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Huemer’s “The Problem of Political Authority”

Michael Huemer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, recently released a book called “The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey” that has made quite a splash in some libertarian circles.

As just one example, Bryan Caplan recently implied in a blog posting that he believes it to be the best book of libertarian political philosophy ever written.

I have not quite completed reading it, but I have already come to the conclusion that Bryan is absolutely correct. The book is a gem, destined to become a classic, and any serious libertarian should have it on their shelf near their copies of the works of Hayek, Rand, the Friedmans, and the rest of the pantheon. They should even, dare I say, read it.

(And with that understated endorsement, on to my review.)

One of the divides within the libertarian community is the debate between minarchists and anarchists — that is, between those that believe a night watchman state is a good idea, and those who are skeptical of the notion of any state at all. Outside of libertarian circles, of course, the question gets scarcely any attention at all, and it is generally assumed that the state is both a practical necessity and morally justified.

The topic that Humer’s astonishing tour de force concerns itself with is the moral and ethical underpinnings of state power, an area known in political philosophy as the problem of political authority.

In considering the justification for the state, a nagging question naturally arises. Most people would claim it is morally impermissible for your neighbor to force you to give money to a charity of his choice at gunpoint. However, in stark contrast, most people would claim it is permissible for the state to do essentially the same thing, that is, to extort taxes from you using the threat of force in order to spend those funds on projects other than your own.

Most people appear to claim there is an important difference between these cases — otherwise, they would not believe in the legitimacy of the state.

The eponymous problem of political authority is the question of what the distinction between these cases might be — on what basis, if any, might we justify this difference in treatment between the behavior we consider ethically justified from individual actors versus the power we accord to the state.

Huemer systematically addresses the justifications that have been articulated for political authority over the centuries, from hypothetical social contract theory to consequentialism and everything in between. I will give away the punchline by noting that his arguments would appear to fatally damage all of them.

Political philosophers generally start by attempting to construct a complete moral framework within which they justify their positions. Huemer takes an entirely different approach. He does not assume that we all agree on a single universal moral framework. He only assumes that most of us generally share similar moral intuitions about certain sorts of situations in the average case. (The strongest sort of assumption he demands is that his reader agree that beating people up without provocation is usually bad.)

Because he demands that the reader agree with him on so few things and so weakly, Huemer’s argument gains enormous strength, since there is no need to accept an all-encompassing ethical theory to believe the rest of his arguments.

On the basis of very pedestrian ethical assumptions, Huemer manages to build a case against any moral justification for political authority whatsoever. He engages, attacks and destroys arguments of all sorts with panache. Even John Rawls famous “A Theory of Justice” (perhaps the most cited work written in philosophy in the last century) is mercilessly examined under bright lights and staked through the heart.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the simplicity and lucidity of his prose. Unlike many of his academic peers, Huemer’s writing is crystal clear and (nearly) jargon free. A bright ten year old would have no difficulty with the language. He does not seek to conceal weakness beneath an avalanche of polysyllabic words and mile long sentences. Instead, he makes his arguments so straightforward to understand that there is little or no room to disagree with him.

I am uncertain as to whether Huemer will persuade many people. As Swift once observed, “it is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” Most people hold their political positions not as a result of rational contemplation but because they were exposed to a set of ideas at an early age and have an emotional attachment to them that is not easily altered. The fact that Huemer is arguing for unfamiliar idea that goes against most conventional wisdom is probably more important to the average reader than the razor sharp edge to which he has honed his arguments.

Never the less, in a hypothetical world in which all chose their views on the basis of rational consideration, Huemer would be changing hearts and minds by the trainload.

56 comments to Huemer’s “The Problem of Political Authority”

  • Paul Marks

    Can war be avoided?

    Not while enemies (socialists, Islamists,….) exist.

    Can wars be won without the violation of private property?

    Normally – NO.

    “How dare you say that private property must be violated in order to safeguard private property”.

    I dare say it – because it is the truth. In battle one sometimes can not avoid destroying private property, and one can not avoid taking it (via taxation – or some other means) in order to achieve victory.

    And the alternative to victory – is enslavement and/or extermination.

    The problem of political authority is the problem of command – war command.

    Of who is to command the Blue-and-White against the Black-and-Red (and against the green).

    Who is to command in defence of the principle of private property in the means of production, distribution and exchange against the foe.

