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.