The Social Contract. A well-known concept that has been used at length to defend the existence of the state, the implementation of taxes against the citizenry, and the general use of authoritative force in the name of the greater good. While there are a vast quantity of issues with social contract theory, there are two key fallacies that I will be focusing in on today. The first is the core premise, the second is how we discuss it.
Social contract theory was first discussed as early as the time of the ancient Greeks. Plato, in the The Republic Book II, described the concept of the social contract as broken down by his older brother Glaucon and he briefly expanded on it in the Crito dialogue. The idea didn’t really begin to take hold until the enlightenment era, wherein the likes of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant began to, working from the grounds of individuals having unlimited natural freedoms, discuss and develop their own ideas as to the rational benefits to trading some of those freedoms in exchange for the peace and balance of political order.
With the brief history out of the way (which we will, in part, come back to later), we can turn our attention to the issue of consent.
There are three primary forms of consent: implied, verbal, and written. Social contract theory relies on the former of the three forms to function. The notion is that by participating in society, using tax-funded infrastructure, voting, etc., that you have given implicit consent to the social conditions of the society you reside in. There are several issues with this. The first is that survival in general requires participating in society in today’s world. This would mean, then, that by having participated to survive even once you’ve bound yourself to this contract and all of the permissions you grant to the state for it. Existing and surviving, in and of itself, cannot be treated as our basis of consent, implicit or otherwise. There’s also the linguistic issue of treating the arrangement as a contract when contracts require explicit consent to the terms and conditions. To assume someone implicitly agreed to a form of explicit agreement is nonsense.
Consent also loses its power and meaning if you are unable to withdraw it. If you become disillusioned with government later in life you would still be assumed to be bound to the social contract due to earlier participation. If we were to use the term consent in this way consistently, it would result in all sorts of issues. Imagine if one of your ex’s could demand sex with you at any time because you consented before, and that you had no right to refuse.
This brings us to the second issue of social contract theory: the way we discuss it. A common tactic in defense of the social contract is to lean on the more benign versions of the theory. Historically, while the philosophical work has generally led to agreeing on some form of state, the establishment of political and societal norms is the driving force and reason rather than the state itself. Even anarchists like Rothbard agreed to having some kinds of norms established, actions against persons treated as crimes, and said crimes being punished. In effect, this too could be considered a form of social contract as we collectively develop norms and the fulfillment of those social duties (not murdering people, for instance).
The fallacy arises when this positioning of social contracts is freely changed with the defense and support of a state. Depending on how the argument is formed, it will amount to little more than a Motte and Bailey fallacy or, in some cases, a simple equivocation fallacy; both of which I’ve discussed at length in other editions of Bad Arguments, so I’ll save you the repetition.
One other fallacy you will encounter is the False Dilemma fallacy. A false dilemma occurs when you’re presented with only two options as if those were the only ones to exist, even though several others might. This fallacy arises with social contract theory defenders when they propose the “all or nothing” approach to their version of “freedom” as a way of accepting it. I have seen defenders lay the claim that because the option to fight back against the state or to run off to the woods are on the table we, then, consent to the state because we don’t take those courses of action. The argument could be boiled down to “if you don’t pull a gun and get into a firefight with a cop, then you consented to that ticket he gave you.” What is missed in this line of thinking is that consent given under duress, threat of force, or use of force cannot constitute true consent. With that thinking it could be said there was no issue with slavery because they didn’t fight back till their deaths.
I don’t believe that the entirety of social contract theory need be thrown out, mind you. I do believe in the line of thinking that rational agents, more often than not, will abstain from some of their freedoms in exchange for forming cohesive groups. The issue I take is with the stretch that this line of thinking is dragged to when we extend it to the formation of governing bodies. For more of the issues with social contract theory I highly recommend checking out the series written by Andrew Kern on The Principled Libertarian website.
Read more from Killian at Think Liberty here.