I wrote this post in response to one written by my brother Alan over at his The Answer Is Liberty blog. Alan was responding to a commentary in the New York Times about the validity of the concept of natural rights, which I looked at only after drafting my comments below.
The idea of “consent” to government or governance is often a muddled one. For instance, just what is a person consenting to by declining to resist someone seeking to conquer him? He may merely be submitting to sufficiently effective force. He and his compatriots resisted the invaders as well as he could, let’s say, but now the Romans have prevailed. So he lays down his arms. That’s surrender, not consent (except not to fight); declining to oppose, not accepting the legitimacy of the conquerors’ rule. Likewise, crossing the street or mailing a letter does not imply consent to government-run roads or government-run postal delivery.
Commenters on democracy often misinterpret participation in it. They claim that casting a vote constitutes a consent to the democratic process or even “consent,” in some contorted respect, to whatever the voter’s preferred candidate may do. Anarchists and authoritarians alike are often eager to promote this reading.
Yet on its face, all that a vote implies consent-wise is a preference for one candidate over others, and a preference for casting a vote to staying home. Going to the polls suggests the voter’s acceptance of the value of voting under current circumstances. More information about what a person agrees to, consents to, endorses or is super-enthusiastic about requires an interview, which may reveal consent but may not. (On the other hand, we’re sometimes told that if you don’t vote [don’t “consent”] you can’t complain…the abstention is glossectomizing, somehow. Either that, or the very fact that you object to participating in an exercise of democracy proves that you oughtn’t or mayn’t object to the consequences of the participation of others; you may object only to malefaction-yielding processes that you do abet, or something. One implication of this view is that ideas and suasion are trivial means of nurturing a free society in comparison to politician-empowerment, in addition to being immoral means if unattended by politician-empowerment. I’ve never heard iterators of the claim add, as a corollary, “And if you don’t complain, you can’t vote.”)
If a reasonably limited government does emerge in a society, it is thanks to the active work of some in spreading the ideas and values of a free society and in fostering the institutions and customs required to sustain a free society. Many others do not actively “consent” to the framework but only passively benefit from it—decline to seek to undermine the constituents of a free society. I would say that a person consents to being a peaceful and productive person by being such a person, just as a person consents to being a robber by robbing whether directly or by enlisting government as heavily weaponized agent.
The idea of a “social contract” is a loose and sometimes misleading metaphor for the process of free-society-building and its variegated social manifestations. We don’t need the myth of a universally-consented-to social contract to define a clear conception of rights or characterize the protection and wide respect for the rights of others in a free society. The contracts sustaining a free or somewhat free society are many, not one, and are continually being signed and/or agreed to anew. Those are what one identifiably consents to; and, if one thinks about, one may also self-consciously consent to the principles of the free society and limited government that all these separate acts of consent both depend upon and reinforce.
It is not a very far cry from being peaceful and productive to consenting to the kind of governance appropriate for preserving rights and freedom. But that consent is not a foregone conclusion. The peacefulness and productivity of a principled anarchist living in a free society is no conclusive evidence that he consents to limited government. He may nevertheless cooperate with that government to the extent of not attempting to overthrow it, and also cooperate with and respect the rights of other peaceful citizens in the society. All we need from him is respect for rights, not consent to every means employed to defend rights.
Thug-rulers would love it if everyone consented to the notion that merely remaining within the borders of a country implies consent to their rule in its every baleful aspect. Qadafi/Gadaffi/Kadaphee seemed to rely on this assumption quite desperately as his power eroded to try to con himself and the world that his countrymen weren’t really trying to topple him. Consent may be implicit, but, as Alan suggests, it can’t be only implicit (or only theoretically imputed), without detectable foundation. Inferring what a person specifically consents to must be based on facts, which include an individual’s actual values and actions, not just an elastic theory or mythology of politics and society.