    And wars are not “clean” – they involve terrible things.

    And the only alternative to such terrible things is defeat – i.e. utter ruin.

    War is what the “Sword of State” is about.

    And wars are not won by insurance companies, or private dectective agences. Or by arbitration.

    They are won by blood and terror.

    Those who think such things can be avoided do not understand the world.

    The Sword of State is useless (indeed harmful) for any civil (any civilised) purpose.

    But it is very much needed for uncivil purposes – and without the uncivil, the civil can not stand.

    “But the Sword or State is cursed – it seeks to direct all effort towards evil”.

    Of course it is cursed – if is force and fear.

    But that is very much part of this world – and must be faced with clear eyes.

    Those who do NOT live by the sword can still die by it – indeed they die from it more often.

    Those who think that civil society can be defended by civil means – are wrong.

    And in war (official or unoffical) there is the central question.

    “Who commands?”

    That is what political authority is about.

  • Michael Huemer

    Wow, thanks for that great review. You might want to consider cross-posting to Amazon.

  • Paul, you have an excellent point, but it doesn’t reply to the question.

    First, you seem to confuse Law and Fact. Political Power is. But should it be? And should it be the way it is? Facts alone can’t answer that. By what mechanism should the military authority be chosen, made to emerge, etc.? What are efficient or stable mechanisms, or mechanisms bound to lead to disasters? Just stating the fact that this authority exists says nothing about the structure of this authority.

    Second, you seem to confuse the military question with a civilian question. Even assuming a military command for purposes of defense — is it justified for those who hold this command to intervene in very civilian matters? We can look at the arguments advanced to justify this intervention, and find them lacking.

    PS: do you read Unqualified Reservations?

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    An interesting observation from history- whichever country, or enterprize (can you say East India Company?) can use the most resources will win in a conflict. ‘War and the rise of the State’ is a catchy saying AND a book worth reading. Wars tend to promote centralising democracies for that very reason, since governments have to bargain to increase their access to materials (can you say ‘No taxation without representation’?), especially if they are at war. The only way to avoid an authoritarian democracy would be to disperse arms amongst the entire population, perhaps through county militia groups, so that the ‘center’ cannot dictate. We should aim for an Alliance, not a Union. That way, the center could still maximise all its’ resources, but not be able to consolidate command.

  • I have already ordered this (indeed it may already have arrived at Chateau Samizdata), on the basis of an equally vigorous recommendation from Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute, whom I happened to meet last week.

    See also Huemer’s TED talk.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    It would appear that the book is increasingly popular — Amazon seems to have now run out of copies and is quoting a month to ship.

  • Greg

    Hmmm, I think I need to learn more about this guy, but off the top of my head: seems Professor Huemer believes that only by studying the academic literature on policy options can one have a rational opinion on a topic of the day. He implies that rational deliberation is the only path to a political decision; I agree that it’s not relied on nearly enough, but he seems to leave no room for emotional appraisals, e.g., of candidates or advocates of policies. Don’t get me wrong, I think most lefties I know put their positions on emotional foundations; imbibed their policies at a young age as the Professor points out. But how is it that you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time…when those people aren’t reading the academic literature (nor are the reporters who write the material people do read or hear)? I think most people eventually see through the BS…mostly if they are rational, but I don’t want pure rationality motivating my politics.

  • Andrew Rettek

    The kindle version does ship faster than that.

  • RRS

    I am re-reading (after exchanges with Dr. Huemer at LF)but I still do not find the issue of “Consent,” dealt with other than as he treats his two forms of Social Contract – in both of which it appears (I am open to instruction) that the “contracting party” is the state without consideration of “contract” amongst mutually consenting members of a social grouping (drinking buddies, clubs, subscribers to constitutions . . . ).

    Very good presentation. Much easier read than The Calculus of Consent

  • Robbo

    “John Rawls famous “A Theory of Justice” (perhaps the most cited work written in philosophy in the last century) is mercilessly examined under bright lights and staked through the heart.”

    Excellent. I never could understand why Rawls’ nonesense was so highly regarded ( cue Orwell quote on intellectuals)

  • Paul Marks

    I fully accept that I have “not answered the question” – if the question is “what moral authority does the state have for most of the stuff it does?”

    Because the answer to that question is – “it does NOT have the moral authority to create X, Y, Z, schemes”.

    However, the anarcho-capitalist (the only good form of anarchist) must also answer a question.

