Time to Rescind the Social Contract

In the classical era, the modern concept of social contract theory had yet to be developed, and political theory therefore largely confined its focus to the question of what makes the good polity. The state, owing to its nature as such, was to be submitted to, the relevant inquiry going not to “the consent of the governed,” but to the necessary attributes of the best possible society, of which the state was understood to be an indispensible feature.

In truth, there was little distinction at all in classical thought between the political institution and the broader society that it governed; the two were seen as coextensive, aspiring to justice as the highest social end, but with justice as something that Professor William M. Evers describes as “status-governed.” Later thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau reformulated the idea of the social contract to conform to a less fatalistic account of free will, to an emphasis on consent, however given, and to the maturation of natural law theory.

It’s safe to assume that most of us, from day to day, assign little of our mental energy to the question of whether we have an affirmative moral duty to defer to the state, whether it should be able to control us regardless of the fact that it can. The pension crisis in France, though, has put “the social contract” — if not the abstract theory, then at least the phrase itself — in the news, raising fundamental questions about the character of our relationship with the Leviathan.

The strikes, which polls show are supported by 71 percent of the French population, come in the wake of a planned government “austerity” measure to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. As Angela Doland and Greg Keller of the Associated Press report the story, protestors are incensed at what they perceive as the French state “tamper[ing] with the near-sacred French social contract.” As it is with any consideration of contractual obligations, the question underlying the pension crisis asks what the legitimate (that is, rightful) expectations of the parties are — what kind of performance the bargain contemplates.

With the supposed contract at issue here, however, there are two related and mirroring assumptions at play, homologous errors that run through the entire debate. The first is the deluded belief, detectable in the frustrated mood of the protests, that the state would honor its promises or obligations. The undertakings of the welfare state, though they are promoted as a helping hand, are designed to create a permanent underclass grinding away for the elites’ bottom lines and consuming, among other crap, the products of Big Agribusiness.

It is an incredible testament to the publicity power of the state, then, that anyone could ever believe that it takes its commitments seriously; in short, the government’s word is worth about as much as the paper that its empty money is printed on, and that is true whether we are talking about France, the United States or any other band of sanctified criminals.

The second premise swirling about media analysis of the “social contract” at hand is the perverse idea that we are morally bound to obey the state, that responsibility, argue statists, stemming from our consent to it. Acknowledging that the very notion of consent entails the existence of a genuine, individual choice, the ability to opt out, defenders of the state hold that, by living in this or that dominion, we tacitly agree to the state’s terms. It ought to be noted here that — insofar as many statists deny individual autonomy and sovereignty altogether — not all of their ideas about consent even require the individual to give it.

Immanuel Kant, for example, seemed to adhere to a view of consent as, in the words of Tibor Machan, a “united act” taking place in the subconscious of the group. The problems with social contract justification of the state are clear enough and were refuted by analogy in Lysander Spooner’s No Treason.

Spooner argued that a contract is nonviable as anything more than an agreement between the distinct individuals who “consent formally” at the time, and that those people have “no natural power or right to make it obligatory upon” anyone else. The series of developments in France are still more evidence that the state couldn’t care less about the provisions of the social contract, or (more accurately) that such a thing never existed.

The very existence of the state is an affront to the principles of mutual agreement, to the principle of contract, and unfortunately for the French the worker can’t win as long as the state survives. Though the elites will, with all the usual placatory gestures, reassure away the strikes, only tearing up the state’s predatory adhesion contract will resolve the ultimate problem.

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