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Michael Huemer on Political Authority

March 4, 2013

If you haven’t yet, do pick up a copy of Huemer’s latest book, The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the RIght to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. But for the short version, check out this month’s Cato Unbound. Here’s a typical Huemerian insight: 

Imagine that someone proposed that the key to establishing social justice and restraining corporate greed was to establish a very large corporation, much larger than any corporation hitherto known—one with revenues in the trillions of dollars. A corporation that held a monopoly on some extremely important market within our society. And used its monopoly in that market to extend its control into other markets. And hired men with guns to force customers to buy its product at whatever price it chose. And periodically bombed the employees and customers of corporations in other countries. By what theory would we predict that this corporation, above all others, could be trusted to serve our interests and to protect us both from criminals and from all the other corporations? If someone proposed to establish a corporation like this, would your trepidation be assuaged the moment you learned that every adult would be issued one share of stock in this corporation, entitling them to vote for members of the board of directors? If it would not, is the governmental system really so different from that scenario as to explain why we may trust a national government to selflessly serve and protect the rest of society?

  1. March 4, 2013 9:24 pm

    Not to forget the advantages conferred on those who work for that Corporation, the effect of those who organise groups of voting stock, like labour unions, and the classic situation where you vote new board members in only to find that they still follow the same failing policies.

    ..and this would be the ultimate “to big to fail” company, guaranteed to be bailed out no matter how badly it is run.

  2. March 5, 2013 12:30 am

    Quite a coincidence – i was thinking about this idea (and by idea, I mean virtually that entire Huemerian paragraph) around two days ago. As it was crossing my mind, it didn’t strike me as particularly groundbreaking. In fact, I probably read it somewhere already. All credit to Huemer for expressing it eloquently, but can we really call it an insight? The blatant contradiction of being opposed to big business corporations while being in favor of a democratic state – I would have thought that this concept has been expressed numerous times over the last century. It would be an interesting exercise to find extracts (from Mencken say) that draw attention to this hypocrisy.

    As far as left-wing thinking is concerned, the crucial difference is that the shareholders of a corporation are “people with money”, while the ‘shareholders’ of democracy are “The People”. By left-wing I mean anything that places value on some (often ill-defined) notion of equality. The overwhelming desire to empower the masses usually trumps any inquiry into the principal-agent problem or other public choice theory.

  3. Nobilis Reed permalink
    March 6, 2013 2:22 pm

    Would smaller states be easier or harder for large corporations to corrupt?

  4. Jonny permalink
    March 6, 2013 7:33 pm

    This general argument can work great in discussing the laundry list of things people want government to do. I live in the NW of the US where nearly everyone considers the state the only viable solution to environmental problems.

    But what is the state’s environmental track record? Domestically speaking, it is terrible. The army especially has a long history of dumping toxic waste (or ordering it’s private enterprise partners to do so). Overseas is far, far worse. How much land has been left covered in land mines? How much habitable land has been destroyed, displacing it’s occupants? Lets not forget how many of those creatures are those things we call “humans” — something many environmentalists unfortunately consider a dangerous parasite.

    Anywhere a government (“the right to coerce and the duty to obey”) claims to be trying to solve a problem I can guarantee they are simultaneously one of the worst perpetrators of that same problem. Public education, anyone?

    • kurt9 permalink
      March 29, 2013 5:23 pm

      Its the desire of business to cut costs. Its very tempting to dispose of toxic waste, say froma manufacturing process, by dumping it in a field at night or dumping it into the sea. Some form of external oversight is necessary to make sure this does not happen. On the other hand, governments, because they are a monopoly, often do this same thing when they think they can get away with it. This is very common practice on the part of the military (and probably the REAL secrecy surrounding Area 51 in Nevada – its an illegal dump site). Governments themselves need external oversight as well.

      I don’t have the answer to this, except to same that some system of overlapping oversight involving both private and public parties is necessary to protect the environment.

  5. March 7, 2013 6:21 pm

    Reblogged this on Drewt333's Blog and commented:
    “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”
    — Oscar Wilde

  6. October 25, 2013 3:42 am

    If you’re not impressed by the passage or the rest of his Cato essay, still buy his book, because his essay (including the quoted passage) don’t at all do his book justice. The Problem of Political Authority is a fantastic book.

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