Problems With The Social Contract Theory


If you are part of the liberty movement there is no doubt that a lot of your time is spent defending your positions to statists on both sides of the aisle.  It is never easy to get a convert.  Some people seem fascinated by our “crazy” thoughts, others love to hear what we have to say so they can get angry and throw an emotional retort at us…”You just hate paying taxes!”.  I can admit we’re definitely outside of the mainstream, but give us some credit, we didn’t just wake up one day and decide the state really isn’t needed.

The most common explanation I hear for our “obligation” to obey the law, regardless of what the law says, is the idea that we all agreed to a social contract merely by living where we choose, or afford, to live.  A few months ago one of our commenters brought up the idea on Rollo’s Compromise? post.  The conversation is predictable, you can check it out if you want, but basically the commenter says we all implicitly agreed to the social contract and if we don’t like it we can leave.

I have some serious issues with this apparent implicit agreement to a social contract.  Did we not all learn that the US government gets its power from the people?  It is a government for the people, by the people, and of the people, right?  We’re supposed to have private property rights and even the most ardent Democrat generally agrees with that.  In other words, we own the land and at one time the people who originally owned the land (or took the land by force) decided that we needed one group of people to set the rules for all of society to follow.  It does not matter how this group of people was appointed or elected or whatever, the fact is we have a group of people, i.e., the government. So if we own the land and give the government their power, how can they tell us to leave if we don’t like what they have to say?  Doesn’t that presuppose their power to begin with?

The one good aspect of the social contract theory is that it implies some voluntary acceptance by it being a contract.  The problem is that it is implied acceptance.  Sure, there is such a thing as implied acceptance of a contract, but there has to be a reasonable way dissent.  In some cases, merely by not dissenting we accept the contract.  Let’s say you’re having a party for the football game and all your friends put up $10 for food and drinks, you announce, “I am going buy a case of Coca Cola, any objections raise your hand?” When no one raises their hand, it is passively implied that all party-goers agree to drink Coke.

On the other hand, if you announce, “I am going to buy a case of Coca Cola, any objections cut off your left arm.”  When no one cuts off their left arm it is hard to argue that we have an implied contract in force.  Cutting off one’s left arm is unreasonable.  I think most people would agree moving 1000s of miles away from your property, family, and friends is also a little unreasonable.

Another problem I have is that explicit dissent always trumps implicit consent.  If you drop your car off at the shop and ask the mechanic to fix it, you have an implied contract and you are obligated to pay him when he is finished.  Not too many people would disagree with that.  However, if drop your car off and tell the mechanic up front that you will absolutely not pay for any work he does on the car, but he does the work anyway, you would not be required to pay for it.  Given the fact you told the mechanic you will not pay, he would have no reason to claim you owe him money.

These examples are slight modifications (I didn’t want to copy directly) from a book I recently bought, Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority. I have only read the first 5 chapters so far, but it is an excellent read and already well worth the money.  Huemer goes into great depth taking on the social contract theory as well as many other arguments in favor of the state’s authority and our apparent obligation to obey.  Huemer is philosophy professor with a PhD teaching at University of Colorado but he writes in a way that is easy for anyone to understand.  You do not need any prior epistemological knowledge for the book to make sense (at least for the first 5 chapters!).  I highly recommend the book to anyone, even if you think Huemer is a lunatic and his ideas will never work.  It is sure to open your mind and provoke thought.


God Bless Freedom, Liberty, and Personal Property,

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