Liberty in Focus

Understanding and applying the outlook of personal rights and freedom.

Posts Tagged ‘Declaration of Independence

Should We Consent to be Governed?

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by Spencer Morgan

This seems like a simple and important question, especially at the close of a century tainted by so many acts of mass violence by governments against those who were, at the time, their own subjects.  Yet this is a question that most people never ask.  Perhaps the question seems fundamentally irrelevant because we all instinctively know that we are not being offered this choice and have been born into conditions where our status as “the governed” is so apparent to be beyond our control.

Perhaps our conditioning early in life in being subject to unquestioned parental authority leads us to naturally transfer that sense of allegiance to our particular nation-state which is, of course, more than willing to assume a parental role in our lives.  Whatever the reason may be, this question has deep implications on the way we view and interact with the group of individuals in any particular geographic location that operate as “government.”

All of the legislative tactics, political games, power positioning, policy papers and central planning march on, generation after generation, without this question ever being entertained by the very system whose legitimacy depends on the answer.

Why?  Because that question introduces a rational process which the legitimacy of any of our current artifices of government power can not hope to survive.  And deep down, those who operate on its behalf or benefit from its exploits, know it.

Because I intend this article to be the foundation for a series that systematically examines the underlying philosophy of government and personal liberty, this first central question must be answered.  The hypothetical exercise involved in answering this question is what has come to be know as “The Social Contract“, a subject itself which has varying definitions and has become a source of much controversy.

Each of us is born into life subject to some form of rulership and know instinctively that we have never engaged in voluntary act of consent to this state of servitude… at least not a giving of consent upon which the reality of that servitude depends.  Therefore it is not necessary to address the conceptions of the Social Contract which would claim that this nebulous event has the power to obligate any particular individual to be subject to whatever form or extent of servility in which he or she happens to be born.   This conception of the Social Contract has no real value, and serves merely as an attractive disguise for authoritarianism.

The Social Contract does, however, have great value as a hypothetical tool by which we can objectively determine the principles of just government, even if only to contrast such a conception with the actual practice and nature of every existing government.  It was in this capacity that the exercise of social contract theory yielded great advances in human understanding about natural rights and the proper role of government.  Once the archaic justification for kingly power known as “the Divine Right of Kings” was effectively sidelined to the dustbin of history, renaissance era philophers looked to other sources to justify and determine the proper limits of the governmental structures already in existence… an exercise which should continue for us.

John Locke’s conception of the Social Contract, in particular, resulted in the determination that individuals in a stateless existence (hypothetical or historical) would have consented to be subject to government only for its ability to more effectively protect their inherent, pre-existing natural rights of life, liberty and property.  Because these natural rights pre-existed the creation of government in Locke’s view, it is this natural law which government legitimately exists to uphold.  To the extent that it exceeds these boundaries or becomes hostile itself to these individual natural rights, it is illegitimate.  This is the philosophical refrain echoed in Jefferson’s text of the Declaration of Independence adopted in 1776 by the thirteen American British colonies with the words;

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it”

By imposing upon existing governments the obligations to natural rights and liberty we have derived through a hypothetical social contract undertaken freely by an otherwise unrestrained individual, we can derive a consistent set of principles and boundaries for evaluating the justness of any act of interference by government with the individual.  We can determine that because an individual in a state of nature, or a state without any existing apparatus of punishment and forcible restraint, would only willingly enter such an agreement to protect her natural rights and liberty from assaults by others.

“IF man in the state of nature be so free, as has been said; if he be absolute lord of his own person and possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no body, why will he part with his freedom? Why will he give up this empire, and subject himself to the dominion and control of any other power? To which it is obvious to answer, that though in the state of nature he hath such a right, yet the enjoyment of it is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings as much as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very unsecure. This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.” (2nd Tr., §123)

Thus government’s only just role, or the role which could be reasonably expected to be voluntarily accepted by our hypothetical ungoverned individual, amounts to the following:

  • The Protection of life liberty and property from aggression by others.
  • To serve as a neutral arbitrator responsible for adjudicating claims arising from acts of aggression against natural rights, and providing a mechanism of restitution for damages to the same.
  • The employment of force to bring individuals accused of such aggression to answer to due process and impose restitution.

We can see that by employing the hypothetical tool of the social contract and limiting government’s just functions to those which would be volunatarily accepted by a free individual, we arrive at a very limited conception of government power.  It is this idea of government existing merely to uphold a greater natural law which has resulted in the most significant advances for liberty in human history.  It has led to the formation of institutions which, though ultimately flawed themselves, have had as their purpose the enactment of restraints on governmental power over the sovereign individual.  In future articles I intend to examine in detail many of these philosophical questions and legal traditions as they relate to the ongoing struggle for individual liberty.

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Written by Spencer Morgan

September 5, 2010 at 12:52 am