What social contract?

As I said last time, I’ve been reading Michael Huemer’s book:  The Problem of Political Authority. The problem of political authority is the problem of justifying coercion by the government  when common sense morality rules out the same behaviour done by anyone else. The point here is that government has no special right to command and we have no special duty to obey unless what the government does that goes beyond what we may do can be justified.

Government coercion is commands backed up by the threat of deliberate physical harm up to and including killing. In short, and for example, taxation is demanding money with menaces, morally forbidden to you and me but done by the government. Does the government have any such right and do you have any duty to obey it?

The first kind of justification Huemer considers is the social contract: that you agreed to being coerced by the government. Now I don’t know about you, but I never made any such agreement. So on that basis the government should leave me alone, shouldn’t it?

Many agreements, however, are not explicit, so perhaps we did agree but did so implicitly through our behaviour. Heumer considers four ways by which this might occur: passive consent which is agreement through not opposing when asked;  consent through acceptance of benefits such as when ordering food in a restaurant is agreeing to pay for it; consent through presence such as staying at my party after I’ve said anyone saying has to help tidying up later; consent through participation such as playing a game knowing that everyone gives the winner £1.

Heumer points out that there are conditions which must be fulfilled for these routes to implicit consent to constitute a valid agreement: there must be a reasonable way of opting out; explicit dissent must block implicit consent; an act indicates agreement only if you think not doing the act would leave you out of the agreement; contractual obligation is mutual and conditional, so if one side doesn’t do its part the agreement is void.

Heumer then argues that none of these conditions are fulfilled by the putative social contract. Opting out requires vacating the territory subject to the government and this is not reasonable. Explicit dissent is not recognized by governments. There is no action that you do that if you did not do the government would not impose its rule on you. The courts routinely and successfully block attempts by subjects to  sue for governmental failure to fulfil specific obligations so there is no mutuality.

Hence there is no explicit social contract and no implicit social contract so political authority is not justified by our agreeing to be coerced.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit

24 Responses to What social contract?

  • Phillip Krohn says:

    Sounds like teenage libertarian whining to me, and not at all up to the usual standard of this blog. “Them jack-booted gummint thugs are takin’ mah money.” Of course governments can be corrupt, incompetent and worse, but the problem is that if you take power away from the government, it doesn’t disappear; it goes to businesses, or churches, or the guy with the biggest stick.

    In a democratic government, the idea is that power is shared so this doesn’t happen. If government stops doing its job (ie. looking after the people), it loses legitimacy; but when that happens, what’s needed is reform, not anarchy.

    If Huemer’s arguments are valid, they don’t necessarily reveal a problem with political authority. The alternative is that they reveal a problem with social contact theory. As far as I’m concerned we don’t necessarily need social contract theory to legitimise government; we need a theory that legitimises good government while telling us what to do with bad government. I think a form of rule-consequentialism may well suffice.

    • Nicholas Shackel says:

      Always good to see authoritarian prejudice clearly expressed. As to standards, I could make it more obscure if that is more to your taste. And democratic romanticism too! So glad to see you are among the righteous. You seem to be saying that there is no social contract that justifies government coercion but rule consequentialism does. That’s fine. We’ll deal with other putative justifications later.

  • Dave Frame says:

    I agree with Phillip that modern liberal governments don’t obviously generate powers that alternatives wouldn’t also grab. To me, the bar for justification is uninteresting in terms of anything absolute or terribly abstract. The justification is really just relative – is it (as Churchill noted) better than the alternatives? My answer would be yes. At least under these sorts of regimes you have opportunities to have your voice counted, maybe even heard, and opportunties for social mobility of various sorts.

