Michael Huemer's Libertarianism

The Lone Ranger and Tonto (original story, movie, movie review)

The Lone Ranger and Tonto (original storymoviemovie review)

I am not drawn to Libertarianism as it is usually argued (see my post “Libertarianism, a US Sovereign Wealth Fund, and I”), but I am drawn to Michael Huemer’s version of Libertarianism. I am not sure that he has the right practical solution for achieving the ethical ideals he champions, but the ethical ideals themselves must be taken very seriously. I want you to see some of the force of his argument. I actually find his arguments most powerful as applied in particular areas of concern, as you can see in my post “Michael Huemer’s Immigration Parable.” I plan to post more of Michael’s “applications” in the future.

My own very brief summary of Michael’s argument is that it is only OK for the government to do what the Lone Ranger (along with Tonto and any number of other colleagues) could ethically do. But let me give you Michael’s own summary of his argument, with two passages from his book The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey:

Libertarianism is a minimal government (or, in extreme cases, no government) philosophy, according to which the government should do no more than protect the rights of individuals. Essentially, libertarians advocate the political conclusions defended in this chapter. But this position is very controversial in political philosophy. Many readers will wonder if we are really forced to it. Surely, to arrive at these radical conclusions, I must have made some extreme and highly controversial assumptions along the way, assumptions that most readers should feel free to reject. 

Libertarian authors have indeed frequently relied upon controversial assumption. Ayn Rand, for example, thought that capitalism could only be defended by appeal to ethical egoism, the theory that the right action for anyone in any circumstance is always the most selfish action. Robert Nozick is widely read as basing his libertarianism on an absolutist conception of individual rights, according to which an individual’s property rights and rights to be free from coercion can never be outweighed by any social consequences. Jan Narveson relies on a metaethical theory according to which the correct moral principles are determined by a hypothetical social contract. Because of the controversial nature of these ethical or metaethical theories, most readers find the libertarian arguments based on them easy to reject.  

I have appealed to nothing so controversial in my own reasoning. I reject the foundations for libertarianism mentioned in the preceding paragraph. I reject egoism, since I believe that individuals have substantial obligations to take into account the interests of others. I reject ethical absolutism, since I believe an individual’s rights may be overridden by sufficiently important needs of others. And I reject all forms of social contract theory, for reasons discussed in Chapters 2 and 3. 

The foundation of my libertarianism is much more modest: common sense morality. At first glance, it may seem paradoxical that such radical political conclusions could stem from anything labeled ‘common sense.’ I do not, of course, lay claim to common sense political views. I claim that revisionary political views emerge out of common sense moral views. As I see it, libertarian political philosophy rests on three broad ideas:

  1. A nonagression principle in interpersonal ethics. Roughly, this is the idea that individuals should not attack, kill, steal from, or defraud one another and, in general, that individuals should not coerce one another, apart from a few special circumstances.
  2. A recognition of the coercive nature of government. When the state promulgates a law, the law is generally backed up by a threat of punishment, which is supported by credible threats of physical punishment, which is supported by credible threats of physical force directed against those who would disobey the law.
  3. A skepticism of political authority. The upshot of this skepticism is, roughly, that the state may not do what it would be wrong for any nongovernmental person or organization to do. [pp. 176-177]

I have therefore focused on defending skepticism about authority by addressing the most interesting and important theories of authority. In defending this skepticism, I have, again, relied upon no particularly controversial ethical assumptions. I have considered the factors that are said to confer authority on the state and found that in each case, either those factors are not actually present (as in the case of consent-based accounts of authority) or those factors simply do not suffice to confer the sort of authority claimed by the state. The latter point is established by the fact that a nongovernmental agent to whom those factors applied would generally not be ascribed anything like political authority. I have suggested that the best explanation for the inclination to ascribe authority to the state lies in a collection of nonrational biases that would operate whether or not there were any legitimate authority. Most people never pause to question the notion of political authority, but once it is examined, the idea of a group of people with a special right to command everyone else fairly dissolves. [p. 178]