The Social Contract and Other Myths

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and lies have been major contributors to the indoctrination of children
into the prevailing culture. Our earliest experiences usually included
stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy,
characters we swore were integral parts of the cosmic scheme. In
time — usually with the help of our more skeptical friends or forthright
parents — we experienced the pains of disillusionment, and even
prided ourselves on how sophisticated we were vis-a-vis our more
gullible younger siblings. As young adults in a "bottom-line"
world, we managed to discard more lies, such as "the check
is in the mail," "user-friendly computer," and "I'm
from the government; I'm here to help!"

There are some fables, however, that are too deeply engrained in
us for us to confront, most of which have to do with how political
systems operate. To look such myths in the face and see them for
what they are would, in our politically-defined world, be too traumatic,
forcing us to face up to the reality that we have been victimized
by our own gullibility. (I have, for instance, been intrigued by
the recent billboards and bumper-stickers that read: "In God
We Trust. United We Stand." If we are trusting in God, why
do we need to stand united? Is God incapable of finding and protecting
us if we "stand individually?")

The myth that meets with the most resistance for examination, however,
is that upon which modern "democratic" political systems
are founded: the "social contract" theory of the state.
According to this view, best developed by John Locke and woven into
the fabric of the Declaration of Independence, human beings are
free by nature, and may take whatever action is necessary for sustaining
their lives, consistent with a like right in all others to do the
same. This includes the right to protect one's life and property
from attacks by others. The individual enjoyment of such a right
carries with it the right of individuals to join together for mutual
protection, creating an agency — the state — to act on their behalf
in this regard. At all times, however, this arrangement is understood
as one of a principal/agency relationship, with individuals being
the principals, and the state their agent. This, in theory,
is the rationale for the modern state.

Of course, there is no evidence of any state having come into existence
through such idealistic means. Being grounded in force, all political
systems have been created through conquest, violence, and disregard
for the rights of those who do not voluntarily choose to be a part
of the arrangement. Even the origins of the United States of America
— which provides us a great deal more empirical evidence — reveals
the absence of any "contract" among its citizenry to participate
in the system. As best I can tell from my reading of history, the
Constitution was probably favored by about one-third of the population,
strongly opposed by another one-third, and greeted with indifference
by the remaining one-third.

The sentiment that "We the People" spoke, as one voice,
on behalf of the new system; the idea that there was a universal
agreement — which a contract theory demands — for the creation of
the American state, represents historic nonsense. The Constitution
did not even reflect the wishes of a majority of the population,
much less all. Those who persist in the "social contract"
myth are invited to explain how, once the national government came
into being, Rhode Island was threatened with blockades and invasions
should it continue to insist upon not ratifying the Constitution.
Rhode Island was, after the majority of Americans themselves, the
second victim of "American imperialism!"

If the origins of the United States government do not persuade
you of the mythic nature of the state, then your attention is directed
to the Civil War, wherein the southern states made a choice to opt
out of the "social contract" by seceding from the Union.
Lincoln — in my mind, the worst president this country ever had,
including all the McKinleys and Roosevelts and Wilsons and Trumans
and Bushes, none of whom could have inflicted their damage without
Lincoln's embracing the principle of the primacy of the totalitarian
state — negated any pretense to a "social contract" justification
for the United States. (If you would like further evidence on this,
I direct your attention to two books: Richard Bensel's Yankee
, and Thomas DiLorenzo's just-published work The
Real Lincoln

of a totalitarian persuasion have had to stumble all over one another
to salvage the "social contract" myth — without which,
the state is seen for what it always has been by its nature: a corporate
body that employs force, threats, and deadly violence to compel
individuals to participate in whatever suits its interest to pursue.
Somehow or other, people are "free" to contract to set
up a state as their "agent" but, once established, there
is some kind of unexplained conversion by which the state becomes
the "principal," and individuals the "agents."

Imagine if such logic were employed in the marketplace — which,
fortunately, does not enjoy the use of coercive force. Suppose that
you Suppose that you went to work for the United Updike Company
and, after three years of employment, you decided to resign in order
to take another job. Suppose Uniited Updike thought that you were
too valuable an employee to lose, and so resorted to deadly force
to compel you to remain with them. Suppose, further, that such a
scheme would have been so transparent that it would have been met
with general contempt in the community, and so the company rationalizes
its coercive actions this way: "we are taking this action in
order to protect the rights of your children, whose security might
be threatened were you to quit your job." This was the essence
of the Civil War!

I continue to get e-mails from readers who either do not understand
— or do not want to understand — how the 13th
Amendment to the Constitution nationalized slavery rather
than ended it. Military and jury duty conscription, taxation, compulsory
school attendance, are just a number of manifestations of how government
is engaged in the practice of slavery. But the root explanation
for this phenomenon is traced back to the rejection of "contract"
as a basis for the state.

