Saturday, August 08, 2009

The "social contract" given a kicking

One of the most pernicious narratives that has come to the fore of late is that of the "social contract". Although I have discussed it in passing, Charlotte Gore started a more explicit discussion around this idea a few days ago.
Cory Doctorow asks his Grandmother why she left the Soviet Union:
“Papers,” she said, finally. “We had to carry papers. The police could stop you at any time and make you turn over your papers.” The floodgates opened. They spied on you. They made you spy on each other.

This sounds like a powerful argument in favour of being watchful about the surveillance powers of the State, doesn’t it? Except it doesn’t. Even now Joe can reply, “well, they didn’t agree to the Contract, so they left, what’s the problem? Everyone who didn’t care stayed. Most people didn’t care.”

Which means we’re back where we started, where ‘Democratic Mandate’ gives Government the power to do whatever it wants and it’s up to us to comply or leave—very Labour.

The question now is whether or not we can ever find a hard argument in favour of civil liberties as an inherent good, in much the same way that democracy is considered an inherent good—something that people accept by default. Until then, civil liberties are little more than a minor annoyance for legislators who wish such a concept did not exist.

The first and most obvious problem is that a contract involves agreement. The parties to a contract generally signify their acceptance by signing the contract. By that measure, there is no such thing as a "social contract" since no one has signed anything.

Indeed, perhaps it would be better if we had, since the terms would be defined. Because what happens now is that the state keeps shifting the goalposts: ever since the nascent Welfare State was created in 1911 (and probably before), assorted governments have changed the terms of this contract. This has been particularly marked in recent years, as the state realises that it simply doesn't have the money to deliver everything that it has promised—despite ratcheting up the premiums that it forces us to pay.

To paraphrase Lando Calrissian, "this deal just keeps getting worse": we are forced to pay more and more of our money in, and the benefits get fewer and fewer. At least if there was a proper contract, we could take the government to court for being in breach of it.

But, as it is, there is no contract and, even if there were, it would not be recognised in law—because it would have been signed under duress. There is nothing voluntary in this contract and thus it would not be valid—or, indeed, moral.

Various people have written fine answers to Charlotte's question—Jock Coats, Nick M, Costigan Quist, for instance, have all approached the problem from different angles—but my favourite is the argument by the infamous and brilliant IanB.
Those of us who don’t like the current laws and parliamentary system are free to moan about it, and to attempt to change the minds of our fellows. Nobody is stopping Britain being a minarchy, except the people who live here who, by not voting for one, clearly don’t want it.

And if anybody doesn’t like that, they can leave.

And here, of course, is where the problem lies—it is a question of property rights.
Now we can also look at this from a Libertarian property rights perspective. In a libertarian society, people are entitled to associate and form whatever collectives they wish. If Farmer Giles and Farmer Brown wish to, they could combine their land collectively, and bring in some rules about how they will both behave on that land, and how resources will be allocated, and so on. Perhaps many farmers might choose to do that. If they do that, they now have what is basically a little nation state with a social contract, with laws which people must obey. They may be on private land, but they are now a state, to all intents and purposes. They are the collective owners of their little land. And no libertarian could stand in their way regarding doing that. And if other people ask to live there, they are accepting that social contract, and if their children don’t like it, they can change it or they can leave. It’s entirely fair and reasonable.

Now even if we stick at this point, this does not repudiate libertarianism. When libertarians promote the idea of a libertarian Britain, we are basically arguing for a new social contract with few rules, that is all, just as any other political movement is arguing for a different social contract. We are not repudiating the existence of Britain (even anarcho-capitalists seem to accept their system will be within some kind of national boundaries). I have seen some collectivists argue that libertarians have no right to promote our viewpoint, because “we, the collective, don’t want it”. That is of course ridiculous; anyone may ask for a rule change and try to persuade the rest of the collective to adopt it. But unfortunately, having already typed a great deal, I still haven’t undermined the social contract idea at all. In fact, I’ve accepted it. Is liberty doomed?

We wait with bated breath...
Well, no. It’s all in that second part, the “if you don’t like it, you can leave” bit.

