George Ought to Help

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Sep 5

The Problem of Political Authority

Of the books I’ve read, I think that The Problem of Political Authority by Michael Huemer (Bol link here) is the one most likely to have a dramatic effect on the worldview of the ‘everyman’. If I had the power to persuade people to read one book right now I’d choose for it to be this one.

If you don’t self-identify as a libertarian when you begin reading this with an open mind, there’s a good chance that you will do by the time you finish it. At the very least you’ll likely learn a good deal and gain an appreciation for the most powerful arguments for libertarianism. If you’re somehow not persuaded, you can truthfully say you gave it a fair chance. It feels like a distillation of the most robust and compelling argumentation on the subject that I’ve gathered from four years of avidly reading this kind of thing.

If you already self-identify as a libertarian, the book is useful too. As well as rebutting a greater breadth of pro-state and anti-anarchy arguments than I’ve seen collected elsewhere, I think it’s a great illustration of the value of defending anti-statism by relying on the reader’s desire for coherence in their moral judgements. The author begins by finding solid common ground with the reader: agreement about the conditions under which the interpersonal use of violence is condemnable. He proceeds by carefully examining each of strongest attempts to show that the state’s use of violence is different in some ethically significant way to the violence that we condemn. All the arguments examined are demonstrated to be insufficient to the task of rescuing the state from our condemnation.

Importantly, at no point do the arguments delegitimising the state depend on the reader accepting a controversial premise (such as the existence of natural rights, or of free will, or the truth of a particular ethical theory). This is the same approach I have tried to take with my George Ought to Help series of animations.

The chapter on the The Psychology of Authority is particularly interesting. By examining several well-documented human cognitive biases Huemer provides a plausible account of why so many people are in thrall to a cognitive illusion (the belief in the right of the state to coerce) that’s at odds with their foundational moral intuitions.

The second part of the book is dedicated to outlining the ways that market anarchy would solve the problems of providing the goods of law and its enforcement, and national defense. The final chapter surveys historical evidence to derive a set of conditions under which anarchic zones could plausibly be expected to emerge and thrive in a world initially dominated by states.

Previously I’d recommended The Machinery of Freedom (PDF) by David Friedman and Chaos Theory (link to landing page with PDF) by Robert Murphy as great texts that introduce the ideas of libertarianism/anarcho-capitalism. In my view The Problem of Political Authority is superior to either. It’s more comprehensive, easy to read, scholarly, humble and reasonable in its argumentation. I’ll be recommending this one until something even better comes along.


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    On my list.
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