Most of the content on this site is geared towards exploring the means, more than the ends, of polycentric law. In other words, rather than focus on philosophy, ethics, and so forth, the essays here focus on theoretical and empirical discussions of how human societies work and how people can maintain social order without relying on a State.
However, it is worth offering a brief explanation of the motivations behind our work. Some readers may truly not know why one might wish to live in a world without government, and for those who have a general idea, offering a clear and specific explanation can still help to better paint the long-term target we’re trying to reach. To invoke a cliché, it helps to know where we’re going before trying to map out the best route to get there.
Many people believe that the government they live under gains its authority from the consent of its subjects. In the U.S., the Declaration of Independence makes this claim explicit:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.U.S. Declaration of Independence
However, the mere assertion that a government has the consent of its subjects does not demonstrate that it does. Can defenders of this theory of a social contract between governments and their subjects offer any evidence to substantiate their belief?
Believers in a social contract might scoff at this request for actual evidence of their claim. But the question of whether or not a government has the right to rule its subjects, and whether or not its subjects have an obligation to obey the edicts of the government ruling over them, has deep and far-reaching ramifications. Taking the existence of an ethically valid social contract for granted has consequences for our everyday lives; if the government lacks a right to rule, or if we lack an obligation to obey them, then this dramatically affects what we may, and may not, ethically do in our interactions with government, and with each other. If the question has such practical importance, then it seems prudent to set the bar for evidence quite high.
Believers in a social contract might start off by claiming that citizens explicitly consent to be governed. This does not appear to be the case. Firstly, there is simply no record of any such explicit consent. Secondly, many people explicitly dissent. The creators of the present website, for instance, explicitly proclaim that we do not consent to be governed by the existing government or any other. At the very least, the claim that “people explicitly consent” would need some qualification, perhaps one might claim instead that “most people explicitly consent.”
However, it is not at all clear that this is the case either. Curiously, a July 2017 poll of “Likely U.S. Voters” found that only 23% of those polled “think the federal government today has the consent of the governed.” 57% thought they did not, and 20% were unsure.* (Hence our claim, above, that “many” people believe in a social contract, rather than “most.”) This result is consistent with similar, earlier polls.†
This poll did not ask people whether they, specifically, consented to be governed, it asked about whether they believed the government had the consent of the governed more generally, but it seems unlikely that the majority of people in the U.S. would say that they personally consent while also saying that the government lacks the consent of its subjects more generally. If the existence of a social contract, and of unanimous, (or even near-unanimous,) consent were truly self-evident, then this does seem like a strange result for the poll to find.
Perhaps unanimous consent is not necessary. But if the government has authority over those who do not consent, then those who believe in this authority need to make the case for some theory of political authority other than social contract theory. We can not, in a single blog post, discuss every such theory of political authority, but much work has been done in philosophy examining a number of other such theories, and we can point readers to this other work. (We recommend several sources below.) For the moment, we will simply say that we do not find the alternative accounts plausible either, and in any case the social contract theory comes about as close to the U.S. Government’s official account of its own authority as we are likely to receive, so it seems reasonable to focus on discussing it in particular.
Usually, (in our experience,) when believers in a social contract offer defenses of their belief, they appeal not to explicit consent, but to implicit consent. For example, they might claim that presence in the territory “owned” by the government, acceptance of benefits provided by the government, and/or participation in government, (e.g. through voting, working for the government, funding political campaigns, etc.,) count as implicit consent to be governed regardless of whether one explicitly consents or not.
These arguments rely on analogies between our relationship with government and our relationships with each other, in our everyday lives. Thus, a believer in the social contract might compare our presence in the government’s territory to a relationship between a landlord and tenant, arguing that if a landlord’s control over their land is justified, then by analogy a government’s control over its territory is justified. Or they might compare use of tax-funded roads, libraries, schools, utilities, and so forth to ordering a meal in a restaurant.
However, while these analogies may appear valid at first glance, closer scrutiny reveals a host of problems.
