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.