Is There Truly a Social Contract?

by Godlessons on June 20, 2013

As a Libertarian, I have been drawn into many political discussions.  People drag me kicking and screaming into political groups on Facebook.  It is rough though, as there aren’t very many libertarians, and everyone wants to debate them.  It makes it so there is a virtual gangbang whenever I go to these groups.  Liberals hate that I can be against corporations controlling government, but be against government intrusion in business.  Conservatives hate that I can be against capital punishment and wars, but for austerity.  Liberals love that I am so articulate in arguing for allowing gay marriage.  Conservatives love that I can argue so effectively against liberals against wealth redistribution and government run health care.  Overall though, it seems that I am mostly a thorn in everyone’s side.

The majority of the discussions I have been getting into lately seem to hinge on something that people like to call a “Social Contract”.  Since I don’t remember signing the contract, I have to keep asking what it is.  Where do I get a copy?  What can one do or not do if they don’t ever sign this contract.  What does the contract cover if I do sign it?

What People Think the Social Contract Is

The reason these arguments come up is varied.  Usually it has to do with how I view taxation as an imposition on my property rights.  Sometimes it has to do with health care.  Sometimes welfare.  Often, it comes up simply because I don’t see how the government ever gets their right to control other people in the first place.

Invariably, people think the social contract is this ethereal unwritten document that we are party to for various reasons, and imply consent by various acts.  The contract says that you will be governed by the state and pay taxes in exchange for various government services.  Some people even claim that your living on the land itself is enough to bind you to this agreement.  It is the price you pay for the protection and care of the society.

I have one huge problem with all of this though, and nobody has been able to explain things to me in a way that makes sense.  What act does a person do that suggests they agree to be a party to this contract?

How the Contract is Signed

I’ve had a few different answers to this question.  I’ll deal with them one at a time.

  • Have you voted?

This is the starting point for what has to be the most terrible argument there is about this.  If voting makes you party to the contract, why does the government have any say over people that haven’t ever voted, or people that are unable to vote for any reason whatsoever?  Certainly that can’t be the way someone shows their intent to enter into this contract.

Now, one may say, it is not the fact that you vote, it is the fact that you have the ability to vote.  Does this mean aliens, legal or illegal, are not able to be held to this social contract?

Since these apparent loopholes exist, yet we don’t find them to be loopholes, this alone can’t be the reason we use to determine if someone has signed a social contract.

  • Your parents sign it for you.

How do you figure that?  Sure, while you are a minor, your parents can sign as your agent, but signing as your agent doesn’t obligate you after you reach the age of majority.  Where does this contract get signed after you turn 18?

We don’t have other contracts that parents sign for children that persist after the child turns 18.  If the child turns 18 years old, they can call all contracts made without their signature void, which is why people don’t contract with the children, they contract with the children and the parents.

  • You agree by not leaving the country.

This one seems to be the most pervasive.  It is tantamount to “‘murika, luv it ur leave it.”  It suggests that because you don’t leave the country once you turn 18, you have agreed to this contract.  This has a few terrible flaws.

For this first examination, imagine there is no government, and think of it purely as a moral issue.  Imagine that you are a woman with an abusive boyfriend or husband.  You have the ability to leave the boyfriend, but you stay with him anyway.  If simply staying in a situation that you are allowed to leave is what constitutes agreement, one could say that the woman in this situation agrees to being beaten by her boyfriend/husband.  If that is the case, the man is simply doing nothing more than having a mutually agreed upon S&M session.

The reason I had you imagine there was no government in the scenario is because government can come in and say, “It is illegal no matter what”, and that would be true based on contract law, but it doesn’t deal with the moral issue.  Something in our minds understands that it is not appropriate to treat women as chattel, but still too many people think it is okay for the government to do it.

Now, there is the case of people that can’t leave.  Let’s say someone is too poor to leave.  Are they here by agreement any more than someone that leaves the country?  It is hardly an excuse to bind someone to a contract simply because they don’t have the ability to leave.  A person without the money to travel is bound to the place they are at just as much as if they were to be put in jail.

What about the people that are disabled to the point they can’t travel?  Are they agreeing because their health prevents them from leaving?  I would say this is similarly not a choice these people can make.

What about people that commit crimes as a minor, and are held past their 18th birthday in jail?  All other contracts that your parents sign for you as a minor become unenforceable at this point, why not the social contract?  Why is it that the state can continue to hold you, and how are you signing this contract when you are being forced to stay in the country?

So, because we have situations where the government can and does claim that the exact same logic that people use for the idea of this social contract is invalid, and we have situations where people don’t truly have a choice in the matter, and can’t be seriously considered to have agreed with this contract, it can’t be that you remain in the country.  It would seem that is a canard.

  • You agree by working.

What if you don’t work?  Are you then not liable to pay taxes or abide by laws?  What if people simply give you the money you need to live?  In those cases, you are still required to pay taxes.  Even if they don’t give you money, technically you still owe the government taxes in the form of money on the things you have been given.

So, you can’t simply not work

If Signed, is the Contract Valid?

In order for a contract to be valid, it must follow certain criteria.

