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My Social Contract Debate

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More on Rand and the tacit agreement of a peaceful society can be found in "A Nation's Unity", from The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. II, No. 1 October 9, 1972. The audio recording of Rand giving this talk at the Ford Hall Forum is available at ARI for registered users (free).

The lead in:

Every four years, at about this time, we begin to hear louder and louder appeals for national unity. We hear them between Presidential elections as well—particularly when something is about to be put over on us—though they are uttered in a more perfunctory manner.

Observe, however, that in recent years it has become fashionable to disparage unity, between elections, and to praise dissent as a kind of moral or patriotic duty. But the pattern of a Presidential election remains the same: first, there is a campaign in which the candidates denounce each other and seem to appeal to some sort of unstated principles; then, when the election is over, the appeals become, in effect: now let's forget all about principles—national unity comes first.

This is, therefore, an appropriate time to examine the issue of national unity and to ask certain questions: Is such unity necessary? Is it possible? What makes it possible? What is the alternative? What are the consequences? The present election campaign offers many clues to the answers.

As in the case of many other errors or evils, today's appeals for national unity are based on a perverted element of truth. It is true that, in order to exist as a nation, the large number of men who live in the same geographical area and deal with one another, must agree on some fundamental principle(s). And more: any two men who choose to deal with each other must have some sort of basic agreement, at least for the duration of their joint action. If you joined forces with another man in order to lift a heavy boulder, and you strained to lift it while he strained to push it down, nothing would come of both your efforts but failure, frustration, and—if the issue were important enough to both of you—the recourse to blows and mutual extermination.

The fact that in case of disagreement men can resort to physical force, i.e., to human destruction, is the reason why every human association is based on some sort of agreement, which is implemented by certain rules of conduct. An agreement, in this context, does not necessarily mean a common purpose: you may make an agreement with a neighbor that you will not attack him so long as he does not attack you—and if both of you abide by it, you are free to go your own ways and, perhaps, never see each other again. The fundamental agreement which is required of a nation is an agreement on the rules of peaceful coexistence. A territory inhabited by men engaged in perpetual conflicts, chronic fighting, physical violence, and general hatred of all for all, is not a nation nor a country, but a bloody mess. Internal peace and some sort of harmony are the precondition of the existence of a nation.

The big questions, however, are: Peace—at what price? Harmony—on what terms? Agreement—about what? And more: Can such terms and agreements be chosen arbitrarily? Can men choose any terms and make them work simply by wishing them to do so? Or are there objective factors which necessitate certain principles of human association, and defeat all others? In sum, the fundamental social question is: What principles should men agree upon in order to live and deal with one another?

The best way to answer questions of this kind is to start not with an enormous, floating abstraction, such as "society as a whole," but with one member of society, the one you know best: yourself. Ask yourself: What rules of conduct would you be able and willing to accept in order to deal with your neighbors?

Let us say you are a young man who knows that he must work in order to support his life. You have a good job, a small family, and a home in the suburbs. Since you do not intend to stagnate, you maintain a certain financial and intellectual balance between the present and the future; you budget your money and your time: your money, to provide for your present needs and to improve your standard of living, e.g., to pay off the mortgage on your home—your time, to do your present job well and to study in order to qualify for a better one. You like some of your neighbors, and you dislike others, but you are not afraid of any of them: they are not a threat to you, nor you to them.

This is the normal pattern of your life and you take it for granted, as if it were a fact of nature. But it is not. It took thousands and thousands of years to achieve it. Let us see what it depends on.

The answer is: it depends on individual rights. She then proceeds to describe an American society of pure democracy unrestrained by the principle of individual rights. It is miserable, and it certainly won't be unified as it gets divided up into pressure groups along race and class lines lobbying Congress for their cut. The balance of the essay is the identification of presidential candidate George McGovern as a statist unable to grasp that principle, and whose election would help lead to the rightless society.

This is one of the Rand essays not found in any of the anthologies, and that probably because it is mostly topical and out-dated.

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would the constitution be regarded as a form of "social contract"

After you identified "social contract" as an anti-concept and I agreed with you, I think it would be best to avoid further abuse of the term. Any constitution which is a literal single document can be simply described as a contract.

Note that "the constitution" in the case of the British government has long referred to the elements that constitute that government, its judicial and legal traditions, its parliament, and the royalty. There is no single document. Some constitutions are contracts, but not all are. Even in Britain the contractual approach to government has been influential since the Magna Carta.

