How the false scent of consent led us astray

As in so much else, it was in the 17th century when things began to go seriously astray. The 17th century had its tremendous triumphs, but in a way these are the very source of the problems it bequeathed us. Like a childhood prodigy who achieves tremendous success early in one subject, and therefore comes to believe he is good at everything and has nothing to learn from his elders, 17th-century thinkers took the advances being made in physics in their time as evidence that the solution to all human problems was at hand, and only required employing the same approach that had advanced physics to everything.

Atomism was in the air, and was naturally carried over to social thought by understanding individual human beings as analogous to physical atoms. But what would bind these atoms together into a society? Since it was not completely forgotten that these were moral atoms, consent seemed a plausible candidate. And so in Hobbes, Locke, and the American founders we get the notion that a government is only just if the governed have consented to it. In an attempt to address the obvious problem that there had never been a government that all of its subjects had consented to, nor did there ever seem to be any possibility of there coming into existence such a government, various theories of representation were devised. Rousseau began to solve this problem but could not completely escape consent-based thinking, and Kant advanced further with his idea of the categorical imperative. A sound solution to these difficulties would only come in the 19th century.
But meanwhile consent-based thinking had captured the public imagination, to the extent that today truculent teenagers shout at their parents, "I never agreed to your stupid rules!" Anarchism is, of course, an understandable outcome of the muddle produced by basing government on consent: if that really were the only conceivable justification for government, since it is impossible to achieve, government must be eliminated!

But once we ask the right question for justifying a government, these problems dissolve. And that question is, "Is this government performing its function of preserving social order at least better than the plausible alternatives to it?" And since generally the most plausible alternative to accepting one's current government is civil war, very often the answer will be "yes."

"But, but," you stammer, "what about injustice X and injustice Y and injustice Z?"

"Go fix them," is my response. To mangle Stephen Stills: "If you can't be with the government you want, reform the one you're with."

Your government leaves open no possibilities for reform? Well, that would be one indication that your government actually might need to be overthrown.


  1. ""Is this government performing its function of preserving social order at least better than the plausible alternatives to it?""

    Yes, I would say it is doing a pretty good job at that.

    That one of the reasons that I would very much like to see it replaced so that an alternative and freer social order might emerge.

  2. I recall from Robert Bork's book, the older good one, not the second one, essentially the same point. He asked why the law decided upon by the dead binds us. He conceded he had no good answer but that it clearly did -- as a matter of fact -- and that it had to in a free and participatory society.
    I am not sure though I have a serious problem with "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed" as long as you realize that it is
    1) derived from, not synonymous with
    2) about just powers not particular policies
    3) governed is a pural


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