Lets start with the notion of consent through presence. If defenders of government claim that government gains its authority from a property right in the land its subjects live upon, then these defenders have a burden of showing that the government in fact has an ethically valid property claim to the land. It appears unlikely that such a thing could be shown. The U.S. government gained control of significant portions of its territory through conquest, rather than through homesteading or peaceful trade. If we place any weight in the analogy with landlords, then the government would be less like a landlord who bought their land and more like a landlord who killed the previous owners of a parcel of land and took their title to it. Even those who agree that absentee ownership of land can be ethically valid are unlikely to regard titles to land based on conquest as ethically valid.‡
If there exists a theory of property according to which conquest grants ethically valid property titles, then any defenders of social contract theory relying on such a theory of property have, (to reiterate,) a burden of demonstrating that this theory of property is true. While it seems unlikely to us that any such theory would conform to the ethical intuitions of most readers, it is worth emphasizing where the burden of proof lies. It is not necessary for us to demonstrate the truth of any theory of property of our own in order to criticize social contract theory, it is necessary for defenders of a social contract to offer evidence substantiating their own theory of property, if they’re relying on a theory of property to substantiate their theory of a social contract, because they are the ones making the claims being examined.
What of other possible forms of implicit consent? Take, for instance, consent through acceptance of benefits. Suppose that you come across a lemonade stand while out for a walk, and the individual running the stand offers you a glass in exchange for a penny. If you take a glass, then it appears, intuitively, that you have consented to pay the penny requested. By analogy, perhaps if a government offers beneficial services to its subjects, and if those subjects accept those benefits by using those services, then the subjects would, thereby, consent to be subject to the government’s authority?
Unfortunately for the social contract theory, when examining real-world, existing governments, this analogy quickly falls apart.
Governments claim to have authority over their subjects regardless of whether those subjects accept any benefits or not, rendering their acceptance of benefits irrelevant to the government’s alleged authority over them. A group of people who purchase a plot of land and create their own, self-sufficient community, announcing that they have seceded and that they are no longer subject to the government’s authority, would, at least in the eyes of the local government, be just as bound by the edicts of that government as everyone else. Even if they deliberately refrain from using any government service that they are capable of refraining from using, this would not affect the government’s claim to possess authority over them, according to the government itself. In the case of the U.S., the State would still threaten to punish them for disobeying the State’s laws, and other edicts, including everything from drug prohibition to the military draft to business regulations. Even a community relying on barter, and foregoing the use of the government’s currency, would still be subject to taxation, as far as the government was concerned.§
Return, for a moment, to the lemonade stand. Suppose that the person running the stand informs you that they will confiscate a penny from you regardless of whether you take a glass of lemonade or not, but that you are free to have a glass if you wish. Suppose that you then take a glass, perhaps reasoning that if you’re going to be forced to part with your penny no matter what choice you make, you might as well have some lemonade. Suppose that the person running the stand, upon seeing you take a glass, shouts, triumphantly, “Aha! You have now consented to give me a penny!”
Under these circumstances, (by our intuitions, at least,) it seems that your choice to take a glass of lemonade no longer counts as consent, and that the person running the stand is in error in claiming that you have consented to the scheme. They took the penny from you by force, giving you lemonade neither justifies their actions nor renders the relationship a consensual one. By analogy, the government can not claim that anyone consents to pay taxes, (or obey any other laws, or be subject to punishment for disobedience,) merely because those subjects choose to use government services. The fact that the government would force them to obey, regardless, means that their choice to use the services can no longer qualify as a means of consenting to be governed.
The same principle applies to participation, and indeed to any action other than, (1), relinquishing one’s citizenship and leaving the government’s territory or, (2), committing suicide. The problem with claiming that failure to leave, (or failure to commit suicide,) count as consent is that the believer in the social contract has to first show that the government has the right to require people to do these things in order to escape its authority. If, (as we already argued above,) the claim that governments have authority over anyone residing in their territories is implausible, (and if, as seems reasonable prima facie, governments can not reasonably require their subjects to commit suicide in order to escape their authority either,) then this leaves believers in a social contract without a defense of their belief. If we do not consent through presence because the government has no just claim to the land we’re present on, and if all other possible means of consent, (setting aside failure to kill oneself,) fail because the government regards us as subject to their rule regardless of any other actions we might take, then we do not consent to be governed and no contractual relationship exists between us and the government.
However, while these arguments are, (in our opinion,) sufficient to disprove social contract theory, the theory has a number of other problems in addition to these. Since the above arguments do rely, in part, on shared ethical intuitions between ourselves and our readers, it is worth mentioning some of the other problems, if for no other reason than that even if you remain unconvinced by the above points, you may still find the following points convincing.