One must understand the interconnected nature of "liberty,"
"property," and "contract." To enjoy a condition
of liberty is to have one's claim to self-ownership respected.
Such claims are respected when, and only if, we insist upon contracts
as the only way in which to properly deal with one another. I believe
it was Blackstone who defined "contract" as an agreement
by two or more persons to exchange claims of ownership. Thus, if
I wish to secure your services, I will respect your independence
by making an offer to you that you will consider attractive enough
to cause you to agree to work for me. The arrangement is a contractual

When the state wants our services or the products of our labor,
it demands them by force, with no respect for yours or my
right to refuse. Taxes are simply increased, conscription ordered,
service demanded, and we are expected to obey with the same obeisance
as a plantation slave being ordered to increase the rate of chopping
cotton. We have so internalized our slave status that most of us
take it as a compliment to be referred to as an "asset"
of the community; or regard it as an expression of governmental
"caring" to refer to our children as "our nation's
most valuable resources."

Lest you dismiss my observations as hyperbole, consider the dissenting
opinion of Supreme Court Justice Harlan, in the 1905 case Lochner
v. New York, where he sought to justify legislation that limited
the number of hours people could work in bakeries. An excessive
number of hours, he argued, "may endanger the health, and shorten
the lives of the workmen, thereby diminishing their physical
and mental capacity to serve the State" (emphasis added).
Do you hear any sounds of retreat from such sentiments in the words
of President Bush, or John Ashcroft, or Donald Rumsfeld, as they
warn us of our duties of obedience to their will, or threaten us
if we seek to find out too much about their military actions? And
when Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, speaks
of possible "mandatory" vaccinations against smallpox
or anthrax, do you discern any more regard for our free wills in
such matters than a rancher would in vaccinating his cattle for
cholera or hoof-and-mouth disease?

In current efforts to establish a European Union, or to expand the
powers — including taxation — of the United Nations, we witness
the removal of even a pretense of support for the "social contract"
principle. Only in Ireland, I believe, were people allowed to vote
on the EU proposal — which was soundly rejected by the voters. Now,
apparently, it is sufficient for existing political systems to create
supra-political systems, without bothering to consult the
rabble, whose function is only to be serviceable to the new regimes.

I know of no legal principle that allows an "agent" to
delegate his or her agency to another, or to create a new agency,
without the consent of the "principal." I strongly suspect
that, should an agent undertake such authority without being instructed
to do so by the principal, all courts would treat this as a fundamental
breach of the agency agreement. And yet, agencies of the United
States government — as well as other nations — now engage in just
such transactions, seeking to bind their own citizenry to political
obligations in which none of them has had even a remote voice. Does
this not suggest to you a material breach in the alleged "social
contract," leaving us free to pursue our well-being in other
ways? John Locke and Thomas Jefferson would have said "yes."

In their teenage years, my children used to lament "I didn't
ask to be born." I informed them that, as they came to learn
more about biology, they would understand that they did ask
to be born; that the life force within their particular sperm
wanted nothing so much as to be the fertilizer of what was to become
their ovum; that they have never worked so insistently for anything
in their lives as to come into existence. They soon stopped uttering
this plea!

What my children probably meant to say was that they had entered
into no contract with either my wife or me to be brought into being.
While this is obviously true, it is equally the case that "life"
was not simply thrust upon them; that while they had no conscious
will in the matter, the sense of life that inhered in their pre-conceptual
state impelled their actions.

But all of us — including my three children — are human beings and,
as such, each of us is characterized by "free will." This
means that each of us has the capacity for self-ownership and self-direction,
qualities that men like Locke and Jefferson regarded as so inseparable
to life itself that social institutions — particularly the state
— must rest their legitimacy upon their inviolability.

We are long past the day when even intelligent men and women incorporate
such insights into their thinking or discussions. The pragmatic
demands of Realpolitik — including how to manipulate "public
opinion" and put together power-based coalitions — now dominate
the conscious minds of most. But as our modern world continues its
present entropic collapse into worldwide warfare, police-state oppression,
and dehumanizing regimentation, it might be timely to resurrect
some earlier notions — born of renaissance and enlightenment thinking
— about the centrality of individuals in defining our social systems
and behavior.

At least since the time of Lincoln, our nation has abandoned such
sentiments, elevating statist ambitions of empire over the
liberty and prosperity of human beings. It is time for us
to face up to the myths and other lies by which others have seduced
our self-destructive compliance. There is no "social
contract" underlying our relationship to the state. Contrary
to the high school civics class nonsense in which we have been indoctrinated,
you and I are not the government: we have no more say in
the course of political decision-making than does our family dog
in deciding where we are to take this year's vacation!

1, 2002

Shaffer [send
him e-mail
] teaches at the Southwestern University School
of Law.
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