The lack of clarity in the British system just encourages the fuzzy thinking behind "social contract" as an attempt to foist a particular political view onto people trying to understand it by offering a theory for integrating its parts. The competing theory to understand the evolution of the British system over time would be the discovery of "individual rights".

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... This began the debate. He used social contract theory. He said that if a person doesn't want to pay taxes, that person can leave the country.

I was familiar with this from reading this link. I'll quote it below. ...

By leaving the US one is no longer protected by the tax-supported services, such as police, etc. That makes the argument valid, in my opinion.

Ludwik Kowalski (see Wikipedia)



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Harry Binswanger posted an article about the social contract theory on HBList, in which he points out the same kind of circular reasoning and concept stealing involved as I mentioned earlier in the thread (e.g. a contract which presupposes rights to decide the issue of who has what rights, including the right to make contracts.) And he includes a critique of Hobbes, since his confused debate opponent tried to say he was a Hobbesian, although it fit him better. I think his critique is a bit exaggerated though, since he tries to claim Hobbes would tell you the absolute sovereign can kill you if he wants, but Hobbes would probably actually say that if you thought your survival was at stake, you could defy the social contract. His "putting yourself into the mind of" a Hobbesian social contractarian is good though. But anyway, I don't know if I'm allowed to post it here, but you should read it if you have HBL.

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  • 2 months later...

Yes it is an anti-concept. It is a legitimate but inexact and failed attempt to name the tacit agreement that underlies a society, but which is better known as the trader principle. The technically redundant emphasis on the social aspect is meant to deceive the listener into accepting agreement with a collectivist counter-party to the contract, instead of understanding it as an agreement of man to man. The social contract then becomes a package deal of measures (conscription, taxes, speech and thought crimes, innumerable petty economic regulations) contradicting the motive to enter into the contract in the first place.

[playing DA]

Your logic falls apart when you say “agreement with a collectivist counter-party”. Any individual in the U.S. is one person, the rest of us is the collective “us”. 99% of the activity that person engages in affects the collective us (how many in the collective us specifically depends on each act). That package deal is amorphous and changes with time, as it should, as society changes over time. Your point about “contradicting the motive to enter into” is specious. All contracts have punitive clauses–even the tacit ones–that contradict the motive for entering into. The motive for ALL contracts entered into freely is mutual benefit. If someone feels that they receive NO benefits whatsoever from the tacit contract they live under in the U.S., that person has the choice of 1) changing it, 2) leaving or 3) accepting it.

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[playing DA]

Your logic falls apart when you say “agreement with a collectivist counter-party”. Any individual in the U.S. is one person, the rest of us is the collective “us”. 99% of the activity that person engages in affects the collective us (how many in the collective us specifically depends on each act). That package deal is amorphous and changes with time, as it should, as society changes over time. Your point about “contradicting the motive to enter into” is specious. All contracts have punitive clauses–even the tacit ones–that contradict the motive for entering into. The motive for ALL contracts entered into freely is mutual benefit. If someone feels that they receive NO benefits whatsoever from the tacit contract they live under in the U.S., that person has the choice of 1) changing it, 2) leaving or 3) accepting it.

I don't understand what you see is falling apart. The social contract is an anti-concept because it binds together the contradictory elements of rights (as in a right to contract) and collectivism (as in the collective is the final authority on what rights exist).

Government is or ought to be established by formal objective documents specifying the what and how of governing, which documents I would classify as a form of contract. A good government would not be permitted to contradict the logically and hierarchically prior concept of rights. Government justified by the social contract has no logical limits on what it may do.

Governments and corporations are legitimate forms of collectives, so I won't deny they exist or can act or be a party in a contract. But they exist as organizations of individuals, and it is as individuals in the most elementary social interaction (before any formal organizations exist) from which the ethical and political principle of rights is derived.

The Objectivist lingo shortcut way of stating this is that ethics is prior to politics.

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  • 8 years later...

I am reading with great interest this thread, and the articulate people who are writing it. 

I am opposed to the use of the initiation of force. And I am attracted to the idea of a fee based government. 

However, I think this concept may be too much for the overwhelming number of people who take the (misunderstood) ideas of democracy, the state, and the use of force in ways that I fear would prevent us from ever getting even close to a truly free society. Democracy is like breathing to the masses and I suggest that their ties to it are awfully strong. 