First, even if government has a just claim to its territory, we can question whether such a claim is sufficient to justify their authority over the residents within their territory. If absentee landlords have only a very limited authority over their tenants, (for instance, if landlords can not ethically imprison their tenants for failure to pay rent, or if they can only, at most, evict tenants for failure to pay or for otherwise breaking the rules of their agreement,) or if they have no authority, (as some philosophers have argued,)¶ then an analogy between governments and landlords would not justify the kinds of actions real-world governments routinely engage in, such as war, incarceration, etc., even if those governments had gained their title to the land originally through homesteading, trade, or gift.
Second, the claim that an ability to relinquish one’s citizenship and leave the government’s territory, (combined with a failure to exercise this ability,) renders our relationship with government consensual does not apply to those who lack this ability altogether. For instance, the poorest residents have no practical ability to exit. The U.S. government presently charges a $2,350 fee for citizens to either renounce or relinquish their citizenship.# Factoring in the costs of travel, of becoming a citizen of another government, and of setting up a new life elsewhere, (e.g., paying for rent, utilities, and so forth,) the costs of exiting are easily greater than what a significant number of U.S. citizens have the means to incur.** Those falling into this category would not be subject to the social contract, even if the arguments in favor of social contract theory that we’ve discussed succeeded.
Third, we can reasonably question whether any specific “service” provided by government truly benefits the government’s subjects. For instance, many U.S. citizens argue that when the government engages in warfare around the world, incarcerates people for victimless crimes, or forces citizens to pay for these “services,” the government’s subjects do not actually benefit, on net, from the government’s actions in these cases.
Fourth, when governments provide a service, but fail to meet a certain standard of quality, they generally still regard their subjects as bound to obey them and as subject to their authority. An example, when the city government of Flint Michigan knowingly provided residents with water contaminated with lead, many residents, upon learning that they had been using and drinking poisoned water, stopped paying for the water. The city government responded by threatening to place tax liens on their homes.†† Compare this to, say, a restaurant, or a lemonade stand. In everyday life, if we order a meal from a restaurant and the restaurant knowingly provides us with poisoned food, then we no longer regard ourselves as obligated to pay for the meal. (Indeed, we might regard the owners of the restaurant as obligated to provide us with restitution.)
Fifth, in the U.S., the government does not regard itself as obligated to provide individual citizens with any of the services they offer. In some cases, local governments have failed to provide particular services to citizens, for instance failing to protect them from harm when the police demonstrably could have done so at little risk to the safety of the officers. In some of these cases, the local governments have been sued for negligence. The courts have consistently ruled, in these cases, that the government has no obligation to provide services such as police protection to individual citizens.‡‡ In everyday life, if we agreed to a trade with someone and they failed to live up to their end of the bargain, we would generally regard ourselves as freed from any obligations we had undertaken as part of our agreement. Contractual relationships generally involve mutual obligations, rather than placing extreme requirements on one party but no requirements whatever on the other. By analogy, at least in the case of the U.S., (where the aforementioned court cases took place,) we are not bound by any sort of contractual relationship between ourselves and the government, as they have made clear that they do not regard themselves as bound to any such agreement, or as obligated to provide us with any benefits.
Sixth, in everyday life, if we enter into an agreement with someone, and if we and that someone later have a dispute over what the terms of our agreement were, then we generally expect to have some significant say in the process of resolving that dispute. In other words, we do not generally regard one party to a contract as having complete power to determine what the contract says and how it is to be interpreted after being signed or agreed to, while the other party has no such power. If we have an agreement with someone, and that someone decides to reinterpret our agreement however they please, then we don’t regard ourselves as bound to live up to the changed or reinterpreted agreement. Arguably, in the case of the U.S. government, the Supreme Court has this sort of power with regard to the constitution, and the laws in general; practically speaking, “the constitution” does not merely consist of the written document by that name, but consists, rather, of whatever the Supreme Court says it consists of. Other than by abolishing the government, the general population has little practical means available for determining how the constitution is interpreted.
The U.S. government does not have the consent of those it rules. Most probably, no other existing governments do either. Perhaps you, personally, would have given your consent if the government had asked for it, but the fact is: they have not. Many of us would not have consented to be ruled even if they had.
For those of us who value consent, who wish to interact with others on a voluntary basis, rather than forcing others to act as we desire them to, this gives us strong motivation to seek out some alternative to the existing system. Perhaps we can design a dispute resolution system that would, (or at least potentially could,) meet the standards for consent that we have sketched out above. If so, then we have reason to work towards that system as a replacement for the existing one.