If we go back to our jolly farmers example, something we might note is that their collective is defined geographically. They have combined their property. Likewise, nation states are defined geographically. The collectivist is defining his collective as a commmon area of land, within which the collective has absolute power. The members of the collective therefore must be seen as joint property owners of the land. The land of Britain is jointly owned by its sixty million residents. This is explicit in the concept of public property—all that land owned by the “public”—the parks and waterways and government property and so on, is owned by the people. Furthermore, many of the residents explicitly own land within the nation’s borders. They have property rights.

So here’s the thing. If we ask somebody who doesn’t like it to leave, we are forcing them to leave their land behind. Consider the Scots. Suppose that the Scots, as a group, decide that they no longer want to be part of the British collective. The Scots collective owns a great deal of land—called Scotland. Clearly, if they wish to leave Britain, they cannot be forced to vacate that land. It’s theirs. Rather, Scotland—the land which comprises Scotland—would secede from the Union with the people upon it.

If the collective is defined geographically, then quitting the collective must be a geographical act too.

But then we must say, what is special about the Scots collective? The same must apply to the people of Fife—Fife too must be free to secede. But why stop at Fife? There is no reason. Dunfermline, too has a right to secede. So too does Dunfermline High Street. Then, obviously, we get down to the individual, and say that Mr Angus McSporran, 23 High Street Dunfermline, if he wishes to no longer participate in the collective, has a right to secede from it while staying where he is geographically. That is, the land his house is on has the right to quit Britain, and Mr McSporran and his family within it.

Now we then look at those who own no specific property. They have no land to secede. But, we have established that each individual is a part owner of the public land of Britain. The seceding citizen therefore certainly has a claim to some sixty millionth part of that public land. (Or in practical terms, he may buy some land and then secede thereupon).

There is, of course, a Family Guy episode—E. Peterbus Unum—based on the concept of personal secession.
Now the collectivist may say “ah hahh- you can’t do that. The rules of the collective prohibit withdrawal of land from it”. But if that is the case, then the collectivist justification- that every citizen is a voluntary member of the collective with the right to leave- falls apart. They are now being coerced. It can no longer be argued that they are “here of their own free will”, because their land is being held hostage to enforce their continued cooperation. And if the collectivist instead argues that the collective is not geographic, but based on people—well, they can’t do that. The nation is a land area. That is unavoidable.

So my conclusion is; the collectivist social contract argument is valid so long as abitrary secession is allowed. Since there is no nation state on Earth that allows arbitrary secession, we can conclude that no nation state is a voluntary social contract.

Although I have quoted large chunks of IanB's article, it really is worth reading the whole thing in order to follow all of the premises and the entire logical chain.

Generally, it seems a sensible and irrefutable refutation of the concept of the "social contract" because it not only destroys the validity of the such a contract, it also works in the circumstances under which we live, i.e. that there is no actual, voluntary contract with defined terms.

It takes the "social contract" as defined by the morons who espouse it, and demolishes the concept on the very terms by which "social democrats" and the like define it.

So, the only conclusion is that those who espouse the "social contract" are not painting the picture of a country in which everyone has volunteered to participate in said contract, but instead of a country in which people are coerced into participation. And that is, quite obviously, a totalitarian regime.

Of course, even were one able to secede from the country, there would be practicalities to iron out, but the key argument remains the same: there is no contract without voluntary consent.

21 comments:

Martin said...

"If Farmer Giles and Farmer Brown wish to, they could combine their land collectively, and bring in some rules about how they will both behave on that land, and how resources will be allocated, and so on" -

And if Farmer Scoggins has a right of way across both Brown's and Giles's land, then, to paraphrase Lenin, what is to be done?

Anonyno said...

Martin, could you expand on that? I think I'm misunderstanding; surely Farmer Scoggins simply now has right of way across the Brown-Giles condominium?

Martin said...

Those who rely on a social contract in order to justify high tax, big government, the who kit-and-kaboodle, are merely using the "contract" concept to give a veneer of consent to the government's actions, which inevitably rely on coercion. Of course, the only tool governments really have is compulsive force; coercion. When that becomes clear, who will support it? No one. It's better to give it the appearance of beign voluntary; it's just putting a cloth over the gun in the room.

The role of libertarians, and anyone else who holds voluntry consent and non aggression is to constantly point out the "gun in the room" when everyone else is ignoring it.

Paul Lockett said...

