Social contract theory is not so much a theory as it is a political opinion - and a contradictory one at that.
In the endless debates between anarchists and statists, social contract theory is ultimately introduced as an axiomatic rebuttal to the anarchist objections to state authority. Any prolonged discussion invariably leads to this argument, but it is also frequently trotted out at the start of debate. Most statists use this as a reflexive response to anything that challenges their claim that the state – the individuals comprising the legislature, the executive, and the judicial offices – does indeed possess moral and legal authority to issue commands and punish those who fail to comply with them.
A good anarchist will simply disregard this claim of authority on consensual grounds and a “good” statist will argue that social contract theory does not allow for such a dismissal. After all, by being a part of the general collective in a given region, you have agreed to its norms – to the rules of civic society, so they say. The social contract theory essentially becomes the foundation for every argument that a statist has to offer. Commonly, it is the argument – with no explanation or justification for or of its merits.
Why do agents of the state have a right to harass and extort individuals who drive too fast? Because of the social contract!
Why do agents of the state have a right to confiscate any portion of your income and wealth? Because of the social contract!
Why do agents of the state have a right to assault, imprison, or murder you for possessing a plant? Because of the social contract!
No matter how often the theory is tossed at opponents, like feces from the hands of a confined and agitated ape, it never actually serves as an adequate response to the questions of legitimacy that are posed. And no matter how many times anarchists dismiss and refute the social-contract-as-rebuttal argument, it remains as the default and almost zombie-like utterance of statists. So what can be done, since it appears that the legend of Rousseau has seemingly made his theory irrefutable in the eyes of statists?
Interestingly enough, we can use Jean Jacques Rousseau’s own statements to reject the theory. After all, he did refute the concept of the social contract…before he advocated it. With typical politician-like equivocation, Rousseau was against such a contract before he was for it.
Within the first five chapters of his treatise, he effectively submitted the exact arguments that anarchists use today against the claim of state authority.
“Even if each man could alienate himself, he could not alienate his children: they are born men and free; their liberty belongs to them, and no one but they has the right to dispose of it. Before they come to years of discretion, the father can, in their name, lay down conditions for their preservation and well-being, but he cannot give them irrevocably and without conditions: such a gift is contrary to the ends of nature, and exceeds the rights of paternity. It would therefore be necessary, in order to legitimize an arbitrary government, that in every generation the people should be in a position to accept or reject it; but, were this so, the government would be no longer arbitrary.”
Any claims by statists of “constitutional authority” rests on a claim that authority to create the constitution was legitimately derived in the first place. (We’ll get into that regression argument soon enough.) But here, Rousseau explicitly addresses the concept of perpetual authority. A prior generation of individuals – even if they unanimously consented to vest authority in a certain group of other individuals – could not bind future generations to this agreement. It is up to the son to decide for himself if he wants to abide by the same social conventions as his father. The son cannot be perpetually bound to an authority that has not received his consent, otherwise, he is not a son, but a slave.
“To renounce liberty is to renounce being a man, to surrender the rights of humanity and even its duties. For him who renounces everything no indemnity is possible. Such a renunciation is incompatible with man's nature; to remove all liberty from his will is to remove all morality from his acts. Finally, it is an empty and contradictory convention that sets up, on the one side, absolute authority, and, on the other, unlimited obedience. Is it not clear that we can be under no obligation to a person from whom we have the right to exact everything? Does not this condition alone, in the absence of equivalence or exchange, in itself involve the nullity of the act? For what right can my slave have against me, when all that he has belongs to me, and, his right being mine, this right of mine against myself is a phrase devoid of meaning?”
Rousseau is speaking against slavery, but does the truth of his words not apply to all forms of slavery and all degrees of it? Even if we could argue that the state does not claim absolute authority and demand unlimited obedience, does it not follow that any claim of authority and any demand for obedience would violate the principles?
Furthermore, if renouncing liberty makes one no longer a man, then surely, renouncing some liberties reduces one as a man. Additionally, according to Rousseau, to remove some liberty from man’s will is to remove some morality from his acts. To deny moral agents the ability to make moral decisions is to reject their capacity to actually behave as moral agents. This is precisely what the state does by claiming authority without consent, demanding obedience to such authority, and exacting punishments for non-compliance.
Men are not treated as men and moral agency is fundamentally rejected.
Is there a more destructive “authority” than one that reduces men to necessarily immoral or amoral actors? (This is a digression from the main purpose of my writing, but it is nonetheless deserving of recognition.)
Despite this line of reasoning and any truth found therein, we still have not struck at the heart of the statist’s confusion: the singularity of derived legitimacy. For this, we will return again to the words of Rousseau.
“A people, says Grotius, can give itself to a king. Then, according to Grotius, a people is a people before it gives itself. The gift is itself a civil act, and implies public deliberation. It would be better, before examining the act by which a people gives itself to a king, to examine that by which it has become a people; for this act, being necessarily prior to the other, is the true foundation of society.
“Indeed, if there were no prior convention, where, unless the election were unanimous, would be the obligation on the minority to submit to the choice of the majority? How have a hundred men who wish for a master the right to vote on behalf of ten who do not? The law of majority voting is itself something established by convention, and presupposes unanimity, on one occasion at least.”
One cannot find a more succinct refutation of the concepts of “democracy” or “constitutional authority” than within these very words of Rousseau himself – the eventual lord and de facto originator of social contract theory.
Rousseau wrote of sovereign power and the act of granting authority to a king. He correctly identified that any “people” – as a plurality of individuals – could not grant, as a people, that to which they have not first unanimously agreed. To take a vote on whether or not to grant the consent of the collective would necessarily require that such a collective has unanimously agreed to the rules of that vote. If the grant of authority to a king or a congress is determined by carrying a majority vote, how has that rule been decided? How has this rule become authoritative itself? By a majority vote of the individuals in the given society?
Of course, this would be insufficient to derive any legitimate authority, according to Rousseau’s argument. The line of reasoning leads us to an infinite regression until unanimous consent of each individual in the collective has been ascertained. Only from there can the possibility of legitimate authority exist and truly be granted. The underpinning concept that would bind any individual to the decisions of the collective is the notion that the consent of each individual must be granted and that this principle of consent cannot be controverted.
These few paragraphs from Rousseau’s treatise sufficiently repudiate any claims of legitimate authority by coercive states and they wholly reinforce the arguments of anarchists. What followed in The Social Contract can be accurately called a blatant contradiction of Rousseau’s principles that were explained within his first five chapters – and these chapters are what statists must continually ignore in order to accept the theory that followed.
It usually isn’t enough to tell a statist that the social contract isn’t a real contract. They naively accept that the theory is sound, perhaps because most people never bother to read Rousseau’s actual words and instead rely on paraphrased summaries of interpretations of his work that have unfortunately survived two and a half centuries of statist political rhetoric and dogma. Will it be enough to explain to these statists that Rousseau himself was in fact the first political philosopher to disprove his theory – before he even wrote it? Only time will tell.
One undeniable truth remains, though: I have signed no contract. I have granted no consent. The state’s claim of authority over my life and my property is and shall always be illegitimate.
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