Philosophically, the idea that initiative force is immoral is absolutely correct. Getting there however, may be impossible, and then where are we?


Perhaps we should admit an exception to the rule of non-coercion when such coercion is used solely for the preservation of individual liberty. That our government is RESTRICTED to only protecting freedom. And that would mean courts, police, and armed forces and NOTHING MORE. 


Look at the nation as a beautiful cake filled with the gooey goodness of liberty  in which a tiny sliver is taken out to preserve that liberty. That tiny sliver would be taxes. 


I know that's what our founders intended, and I realize the criticism that when you give the state ANY right to initiate force against an innocent person, its natural state is to grow and grow grow. 


But the idea of the limited state that our forefathers proposed is valid. 


I guess I'm suggesting a "do over". 


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  • 2 years later...
On 1/28/2011 at 7:47 PM, 2046 said:

The government is not justified because some men decided to contract it on behalf of everyone, but on the contrary, government is justified because men have a moral obligation to respect things like contracts, an obligation which arises from property rights, which itself arises from the conditions required for man's proper survival by his nature. You cannot tell us that contracts ought to be protected because we contracted with the government to protect them, such a response is circular and invalid. Rational egoism is the only justification that both consistent and harmonious with both civilization and man's life qua man, and that requires a government that has no legal authority to initiate force, a government where the initiation of force is banned, not one where the initiation of force is called voluntary “because we made a contract for you and you can get the fuck out of our country if you don't like it.”

Then the police and judiciary will simply be funded. As in Justice is not contractual. There is no trade. (which makes sense) If so how is it to be funded?

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7 hours ago, Boydstun said:

ET, the proper way to fund the proper government is here and here.

The issue I'm grappling with is the issue of "territory". 

Funding seems to be directly related to territory, but should it be?

We can get cyber security services from a Russian company or maybe even a Chinese company.
The internet, once connected to, has no natural boundary. Like an ocean.

There may be territories established in the internet, but it's not delineated like a physical boundary is. And so the ethical funding structure is in flux.

On one hand, individual rights applies to the individual, any individual, within or without the area that the government claims. But territory, a country, a geographical area delineates "non-contractual" rights, in this case, the freedom of movement and of communication. Those who are outside, don't have certain rights. But this is a claim of ownership of real estate by the collective, right?

Funding seems to be related to "being inside" the border. As with the military, it is about defending the border. In this sense, the country has a right based on might.  The boundary is there because it will be defended. There is no inherent national boundary, no identifiable property like the US, or Russia, or Korea etc. similar to a human body. A national boundary can shift. My body vs. your body will not shift.

It seems that the main technique to fund proposed (in the links you sent) is via real estate assessments. And as justification: those would be to the self interest of rational people. But the question still comes up regarding the individual rights of those who either don't own real estate, or don't want to pay, or own real estate outside of the territory.

Should governmental functions, i.e. security, arbitration services be provided by agencies that are outside of the territory? Or is territory a fundament characteristic of "government" and it's funding.

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ET, ownership rights are a bundle of specific rights of control over a single property. So for example, I have a right to cut down any timber I please on my acreage and to exclude by force of law anyone coming on my land to spray paint words on the house or set fire to my woods. But in the bundle of specific rights making up my property rights is not a right of mine to burn leaves under all wind conditions.

There was no claim of some collective right to land within some boundaries encompassing all the individual land ownerships. There is only a mutual alliance concerning the process for recognitions and enforcements of private property rights in lands owned (or would-like-to-be owned) by alliance members.

(Rights to "airwave" bands for radio broadcasting are rights to land in the economic sense of land, contrasting with other factors of production such as labor. These rights too require alliance of potential frequency-band owners who have their rights perfected [backed by effective force, might]. But these exclusivities of the transmission medium for its exploitation get their property rights perfection by piggy-back on the social mechanism for perfecting property claims in land and transmission facilities built on that land. If air waves over that land can be usurped (or made useless, speaking more practically) by contesters from offshore, then the alliance will have a decision of response to take to best secure their own perfections of property rights of broadcasters based within the alliances' boundaries of perfected property rights in land.) 

The rights to private ownership of a land property are not something conferred by the alliance, but by claimants in their exploitations of that land. But the mutual alliance confers recognitions, backed up with force, supported by alliance dues, for what processes submitted by claimants for why something is their property are valid within the alliance. Rothbard's rules for coming to own previously unowned land are not the same as Epstein's, etc. To neglect to mention any conventions in such purported property rights acquisition, to pretend that such is all settled by natural law, and to paint a picture in which only one or the other—say Rothbard's or Epstein's—is a just acquisition process, is more plausibly deceptiveness of the salesperson (notably Rothbard) than reflection of stupidity.

