Aug 272009

It is often stated, particularly on libertarian blogs, that the ‘social contract’ is a pile of utter bullshit, an ‘agreement’ to be bound by laws, customs, and a system of government to which none of us has consented, all of us having been born well after said laws, customs, and systems were consented to by our ancestors, or putative representatives thereof. By what right did our ancestors and their representatives bind their posterity?


But if there really were a social contract, one we could enter into or not enter into as we chose, what might it look like?

I, (name in full), hereby affirm my agreement that all human beings are endowed with certain absolute rights; that these rights are to life, liberty, and property; that all human beings should be equal under the law with respect to these rights; that individuals cooperate among themselves to secure them; and that they do so freely and of their own accord.

Therefore, as a mentally competent adult over the age of 18, I hereby agree to the terms of this contract for citizenship in the Free Territory of __________ on my own behalf as well as that of my minor dependents—consenting to be guided in my affairs by the Ethic of Reciprocity, which I state as follows: I will not do to any other citizens of _______ what I would not want them to do to me. Beyond so restricting my actions, it is agreed by my fellow members of _______ that I am free to conduct my affairs as I please, engaging in such activities with my fellow members as may be mutually agreed upon, either formally or informally.

Furthermore, insofar as I might accuse others members of violating my absolute rights or others might accuse me of violating theirs, I agree to conflict resolution under the auspices of a firm chosen by lot from a list of at least three such firms, each of which must be approved by the Association for Conflict Resolution. I also agree that should the parties enter into arbitration, the loser must pay the legal fees of both parties; that insofar as either party refuses arbitration, the protections afforded that party by his citizenship are forfeit; that the forfeiting party is thereby placed in a state of nature vis-Ă -vis the citizens of _________, who are thereby entitled to take such actions as they deem necessary to resolve the dispute.

Lastly, it is understood by all citizens of _________ that I have the absolute right to cancel my citizenship at any time for any reason and that, should I in fact choose to do so, I will submit my cancellation in writing, recording it so as
to be available for examination and verification by the citizens of _________.

Signed this _____ day of ___________, in the year ______ of the Common Era, as witnessed below by (name in full), who, as a citizen in good standing of ________, has signed a replica of this document, both of which are available for
examination and verification by any other citizen of _________.

Signature of witness _____________________________

From an excellent essay by DG White called, ‘Gold, the Golden Rule, and government: civil society and the end of the state’ in Libertarian Papers Vol. 1, No. 32 (2009).

I have only two problems with it, really. One is academic navel-gazing: if this journal purports to be in any way scholarly, the authors of its articles have to stop citing Wikipedia pages. I know that sources with a URL are the most ideal for journals that publish online, so I can understand the necessity for this, but even assertions linked only tangentially to the primary argument of an essay need to be supported by authoritative citations.

The second is more philosophical, and related to something I’ve been pondering for a while now. This article doesn’t make its argument from first principles. And nor do many libertarians. In my own Adventures in Political Discourse (i.e. arguing with statists), I’ve discovered that, more often than not, we cannot reach agreement because we are arguing from wildly different given premises. For example, the essay begins,

Without money, there can be little in the way of economic specialization, or what is commonly known as the division of labor. And without the division of labor, there can be little in the way of civilization.

Other libertarians, who are presumably the readership of this journal, are not going to take issue with these statements. In a reductio ad absurdum, economic specialisation is good, and division of labour is good, and civilisation is good, because we can live like kings in stupendously cheap luxury unknown throughout most of human history, thus freeing up our own time, labour, and resources to continue production that allows us to continue living like even better kings, or to pursue pleasure and leisure as we choose. All well and good.

But not everybody holds those views. Perhaps they don’t value living like kings, or having time to pursue leisure and pleasure; then specialisation and division of labour will not be a priori goods, and therefore neither will money.