    • Nicholas Shackel says:

      This sounds like a consequentialist defence but what we are discussing here is the social contract defence. There is one point to be very clear about: the issue is to justify political authority, the right to coerce and the duty to obey, in its applying to all and only subjects and residents in its territory that is content independent, comprehensive and supreme. Once you start speaking of various goods then (1) there need be nothing about that that justifies the coercion of government if the good can be achieved without government (2) even when achieved by government it need not justify government doing anything which were it done by others would be morally forbidden. It is this last issue that is crucial. A motivating example I gave last time: if I police the neighbourhood and lock up thieves and vandals and demand money from you for the cost of this service we would call it kidnapping and extortion but if the government does it it is called the criminal justice system and taxation. Since it is obviously immoral if I do it the burden of justification lies on those who say it is right for the government to do it. It can’t just be that some of us got together and agreed to do it to others because a conspiracy to kidnap and extort is even worse. And it is no defence to say that we let their voice be heard before we kidnapped and extorted, so that idea is simply question begging. What about letting anyone’s voice being heard justifies killing whoever stubbornly resists your commands? But that is what government coercion comes down to in the end. Again, this moves towards yet a further kind of defence from what democracy justifies, a defence we will meet later.

      • Dave Frame says:

        I’ve always seen the social contract as basically an analogy rather than a literal contract. Power has never come knocking at your door and offered you a deal. Not in any society I can think of. Personally, I kind of buy Hobbes’s diagnosis of the world without rules. And rules enable us to do things (specialise, trust others) that would otherwise be impossible. You can have more or less just rules, and you can have rules that bring about higher or lower levels of well-being. And you can fight about that all you like.

        But does anyone really think those rules are agreed over a cup of tea with The Man? Can that (contractrarian description) ever be much more than a sort of metaphor for your relationship to power? In the Hobbesian world that is the counter-factual (or “original position”, I guess), justice, duty, etc strike me as irrelevant.* Since this Hobbesian world is prior to rules being agreed, rules regarding duty, justice, self-ownership, etc have also yet to be established. In the beginning, there was power. That was all – morality, in that world, is just a punchline.

        *As a great man once said “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpDkYZWeeVg

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    “Now I don’t know about you, but I never made any such agreement. So on that basis the government should leave me alone, shouldn’t it?”

    Well no. “The government” can only be expected to leave you alone if you’ve made it clear that you reject this social contract, by moving to another place to live – a place that doesn’t fall under this government’s jurisdiction. That is clearly YOUR responsibility.

    There’s a whole world out there, ranging from unclaimed wilderness to totalitarian dictatorships. It’s your responsibility to choose a place to live that is reasonably in accord with your own ideas of an acceptable basic political system, or lack thereof. You presumably choose to live in a modern Western nation, in which case you have indeed accepted the social contract on offer. Like other whining libertarians, you can pretend that this has actually somehow been “imposed” on you, but no-one is going to sympathise with this except the other irresponsible whiners.

    The day that you Ayn Rand groupies leave the rest of us alone and set up your own “libertarian” anarchist colony somewhere – preferably on another planet – will be the day that we might consider taking you seriously.

    • Nicholas Shackel says:

      Ah, the hatred of freedom burns bright in you. You will go far.

      As Huemer points out, making leaving the territory the only way to opt out is not a reasonable opt out and so presence does not constitute valid implicit consent hence does not implement a social contract.

      • Owen Schaefer says:

        Most of Huemer’s points here look pretty derivative of previous critiques of Locke’s consent view (going back to Hume, and more thoroughly laid out in work by anarchists like A.J. Simmons). Fair enough, Huemer has to get through the old standard arguments before turning to his more novel arguments.

        But I was wondering if you could say a bit more about why Huemer finds the opt-out solution so unreasonable. Is it financial expense/opportunity cost? I’m not sure that’s sufficient to obviate consent (though many in the research ethics literature would disagree). Plenty of business contracts involve significant financial costs to failing to sign up and for opting out in the middle (such that doing so would be unreasonable), but they still seem perfectly legit. Maybe Huemer thinks purely opt-out contracts (which one never explicitly signed onto in the beginning) have a higher bar, but why is that? Huemer might focus on legal barriers to emmigration and immigration, but then his argument wouldn’t apply when there are relatively open emmigration/immigration laws between two given countries, such as the US and UK (and I take it Huemer is trying to make a much more general argument).

