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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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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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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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