But all this and more can be learned by carefully studying my old article of some thirty years ago. It is probably not that no one besides me and the editor carefully studied the article, but because the readership was not large and I was a nobody, that no public notice of it was made until its reappearance, on the website Rebirth of Reason early in this century. In truth by now it is such old hat to me, and my intellectual work has since been no longer in political philosophy, theory of rights, and theory of strategic games, that it's not exciting to me any more, and it is a distraction from what I should be working on the remainder of this year, a topic in history of metaphysics and epistemology. I have lately had other reason to dig into the latest anthropology on pre-state organizations of society in their religions and collective violence powers—tribes of hunter-gathers, then chiefdoms—and on to subsequent archaic states and more recent states in those respects, for the sake of my long-term ethical theorizing and not for ever returning to the cutting edge of political philosophy.

But I wanted to show you the window on financing and the topic within which that proposal arose, at least for me. I had not set out, those decades ago, to find a solution to the just financing problem. But once I had the theory of the land state in the earlier part of the text, well, I was driving on a Sunday on the Stevenson southwest out of Chicago to put in some needed overtime commercial work. It was morning. I was traveling to a nuclear plant (the last built in America) where I worked and which was in its pre-operational testing phase. Thinking, as most always in a moment to do so, a shadow went by in the back of my mind, I followed it and thought: "Well I'll be damned. That's it." Given the analysis and conception of the land state, the natural attendant method of financing fell out as natural as an apple. That I still remember that scene is an indication that it was a very fine moment in that stage of my life.

(I doubt this is the case, but I hope in your remarks, you were not and will not be looking about for a wedge into discussing anarcho-capitalism v. minarchy. It bores me a long time now. It remains a mystery to me that there are people, even professional philosophers as a side-interest of theirs, who are so old that they could be my own children and yet they remain interested in that sub-sub-sub-department of political philosophy and take an interest in persuading the young folks for whom the world was born this morning of the correctness of anarcho-capitalism, instead of persuading and inspiring the young people to get out and make some money, incur no debts, and be the serious business that is happiness. Top priority. No excuses. I'm fine to just leave that pretty-old-folk behavior as one of those mysteries of life not worth solving, and at any rate, I'll not be discussing the issue, beyond what I wrote decades ago.)

By the way, as you will see in wider study of the article text, it is not that only land owners have rights. It was only the need of perfecting the claims to ownerships in land in the economic sense that was needed to also perfect the exclusivity rights individuals have in their labor and bodies, where as you also noticed or repeated, those boundaries are given by nature, not drafted by our coordinated behaviors.

Edited by Boydstun
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15 hours ago, Boydstun said:

The rights to private ownership of a land property are not something conferred by the alliance, but by claimants in their exploitations of that land. But the mutual alliance confers recognitions, backed up with force, supported by alliance dues, for what processes submitted by claimants for why something is their property are valid within the alliance.

What is the difference between a collective of/as "we the people", owning what is inside the border/territory vs. The alliance came up with a process of entry?

From the outside, an alliance is a collective.
And any claim (imposition of non use or entry) is communication of ownership, "I own this, don't come here, or don't touch this, it's mine". In this case, it is "us", the alliance that owns, and you can't come in "unless" you go by our rules.

If there is no claim of ownership, isn't the alliance acting like it owns?

You may have a strong case if it turns out that geography or territory is in fact the necessary element of a "country". That would imply that real estate is the determinant factor. The owner to be able to exploit/enjoy the land, will fund the process respecting ownership (if they are rational about it).

The principle becomes "individual rights" within "the" territory ought to be respected vs. individual rights should be respected.

Is this a correct understanding?

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Direct coercion is clear because the boundary of a person’s body is (generally) clear. To identify property rights, we must know the boundaries of possessions and the history of their possession.

When a cigarette comes into existence, it is a possession with plain boundaries. One can stand in a strong possessive relation to the object within those boundaries over the entire history of its existence. The boundaries of the land from which the cigarette was produced, the boundaries of land use, are also objective boundaries.