To convince those who disagree with us, we must argue from first principles: either by proving to opponents that our first principles are the correct ones, or demonstrating that even from the first principles they hold to be true that our way is still the better way. We are doing neither.

More on this later…

H/T HrothgarOfHeorot

  5 Responses to “The social contract”

  1. Very interesting, reminds me of the Seasteading Institute’s master lease for their sovereign offshore platform/cruise ship “ClubStead”.

  2. Obvious point, perhaps, but let’s not forget there’s a very considerable left-libertarian tradition opposed to economic specialisation.

    Adam Smith thought government should prevent its worst effects (including waste of talent), but it’s not very difficult to see how such arrangements could be made in line with libertarian principles.

    “In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently only one or two. …The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. …His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. …this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.”

  3. I agree that we should argue from first principles, but I have come to the conclusion that you cannot prove the correctness of first principles. That does not make them invalid, it just recognises reality. For instance, one of my first principles is that every human has a right to life. I cannot prove this. I cannot prove that it is more efficient, for instance.

    I may say that it is a practical first principle, because of mutual protection; if I uphold your right to life, you will uphold mine. But that doesn’t necesssarily hold either. We could adopt the alternate principle that “only Englishmen have a right to life”; Englishmen will then offer each other mutual protection, but we can invade Wales and kill the Welsh and steal their land and stuff and derive great benefit. This principle is actually more beneficial to me than the universalist one.

    Libertarians spend a lot of time in pointless circular and furious argument; I think that there’s a Godwin type law that all libertarian discussions if suffiiciently long, will eventually devolved to an argument either about Anarcho-Capitalism or Land Value Tax, regardless of what they started off being about. Our marginalised status means we spend much of our time seeking ideological purity, like a bunch of Trots huddled round a table in a pub clutching copies of Socialist Worker and arguing furiously about what they will do when the revolution comes, regardless of the fact that it never will and endlessly ejecting each other from their various societies for ideological incorrectness.

    In reality, most “libertarians” are just sick to death of the state interfering with us and just wish it would fuck off and leave us alone, and would be quite content, in truth, with just a smaller government and fewer stupid laws and the right to sit in the pub and smoke a ciggie again. We really just need to foster more of that general feeling in the population at large, to emphasise that they are individuals (“I’m not!”) and thus should have some kind of rights not to be strip searched and anally probed in the high street for photographing a post box. If we can stir some sufficiency of that general feeling among our fellows that leads them to demand freedom instead of restraint from the political parties, we’ll have started to win the battle. What we’re fighting for is a change of political direction. Where that ultimately leads, at this stage, isn’t really that important.

    It does bother me that somebody on the verge of losing their faith in socialism/conservatism, wandering into the blogosphere, and finding libertarianism as this extreme thing full of arguments about ideological purity may be rather put off. A person just wanting lower taxes and the freedom to smoke may not want to leap into bed with radical anarchists, kind of thing.

  4. Interesting..

    I think that making the case from first principles for something like socialism is often easier because it is obviously “for” things rather than against them. In contrast as libertarians we often argue that we aren’t interested in what society-the-group tells us to do. I think tribalism is fundamentally appealing to people and that is our problem. We need to argue for the individual rather than against the collective because arguing against that isn’t something we are likely to win.

  5. Yes, these things are true. But I’m not interested in ideological purity; the fact that there are different sorts of libertarianism and different sorts of libertarians does not, by and large, cause me to lose sleep. Nor was I thinking of the bloke in the pub who wants smaller government and lower taxes and the ability to smoke with his drink, even though he is obviously a cool guy. I was thinking about those people who already actively disagree with libertarianism – socialists, statists, whatever you want to call them – not because the regular chap on the street sympathises with them, but because they are winning the war of ideas. And that’s the part of the battle I can help fight. wh00ps informs me that over at Samizdata, they refer to it as the meta-context (or did when discussing it a few weeks ago). When I say that we don’t argue enough from first principles, I’m talking about the battle for the meta-context.

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