of the Governed?
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Business Net Investment Remains in a Deep Ditch
some people the right to rule others? At least since John Lockes
time, the most common and seemingly compelling answer has been the
consent of the governed. When the North American revolutionaries
set out to justify their secession from the British Empire, they
declared, among other things: Governments are instituted among
Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.
This sounds good, especially if one doesnt think about it
very hard or very long, but the harder and longer one thinks about
it, the more problematic it becomes.
after another comes to mind. Must every person consent? If not,
how many must, and what options do those who do not consent have?
What form must the consent take verbal, written, explicit, implicit?
If implicit, how is it to be registered? Given that the composition
of society is constantly changing, owing to births, deaths, and
international migration, how often must the rulers confirm that
they retain the consent of the governed? And so on and on. Political
legitimacy, it would appear, presents a multitude of difficulties
when we move from the realm of theoretical abstraction to that of
I raise this
question because in regard to the so-called social
contract, I have often had occasion to protest that I havent
even seen the contract, much less been asked to consent to it. A
valid contract requires voluntary offer, acceptance, and consideration.
Ive never received an offer from my rulers, so I certainly
have not accepted one; and rather than consideration, I have received
nothing but contempt from the rulers, who, notwithstanding the absence
of any agreement, have indubitably threatened me with grave harm
in the event that I fail to comply with their edicts. What monumental
effrontery these people exhibit! What gives them the right to rob
me and push me around? It certainly is not my desire to be
a sheep for them to shear or slaughter as they deem expedient for
the attainment of their own ends.
we flesh out the idea of consent of the governed in
realistic detail, the whole notion quickly becomes utterly preposterous.
Just consider how it would work. A would-be ruler approaches you
and offers a contract for your approval. Here, says he, is the deal.
party of the first part (the ruler), promise:
(1) To stipulate
how much of your money you will hand over to me, as well as how,
when, and where the transfer will be made. You will have no effective
say in the matter, aside from pleading for my mercy, and if you
should fail to comply, my agents will punish you with fines, imprisonment,
and (in the event of your persistent resistance) death.
(2) To make
thousands upon thousands of rules for you to obey without question,
again on pain of punishment by my agents. You will have no effective
say in determining the content of these rules, which will be so
numerous, complex, and in many cases beyond comprehension that
no human being could conceivably know about more than a handful
of them, much less their specific character, yet if you should
fail to comply with any of them, I will feel free to punish you
to the extent of a law made my me and my confederates.
(3) To provide
for your use, on terms stipulated by me and my agents, so-called
public goods and services. Although you may actually place some
value on a few of these goods and services, most will have little
or no value to you, and some you will find utterly abhorrent,
and in no event will you as an individual have any effective say
over the goods and services I provide, notwithstanding any economists
cock-and-bull story to the effect that you demand
all this stuff and value it at whatever amount of money I choose
to expend for its provision.
(4) In the
event of a dispute between us, judges beholden to me for their
appointment and salaries will decide how to settle the dispute.
You can expect to lose in these settlements, if your case is heard
for the foregoing government benefits, you, the
party of the second part (the subject), promise:
(5) To shut
up, make no waves, obey all orders issued by the ruler and his
agents, kowtow to them as if they were important, honorable people,
and when they say jump, ask only how high?
Such a deal!
Can we really imagine that any sane person would consent to it?
the rest of the article
Higgs [send him mail] is
senior fellow in political economy at the Independent
Institute and editor of The
Independent Review. He
is also a columnist for LewRockwell.com. His
most recent book is Neither
Liberty Nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government.
He is also the author of Depression,
War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy, Resurgence
of the Warfare State: The Crisis Since 9/11 and Against
Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society.
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