    The question of MILITARY COMMAND.

    Perhaps that question can be answered by anarchcapitalism.

    But the stuff I have seen does not ring true.

  • Paul Marks

    Nick – militia groups do not tend to win against a ruthless enemy.

    And, even in a militia group, some people have to give ORDERS – and other people have to OBEY them.

    Or defeat is certain.

  • Paul, different independent organizations can form alliances under an agreement to follow orders by representatives of an agreed-upon organization. That latter organization can be one of the members, or it can be a separate organization formed by the members for that purpose (the purpose of command, coordination etc.) As imperfect as it is, think NATO model.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    Greg says:

    Hmmm, I think I need to learn more about this guy, but off the top of my head: seems Professor Huemer believes that[…]

    I think your initial impuse was correct, that is, “I think I need to learn more about this guy”. It is generally a bad idea to get an opinion about the work of a philosopher without reading his work.

  • Steve D

    ‘in a hypothetical world in which all chose their views on the basis of rational consideration, Huemer would be changing hearts and minds by the trainload.’

    In that hypothetical world, he would be preaching to the choir.

  • Paul, you’re right that the question of military authority has to be answered by anarcho-capitalists, and that most of them don’t bother because they don’t realize the importance of the question. But some of us have realized this relevance and offered answers, and you should be considering the best answers, not the worst non-answers.

    You might consider, for instance, how even now, Military Authority is not an absolute mechanical thing, and happily so (consider the extreme case of Stanislav Petrov breaking military protocol). At Nuremberg, the case was clearly made that obeying orders was no excuse for personal responsibility in war crimes. If even now, cases are recognized for refusing to obey orders, where are the limits?

    The anarcho-capitalist case is that instead of recognizing a winner a priori to the question of military supremacy, irregardless of how evil and/or incompetent he is, the supreme authority is established dynamically by a rough consensus of the confederate parties, based on their judgment of his goodness and competence. At the same time, said parties are never excused for either following orders blindly, or failing to obey an order in times of war.

    So yes, if your confederacy is in such disarray that people can’t agree on a sensible chief in times of war, and/or won’t actually obey orders when push comes to shove, then that federation is going to be conquered soon. But such happens in a state, too. The question is then which of the two dynamics is likely to be robust and which is likely to lead to deviance into either evil, incompetence or lack of authority.

    Anarcho-capitalists claim that very clearly, the market discipline of having to prove at every instant that you’re man enough to lead yet good enough to deserve being followed leads to a more robust leader. And that free competition allows for alternate solutions to always be available at the inevitable moment that a given provider eventually fails.

    Statists put their trust in one monopoly that is not bound by any such discipline or by any stabilizing feedback force, then even if they blind themselves into not looking at the blatant imperfections (to say the least) of their praised “strong men”, they can but quickly moan at how it all degenerates into a game played by establishment men who slowly but relentlessly corrupt the sacred vessel they worship until decadence is so pronounced that the empire collapses. Yet they call for more of the same as the solution.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Huemer is in the tradition of Scottish thinker Thomas Reid, a real “Enlightenment” figure who deserves to be as well known as Adam Smith and David Hume. He is a critic – to a degree – of ideas such as “ethical egoism” (Ayn Rand and her circle) favouring a sort of ethical “intuitionism” instead. I might not agree with everything he writes but he’s very stimulating and I am sure I will read the book sometime.

    As for John Rawls, the fact that Huemer made short work of him is recommendation indeed.

  • Robbo, regarding Rawls, you might enjoy my piece:
    “John Rawls, the Socialist Devil”

  • Laird

    This book is on my list, but hasn’t made it to the top yet. I do note that it’s expensive; Amazon lists it at $87.49 (even the Kindle edition is over $30). That’s going to delay my purchase for a while.

    Paul, your point is important, but I would note that historically military leaders were frequently selected by consensus of the troops. That was certainly true for many of the militias in colonial America (who managed to band together sufficiently to wrest independence from the British), and for many of the nomadic tribes who ultimately defeated the Roman army (to give just two examples). Even independent, voluntary militias can cooperate to create an effective chain of overall command. I don’t see this as an argument for political authority as presently understood.

  • Laird

    BTW, Brian, thanks for the link to Huemer’s TED talk.