        More persuasive, to my mind, would be an argument not that opting out is unreasonable, but actually technically impossible. Almost all territory in the world is under the legal control of one body or another (are there areas of the world where murder wouldn’t be prosecuted by some legal authority?). So, we can say it is impossible to opt out of *all* legal authorities; we can’t choose to be anarchists simply by moving. The analogy would be some weird business contract system where opting out of a contract with one party necessarily meant entering into a contract with another. I’m not sure what to think about such cases, but I suspect a case could be made that consent is not morally transformative under those circumstances (e.g., necessary for consent is the possibility that no contract be entered into).

        • Nicholas Shackel says:

          I can’t see why you think saying the arguments are derivative matters. The issue is whether the arguments are sound and that is all. I’m not seeing why the business case matters either. Talking about opting out in the middle assumes that you are already in a contract, but the issue here is about what is required for behaviour to constitute an implicit contract when there isn’t an explicit one.

          In the case of the party, people can easily opt out by leaving my party so if they stay they have implcitly agreed to clear up. In the case of the government opting out requires leaving the territory and that is obviously unreasonable: indeed, it is ridiculous that anyone could think being required to abandon hearth and home, family and friends, job and civil association is a reasonable way of opting out of anything. Hume has a nice remark on this point that Huemer quotes: We mayas well assert that a man, by remaining in a vessel, freely consents to the dominion of the master; though he was carried on board, and must leap into the ocean, and perish, the moment he leaves her.

          Huemer also makes your point that moving just results in being subject to another government –unless you ‘live in the ocean, move to Antarctica or commit suicide’.

          A further argument he offers is that opting out cannot require you to give up something to which you have a right and obviously if the only way you can opt out is to leave the territory you will be giving up many things to which you have a right. Now you may think that you only have a right by right of the state (nonsense of course but always popular with authoritarians and collectivists), but you can’t use that as a premiss in an implicit social contract justification of political authority. Using that to justify implicit consent by presence is question begging, since it is the right of the state that is supposed to be being justified by an implicit contract so it can’t be presumed in saying you have made an implicit contract.

          • Owen Schaefer says:

            Well, one would hope that a new book would have something new to say, but again maybe that comes in later chapters.

            Implicit in the reasonableness argument is something like the idea that any contract that it is unreasonable to turn down/exit cannot be validly consented to. The point of my business analogy is to show that, on the contrary, simply being unreasonable to refuse does not in fact make consent invalid. Alternatively, we can alter the party example for the same purpose: suppose that one’s friend, in addition to demanding clean-up-or-leave, is a wealthy and eccentric person who offers excessive payment to those who stay and clean, to the point where turning down the offer would be unreasonable. Is the guest, because opting out is suddenly unreasonable, no longer obligated to clean if he stays? Some of contracts are so good that it’s not reasonable to turn them down, and arguably the social contract is one of them.

            Similar things could be said about the rights issue. The friend might allow the guest to use his toilets if and only if the guest stays to clean up after the party, meaning by opting out the guest gives up a right to use his friend’s toilets. So again, does the friend offering the use of his toilets mean the guest is no longer obligated to clean up if he stays, because leaving invovlves giving up a right?

            • Nicholas Shackel says:

              This has got nothing whatsoever to do with the reasonableness or otherwise of a contract. The issue is whether a behaviour counts as implicit consent to a contract not whether the contract itself is reasonable nor whether it is reasonable to agree or reject the contract. In the case of consent by presence opting out is leaving and the issue is whether the leaving is reasonable: walking out of my house is, leaving the territory is not. Since what you have to do to opt out is not reasonable presence does not constitute implicit consent. Additionally, leaving my house does not require you to give up anything to which you have a right, leaving the territory does, and so again, presence in my house is implicit consent and presence in the country is not.