One can use unowned land in various ways, and those ways can then confer various kinds of possession—all of them weak—up to the boundaries of use. Until we draw up boundaries for land to forestall use by others, we cannot possess the land in the clear way that we can possess chattel. Possession is always an incident of ownership, but in the case of land, it cannot arrive before ownership. (from Part II)

ET, I'd say that a person standing outside of territory under the land state alliance to which I belong would still have rights that should be respected by persons under that alliance. It would be a violation of that outside person's rights were I to go across to him, pull a gun, and stick him up or to go across and force him back to my place and force him to help me with the work around the place.

So no. Your concluding principle in the preceding post is not a correct one under this theory.


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You're distinction between possession vs. ownership is nuanced and I'm trying to understand it.

Either way that would imply that we have "certain rights" that we don't have depending of geographical area. Objectively/descriptively is  true.

I would like your acknowledgement or disagreement on that issue alone if possible.

But the question I'm focused on is fundamentally a moral question i.e. should we have the right to keep someone out.

And the answer seems to be: yes. But the method of keeping someone out may be different. Perhaps it is the degree of ownership or type of in the continuum of unowned to possessed to owned.

The difference in approach by current law and procedure seems to be a one size fits all numerically based approach is a quotas per country (which has an arbitrary component, since the formation of a country is by chance).

The only principle that is plausible for a right of entry, has to be property ownership. "You can't come in" has to have some ownership right behind it. "You can't come in without my consent", or the "alliance's consent" can only be an assertion of ownership.

Perhaps the case being made is that an alliance is necessary for survival, and therefore, it's manifestation, in this case a country's borders is necessary for survival/life of the individual. That would imply that living in a society is necessity of survival for a rational man. In most cases it is preferable but not necessary in all cases.

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The purpose of the land-alliance is for perfection of property rights in land among would-be land-owners in the alliance. Indirectly that purpose serves the sustenance of life, and place for liberty, because land in its unperfected-rights status, as I detailed in the essay, leaves parcels of land titles open to endless contestation including by force. There is no reason inherent to the land alliance function that a member of the alliance cannot invite someone from outside to stay on the alliance member's private property, to work for them, rent from them, buy the land (thence pay alliance dues for the alliance maintenance) or to engage in other cooperative projects with the present land owner. Then too, the right of a land owner in the alliance would have the right to exclude other people from their property regardless of where they came from.

There is a difference between having a right and perfection of that right, regardless of whether the right is against violence against one's person or against one's power to use some land. Locke, as I recall, has you still having a right even if there is no law to protect it, because you can still appeal to heaven. That might be seen as an extension to infinity concerning correct judgment on the validity of one's rights-claim. That is a dubious extension, and I demonstrated in the essay by example that the idea that there is always only one correctly just claim is false.

Do not neglect my definition of having a right in terms of being right at the outset of the essay. I had formulated that definition very shortly after having become read in Rand's works up to the late 1960's. I happened to jot it down on a slip of paper, which got preserved through the couple of decades before I had begun writing and came to this paper in which it could finally be shared. Some have doubted whether my definition applies to any but claim-rights, that-is, it might not apply to liberty-rights. I was familiar with that distinction, but never checked out my presumption that the latter sort of rights are reducible to the former. And I'm not going to think about it now or study those old pertinent books anew concerning that distinction, or do anything else new in political philosophy. 

I regularly take talk for a moral right, whether in everyday talk or scholarly expression, as merely whatever ought to be recognized as a legal right. I suppose a legally unrecognized right could be called a merely moral right, though that does not mean that every utterance claiming a moral right is within the ball park of reasonable consideration. I'd be reluctant to call an an entirely unrecognized right an imperfect right, which should be reserved for rights-claims at least getting close to getting over the legally needed goal-line. So, if my romantic sexual behaviors are criminalized by the state, it would sound sensible to say I have a moral right against such proscription, but not sensible to say I have an imperfect right against such proscription. (Since 2003 I've had a legal right against such proscription anywhere in the US, but if it is rescinded by the present Supreme Court, I simply lose that legal right; it does not go into status of an imperfect right, only into the status of a merely moral right.)

I know there are other times we use the idea of having a right when the alteration of rightness of the use of force is not the sort of response in view. But tribes, chiefdoms, and states, archaic or modern, are wielders of deliberate force, and the state and near-state and rights is what I was addressing.

Although I'm not going to develop my political philosophy further, I am going to maintain our own land for our purposes, and for this afternoon, that means I'm going out to pull weeds, starting right now.

Edited by Boydstun
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