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The Social Contract and Other Myths

The Social Contract and Other Myths
Profile photo of Butler Shaffer

Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_DieReprinted from LewRockwell.com

Myths and lies have been major contributors to the indoctrination of children into the prevailing culture. Our earliest experiences usually included stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, characters we swore were integral parts of the cosmic scheme. In time — usually with the help of our more skeptical friends or forthright parents — we experienced the pains of disillusionment, and even prided ourselves on how sophisticated we were vis-a-vis our more gullible younger siblings. As young adults in a “bottom-line”world, we managed to discard more lies, such as “the check is in the mail,” “user-friendly computer,” and “I’m from the government; I’m here to help!”

There are some fables, however, that are too deeply engrained in us for us to confront, most of which have to do with how political systems operate. To look such myths in the face and see them for what they are would, in our politically-defined world, be too traumatic, forcing us to face up to the reality that we have been victimized by our own gullibility. (I have, for instance, been intrigued by the recent billboards and bumper-stickers that read: “In God We Trust. United We Stand.” If we are trusting in God, why do we need to stand united? Is God incapable of finding and protecting us if we “stand individually?”)

The myth that meets with the most resistance for examination, however, is that upon which modern “democratic” political systems are founded: the “social contract” theory of the state.According to this view, best developed by John Locke and woven into the fabric of the Declaration of Independence, human beings are free by nature, and may take whatever action is necessary for sustaining their lives, consistent with a like right in all others to do the same. This includes the right to protect one’s life and property from attacks by others. The individual enjoyment of such a right carries with it the right of individuals to join together for mutual protection, creating an agency — the state — to act on their behalf in this regard. At all times, however, this arrangement is understood as one of a principal/agency relationship, with individuals being the principals, and the state their agent. This, in theory, is the rationale for the modern state.

Of course, there is no evidence of any state having come into existence through such idealistic means. Being grounded in force, all political systems have been created through conquest, violence, and disregard for the rights of those who do not voluntarily choose to be a part of the arrangement. Even the origins of the United States of America — which provides us a great deal more empirical evidence — reveals the absence of any “contract” among its citizenry to participate in the system. As best I can tell from my reading of history, theConstitution was probably favored by about one-third of the population, strongly opposed by another one-third, and greeted with indifference by the remaining one-third.

The sentiment that “We the People” spoke, as one voice, on behalf of the new system; the idea that there was a universal agreement — which a contract theory demands — for the creation of the American state, represents historic nonsense. The Constitution did not even reflect the wishes of a majority of the population, much less all. Those who persist in the “social contract” myth are invited to explain how, once the national government came into being, Rhode Island was threatened with blockades and invasions should it continue to insist upon not ratifying the Constitution. Rhode Island was, after the majority of Americans themselves, the second victim of “American imperialism!”

If the origins of the United States government do not persuade you of the mythic nature of the state, then your attention is directed to the Civil War, wherein the southern states made a choice to opt out of the “social contract” by seceding from the Union. Lincoln — in my mind, the worst president this country ever had, including all the McKinleys and Roosevelts and Wilsons and Trumans and Bushes, none of whom could have inflicted their damage withoutLincoln’s embracing the principle of the primacy of the totalitarian state — negated any pretense to a “social contract” justification for the United States. (If you would like further evidence on this, I direct your attention to two books: Richard Bensel’s Yankee Leviathan, and Thomas DiLorenzo’s just-published work The Real Lincoln.)

Those of a totalitarian persuasion have had to stumble all over one another to salvage the “social contract” myth — without which, the state is seen for what it always has been by its nature: a corporate body that employs force, threats, and deadly violence to compelindividuals to participate in whatever suits its interest to pursue. Somehow or other, people are “free” to contract to set up a state as their “agent” but, once established, there is some kind of unexplained conversion by which the state becomes the “principal,” and individuals the “agents.”

Imagine if such logic were employed in the marketplace — which, fortunately, does not enjoy the use of coercive force. Suppose that you Suppose that you went to work for the United Updike Company and, after three years of employment, you decided to resign in order to take another job. Suppose Uniited Updike thought that you were too valuable an employee to lose, and so resorted to deadly force to compel you to remain with them. Suppose, further, that such a scheme would have been so transparent that it would have been met with general contempt in the community, and so the company rationalizes its coercive actions this way: “we are taking this action in order to protect the rights of your children, whose security mightbe threatened were you to quit your job.” This was the essence of the Civil War!

I continue to get e-mails from readers who either do not understand — or do not want to understand — how the 13th Amendment to the Constitution nationalized slavery rather than ended it. Military and jury duty conscription, taxation, compulsory school attendance, are just a number of manifestations of how government is engaged in the practice of slavery. But the root explanation for this phenomenon is traced back to the rejection of “contract” as a basis for the state.