              • Owen Schaefer says:

                The two altered thought experiments I presented are cases where a) leaving the house is unreasonable (insofar as it is unreasonable to give up the opportunity to receive an absurdly large payment for a bit of cleaning) and then b) leaving the house means giving up the right to something ( the right to use the host’s toilets). On Huemer’s view, that would mean implicit consent would not be given in either case by the person who stays (and so they’re not obligated to clean), while it would without either of those two conditions. Yet, that seems rather absurd – that providing extra benefits/rights for staying could make staying no longer constitute implicit consent.

                • Nicholas Shackel says:

                  The leaving has to be reasonable independently of the content of the putative contract. Your first example depends entirely on the content of the contract. Your second assumes you have a right to use my toilet but you don’t.

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    The problem of parental authority is the problem of justifying coercion by the parents when common sense morality rules out the same behaviour done by anyone else. The point here is that parents have no special right to command and we have no special duty to obey unless what the parents do that goes beyond what we may do can be justified.

    The first kind of justification Huemer considers is the social contract: that you agreed to being coerced by your parents. Now I don’t know about you, but I never made any such agreement. So on that basis my parents should leave me alone, shouldn’t they?

    I didn’t choose to be born, I was not consulted by my parents in their passionate moment of conception, I did not choose the country or the language in which was raised…..

    And so on, and so on….

    How does Huemer deal with these issues, I wonder?

    • Nicholas Shackel says:

      I take it you are pointing out that no child made an agreement with it’s parents to be coerced so the child’s agreement couldn’t be the justification of parental authority. Are you advancing this point as a challenge to Huemer’s argument against there being a social contract justification of political authority? I don’t see how it could be: it seems to support his point by analogy–the child made no implicit agreement by its mere presence because it can’t opt out etc; similarly we made no implicit agreement with the government. If on the other hand you are actually asking about his position on justifying parental authority, I have no idea: he’s written a book on political authority not parental authority.

      • Anthony Drinkwater says:

        Sorry, but I must have erased a line by mistake. Here’s the comment as it should be:

        You are right, Dr Shackel, in concluding that I was trying to mount an argument against Huemer. It goes roughly like this :
        I would argue that parental authority is much more determinant (has a much greater impact on our lives – present and future) than government authority, and that it is much more arbitrary (for the vast majority of them, parents just happen to a child).
        Yet nearly all of us, I imagine, accept that it is justifiable for a parent to give us rules, make major choices for us and so on, despite the fact that there is no contract and that it is hard to conceive how one could possibly be created.
        If I argued against parental authority by stating the fact that there is no agreed contract between parents and child, I would be attacking a straw man.
        Which is what I believe you are doing in attacking in this way the notion of governmental authority.
        It is on this point that I disagree your post.

        Incidentally, one of the roles of government is precisely to limit excesses in the exercise of parental authority. But perhaps you will consider this as symptomatic of an unjustifiable and coercive «nanny state» ?

        • Nicholas Shackel says:

          You seem to be concerned with an attempt at justification based on an analogy with parental authority, i.e. a justification from paternalism. But that has got nothing to do with the question at issue here, which is whether political authority is justified by our agreeing to be coerced. The argument against this is not against a straw man precisely because the claim that political authority is justified by a social contract is a major line of defence that has been offered: see Hobbes and Locke for starters.

          Nevertheless, I shall point out the obvious alternative argument by analogy. Government is paternal (your premiss). Government coercion is commands backed up by the threat of deliberate physical harm up to and including killing. Parental coercion of such a kind is immoral. Therefore government coercion is immoral and hence political authority is not justified. This is an ad hominem argument, but of the valid kind (fallacious ad hominem is the variety which goes ‘you’re a bad person therefore what you say is false’), since it argues from a premiss you accept to a conclusion you reject.

          • Anthony Drinkwater says:

            The «straw man» is that Heumer considers only four ways by which implicit consent could occur: passive consent, consent through acceptance of benefits, consent through presence and consent through participation.
            Having defined rather simplistically these possibilities and then dismissing them equally simply, he concludes that there can therefore be no valid argument for a form of social contract defence of government.
            I think that Hobbes, Locke and others are being caricatured (I have not read Huemer, so I’m taking your interpretation as an accurate portrayal of his argument).