The problem with rejecting all obligations which have been imposed without consent is that it means property rights have to be rejected to.

The involuntary social contract is a ridiculous proposition, but it seems a lot of people haven't thought through the full consequences of revoking it.

CountingCats said...

Thanks DK, Ian and Nick cop a mention, but my brilliant and original contribution on the topic at Cats, sandwiched between theirs, gets ignored,

Sigh,

Such is life.

CountingCats said...

Actually, I moaned too early.

You got Nicks name pointing to my contribution, and left out his.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Great article, DK.

It will never really be a contract, will it?

Without coercion, it never gets past the 'invitation to treat' stage.

If just one citizen refuses to accept, it all falls down.

It could be better termed the social imperative ... though that has different connotations, so they probably won't.

indigomyth said...

I like the ideas, but there are a number of issues I can think of.

What about things that affect the macrocollective, directly or indirectly?

For example, say someone is murdered in a house that has seceded from the UK. The murderer is the home owner. Under whose jurisdiction does that fall? Presumably not the UK's since the seceded territory is no longer part of UK land, outside its region of control. But, what if the murdered person has relatives that wish to bring the perpetrator to justice? Would they have to go through international courts in order to get approved sanctions? Would every territory need extradition agreements established? What about fuel, electricity etc? In reality, it would not be easy for a person to secede, because of all the utilities supplied by the collective. Electricity, water, oil, gas etc, are almost all derived from collective establishments. In most cases of small scale secession, production of these utilities would be difficult or impossible. Trade agreements would be required between each individual enclave and the larger collective. So, whilst in theory, Number 13 could secede their property, would they in reality be able to? What about waste disposal? If you have a small territory, how do you get rid of waste, without disposing of it in the surrounding collective? The thing with large states, as they stand now, is that they are more self-sufficient than numerous small states could be.

Would every owner of every seceded enclave need to be an expert in trade agreements, international law etc, in order to be able to negotiate terms of passage with the surrounding collective? And, would such people, if they did walk in the UK, have diplomatic immunity, because they are the head of sovereign nations? If so, how would this work with the laws of the collective?

I thing your suggestion is interesting, however until these issues are resolved, I cannot see how voluntary succession is practically possible.

Call me Infidel said...

Well if we are going to quote SciFi characters what about this?
"a contract is a contract is a contract (but only between Ferengi)."

Ian B said...

Thanks for the kind words DK. I promise not to be nasty about Macs from now on :oD

Indigomyth-

It's not an argument in favour of secession as a real policy as such. There are arguments in favour of secession in the real world as a real policy to implement, and it's interesting to discuss that, but that wasn't what I was trying to do.

My intention was to take the social contract as presented by those who use it, and demonstrate an internal inconsistency- a logical error. That is "okay, this is what you say is the case, let us follow the logic and see where it goes". My conclusion (whether it's a valid conclusion is for others to decide) was that either "leaving the collective" must mean secession or the social contract is not voluntary. So it was an exercise in philosophy, rather than a proposition for actual constitutional arrangements.

DocBud said...

Paul,

Please explain what you mean by: "The problem with rejecting all obligations which have been imposed without consent is that it means property rights have to be rejected to." Are you trying to suggest that property rights are only established by coercion?

Paul Lockett said...

DocBud, as far as I can see, there are two ways to establish property rights:

1. A genuine social contract to which everybody explicitly agrees. This would be what Hardin described as "mutual coercion, mutually agreed on," although I wouldn't view it as genuinely coercive. It would be each person agreeing to grant private property rights to others in order to gain the benefit of having those rights reciprocated.

2. An involuntary social arrangement which is enforced on everybody, including the unwilling.

So, while a system of private property rights could be non-coercive if maintained by an arrangement of type 1, ours is in reality a type 2 arrangement which is maintained by a coercive involuntary social contract.

Johnny said...

Property rights exist and are recognized in the absence of government - governments haven't existed throughout the entirety of human history, obviously.

A specific example can be seen today: look at a bunch of drug users that hold illegal substances that would be confiscated and destroyed by the police if found. Amongst the drug users - and the wider community - nobody would have any problem with figuring who was the rightful owner of what, even tho legally nobody actually owned anything (legally you'd be "in possession" of it for the purposes of punishment).