  • Duly ordered and I agree with the author’s comments above: cross-posting the review would be good. It has a single 1-star review as I type.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Slightly off topic, but it’s good to see that Paul Marks is showing what in my arrogant opinion is his best side, ie his realist side.
    I expected him to reproach Huemer for his lax principles, because Huemer “does not assume that we all agree on a single universal moral framework”.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    Steve Baker: there are seven reviews on amazon.com, for an average rating of 4.5 stars at the moment.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Paul, Vietnam proved that guerilla forces CAN win against conventional armies. If we trained local militia in guerilla tactics, then invaders would not win, since the costs of tying down forces in each county would prove too expensive over the long term. As for commanders, experience and seniority would be our guides.

  • Actually, the Vietnam war proved that an imperialist force propping a corrupt local regime can win, as long as it is Russian.

    More seriously, it proved that a decentralized network of communist propagandists can win over the academia and media of a democracy and undo any military victory on the ground, after having tied the military to wage a purely “defensive” war (i.e. sure to not win but draw at best).

  • Julie near Chicago

    Faréa: So, V-N proved that as long as the side that wins militarily abandons the field, thus failing to claim and hold the prize (i.e., without securing the win), it loses the conflict by default.

    Whereupon we have V-N “re-education” camps, torture, murder, perhaps 100,000 people dying trying to escape in leaky boats, somewhere between ~740,000 and ~2 million* Cambodians dead in “the killing fields”….

    But, of course, Ho was just an agrarian reformer trying to do right by his home folks, and it’s pure capitalist running-dog propaganda that the Communists were doing anything but trying to support the natives against the Colonialist West, especially the Evil Imperialist U.S. And it’s a well-known fact that the Communists never intended to attack, let alone digest, countries in the West. Stalin said so. 🙂

    *See, for instance, a rather extensive analysis of four different estimates at


    In his conclusion, Bruce Sharp, who wrote the article, states (italics mine): ‘I would suggest a “most likely” figure of around 2.18 million. Current evidence also suggests that the highest of Kiernan’s estimates – 1.87 million – is probably the lowest plausible figure. The highest plausible estimate would be around 2.495 million.’

  • Paul Marks

    Alisa – NATO (and other alliences) raise an interesting area.

    As Gough (Oriel Oxford) was fond of pointing out – John Locke goes from INDIVIDUAL consent to MAJORITY consent without argument (he just slides it). “Even” in the Middle Ages (Gough was fond of pointing out) the difference between individual and majority consent was well understand.

    NATO does indeed keep to the principle of individual consent – not majority consent.

    HOWEVER once the battle has started – all “consent” goes out the window. Military command is a “dictatorship” (it has to be).


    The V.C. (so called National Liberation Front) was not an important after 1968 “Tet Offensive” (the media victory and military DEFEAT). And the V.C. were really under the control of the Communist command anyway (mostly not local – they were sent, and SUPPLIED, via the network of supply lines that went down the left flank via Laos and Cambodia, the big differ

    What defeated the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN – 250thousand dead in the war) was the NVA (North Vietnamese Army – according to General Giap one million dead in the war) Mig Aircraft and Soviet tanks are not militia weapons.

    Even after the pulling out of American and Australian troops the ARVN managed to defeat the Communist “Easter Invasion” – however, in 1975 military support (especially AIR SUPPORT) was cut off – both in Vietnman and in Cambodia (in Laos the fight against the Communists was mainly conducted by hill tribes and a handfull of CIA people – it was the ANTI Communist forces who were the guerilla forces, and they lost).

    Without supplies and air support the anti Communist forces in Vietnam and Cambodia were doomed. The CONVENTIONAL military of North Vietnam (with massive support from the Communist block) swept to victory.

  • Paul:

    HOWEVER once the battle has started – all “consent” goes out the window. Military command is a “dictatorship” (it has to be).

    No, it does not. Not even where I live, where military service is compulsory – let alone in the US or UK, where it is not. You are conflating the military with the larger population.

  • BTW, your assertion does not apply to NATO either: as you well know, NATO members disengage from various conflicts at will, usually for internal political reasons.

  • Paul Marks

    Snorri – I am a “Realist”.

    I believe that the physical universe exists (in short I reject “Idealism”).

    And I believe that the human mind (the agent – the “I”) also exists and is not an “illusion” (i.e. I reject determinism).

    I also believe that there is such as thing as truth (objective truth) and right and wrong (I reject both “Pragmatism” and “Logical Positivism” – see Joad on Logical Positivism).