  • Nikolas Schaffer says:

    “Ah, the hatred of freedom burns bright in you. You will go far.”

    Um no, I live a free sort of life as a resident of the country of my choice.

    “As Huemer points out, making leaving the territory the only way to opt out is not a reasonable opt out and so presence does not constitute valid implicit consent hence does not implement a social contract.”

    Yes but he’s you know, wrong. It’s highly impractical to run several completely different societies on the same patch of land, physically tangled up together yet politically and legally autonomous. This site is called “Practical Ethics”. My suggestion that would-be anarchists should find their own patch of land (or water) is the only practical solution to their “problem”.

    Alternatively, they could stop pretending that having to pay taxes and abide by the laws of the land are dictatorial intrusions in democratic countries. If you don’t like certain taxes and certain laws, you can always campaign against them, but rest assured they will always exist in some form or other, as they are pretty much essential characteristics of civilised societies. Libertarians can dispense with them entirely in their own society, but only because their own society is a fantasy.

  • Phillip Krohn says:

    Authoritarian prejudice? Hatred of freedom? I might expect such blatant strawmen on an open forum, but not from a professional philosopher (which I presume you are given you’re blogging here).

    My opposition to libertarianism and anarchism is practical. Of course, one must have principles, but the emphasis here is on the plural. Freedom is one thing we must value, but we must also value other things, and those things suffer without good government. (Emphasis here on good.) And you gloss over the fact that, while freedoms to are increased (at least ideally) under libertarianism, freedoms from are substantially lessened, because unless somebody takes on the role vacated by government, nobody acts as their guarantor.

  • Rebecca Roache says:

    Hi Nick – I hope you’re well!

    I read this interesting post a couple of days ago and have been pondering it since. I am inclined to agree with you that there is a problem here justifying actions by a government that would be unjustified if non-government groups or individuals did them.

    One thing I’m wondering is whether the idea of a contract between a government and its citizens is misplaced. Usually, a contract involves straightforward and reasonable ways of opting in or out (as you note), and these are absent in the case of establishing the relationship between government and citizens. In addition, usually, a contract is made against a background of more general legislation that governs what happens when either party breaches their contract (e.g. a legal system that can be used by either party to sue the other, and which exists independently of the contract). That background seems to be important in making a contract possible at all: it helps define what a contract is, for example. None of that exists in the case of the putative agreement between government and citizens. It seems that any action that the government may take against you for breach of contract must be justifiable in terms of the very contract that is breached (if it’s justifiable at all), which raises the question whether the contract can be said to have been breached at all (and if it can be, how any retributive action can be justified).

    This reminds me a bit of a paper by Strawson (I don’t recall the title) in which he argues that questioning whether inductive reasoning is rational is comparable to questioning whether the law is legal, i.e. a kind of category error. Perhaps something similar can be said of the idea of a social contract. In the case of inductive reasoning, we simply accept it because it works, even though that’s not really a proper, non-circular justification for it (I may be missing something here because I’m pretty ignorant of the literature on induction). Maybe the same is true of the social contract, which seems to be equivalent to saying, ‘It’s not justified: deal with it’. Or maybe the government’s action can be justifiable by finding some other (non-contractual) framework for it.

    • Nicholas Shackel says:

      If the conclusion is ‘It’s not justified: deal with it’ then this is conceding Huemer’s claim general claim (not just the conclusion of the argument I’ve addressed here) that political authority is not justified. We do, however, have to be careful what this amounts to. Huemer’s arguments are directed against political authority as a special authority had by government giving it a general right to do things that no one else would be allowed to do and imposing our duty to obey it when it exercises that right. If he is right, it doesn’t entail anarchy but it does entail that government is subject to the same moral prohibitions as anyone. So insofar as something would be right for anyone to do, such as defence of self and property, the government would be one possible instrument. The effect of his arguments, if successful, is to confine legitimate government to a minimal state and also to point out that it is only one possible effector of its activity. He then raises the antipathy that many have to large corporations and asks why, if they do not think having a giant corporation with one share each would be a good way to deal with things (let alone a corporation with armies and police), would they think a democratic government with armies and police is better. Just because we have a vote rather than a share makes no essential difference and corporations at least have the decency to go bust and disappear if they do things badly whereas government simply enslaves the people subject to it to preserve itself despite doing things badly.

