This is the second article in a series critiquing Social Contract Theory. The first is located here: An Evaluation of Social Contract Theory.
If you’ve ever questioned why the state has the authority to do something or even wondered aloud whether the status quo is the best that it could be, it’s likely someone has told you some variant of “If you don’t like it, leave!” This phrase is less an argument than it is an emotional outburst. It’s usually uttered when someone wants to cover their ears and shut down the discussion. With that said, I am going to explore the ideas behind this “argument” as well as related, and more nuanced versions of Social Contract Theory.
First of all, no, many people cannot easily leave. Some are too poor, too old, too young, or have responsibilities or dependents which demand their presence. Right off the bat, this argument seems to only apply to the rich who are capable of moving long distances.
Where Would They Go?
If the concern is whether states have legitimate authority, a suggestion to move to another nation-state clearly doesn’t address the problem. Nearly all of the planet is controlled by states. Even Antarctica is divided by territorial claims of multiple countries. So the argument really becomes “if you don’t like it, move to the middle of the ocean or the moon!” Actually, non-coastal regions of the ocean are regulated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. “Don’t like it, leave” can make sense in some contexts, like when alternatives are plentiful and reasonably attainable. But when the only option to avoid being subject to the authority of a state is to leave the planet, this response loses any persuasiveness it might have had.
A Related Argument
A related attempt to justify state authority is usually along the lines of; since you are within the jurisdiction of a state, you are obligated to obey its rules. This is circular reasoning. Presumably, the goal is to show why states have authority. But the argument contains the premise that the state has jurisdiction, which is similar to saying that it has authority. Another way of communicating the same thing is to say; the state has the authority to control you because you are in the territory which it has the authority to control. When fleshed out in this manner, we can see there really isn’t much being said at all. It’s merely an unbacked assertion.
In order for this prior argument to have merit, it must first be shown that the state has a justified claim to its territory. This will inevitably be problematic. In just about every case, nations took control of their land through conquest. Endorsing conquest as a just form of property acquisition requires supporting mass murder, enslavement, pillaging, theft, subjugation, etc. When pressed, most people do not think these actions are a civilized means of acquiring property.
In addition, this argument implies states own everything within their borders. Perhaps there are a few people who endorse that idea, but nearly everyone believes in valid private property claims to some extent.
Even if we could leave the claimed territory of states, which is practically impossible for just about everyone, there remains the unanswered question of why a given state is a justified owner anyway. There is no other aspect of social life where we recognize murder and subjugation as a legitimate means of acquiring property. It is, therefore, special pleading to grant that privilege to states.