict, for example, the state from borrowing more than its revenues, fixing interest rates, bailing out failed banks, and so forth. Give politicians clear boundaries within which they can act, and surely democracy would be strengthened and be more properly representative?