      I doubt the kind of defence that is sometimes offered for induction would work for a social contract justification of political authority. An inductive defence of induction is perfectly good provided induction is in fact a reliable guide (this is a kind of externalist move: Hugh Mellor among others offers it somewhere but I don’t remember exactly where). So whilst there may be possible worlds in which induction is unreliable, provided it is reliable in the actual world then a defence of induction using inductive reasoning is OK. This amounts to accepting that the regularity of nature and the goodness of inductive reasoning go together. In the case of contract, however, if contract is posterior to a state then there could be no social contract prior to the state so there could be no social contract justifying political authority for that state. Part of the reason for this is that contracts come into existence when agreements are made and so are temporal, whereas the goodness or otherwise of induction is atemporal. This is why claiming to justify political authority on the basis of a social contract is a radically different kind of defence from justification on the basis of a hypothetical social contract, which is not a contract at all and for that reason need not be temporal. It is so different that the terminology is misleading, but we won’t get to what Huemer says about hypothetical social contract justifications till next month.

      Or you might be thinking of a kind of constitutive defence: induction just is what non-demonstrative inference consists in and querying its rationality is just like querying the rationality of rationality, or the morality of morality or the wateryness of water: they are what they are so the questions are empty. However, again, I don’t think this will pass over as a social contract justification. Of course, whatever the relation between state and subjects is, is constituted somehow or other and is what it is. But that doesn’t make that relation a contract, since contracts are what they are: they have as a necessary condition of their existence being agreed to and there is no such thing in the relation between state and subjects.

      If what you were concluding from the difficulties you mentioned was that the relation between subject and state is not one of contract then again I would disagree with the way you are moving towards the end since I think this amounts to conceding Huemer’s claim that there is no social contract. But I don’t think that means that we can be left to ‘deal with it’ since if the political authority presumed by states is not justified then states are not legitimate. Of course, one may have to put up with oppression by the state because one can’t get out from under it, but that is another issue altogether.

  • De Pietro says:

    “Well no. “The government” can only be expected to leave you alone if you’ve made it clear that you reject this social contract, by moving to another place to live – a place that doesn’t fall under this government’s jurisdiction. That is clearly YOUR responsibility.”

    I feel I should point out that moving to another country may not be a choice everyone has. Not everyone is wealthy enough to do so (so only the rich may reject the social contract?), and in many countries you are already born with responsibilities toward your government/queen/shah.

  • sass says:

    Dear Dr Shackel,

    1. I haven’t read Huemer’s book, so I’m relying on your interpretation of his work. My reply has several layers.

    2. First and foremost, the social contract is not an agreement between an individual and the government (or the sovereign – to use Hobbes’ words) per se. The government is simply the agent that enforces the terms of this imagined contract. The parties to this contract are the members of a political community. Whatever the government does spring from the “implicit or explicit” agreement made by the members of a political community.

    3. In this regard, the current form of most governments is not the sovereign in Hobbes’ version of the social contract but the sovereign in Rousseau’s version. This is a very important distinction to be made. In Hobbes’ version the members of the political community surrenders ALL their authority to the sovereign – this sovereign is the monarch, who will have absolute power over everyone; in Rousseau the sovereign authority is the political community. I’ve checked the preview of the book on Amazon and it seems Huemer only relied on the social contract formulated by Hobbes.

    3.1 The sovereign in Hobbes’ social contract is not subject to democratic control. Remember Hobbes’ preferred form of government is absolute monarchy. I assume that Huemer is attacking Hobbes’ version of government, which has absolute power on everything and not subject to checks and balances.