  1. All parties must have capacity to enter the contract.
  2. An offer must be made.
  3. Consideration must be exchanged.
  4. The parties must be in mutual agreement.
  5. The contract’s object and purpose must be legal.
  6. The form of the contract must meet the legal requirements.

1.  Does this mean that mentally handicapped people can’t be held to account?  What about children?  They don’t technically have the capacity to enter into this contract.

2.  What is the offer being made?  If the offer is goods and services being offered by the state, where did the state get the original goods and services it provides that it is offering to exchange?  It would seem that at the point that the first dollar was taxed, the state had no goods or services to exchange, so it was an illegitimate contract to begin with.  How can something based on an illegitimate system become legitimate based on fruit of the poisoned tree, so to speak?

3.  This fails for the same reasons 2 fails.  If I steal something from something else, and exchange it with you for something, that is an illegitimate contract, because the property was stolen to begin with.  The original owner still owns the property.

4.  The mutual agreement can’t legitimately be said to exist based on any of the above mentioned criteria, since there is no way to say someone has signed any contract either explicitly or tacitly.

5.  This one could be true, but since the law says nothing about a social contract, it is hard to say whether it is legal or not.

6.  This could also be true for the same reasons as 5, but similarly has the same questionable quality.

So, it seems as though this social contract is not a valid contract, even if someone were to agree to it.

Why Does it Matter?

This “Social Contract” is used to justify countless injustices.  It is used to take one person’s money and give it to another person.  It is used to pay for things that the person may not like being paid for, such as abortifactants, roads to nowhere, vacations for the president, etc.  Pretty much anything the majority of people want can be justified in this way.  Well, at least the people that propose this contract exists claim it justifies it.

I believe as Milton Friedman did, that I have no right to coerce someone else, because I cannot be sure that I am right and he is wrong.  I think that is as fair a starting point as possible, and it extends to groups too.  No group can know they are right and any individual is wrong either.  Since that’s the case, unless I agree to some control over myself from the group, no person or organization, no matter how large, should be taking my property, my liberty, or my life.  This social contract is the instrument that people think would justify such an imposition.

The social contract is a fiction.  It doesn’t exist in any manner whatsoever.  It is simply a way that some people use to justify to themselves that it’s okay to harm other people as long as some number of people in their society are okay with it.  I don’t buy any of it.

What Obligations do we Have?

When we are born, the only way we can consider ourselves is equal to each other.  No one person can claim any right the other person doesn’t have.  If people were flawless, they would simply do what they desired to do, and not infringe on other people’s right to do the same.  They would not cause harm to other people or force them to do or not do anything against their will.  This would truly be a free society, and these ideas would be the only obligation we would have to each other.

In absence of any mitigating force though, people will find a way to impose their will on others around them.  As humans are virtually unable to live on their own, they must find ways to mitigate this propensity, which requires some rule of law.  We need arbitrators to decide disputes, we need rules that prevent one person from harming another.  We need some form of government to serve us in this purpose.  This is where we run into trouble.

Who is governed by any government?  What is society?  What level of society gets the most power?  Why should anyone abide by any government?  Is government to serve the people, or are the people to serve the government?

Because of this, we have made a useful fiction, the “social contract”.  There really is no contract in the traditional sense, since we don’t allow anyone to refuse to be controlled by it.  There is no consent either implied or expressed.  No signatures, no consideration, nothing that would make it a valid contract in any court I can think of.  Yet, we all have grown up being fed this idea that we are obligated in some way to obey, no matter how much it infringes on our freedoms.

Because we need this rule of law to be more powerful than an individual, or even any group of individuals, in order to make sure that individuals don’t just decide to ignore it, we tend to give it almost godlike status.  Nobody is to question whether it has the right, or why it has the right.  All we know is that we must obey.  This comes with its own set of problems though.

Wherever there is power, people will attempt to manipulate it to suit their purposes.  No matter what form a government takes, it will always attract people with some agenda, and those people closest to the greatest power benefit from this, as lobbyists have always found ways to bribe officials to do their bidding.  On top of that, people tend to like the power they have, which makes them look for ways to bribe others to keep them in power.

This is a real problem, because we have somewhere decided that the government has the power to require our services to keep it running.  Not merely a request.  This means that government can decide arbitrarily that we are not the sole owners of our own property.  We don’t own our own labor.  We are mere servants to the government, instead of the other way around, as it started out.

This myth gets exacerbated in republics.  People are lulled into believing that they have more power than they actually do over the government, but when it comes down to it, this government we serve is run by people that buy its favor.  Politicians learn that it doesn’t matter so much what they do in office as much as it matters how much they can raise for campaigning, and how much they can take from one group to give to another to buy their votes.

Nobody thinks of justification any more.  People just take for granted that government is legitimate.  We are taught to pledge allegiance from the time we start kindergarten.  We are taught to sing the national anthem.  We are taught that flag waving, and nationalism are virtues, and although people say that you should question government, the reality is that they only teach you to question government within the scope of government.  You should never question whether government is legitimate in its power in the first place.

Social contract or not, the fact is that not near enough people question government.  Not near enough people examine what valid reasons for government would possibly be.  This is the true evil that has been brought upon us by our government, and it should stop.

Previous post:

Next post: