Government: A Non-Consensual Relationship That’s Okay

July 12th, 2009 - by Quincy

A key line from the Declaration of Independence reads, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” This idea is one of the foundations of democratic thought. Unfortunately, some have taken this idea to an extreme, converted to anarchy and, thereby, lost sight of an important aspect of political organization.

The misunderstanding comes from giving supremacy to the idea of consent. The fallacious argument runs as follows: Governments tax and regulate without the consent of every individual who is taxed and regulated. By definition the non-consenting individuals will not voluntarily submit to the tax or regulation, so they must be motivated to submit by force or threat of force. Forcing or threatening others to submit is unjust. Therefore, all governments are unjust.

This argument has some merit. Governments frequently wrong individuals by unjustly redistributing wealth and restricting innocuous behavior. It is no excuse that a majority of citizens voted for the redistribution or restriction; if an action is unjust, then it remains unjust no matter how many millions vote for it. However, lack of consent does not categorically preclude the just use of force because consent is not the only justification for force.

Consider the use of force in self-defense. It is unquestionably just to use proportionate force to defend oneself even if the aggressor fails to shout his consent along with his battle cry. The aggressor has created a relationship with his potential victim such that he has waived his right to object to the use of proportionate defensive force. Note that the aggressor is barred only from objecting to disproportionate force. Disproportionate force used in self-defense remains unjust. For example, if the aggressor attacks with a fly swatter, a nuclear response would be inappropriate.

Consider also the use of force in punishment. One who wrongfully harms another exposes himself to proportionate punishment whether he consents to the punishment or not. Note again, that the punishment must be proportionate to the harm done. The Old Testament articulates this principle well: “And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again” (Leviticus 24:19-20).

Clearly, proportionate force is justified without consent in the above circumstances. Similar arguments hold true for the use of proportionate force in response in the context of other relationships. Consent is simply one way whereby what would have been an unjust use of force can be justified.

A minimal level of government and the force required for its operation can be justified without consent by the relationship that each individual in a community bears to every other individual. This relationship derives from the burden that each individual imposes by merely existing: occupying space, consuming resources, diminishing others’ expectations of privacy, polluting, etc. These are natural and necessary consequences of human existence and belie any argument for an absolute right to freedom from all coercion.

The burden an individual imposes on others by his existence is very small, much smaller than the burden that an aggressor imposes on his victim. Consequently, the force that can be justified by this relationship is also very small. It nevertheless suffices to justify the formation of a minimal government by the majority so long as the burden this government imposes is proportionate to the small burden an individual imposes by his existence. Under these circumstances a government can be just even without the consent of every individual subject to its power.

5 Responses to “Government: A Non-Consensual Relationship That’s Okay”

  1. Hills says:

    Quincy:

    I concede your point as to proportionality generally. Specifically, I disagree that punishment is always a form of just compulsion, in that such a categorization requires that one sufficiently define the “crime” of which one is accused. Further, “harm” is often a term used as a sword with which to attack liberty.

    However, your point is well-taken. However, I don’t believe the majority of liberty-minded individuals convert the concept of consent to anarchy. I think the underlying assertion of most is that valid authority is not coercive by nature and by method. Valid authority being defined both by the founding documents of our republic and, in my estimation, the judeo-christian ethic. However, the cry recently arising that consent of the governed is glaringly absent in modern government, has it genesis deeply rooted in the false choice afforded the average American. We live in a representative republic and are, as a matter of course, denied our right to consent or refuse how our lives are run and our funds applied. We are not afforded choice, and are removed from the process altogehter. We are fundementally ignored as a people, and are thus left only to assume that we are being nudged in a form of soft despotism. Thus, we are relegated to, in ana absence of true alternative, claiming an absence of our own consent. My overwhelming feeling is of one being herded rather than one being heard.

  2. Quincy says:

    Certainly, if the offense or crime for which a person is being punished does not in fact merit punishment, then the use of force in punishment would be unjust. The point that I was attempting to make was that consent is not the only justification for force; merited, proportional punishment is another context in which the use of force is moral.

    As to your second point, I agree that the majority of liberty-minded individuals do not take the concept of consent to mean that any and all forms of government violate natural rights. However, many libertarians have a problem finding a consistent theory of property rights without falling into the fallacy that individual property rights are incompatible with any government taxation. For an example of this, see Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty (http://mises.org/rothbard/ethics/ethics.asp).

    Finally, I wholeheartedly agree that the national government has become insulated from the people’s control and has lost sight of the concept of individual rights.

  3. [...] month I wrote a short post about reconciling natural law property rights and government. After receiving a couple of emails [...]

  4. William Wallace says:

    I see you’ve written a second post on this topic, but I’ll respond first to the arguments presented here and not repeated there.

    The underlying problem with your attempted rebuttal of the anarchist’s position here is that you mischaracterized it. This made it impossible for you to adequately address it. Upon further inquiry into anarcho-capitalism, you will find that to equate the anarchist with a pacifist is to make use of a straw man. Though the principle of consent is an important one, it does not in any way trump that of natural rights. On the contrary—the use of force would be a necessary component of any anarcho-capitalist society as without it there would be no protection or deterrent against the abuse of natural rights. To say anarchists (or libertarians for that matter) “give supremacy to the idea of consent” is to completely mischaracterize their position—especially based upon your use of the concept of consent, as you have used it to include any use of force whatsoever.

    Hence, the use of force is not what makes “all governments unjust” per se, but rather the use of unjust force. For example, a “government”* (or any enforcement authority) which apprehended a wrong-doer and compelled him to make restitution for his crime would not be acting unjustly. However, were the government to apprehend an innocent bystander behaving peacefully upon his own property and compel him to contribute to whatever services it (or the majority of its advocates) wanted to perform, it would be acting unjustly, and the bystander would have every right to use force to resist the unlawful/immoral infringement upon his natural rights (just as this right was had by the American revolutionaries fighting against the British government).

    *[NOTE: I use quotes here as we have not yet defined what is a government]

    Thus, your examples of the just use of force are inapplicable and do not in any way critique an anarcho-capitalist’s position. As your remaining argument is more extensively articulated in your second post on this topic, I will respond to it there.

  5. Quincy says:

    William,
    The anarcho-capitalist’s usual objection, which you passionately stated in your comment (of course, how else but passionately could William Wallace ever state anything?), is that government is not justified in forcing the unconsenting individual to pay taxes. The point of citing the use of force in the contexts of punishment and self defense was to show that consent is not the only justification for the use of force. I don’t assume that anarcho-capitalists are pacifists. Indeed, if I didn’t think that anarcho-capitalists accepted the legitimacy of these other justifications for the use of force, there would be no point in having cited them. My intent was simply to lay the groundwork for my subsequent point that government’s use of force to collect taxes may be justified even though not consented to, just like the use of force in punishment and self defense are justified although not consented to.

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