The Social Non-Contract: Governments Have No Right

I’m going to start with a most controversial proposition:

No government has the right to exist.

First, I must specify what I mean by a right. We can define a right in many different ways, but the one thing that all conceptions have in common is that they are, ultimately, a justification for the use of force, or more simply, “I’ll kick your ass if you try to take this away.” If I have, for instance, a right to action or property, this means ultimately that I am ethically justified in using force to oppose you if you try to take my freedom or property away.

So far so good but, as for all other ethical principles, the trouble comes with the implementation. The government, for instance, claims the right to extort taxation money for all sorts of actions and trades, including simply working or owning a piece of land. Does it have such a right?

Groups cannot have rights above and beyond those of their component individuals, as only individuals can use violence and determine its validity. Any group is nothing more than the addition of individuals and the property and principles they produce or acquire for the purposes of the group’s activities. Therefore, if the government has the right to tax, meaning that it is justified in using force to take people’s money for its purposes, it must be the case that the individuals composing the government also have that right as individuals.

But it should be clear that no one has such a right. If any random person came to your door and demanded five thousand dollars so he could use it for his own purposes (say, giving it to poor people), you’d probably consider him to be a lunatic. If he drew a gun and threatened you, you’d consider him a dangerous lunatic thief. The only difference between this person and an IRS agent is that we don’t scream “thief!” when an IRS agent does the exact same thing, because, through indoctrination, takeover of many parts of society and sheer threats of force, government is given more legitimacy than a common thief. One cannot fight against the government or the system as a whole, therefore one must submit and forget about the unpleasant truth that one is being exploited.

Statists use many arguments to try to hide this obvious fact. Generally, they claim that government is necessary and that its purposes are essential. But it’s important to remember that all that a government does is control and corrupt production through tax spending and law, getting all sorts of benefits from this control. Government does not stop criminals: it controls and corrupts the production of policing services. Government does not build roads: it controls and corrupts the production of roads. The issue therefore is not how we can produce things, because individuals already do this, but rather how we want production to be controlled. Whose interests do we wish our institutions to pursue, those of the power elite or those of society as a whole? Republicans and Democrats are in the former camp (although they would generally not admit it), while most people who oppose the system would answer the latter. There is a lot more to say on this topic, obviously, but this is the problem as simply expressed as possible.

Another argument used by statists is that the government is justified by the consent of its subjects. This is a strange argument on the face of it, since no one is asked to consent to government before being its subject. The United States Constitution was not verbally or formally consented to by anyone alive, except government employees. But even if it was, we’d have to conclude that it was done under duress, since failure to accept the rules would deprive one of a living. How would anyone possibly say no?

This, by the way, is the basis of a recent argument, made by Charles Johnson and drawing from work by political theorist Crispin Sartwell, which seeks to demonstrate that there can be no such thing as consent to the State. To simplify, the argument says that, the fact that one has no alternative but to submit to the State means that there can be no such thing as consenting to the State, because consent (as opposed to desire or acceptance, which are purely private) can only exist in the presence of alternatives. The obvious statist reply is to claim that one is free to leave, but, notwithstanding the fact that this is not always true and that it also costs a great deal of money, this does not prove that one is consenting to government, since there are governments everywhere one might want to live.

But it’s important for me to point out that, even if either argument was true, they would not solve the problem of rights. Even if every single person in a given society could consent, and consented, to the existence of a government, it would not make the government any less coercive. Even if government was absolutely necessary for some essential function (something which sociological and historical studies disprove conclusively), it would not make government any less exploitative.

The obvious question arises: what does it matter if government is unjustified? They have the guns and “might makes right.” Certainly there is merit to this line of reasoning, not in the sense that might actually does make right (a position so repulsive that few non-insane people would accept its logical consequences), but in the sense that, as the ability to use force is a prerequisite for the expression of rights, might dictates the degree to which one can use one’s inherent rights. In our current society, you have the right to complain, sure, but that right is useless without the power to actually change anything. All it does is make people feel like they’re achieving something of significance, when all they’re doing is talking to a wall.

Now, as for why it matters: because we are all to a certain extent responsible for what happens in our society. The only manner in which a society can change for the better is by an awakening of all those people who know “something” is wrong, with their lives, with the system they live under, but can’t identify what. It is because they keep obeying this system of exploitation that it continues to flourish. As Anselme Bellegarrigue beautifully put it: “You believed until now that tyrants exist? Well! You were wrong, there are only slaves: where no one obeys, no one can command.”

For this to happen, there needs to be a global realization that the emperor has no clothes, both from a moral and from a practical standpoint. We need to get people off the mindset that we have to “save” our capital-democratic system, that if we can just get the right people or the right approach we can mend a process that was broken from the get-go. If you looked for a new car in the classifieds and found one that is advertised as not working, you just wouldn’t buy it. Buying it and then desperately trying to put it back together when you need to go to work would be a fool’s errand.

The belief that “good people” would make government itself become an apparatus dedicated to the well-being of its subjects is contradictory, because people who are so altruistic and dedicated would not need government to begin with. Even the framers of the Constitution, a document which is held as a paragon of freedom and yet gave birth to one of the most dangerous centralized governments in the world, understood this fact:

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the  great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

— James Madison

In the statist mindset, there can be only one sort of relation between people, and that is control. Any other mode of relating to others is excluded as being insecure, “not good enough” to keep society running. And if control is the only way we can run society, therefore the only debate left is how this control is to be implemented, whether it is to be implemented in one or three distinct organizations (which is really all that the so-called “checks and balances” of the Constitution are about), whether it is to be run on liberal or conservative principles, whether the supreme ruler should be named by a popularity contest or by the privilege of birth, and so on.

To this view of society we must contrast that of freedom: that each individual should be free to act in accordance with his own values, without being controlled by any exterior determinism. This view should be distinguished from ethical nihilism, which is in fact nothing but the flip side of statism. When might becomes the primary standard, there can be no fixed principles, only the whims of rulers. Any realistic conception of freedom must entail that our institutions, whether political, economic or social, must be constructed and maintained, not on the basis of might, but on the basis of moral principles.

Francois Tremblay

January 30, 2009