by BC Dad
In a previous post (How Many Bureaucrats Does It Take?) I observed that the state and its relationship to individuals ‘can be based on simple principles, on the idea that basic rights are inherent to the condition of being born human.’
Commenter Steve P responded, ‘Nonsense. Rights are the “terms of engagement” between individuals and the rest of society; without society there are no rights.’
In other words, if a man was attacked by a pack of predators (human or otherwise), he would be free to defend himself only if there existed a society which had also given him the right to do so. In the absence of such ‘permission,’ or in the absence of any organized society at all, no such right would exist.
Therein lies one of the issues with social contract theory, variations of which have been espoused by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and others. (They in turn were pre-dated by many, including Aristotle (indirectly) and Plato, who proffered their own visions of the state. A modernized version of the social contract concept has been developed by Rawls. Interested readers are urged to investigate further and form their own conclusions.)
Social contract theory can easily lead, intellectually, to some rather unreasonable conclusions, dependent upon inherent assumptions. For example, Hobbes essentially proposed ‘alienable’ rights (and a necessarily authoritarian state), although Locke preferred the more considered concept of ‘inalienable’ rights, an idea which helped form the foundation of the U.S. Constitution.
The prime supposition (which Hume called ‘a convenient fiction’) of the social contract is that at some historical point, individuals consented to terms of engagement between themselves, and with a created entity which we call government or the state; there is endless debate concerning the original purposes and functions of the state, or indeed whether the social contract ever existed.
By contrast, other theoreticians have proposed that given the lack of evidence for any proposed originating state of affairs, the state in fact arose by other means, primarily through conquest.
Frank Chodorov’s 1959 book The Rise and Fall of Society (available here) offers an interesting discussion of the origins of the state, and provides considerable insight into the human dilemma.
The social contract is of course rife with improbabilities and glaring omissions. Who created and signed this contract? Why have you and I been bound to a contract we did not consent to? Why is the state free to alter the terms while we are not? Is it a voluntary contract? If so, where is the opt-out? If not, if it is based on non-consent and force, is it not then unethical, immoral and unworkable in the long run?
It’s important to note that philosophers and political theorists have wrestled mightily attempting to postulate answers to these questions, but the answers themselves rely on assumptions concerning the fundamental nature of human beings, in itself an arena ripe with prospects for discord.
As an alternative to the social contract, conquest theory itself is directly based on force: no matter whether the state was created to combat predation or to engage in it, the necessity of violence is both explicit and implied.
It is impossible to avoid concluding that regardless of its origins, the state is utterly dependent upon violence. It can only exist through the use of force. Is a mafiosi who extorts protection payment through threats any different than a state which extorts payment through threats? Even if we accept the canard that the state is benevolent, omnisciently expert and solely concerned with the well-being of all citizens, there is no functional distinction to be made between the two mechanisms. Regardless of ends, the means are identical.
If one contemplates the multitude of ways in which the state intervenes in the daily lives of individuals (exclusive of such horrors as war, holocaust and genocide), the true extent of state violence begins to reveal itself. There are few if any human endeavors, from procreation to death and everything in between, where the state is absent both in efforts to control (by threats of force) and to extort (also by threats of force). This is true regardless of the foundational principles of a given state – the relevant political or social ideology is immaterial, except as a matter of degree. It is also true even when the actual outcome is universally considered ‘good.’
A glance at the world’s headlines on any given day also makes this clear. Stories there are aplenty concerning acts of individual coercion or outright violence, but the sum total harm of those individual acts pales in comparison, for example, to just one piece of legislation which forces men to shoulder the burdens of women’s choices, or to the human toll from any state-initiated intervention, be it commercial, political or military. At a local level, contemplate the numbers in prison (mostly men) as a result of victimless crimes, or the number of fines levied by the state on a daily basis for millions of illegal acts which harm no one and no thing.
The state by its inescapable nature is the dominant actor in the perpetuation of violence in the world; it has been since the dawn of recorded history, and it will continue to be. This writer is neither unique nor original in pointing this out, but it is a message humanity continually and cyclically loses sight of.
Is there hope? True freedom, with its attendant responsibilities and burdens, cannot be achieved via the state , therefore a society that is as free as possible from the coercion of the state, or of any other institution of power which might be predisposed to replace it, must be the vision for the future. But asking the state to pursue its own devolution is the stuff of libertarian dreamscapes. A new path is required, and it is one that by and large only men can envision and achieve.