Is Government a Necessary Evil? A Review of Michael Huemer's The Problem of Political Authority | Print Version
by Bradley Doucet*
Le Québécois Libre, June 15, 2013, No 312

At any given time, compiling a list of government evils is an easy task, and recent weeks have certainly been no exception. There was the IRS scandal that came to light last month, in which it was discovered that groups with certain political views had been targeted for extra scrutiny by the American tax collection agency. There is the more recent revelation of the extent of surveillance of US citizens by their own intelligence community. (See Gennady Stolyarov II’s “In the Face of Universal Surveillance” elsewhere in this issue of Le Québécois Libre.) There was the news that marijuana activist Marc Emery, serving a five-year sentence for a consensual “crime,” spent a week in solitary confinement for an equally bogus reason—one of tens of thousands of Americans and Canadians in solitary confinement, by the way, a punishment that the Centre for Constitutional Rights considers a form of torture.

And that’s just the recent stuff off the top of my head. But I don’t think I have to try too hard to convince most people that governments do bad things. All the time. Even the better ones. There’s just something about power that corrupts, and that attracts the corrupt and the corruptible.

Of course, although government may often be evil, it is a necessary evil, right? Sure, it would be great if society could survive and even flourish without the oppressive oversight of centralized leadership, but that’s just not realistic. Who would protect us from criminals and foreign aggressors if not for government? Who would ensure that everyone has enough food, shelter, education and health care? Who would build the roads? The invisible hand of the market is fine, but it needs help from the iron fist of the state to keep the trains moving on time. Instead of wasting time dreaming dreams of blissful anarchy, we should try to reform government, make it work better, make it less corrupt. Above all, we need to get the right people in power, and then everything will be great, or at least a lot less bad.

Michael Huemer, author of The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey, respectfully disagrees with just about every sentiment expressed in the preceding paragraph. And I do mean respectfully. Reading this book is like taking a university level course in political philosophy, taught by a professor whose great breadth of knowledge is matched by his clarity of expression and his intellectual rigour. Far from taking pot shots at those who hold different views, he regularly points out, after putting forward an argument, where the reader might still plausibly disagree with him. Though aimed at an educated audience, no special knowledge is required, only a desire to think deeply about the issues. As books like these go, this one is very engaging and enjoyable, a page-turner, even. And it might just change your mind about exactly how much government, if any, is really necessary after all.

The Duty to Obey

“Nearly all political discourse… presupposes that the government has a special kind of authority to issue commands to the rest of society,” Huemer writes in his preface. If government does have this kind of authority, then the rest of us, conversely, have a duty to obey. Importantly, if the government has political authority, it can legitimately use coercion and force in ways that the rest of us cannot. For instance, any one of us would be justified in using force to prevent a murder, something government agents have been known to do. But no non-governmental agent would be considered justified in coercively extracting wealth from his neighbours, even for the admittedly noble cause of providing education to some needy children. Most of us believe that at least some governments (probably excluding dictatorships) have the right to do at least some things (probably excluding outright enslavement or slaughter of their own people) that the rest of us cannot do.

This has always struck Huemer as “puzzling and problematic.” What gives some people the right to command others? They may have the brute strength to do so, but what makes it right? What makes it legitimate? In the first chapters of his book, Huemer examines the best answers political philosophers have come up with over the centuries, ranging from various social contract theories, to theories of democratic authority, to theories focusing on consequences and fairness. He gives each of them a decent hearing, and finds them all wanting. He then surveys the psychological literature and finds ample evidence of the human willingness to obey authority figures even when told to do something that is clearly wrong, like in the famous Milgram experiments, suggesting that our normal intuitions about the legitimacy of political authority might be untrustworthy.