If such a voluntary system is impossible, then perhaps government constitutes a “necessary evil.” But if we value consent, we have reason to give the available evidence a great deal of consideration before giving up and resigning ourselves to life under involuntary institutions. Such a consideration is the mission of the present website and project. It is our hope that the evidence presented will sway readers towards helping us create a voluntary society. Either way, we thank all who are willing to give the problem thought.
(This essay draws heavily on The Problem of Political Authority by Michael Huemer, and we recommend this book as a superior critique of political authority and social contract theory compared to the one we have been able to offer here. In addition, we also recommend the paper Social Contract Theory Should Be Abandoned by Danny Frederick, and the books The Conscience of an Anarchist by Gary Chartier, In Defense of Anarchism by Robert Paul Wolff, and No Treason by Lysander Spooner. For an overview of philosophical discussions regarding political authority, legitimacy, and obligation, we recommend the entry on Political Obligation in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. We accept responsibility for any errors in the present essay, while acknowledging our debt to these authors.)
- *See http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_politics/july_2017/few_think_government_has_consent_of_the_governed (Accessed the 18th of November, 2019.)
- †See The Conscience of an Anarchist by Gary Chartier, page 6. ( https://archive.org/details/TheConscienceOfAnAnarchist/page/n15 )
- ‡Some governments may have gained control over some parts of their territory through homesteading, trade, or receipt of gifts from valid owners. Economic historians Terry Anderson and P.J. Hill claim in their book The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier, that:
“From initial contact to the present time, the history of Indian-white relations [is] characterized by three distinct periods. First, from initial contact to the middle of the nineteenth century, white individuals and colonial and U.S. governments in the main honored Indian property and territorial rights. Second, from the middle until nearly the end of the nineteenth century, the national government used military power to take Indian rights by force. Third, from the late nineteenth century until the present, federal agencies have controlled the formation of property rights on reservations in ways that have ensured the survival of the bureaucracy rather than allowing tribal sovereignty. (Chapter 4, Page 53.)”
However, since governments claim authority over the entirety of their territories, regardless of how they gained control over any given part of it, believers in a social contract must still offer some justification for this claim of authority other than one based in property ownership, or offer some justification of property claims over land gained through war.
By analogy, consider a landlord who claimed 3.8 million square miles of land as their property, who had gained roughly half of their land through waging war and forcing prior occupants to relocate, and who could offer no clear demonstration of which parcels of land were gained peacefully, and which were gained violently. Suppose they also claimed strong authority over all present occupants of “their” land, such that they could, e.g., draft occupants to fight in further wars of conquest. It is difficult indeed to see how such a landlord could justify their claims to such authority via ordinary ethical intuitions. That they gained some of their land through peaceful means would do little to help their case, under such circumstances.
- §In 1969, one war tax resister, Karl Hess, wrote an open letter to the U.S. government announcing his refusal to pay taxes. The government responded by placing a lien on all of his property and income. When he asked what they would do if he bartered for a living, they responded, “If you get some turnips for your work, we’ll take the turnips.” See https://c4ss.org/content/37187 and https://c4ss.org/content/24692
- ¶See, e.g., the criticisms of fee simple land tenure in What is Property? by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Land Tenure by Charles T. Fowler, Social Wealth by Joshua K. Ingalls, Voluntary Socialism by Francis Tandy, Instead of a Book by Benjamin Tucker, What is Mutualism? by Clarence Lee Swartz, and Studies in Mutualist Political Economy by Kevin A. Carson. (All accessed 30th September 2020.)
- #See https://www.movehub.com/blog/dual-citizenship-around-the-world-map/ (Accessed the 18th of November, 2019.)
- **According to the website Don’t Quit Your Day Job, about 5% of workers in the U.S. earned $2,500 or less in 2019, before taxes. (See here: https://dqydj.com/income-percentile-calculator/ ) If we look only at workers 18 years of age, (the age at which believers in a social contract often claim individuals must relinquish their citizenship and leave the U.S. in order to not consent to be governed,) about 32% earn $2,500 or less, before taxes. (See here: https://dqydj.com/income-percentile-by-age-calculator/ ) (Links accessed 30th of September, 2020.)
- ††See https://thinkprogress.org/flint-water-bills-foreclosure-melissa-mays-3ef5b59bd50a/ (Accessed the 18th of November, 2019.)
- ‡‡See The Problem of Political Authority by Michael Huemer, chapter 2.