    3.2 And I think this assumption has weight given this quotation from his book, which I got from a blog:

    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?

    3.2 This is a re-working of Hobbes’ Leviathan; replacing Hobbes’ absolute monarchy with a corporation that has absolute monopoly on market decisions. This is a powerful but very problematic analogy.

    4. Both Rousseau and Hobbes suffer from the assumption that there was a time when humans existed without a community. This fallacious assumption problematises their concept of “state of nature,” where a human being existed only alone, without a community, in perfect freedom. Surely, we have heard stories of feral children, who grew up in the forest, with non-human animals, outside human community, without any form of political authority coercing them to do anything. But I highly doubt that Hobbes, Rousseau, or any social contract theorists created these theories having the situation of feral children as the ideal.

    5. The question here is not whether or not a government can coerce you to do something because of your social contract with it. The question is whether or not, through its legitimate political authority, the community where you find yourself can coerce you (with violence as the coercive tool of last resort) in obeying its rules.

    5.1 Your conclusion – “Hence there is no explicit social contract and no implicit social contract so political authority is not justified by our agreeing to be coerced” – implies that the political authority of any community where you find yourself cannot coerce you to follow its rules. But is this an absolute statement? Certainly not. You’ve outlined Huemer’s conditions where an implicit consent is valid; we can consider them as conditions where you can implicitly consent for a community to coerce you:

    a) there must be a reasonable way of opting out;
    b) explicit dissent must block implicit consent;
    c) an act indicates agreement only if you think not doing the act would leave you out of the agreement;
    d) contractual obligation is mutual and conditional, so if one side doesn’t do its part the agreement is void.

    * It is however unclear in your statements whether ALL these conditions should be present at the same time in order for your implicit consent to be valid.

    5.2 But how problematic are these conditions when considered in light of a complex situation? Being and living in a community cannot be simplistically compared with “ordering food in a restaurant,” “attending a party,” or “participating in a game.” These conditions do not share the same level of complexity of community.

    6. All the above conditions can be problematised in light of considering the complexity of community. But let’s focus on condition a.

    6.1 Firstly, this is problematic because you can never opt out of community – unless you want to live your life like those feral children.

    6.2 If opting out of a community doesn’t mean living perfectly alone, then it means living in another community. However, that community will have a legitimate authority who is tasked to coerce anyone in the community to follow the rules of the community.

    6.3 Can we have any community that will not have any form of authority that will be tasked in maintaining order? Can this order be maintained without using the threat of violence as a disciplinary tool? Do we want a community that has no legitimate authority?

    7. Through its legitimate authority, the political community (which is called the State in our contemporary time) has, to use Weber’s words, monopoly of the legitimate use of violence.

    7.1 Based on what I quoted in 3.2, Huemer is worried about this because he rightfully asked can we “trust a national government to selflessly serve and protect the rest of society?”

    7.2 But what is the alterative to 7? We can answer this by considering the extreme opposite of our current situation: That everyone will have a legitimate use of violence. How is this a better situation?

    7.3 If we cannot trust a democratically elected national government to use violence in a legitimate way, how can we trust each other that we will only use violence in a legitimate way?

    7.4 One may employ deterrence theory in arguing that a free market of violence will prevent violence from happening at all. Surely, this may be true in some context where the physical capacity of each party is proportional. But if it’s not, the mightier one, as history has shown us, would certainly assume hegemony. What would stop this hegemon from imposing its own rules for its own benefit? Are the conditions for legitimate consent that you have outlined above possible in this scenario?

    7.5 Certainly this is an extreme scenario, but one that we can reasonably expect when suddenly legitimately democratically elected government loses its monopoly on legitimate use of violence.

    8. One might say that we can have rules on what violence can be legitimate. But can those rules be enforced without force? Without an authority that can enforce them? Can we trust that these rules will be obeyed without the threat of violence from some political authority?

Authors

Subscribe Via Email

Affiliations