Huemer closes the first half of his book with a chapter entitled “What if There Is No Authority?” It begins:

If there is no authority, does it follow that we ought to abolish all governments? No. The absence of authority means, roughly, that individuals are not obligated to obey the law merely because it is the law and/or that agents of the state are not entitled to coerce others merely because they are agents of the state. There might still be good reasons to obey most laws, and agents of the state might still have adequate reasons for engaging in enough coercive action to maintain a state. If the arguments of the preceding chapters are correct, the circumstances and purposes that would justify coercion on the part of the state are just the circumstances and purposes that would justify coercion on the part of private agents.

What this amounts to, as Huemer goes on to elaborate, is that at the very least, many of the things governments actually do are illegitimate. These include paternalistic laws designed to protect people from harming themselves (e.g., seatbelt laws); moralistic laws designed to prevent behaviour that is not necessarily harmful (e.g., vice laws); rent-seeking laws that give economic advantages to some at the expense of others (e.g., subsidies and licensing requirements); policies designed to promote certain things that are considered good (e.g., arts funding and public education); and other restrictions on things like immigration and gay marriage. Programs aimed specifically at alleviating poverty, Huemer is more ambivalent about, although he states that actual anti-poverty programs in wealthy countries are almost all poorly targeted and illegitimate (more akin to a Charity Mugging than to the prototypical Drowning Child case from moral philosophy).

In other words, if there is no such thing as political authority, only a minimal government dedicated to protecting individual rights (and maybe some properly-targeted poverty relief) would be justified. Huemer further stipulates that coercive taxation would be justified if and only if voluntary methods of government finance were unworkable.

What if Good Government Is Unrealistic?

But this only covers the first half of Huemer’s book. In the second half, he argues that government is not even necessary for the core purpose of protecting individual rights. After examining the logic of predation (Ch. 9), he shows how an anarchist society, one with no government whatsoever, could plausibly deal with individual security (Ch. 10), criminal justice and dispute resolution (Ch. 11), and war and societal defence (Ch. 12). It would not be perfect, but governments are far from perfect; what matters is how effective anarchy would be in comparison to other feasible options. Huemer closes his book with some ideas about how we might get there from here. (Hint, he’s enthusiastic about civil disobedience and jury nullification, but pessimistic about the feasibility of violent resistance. And it won’t happen all at once.)

Is it unrealistic to dream of a stateless society? A lot of people think so, of course, like the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr., who refers to libertarianism, even just the minimal-state variety, as a “grand, utopian theory.” Huemer tackles the issue head on at the start of the second half of his book:

[T]he distinction between utopianism and realism is not a matter either of how far a proposal is from the status quo or of how far it is from the mainstream of political thought. The distinction between utopianism and realism chiefly concerns, roughly, whether a political or social idea requires violations of human nature. A mainstream political view might turn out to require such violations, while some radical alternative does not. It is perfectly possible for a small change to be unfeasible, while some much larger change is feasible.

In particular, supporters of liberal democracy, if they are at all aware of how government actually functions, tend to believe, for instance, that special-interest groups have too much influence on the democratic process and that various reforms are required. But are such reforms realistic? Huemer argues that they are not, turning the tables on would-be reformists:

Defenders of government are often keen to point out the harms that might result from the widespread greed and selfishness of mankind in the absence of a government able to restrain our worst excesses. Yet they seldom pause to consider what might result from the very same greed and selfishness in the presence of government, on the assumption that government agents are equally prone to those very failings. It is not that statists have some account of why government employees are more virtuous than average people. Nor do they have some plan for making that be the case. Rather, it seems simply to have never occurred to most statists to apply realistic assumptions about human nature to the government itself. [Emphasis in original]

I don’t imagine that these snippets and summaries of Huemer’s argument will convince anyone that a stateless society is the way to go. A short review can only do so much. A carefully argued, compelling 340-page book, on the other hand, can challenge you to look at the world in a whole new light. At the very least, it will get you thinking about one of the biggest questions we face: how societies can best organize themselves so as to minimize suffering and injustice and maximize human flourishing.

* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.