Stop claiming no decision or action taken by anyone else can ever be legitimate over you in any way. Just stop.
This debate warrants further discussion. Before going further, allow me to post a quick disclaimer:
While I hold (to a degree) a libertarian streak, you won’t find the non-agression principle at the core of my political philosophy. It strikes me as something that, while admirable, isn’t going to happen. Political societies are built on complex webs of loyalties, power relationships and myths. That might not be ideal, but it’s the reality.
So let’s chat about the social contract. Before proceeding, please make sure you’ve read (in full) the posts by PoliticalProf and LaLiberty. They should help clarify a few questions that may arise on the way.
The Premise - Property and the Social Contract
Libertarians operate under the premise of individual autonomy. Unless someone agrees to something, he shouldn’t be compelled to act. Simple enough, right?
That premise of voluntarism is a relative newcomer to the idea of political order. It appears to be the distillation of the state of nature as described by liberal (the classical variety) theorists. For most of human history, society was not described on such terms. Under the Romans and Greeks, for instance, property rights were understood on usufructuary terms. Families owned land for perpetuity, and while the current owners were permitted use, they were forbidden from selling said property. (1)
That isn’t a lot different than the feudal understanding of land. In an aristocratic state, it was easier to purchase a title or army than to acquire an estate. Property was certainly about control and power and wealth, but it also was the most tangible connection binding together families. You couldn’t sell your land because it wasn’t yours to sell. Property was acquired by your ancestors. It is willed to your descendants.
Our modern conception of private property would be alien to these societies. Under the premises of the state of nature (Damn You, Locke!) man acquired property as the product of his labors. He was free to do with said property as he wished. Locke’s state of nature (2) was a much, much happier and more peaceful one than the terror of Thomas Hobbes’. (3)
The long term consequences of said action were left unmentioned. That’s more like today’s society where people attempt to gain wealth by flipping homes and where a hometown is an increasingly abstract term for young people.
So there it is, right? Times have changed?
It’s just that our understanding of property has dramatically changed, while our understanding of fealty has not. We may no longer hold children accountable for the sins of their fathers, but we certainly require them to pay credence to their political oaths. Libertarians raise a troubling question for the modern nation state when they mention the origins of said state, which is that the 1% of society picked representatives from within their ranks to write a document in the name of everyone. How can we hold people accountable for an oath made in their name when not even their ancestors had a say in its creation?
Love thy State, for lack of better options
The truth is that we generally ignore said lines of questioning. We have to, after all. Were we to follow the publicly perceived spirit of one of Thomas Jefferson’s recommendations, we’d have the mess of a Constitutional Convention every few decades. That wouldn’t just be inconvenient. It would be untenable and cause the ole USA to make France’s post-revolution governments look like the iron clad lady of politics. But is there something to be made of the idea that everyone should be allowed to have a choice on the social contract?
Revisiting Jefferson might be of some use:
Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself, that received from its predecessors; and it is for the peace and good of mankind, that a solemn opportunity of doing this every nineteen or twenty years, should be provided by the constitution; so that it may be handed on, with periodical repairs, from generation to generation, to the end of time, if anything human can so long endure.
He goes on to explain that he isn’t demanding revolution. On the contrary, he advocates in other parts of his letter to Samuel Kercheval that government should change slowly and incrementally to at least attempt to match changes within broader society. What Jefferson sought was a government responsive to the evolving needs of its people. (S/O to Edmund Burke!)
What’s The Alternative?
But where does that leave those who want no part of said society? (For the record, I do choose to be part of this society.) Were we writing the Constitution today, how would we respond to the demands of voluntarists? Would territory be set aside for people who wished to create voluntary states, or would we just drop our attempts at state-building?
For every claim to libertarians that “if you don’t like it, just leave” ignores a fundamental truth: where does one go? There is no longer a way where one can “leave” the state as a model for governance in today’s world. Leaving one state entails entering another. Should the libertarian who feels oppressed by the modern state go to China? Russia? Australia? God forbid, Sweden? Somalia might be an example of a stateless society, but we have plenty of activists seeking to rebuild said state.
It’s quite problematic to use the lack of experience with actual libertarian societies against said ideas. Just because something hasn’t yet been tried in the real world doesn’t mean it is doomed to failure. In fact, I’d point out how numerous examples of the opposites of libertarianism that have done exactly what they intended, yet my Marxist friends continue to insist that it was the implementation that was problematic, not the philosophy.
Liberals consider oppression as a tool used against collective groups. Might it also be the case that oppression can be used against individuals for choosing to abstain from a collectivist culture?
For what it’s worth, I’m not sure about the last few questions. Consider them open ended.
(1) This paragraph was informed by Francis Fukuyama’s newest text, “The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution”, Chapter 4
(2) John Locke, from his “Second Treastise on Government”
(3) Thomas Hobbes, from “Leviathan”