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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

I Never Agreed to the State!

So how can its rules possibly be binding on me?

And you know what else I never agreed to? The distribution of property that existed when I was born. The grammatical rules of the English language. The institution of money. The custom of wearing clothing. The practice of shaking hands with one's right hand. Driving on the right-hand side of the road. Having screws go in clockwise and come out counter-clockwise. Who would get to raise me. What days would be celebrated as holidays.

Of course, social arrangements are subject to amendment. People can decide, say, "Treating other humans as property is not a good thing."

But "I never agreed to it" is an extremely childish reason for demanding some social arrangement be eliminated.

18 comments:

  1. There is a standard "but no one is coercing you" argument to a lot of these, but the most important ones are your first one and your second to last one, because those are so pervasive and they do coerce you in a way that the others don't.

    But of course, having an only mediocre childhood or the vagaries of the property rights regime can't be called "coercive" by most libertarians, or else the whole edifice falls apart.

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    1. I understand your point about, say, the English language: no one will arrest me if I wander around speaking "Geneglish" instead of English. I will, however, find myself unable to work, order food, rent an apartment... is that really less onerous?

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    2. Coercion and voluntary is a false dichotomy. Most choices have external 'costs' associated with them, the question is how big the costs are.

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  2. Does this mean that slaves and others who considered themselves to be wronged by the prevailing social order could not use "I never agreed to this" as a protest?

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    1. Well, rob they could use it, but it would be irrelevant. The mere fact you never agreed to some social arrangement is no argument against it at all. As I just demonstrated above, right?

      Why not argue something sensible, like "Allowing human beings to treat other human beings like commodities is wrong"?

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  3. At first your logic seems good.

    If you don't like being a slave rather than saying "I never agreed to it" you should argue that "enslaving people in wrong"

    And if you don't like the existing property right you should argue something like "All property is theft - it should be owned communally"

    However suppose a slave objected to slavery not on general principals but only because he believed that giving up ones freedom should be voluntary - it would seem consistent for him to say "I never agreed top it"


    For the state example: suppose you believe something like "organizations that take part of their members earnings and impose rules that they have to follow" are legitimate only if all participants expressly agree to be members". With that belief it would seem perfectly reasonable to object to the state precisely on the grounds that you never agreed to participate in it.

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    1. Well, Rob, that person had better reject private property as well! Quite obviously not everyone has consented to me owning my house.

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    2. By the way rob, I think what you meant to write was "At first your logic seems good. Then, over time, it seems better and better!"

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  4. I am not saying that "I never agreed to it" is a valid argument in all situations. Sometimes its based on sound reasoning sometimes not.

    He would have to argue something like "the only legitimate property rights are ones that everyone alive has agreed to" for that to be true. That seems a weaker argument to me than the slavery and state cases.

    To argue "the only people who have to drive on the right are those who have agreed in advance" would seem like a stupid argument to me.

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    1. 'He would have to argue something like "the only legitimate property rights are ones that everyone alive has agreed to" for that to be true.'

      Seems exactly analogous to "The only legitimate state is one that every inhabitant of its territory has agreed to."

      Why are the two arguments essentially different?

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    2. I would say that one could more easily back up a claim that it is viable to have a stable and fair society with no state than that it viable to have one with no property rights.

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    3. So "The only legitimate state is one that every inhabitant of its territory has agreed to." would mean you would likely end up with no state but a stable society would still be possible

      and

      "the only legitimate property rights are ones that everyone alive has agreed to" would likely lead to no property rights and this would be a serious impediment to a viable society.

      So the first claim is much easier to justify than the second claim.

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    4. OK, Rob, but that is a different argument: it says the state should be done away with because it is unnecessary, not because so-and-so did not agree to it.

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  5. You seem to be saying that since some arguments based on "I didn't agree to it" line are clearly invalid then they all must be. I am saying that this is incorrect - some arguments using that reasoning are good and some bad. What distinguishes the good from the bad are pragmatic considerations related to the practicality and likely consequences of the argument if actually applied.

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    1. No, I am saying that that argument by itself really gets one nowhere. You have to add in "pragmatic considerations related to the practicality and likely consequences of the argument if actually applied."

      As you said!

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  6. Ok, in which case I'm not sure we actually disagree.

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  7. Gene,

    I think you're misunderstanding this argument.

    "I never agreed to the state" is meant to be a counterargument to social contract theory, IMO. It's not an argument against the state per se (at least not by itself), but rather is a response to an argument for the state. When people say that we must obey the state's rules because we consented to them, I think it's perfectly valid to point out to them that their premise is false -- in fact, we did not give our consent to the state in any meaningful way.

    In conclusion, you should be criticizing the social contract theorists for saying that the state's laws are binding because we consented to them, not the libertarians who rightly point out that we did no such thing. :)

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  8. Gene,

    I think you're misunderstanding this argument.

    "I never agreed to the state" is meant to be a counterargument to social contract theory, IMO. It's not an argument against the state per se (at least not by itself), but rather is a response to an argument for the state. When people say that we must obey the state's rules because we consented to them, I think it's perfectly valid to point out to them that their premise is false -- in fact, we did not give our consent to the state in any meaningful way.

    In conclusion, you should be criticizing the social contract theorists for saying that the state's laws are binding because we consented to them, not the libertarians who rightly point out that we did no such thing. :)

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