    However, I have no plans at this time to change my name to Harold Prichard – although I did once play a role-play character by that name.

    As for “Realism” in the specific American sense – foreign policy “Realist”.

    That is a more complex question – I resist that label (although I certainly prefer the “Realists” to the neocons with their Woodrow Wilson view of policy as being about “spreading democracy”).

    There is also the “Realist verus Nominalist” debate – my view on that is mixed.

    If one takes the words of Plato litterally (as, for example, Sir William David Ross did – although his study of Aristotle may have mislead him as to the meaning of Plato) I am NOT a Realist – as I do not believe in literal Platonic forms of “chairness” and “tableness” and “horseness” (and so on).

    However, (as I indicated above) I do not believe that either our own existance, or truth in general (and not just logical and mathematical truth), or fundemental right and wrong are simply “conventions” either.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul: i did not mean the American foreign-policy sense. I meant realist in the sense of Thukydides’ Melian dialog, Aristotle’s distinction between politics as it is and politics as it should be, the Serenity Prayer, and of course Machiavelli, Bismarck, and thinkers broadly in that tradition. The only American that comes to mind is James Burnham, though that is probably a consequence of my ignorance.

    WRT the 1st part of your comment, my only countercomment is this: if you think that free will is incompatible with determinism, you are not using “free will” the way most people (including most Christians) use the expression in everyday language (or the way Dante used it in De Monarchia, long before Hume). You are free to use words as you like, but changing the words does not change the facts.
    But i grant that Huemer also thinks that free will is incompatible with determinism, or at least he thought so when he wrote his essay on Objectivism.

  • Paul Marks

    Alisa – I see your point (my apologies).

    Snorri – I see.

    Well I certainly REJECT “realism” in the sense of the Athenians in the Melian dialogue.

    A big power does NOT have the right to demand that a smaller power join it in war – still less the right to make aggressive war on a smaller power in order to sell its population into slavery.

    Power (the ability to do something) and right (whether one should do it) are different things.

    As for determinism….

    Determinism is the docrtrine that we do have not ability to choose – the denial of “real choice”. That humans are not really “beings” (i.e. agents – creatures with agency, “free will”).

    Free will (or agency) is the doctrine that we do have the ability to choose. That real choice really exists. That humans are beings (agents – creatures with agency, “free will”).


    If one is prepared to say “it is possible that all things are determined, but some things are determined by ME (the “I”)” then indeed free will and determinism ARE compatable.

    [of course this does not cover such things as QM in physics and chaos theory in mathematics – but these matters are not really at issue here as randomness is NOT agency-free will, and nor is agency-free will “determinism” either, apart from in the way of the previous paragraph].

    But this is NOT the way the word “determinism” is normally used – on the contrary determinism is, normally, the doctrine that real choice does not exist (with the “I” carefully explained away). Normally “determinism” is used to mean predetermined (the lack of real choice).

    This will be my last mention of this matter on this thread. That I will not comment further (on this thread) on this matter, is NOT meant as any form of disrespect to you – it is simply that I wish to avoid a row. After all this is a matter where no real “meeting of minds” is likely to take place.

  • Paul Marks

    For nonnative English speakers….

    By “row” I mean – “disturbance, dispute, quarrel, scolding”.

  • If one is prepared to say “it is possible that all things are determined, but some things are determined by ME (the “I”)” then indeed free will and determinism ARE compatable.

    That is what I, Mid and others meant all along in that other thread.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    I’m a bit surprised by just how far from Huemer’s book and its argument most of this thread has gone, from (more or less) the first comment onward…

  • Tedd

    I don’t consider myself very well equipped to debate the issue of Military Authority, as I’m not very familiar with the arguments. But I would like to make a comment based on personal experience. In a volunteer military (or a “professional” military, as those actually in the military like to call it), you make a single, voluntary choice, by joining, and that choice commits you to the sublimation of many future choices. You do not completely give up your agency, or your moral agency, but you do temporarily give up some of it. Because you give it up voluntarily, it doesn’t violate principles of consent and personal liberty in the way it might appear to.

    In that way, a military within the context of a free society is not unlike any other sub-culture that demands sublimation of personal choice, such as the Amish. Far from contradicting the free nature of the society, these sub-cultures confirm it.

    Conscription is another matter entirely.