Government by its very nature is coercion and it profits the social elites whilst the rest of us are slaves - that's what civilization is all about.

Paul Lockett said...

Johnny,

You are right that property rights can be negotiated in the absence of government. That was what I was indicating with point 1.

However, that doesn't mean that the property rights we have now are the ones that would arise without the intereference of the state. There seems to be a bit of a bit of a "cake and eat it" scenario that some people want, whereby they get rid of some of the coercive elements of the state, but they get to keep the property rights system we have, which, by its very nature, has been created by state coercion.

Remove the state and make everybody negotiate their property claims with the people they want to respect them and you might find a very different system emerging.

DocBud said...

Paul,

While I can see that there are elements of coercion from the state with regards to property rights, e.g. planning laws, compulsory purchase, etc, I don't understand what you mean that the property rights system has been created by state coercion. We bought our land and house from a private owner at a price we agreed upon, if I go to the shops, I acquire property rights when I buy goods off the legitimate owner.

Paul Lockett said...

DocBud: "We bought our land and house from a private owner at a price we agreed upon"

What we bought was a document from the state saying that the state grants us the right to keep people off that plot of land. We may have consentually traded a state granted privilege, but it doesn't stop it being a state granted privilege.

"if I go to the shops, I acquire property rights when I buy goods off the legitimate owner."

With legitimate ownership and property rights being defined by the state, not by universal, uncoerced agreement.

As I said earlier, it is possible to create a system of property rights without coercion, but until we get to the stage where we can say that eveybody has voluntarily and explictly consented to the system which is in place, we can't say that we have one.

DocBud said...

Paul,

I think we are not too distant in the way we see things. Despite the state's interference in property rights, I think most property right owners are the legitimate owners, i.e. the outcome of a negotiated transfer of those rights from one willing person to another willing person would have taken place anyway, just a lot quicker and without taxes. So I believe that the involuntary social contract could be removed without property owners finding they no longer own their property.

Paul Lockett said...

DocBud, the position you've outlined seems a bit circular. You say that most property right owners are the legitimate owners because they obtained the rights from the previous owner by consent, but that doesn't address whether or not the property right itself is legitimate.

It's seems a bit like saying that a slave owner had legitimate property rights over his slaves because he bought them from the previous slave owner in a freely negotiated transfer. It may be true that the transfer was legitimate, but that says nothing about the underlying property right.

"So I believe that the involuntary social contract could be removed without property owners finding they no longer own their property."

In that position, they would have to renegotiate a new agreement if they wished to re-establish their property rights. Rights only exist in the context of an agreement. If somebody opts out of the agreement that created the rights, they lose them. Other people might agree to grant them similar rights under similar terms to the ones they previously enjoyed, but on the other hand, they might not.

DocBud said...

I don't think my argument is in the least like "saying that a slave owner had legitimate property rights over his slaves because he bought them from the previous slave owner in a freely negotiated transfer."

As Rothbard and others have pointed out, ownership of another person is clearly illegitimate because it violates the inalienable right of a person to self-ownership and involves coercion.

If the social contract was removed, with whom else would I have to negotiate? Unless someone can establish that my ownership of my property is illegitimate then it is legitimately owned by me as someone who paid for it and did not use fraud or coercion in its acquisition. (Again from Rothbard) to establish that my ownership is illegitimate, the person would have to demonstrate that the property was stolen from them or their ancestors through coercion or fraud.

Paul Lockett said...

Doc Bud: "If the social contract was removed, with whom else would I have to negotiate?"

Anybody else who wants to use the item you want exclusive control over.

"Unless someone can establish that my ownership of my property is illegitimate then it is legitimately owned by me as someone who paid for it and did not use fraud or coercion in its acquisition."

But the only thing which makes it legitimate, outside of personal opinion, is the social contract, so, if you opt out of the social contract, the concept of ownership is meaningless. Outside of an explicit agreement, all property rights are based on coercion.

"to establish that my ownership is illegitimate, the person would have to demonstrate that the property was stolen from them or their ancestors through coercion or fraud."

They wouldn't have to go that far. All they would have to do is decide that they support a different set up property rights to you. Outside of any kind of contract, there is no reason that your system should over-ride theirs.

DocBud said...

We clearly see property rights and the social contract differently, Paul, so will just have to agree to disagree. All the best to you.