One must understand the interconnected nature of “liberty,” “property,” and “contract.” To enjoy a condition of liberty is to have one’s claim to self-ownership respected. Such claims are respected when, and only if, we insist upon contracts as the only way in which to properly deal with one another. I believe it was Blackstone who defined “contract” as an agreement by two or more persons to exchange claims of ownership. Thus, if I wish to secure your services, I will respect your independence by making an offer to you that you will consider attractive enough to cause you to agree to work for me. The arrangement is a contractual one.

When the state wants our services or the products of our labor, it demands them by force, with no respect for yours or my right to refuse. Taxes are simply increased, conscription ordered, service demanded, and we are expected to obey with the same obeisance as a plantation slave being ordered to increase the rate of chopping cotton. We have so internalized our slave status that most of us take it as a compliment to be referred to as an “asset” of the community; or regard it as an expression of governmental “caring” to refer to our children as “our nation’s most valuable resources.”

Lest you dismiss my observations as hyperbole, consider the dissenting opinion of Supreme Court Justice Harlan, in the 1905 case Lochner v. New York, where he sought to justify legislation that limited the number of hours people could work in bakeries. An excessivenumber of hours, he argued, “may endanger the health, and shorten the lives of the workmen, thereby diminishing their physical and mental capacity to serve the State” (emphasis added).Do you hear any sounds of retreat from such sentiments in the words of President Bush, or John Ashcroft, or Donald Rumsfeld, as they warn us of our duties of obedience to their will, or threaten us if we seek to find out too much about their military actions? And when Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, speaks of possible “mandatory” vaccinations against smallpox or anthrax, do you discern any more regard for our free wills insuch matters than a rancher would in vaccinating his cattle for cholera or hoof-and-mouth disease?

In current efforts to establish a European Union, or to expand the powers — including taxation — of the United Nations, we witness the removal of even a pretense of support for the “social contract” principle. Only in Ireland, I believe, were people allowed to vote on the EU proposal — which was soundly rejected by the voters. Now, apparently, it is sufficient for existing political systems to create supra-political systems, without bothering to consult therabble, whose function is only to be serviceable to the new regimes.

I know of no legal principle that allows an “agent” to delegate his or her agency to another, or to create a new agency, without the consent of the “principal.” I strongly suspect that, should an agent undertake such authority without being instructed to do so by the principal, all courts would treat this as a fundamental breach of the agency agreement. And yet, agencies of the United States government — as well as other nations — now engage in just such transactions, seeking to bind their own citizenry to political obligations in which none of them has had even a remote voice. Does this not suggest to you a material breach in the alleged “social contract,” leaving us free to pursue our well-being in other ways? John Locke and Thomas Jefferson would have said “yes.”

In their teenage years, my children used to lament “I didn’t ask to be born.” I informed them that, as they came to learn more about biology, they would understand that they did ask to be born; that the life force within their particular sperm wanted nothing so much as to be the fertilizer of what was to become their ovum; that they have never worked so insistently for anything in their lives as to come into existence. They soon stopped uttering this plea!

What my children probably meant to say was that they had entered into no contract with either my wife or me to be brought into being. While this is obviously true, it is equally the case that “life” was not simply thrust upon them; that while they had no conscious will in the matter, the sense of life that inhered in their pre-conceptual state impelled their actions.

But all of us — including my three children — are human beings and, as such, each of us is characterized by “free will.” This means that each of us has the capacity for self-ownership and self-direction, qualities that men like Locke and Jefferson regarded as so inseparable to life itself that social institutions — particularly the state — must rest their legitimacy upon their inviolability.

We are long past the day when even intelligent men and women incorporate such insights into their thinking or discussions. The pragmatic demands of Realpolitik — including how to manipulate “public opinion” and put together power-based coalitions — now dominate the conscious minds of most. But as our modern world continues its present entropic collapse into worldwide warfare, police-state oppression, and dehumanizing regimentation, it might be timely to resurrect some earlier notions — born of renaissance and enlightenment thinking— about the centrality of individuals in defining our social systems and behavior.

At least since the time of Lincoln, our nation has abandoned such sentiments, elevating statist ambitions of empire over the liberty and prosperity of human beings. It is time for us to face up to the myths and other lies by which others have seduced our self-destructive compliance. There is no “social contract” underlying our relationship to the state. Contrary to the high school civics class nonsense in which we have been indoctrinated, you and I are not the government: we have no more say in the course of political decision-making than does our family dog in deciding where we are to take this year’s vacation!

Articles
Profile photo of Butler Shaffer

Butler Shaffer teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.

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