  • RRS

    For those who want to get back to the thread or perhaps ride further out onto the prairie, there are some great exchanges with Huemer at:

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul: if you are still reading the comments here, i’d appreciate it if you just wrote a line saying whether you broadly agree or completely disagree. No explanation of your disagreement is needed.

    “If one is prepared to say “it is possible that all things are determined, but some things are determined by ME (the “I”)” then indeed free will and determinism ARE compatable.”

    Indeed, i claim (like Alisa, i suppose) that this is what “free will” means in everyday language.
    (Alisa: I stopped reading the other comment thread shortly after you came in…not because of you, though.)

    More precisely, I claim that “free will” means that at least some personal choices are determined, in part, by a person’s moral character. What determines one’s moral character, is a problem of no concern in everyday life.

    “But this is NOT the way the word “determinism” is normally used – on the contrary determinism is, normally, the doctrine that real choice does not exist (with the “I” carefully explained away). Normally “determinism” is used to mean predetermined (the lack of real choice).”

    Perhaps we should distinguish between the usage in the hard sciences, in the philosophy of mind, and in everyday language. (If indeed the term makes sense in everyday language.) In the hard sciences, determinism is just the opposite of “true” randomness, and you correctly recognized that free will is not randomness.
    It seems to me that Hume used the term in the same way as it is used in the hard sciences.

  • Snorri Godhi

    WRT the Melian dialog: of course there are different ways of reading it. The way i read it does not in any way imply that a big power has “the right to demand that a smaller power join it in war – still less the right to make aggressive war on a smaller power in order to sell its population into slavery”.

    It only implies that a big power has the POWER to do these things. (A tautology, i suppose, but one that people seem keen to deny.)

    “Power (the ability to do something) and right (whether one should do it) are different things.”

    Indeed, and this is why Aristotle’s distinction between politics as it is and as it should be (beginning of 4th book of the Politics if i am not mistaken) is crucial to realism as i define it.

  • Well, if you’re on to the problem of Free Will and Determinism, see my essay:
    From Metaphysical Freedom To Civil Liberties

  • Paul Marks


    I know we read virutally everything differently. But the Athenian position (which you de facto accused me of holding – by saying I took the “Realist” position and citeing the M.D.) is not only clear, it is famous.

    The Athenian position,in the Melian dialogue was might-is-right (or rather right, morality, had no place in the matter) – they not only argued this, they then DID IT (they attacked the city murdering or enslaving everyone). You might as well have accused me of taking the position of the German government, in their ultimatum to Poland, in 1939. However, it is clear that this was NOT your intent (our minds simply work so differently that communication is difficult).

    By the way I also hold that the Athenian position was stupid (as well as wicked) as their crimes turned friends into enemies. Indeed the great war only started because the “great” Pericles took the Treasury of the Delian League from the island of Delos and brought it to Athens – to be used on public works scehmes to buy votes (why this smooth talking swine, who turned allies into enemies and also played the “rich versus poor” game in Athenian politics, has been upheld as hero for two and half thousand years is hard to understand).

    As for the use of the word determinism in philosophy (including by David Hume) I, respectfuly, disagree with what you have said. In philosphy determinism does tend to mean predetermined.

    Hence, for example, the break between Erasmus and Martin Luther.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul: the “realist” position that i “accuse” you of holding, is NOT the Athenian position: it is the position of Thukydides — as i interpret it!
    I submit that Thukydides did not subscribe to the position that he attributed to the Athenians.

    As for Pericles the reason he is popular might be due simply to the funeral oration: i am impressed every time i read it. He might well have been a hypocrite, but does that affect the intrinsic value of his words?

    “In philosphy determinism does tend to mean predetermined.”

    First, if we broadly agree on everything else i said, that’s good enough.
    Second, i was not talking about philosophy but about the hard sciences.
    Third: oh yes, but what does “predetermined” mean??

  • Snorri Godhi

    RRS: thank you for the link. I have read Huemer’s essay up to the section on anarcho-capitalism. While I agree with most of what he says, i see 3 major problems, which i discuss here since you cannot comment at Cato.

    1. WRT social contract theory: perhaps Huemer’s viewpoint is affected by the fact that he lives in the country he was born in. Few people would disagree that, when i moved to Estonia, i implicitly entered into a contract with the Estonian State. Once you accept that, can you seriously argue that native Estonians do not have to obey the same laws that i have to obey?

