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Michael Huemer on the influence of ideas and on the costs of war

From Michael Huemer’s brief summary (right near the end of “Analytical Contents” – p. xxv) of Chapter 13 (“From Democracy to Anarchy”) Part 4 (“The Influence of Ideas”), of his newly published book The Problem of Political Authority:

The eventual arrival of anarchy is plausible due to the long-run tendency of human knowledge to progress and to the influence of ideas on the structure of society.

I originally had that up as a Samizdata quote of the day, but there already is one. Apologies for the muddle. However, I didn’t want either to scrub this posting or just leave it hanging about, so instead I am elaborating a little.

I think the word “plausible” in the above quote is apt. We can’t assume this kind of thing. But that doesn’t mean there is no reason to hope for such a thing. Why else would we be bothering?

I now have my copy of this book, and a brief glance through it suggests that there is plenty more SQotD material in it. Indeed, it seems to be the kind of book where you could pretty much pick an SQotD out with a pin.

Why don’t I try that? Let me open the book at random, and pick a paragraph at random, and see if it works as a disembodied quote. There are 365 pages in the entire book. Here is a paragraph from page 234:

But war is, putting it mildly, expensive. If a pair of agencies go to war with one another, both agencies, including the one that ultimately emerges the victor, will most likely suffer enormous damage to their property and their employees. It is highly improbable that a dispute between two clients would be worth this kind of expense. If at the same time there are other agencies in the region that have not been involved in any wars, the latter agencies will have a powerful economic advantage. In a competitive marketplace, agencies that find peaceful methods of resolving disputes will outperform those that fight unnecessary battles. Because this is easily predictable, each agency should be willing to resolve any dispute peacefully, provided that the other party is likewise willing.

Not original, but not bad. And again, plausible.

I share Michael Huemer’s optimism about the influence of (good) ideas on society. If I did not, I would occupy far less than I actually do occupy of my life arriving at and stating my own ideas, and publicising the ideas of others, such as Michael Huemer.

10 comments to Michael Huemer on the influence of ideas and on the costs of war

  • Laird

    Well, taking that quote at face value (i.e., out of context, since I haven’t read the book), I would have to disagree as to the “plausibility” of the spontaneous arrival of anarchy. In my opinion, too many people want to rule others, too many people want to be ruled, and far too many believe that some form of government (even if only a “night watchman” minarchism) is necessary to prevent chaos and/or the ascension of some form of strongman or warlord, for that ever to happen. At least, not while the species remains recognizably human.

  • Perry Metzger (New York, USA)

    Whether or not one agrees with Huemer’s overall conclusion, the book is filled with interesting insights. Not all are original, but most are presented with unusual clarity.

  • RRS

    May I suggest Kenneth Minogue’s The Servile Mind as a “balance” to the Huemer extrapolations.

    This is not suggested as deprecation by any means.

    While I am open to instruction, I am not aware that any spontaneously (or any otherwise organized?) Social Order – note, Order – has come into being without the existence of Authority, whether it be by compliance (from consent) or obedience (to custom or violence).

    Any form of Order achieved through commonality of objectives and commonly accepted means of attaining them, generates Law, not the other way around, law does not generate order, it is merely the system that sustains Order in any society that chooses a Rule of Law. Where that exists, there is Authority vested in that Rule of Law.

  • After the collapse of government, which seems inevitable at this point, there will be an interregnum period, which is anarchy by most reasonable definitions.

    What will arise out of that period is un-knowable, but anarchy there will be. With various groups attempting to seize / expropriate anything not nailed down for the good of the local / regional / national ‘community’.

    It will by 1917 without order and without a goal, a hoard of robber barons, fighting to be king.

  • Paul Marks

    Government (in all Western countries)has been expanding, in all major Western nations for over a century – government spending (which was less than tenth of civil society) is now around half of civil society – and endless regulations now saturate every aspect of economic life.

    Even in the 19th century the government (whilst not growing as a proportion of civil society) was taking on new FUNCTIONS – most importantly gaining control of education.

    Yet we are supposed to believe that government is going to shrink in future – indeed vanish.

    “Ideas influence things”

    Yes they do – and in politics they are normally BAD ideas.

    “But the progress of knowledge….”

    Classic confusion of physical knownledge (how to build a better mouse trap – or the nature of the stars) with philosophical or political knowledge.

    The political debates that people like Plato and Aristole engaged in can not “progress” in the sense that technical or physical science debates do.

    To say that people will understand more about politics (why the state should be reduced) in the future is like saying that people (on average) will be nicer in the future than in the past.

    They may be – or they may not be.

    After all (contrary to another book that Brian sometimes cites – alas the title escapes me) people did not tend be behave better in the 20th century than they did in the 19th century (if anything the the reverse).

    Traval back in time in Detroit (or most other inner cities) 50 years or 60 years – “society” does nto seem to have progressed (rather the reverse).

    Around the world people (from Venezuela to France) are just as likely as ever to blame all their problems on “the rich” or “the corporations” and call upon government to save them. ANd the more government fails the MORE people call upon government to do more.

    The mass protests in Spain and Greece are not calling for less government – they are demanding more.

    The people on the streets have more (not less) faith in government than people in such countries had centuries ago. They look to government to provide everything. And (I repeat) the more it fails – the more people denouce “the rich” and the more they demand government do more.

    This may change – I profoundly hope that reason and morality gain strength against “social justice” and evil generally.

    Perhaps people in the future will be better – but that is a hope (not a prediction based upon real evidence or argument).

  • Alsadius

    Looks like this guy is valuing theory over observation. Does the think that the “groups are damaged by fighting” dynamic is new? It’s a universal feature of human interaction, and people fight nonetheless. Wars are the most obvious example, but wars are still fought by the historically aware. And let’s not forget about labour disputes wrecking companies, or knock-down legal fights that sap both sides of millions of dollars. There’s obvious net benefit to avoiding these fights, and it’s a benefit that everyone is aware of, but the fights still happen. Until he can explain that, this isn’t “plausible”, it’s the worst kind of ivory-tower idealism. When Huemer’s read a bit of rudimentary game theory, I may listen to what he has to say.

  • RRS

    For those interested in following the discourse on Huemer’s extrapolatiions, there is good (brief) commentary over at Arnold Kling’s AskBlog this A.M. (3/14/3013):

  • RRS

    I have repeatedly tried to post a link

    I allowed hours to pass between posts and something rejects the posts????

  • Julie near Chicago

    RRS, This?

    “Huemer Unbound” 3/13/13