    2. Still on the social contract: Huemer dismisses the notion that a State has property rights over the national territory, but gives no argument that cannot be used against landlords claiming property rights over their property.

    3. A more specific point: Huemer claims that “those who kill large numbers of people to bring about some political change are dubbed “terrorists” and are widely condemned, regardless of whether their goals are desirable. . . ”

    This is flatly untrue. Sensible* people distinguish between guerrilla warfare, which is condemned ONLY IF its goals are undesirable; and terrorism, which is widely condemned because it cannot possibly reach its goals, EXCEPT IF its goals are undesirable, ie except if it aims at subverting a government that will not engage in collective punishment and genocide.

    * the way idiots use the word “terrorism” need not concern us here.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    Snorri Godhi: I would suggest that the extremely abbreviated essay on Cato’s web site does not convey the entirety of Huemer’s argument. It would be best if your read the book before commenting in detail. The thumbnail sketch is not exhaustive, but the book is.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Perry: I accept your point but i still feel entitled to write a comment on Huemer’s essay which is, at a guess, less than 1/10th the length of the essay.
    Were my comment of essay length in itself, i would not write it before reading the book.

  • Paul Marks


    Yes – it is the WORDS of Pericles that are popular (the speeches). My interest is in his deeds.

    The rest of your comment I will, respectfully, leave.

  • Paul Marks


    Thomas Reid does indeed deserve to better known – “self evident” (as in “we hold these truths to be self evident”) is really him, not Thomas Jefferson.

    However, the Common Sense school fell into disfavour in the United States after the time of Noah Porter and James McCosh.

    After the fall of the Common Sense school mainstream academia (with the exception of the Aristotelians) became a subversive (undermining) force in American life – not a support of civil society, but an enemy of it.

    The (Scots) name “Common Sense” does not matter – after all the English Ralph Cudworth (the English supporter of reality of the universe – and the reality of both the human mind, and of right and wrong) did not use this term.

    Nor did the 20th century English thinkers such as Harold Prichard and Sir William David Ross use the term.

    Indeed I would go as far as to say that as recently as the 1930s Oxford was still, in the main, part of the Civil Society tradition.

    That may astonish people who associate the 1930s with Marxism and Keynesianism (and both of these were present at Oxford as well as Cambridge)- but Aristotelianism was still strong in Oxford, as were people who were not formally Aristotelians but shared the three basic principles (the reality of the physical universe, the reality of the human mind – the agent, and the reality of right and wrong).

    Not just philosophers such as Harold Prichard and Sir William David Ross (and Joad), but also scholars such as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

    Of course things fell apart with World War II – it is no accident that our friend Antony Flew could not get a fellowship at Oxford.

    The Logical Positivists (and other such) took over.

    And not just in philosophy.

    C.S. Lewis found the English at Oxford unbearable by the 1950s (although Tolkien carried on). Today one can study English at Oxford without the study of Anglo Saxon – of even Middle English. Once the university insisted that its students understand the language of Cicero – now they need have no basic knowledge of their own language and culture.

    I am a barbarian (not a cultured man) – but once Oxford stood for culture (for the cultural side of the great tradition as well as the philosophical side).

    There are indeed still great scholars at Oxford – but the mainstream are no longer part of the tradition.

    And this is also true of the United States – in economics as much as anything else (even a century ago, degenerate scum such as Richard Ely were honoured).

    Better than that the universities had been burned to the ground, than they become the mockeries they now are.

  • Paul Marks

    Who was the next President (but one) to James McCosh at Princeton?

    Woodrow Wilson.

    That sums it all up.

    A civilisation where reason has collapsed.

    No wonder traitors (people who, in the uniform of the United States army, openly gave “aid and comfort” to the enemy) are treated as “heros” by the media (corrupted by “Schools of Journalism” for more than a century) and then become Presidential candidates, and then Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee (“Conscript Fathers. This creature should have its head thrown down the steps – not be made the head of so sacred a body”) and then Secretary of State.

    But its worst deed was in introducing a worse creature than itself – in the Convention of 2004.

    “What has this got to do with political authority”.


    For these traitors have no political AUTHORITY (although they have lots of POWER) – because they are traitors.

    As the late William S. Buckley put it….

    Better names drawn at random from the telephone book than what passes for the intellectual and cultural elite of our times.

    In Britain as well as the United States.