The “social contract” is an empty concept

I’ve often been engaged in arguments with statists when in frustration they tell me that according to the “social contract” I’ve actually agreed to everything the state does because I continue to live within the boundaries of the state, and that I am free to leave at any time so I should shut up and just stop complaining. Usually people that say this sort of thing are open minded liberals who believe that everyone has a right to be heard and everyone’s opinion is valid.

The first thing we need to do is identify exactly what the social contract is. What are its terms? How is it defined? This is tough because no one that promotes this idea will ever define it for you, so even if I run the risk of being accused of making a strawman argument, I will have to infer its definition from the arguments that people that promote it make. Not only will statists refuse to define it for you, but they will interpret you asking them to define it as an act of aggression or anti-social in some way.

An attempt to put a social contract into writing

First of all the social contract applies to geographical areas, since people tell you that if you don’t like it you can leave the geographical area in which it is in force. Second, the social contract is unilateral, one party can initiate this form of contract with any other party, or every other party within the geographical area. Third, consent to this contract is implied. The other party in a social contract need not give explicit consent or sign their name to any document. In fact, no document exists. Consent is implied by remaining within the geographical bounds of the contract, and the terms of the contract can change at any time without notice. And of course the last point is that the terms of the social contract will be enforced with violence, and this violence is completely at the discretion of the initiating party.

Now, if the state is morally good, as people that work for the state and people that like the state claim, then the source of it’s power must also be morally good. The justification for the state’s power is the social contract, so the social contract must be morally good. People that promote the concept of the social contract would probably agree that it is morally good. If they didn’t think so, why would they be arguing in favor of it?

If something is morally good, then anyone, whether they are part of the state or not, should be able to do it. How could you argue against this? If it is morally good to give to charity, then I can do it, you can do it and the state can do it, and all of us would be engaging in righteous behavior. So then if the state is morally good, the basis of it’s power must be morally good, the social contract must be morally good and therefore anyone must be able to make social contracts with anyone else. I must be able to make a social contract with you, you can make one with me, my neighbor can make one with my other neighbor and all of us can make one with the state.

So lets say I want to set up a business. I will call it “Social Contract HTML Programming”. My business plan is to initiate a social contract with everyone in my building. According to this contract everyone in the building will give me half their income, and in return I will help them clean up the HTML on their website. Or not. Whether or not I actually provide the service of helping them clean up the HTML is entirely up to me, and they have to pay even if they don’t have a website, internet or a computer. If they don’t pay I will send armed men to their apartment to make them pay, and if they try to defend themselves these men will kill them. According to supporters of the social contract, this business plan is based on a high moral principle. If you support the social contract, you must also agree that “Social Contract HTML Programming” is morally good. How could you not? On what basis would you oppose it?

How would the state react to “Social Contract HTML Programming”? Would they agree that this was a valid business based on a valid contract? No. They would say that I was a criminal, that I was evil, that I was possibly crazy and put me in jail. The state would say that I was evil for creating exactly the same kind of contract that it claims is the basis of its power. So according to the state itself the social contract must be morally evil. How can statists resolve this contradiction? As far as I’ve seen they cannot. Therefore the state must be an evil and self-contradictory institution, and it must be so according to its own premise.

If you claim that the state can tax me and that based on the social contract I’ve agreed to this tax by not moving away, and that this is a morally good situation, then you must agree that based on the social contract I can tax the state for an equal or even greater amount than they can tax me, and that unless the state moves away they have agreed to this tax and I can enforce this tax with violence and that must also be a morally good situation.

If you disagree and you support the social contract I would be interested to read your arguments and see if you can deal with the logical and moral problems associated with this concept.

49 thoughts on “The “social contract” is an empty concept

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    1. Mike P (the emptiness pro) Post author

      “Fact: Our constitution and laws form our social contract. ”

      This is not a fact. This is an opinion. The author provides no evidence for the existence of this contract other than stating that it is his opinion that it exist. But I don’t expect much better from a math teacher in a government school.

    2. Mike P (the emptiness pro) Post author

      Also, this at least is just a blatant falsehood: “Chile, for example, underwent 17 years of radical free-market reform under the guidance of the University of Chicago, and reduced its government as much as was humanly possible. (The result was South America’s worst income inequality and pollution problems.) ”

      Chile does not by any means have the worst income inequality or pollution problems in South America. Not even close. The socialist paradises of Columbia, Brazil and Bolivia have much worse income inequality. Chile, while certainly not perfect, has by far the freest market and the biggest middle class of any South American Country.

      Here is the evidence. In Bolivia the ratio of the income of the richest 10% to the poorest 10% is 168:1. In Columbia it is 63:1. In Brazil it is 53:1. In Chile it is only 33:1. To bring it home the ratio in the US is 15:1. So this statement by the author is either a mistake or a blatant lie and I have just provided empirical evidence to prove it.

        1. Weather

          Wikipedia has far more safeguards than it originally did, which is why it has the formerly well deserved stigma against it. Lately however, I don’t find this to be the case. Especially if you take the time to actually read the cited sources.

  6. M31

    “So then if the state is morally good, the basis of it’s power must be morally good, the social contract must be morally good and therefore anyone must be able to make social contracts with anyone else.”

    Isn’t the basis of a democratic state’s power a social contract agreed upon by the majority of a people living in a certain geographical area? Without the majority’s consent there is no social contract. Isn’t therefore the power basis of a democratic state in actual fact the presence of a majority (instead of a non-existing social contract)?

    In this line of reasoning the statist will say that the state is moral because of the presence of the majority’s consent and therefore the “Social Contract HTML Programming” is immoral in the absence of consent to the contract by a majority of the people living in the building.

    So according to the state itself not the social contract is morally evil, but the absence of the majority of the people’s consent is evil.

    Is the act of voting not (being considered as) giving explicit consent to and the justification of the democratic state and social contract?

    1. Waaah

      OK, suppose that majority opinion were requisite.

      Suppose we use the same HTML example, but rather than one person imposing their social contract on a group of people unilaterally, they instead gather the “support” of 51% of the apartment building’s tenants.

      Are you saying that NOW it’s okay for this person to threaten people with violence and take their money, and if anyone doesn’t like it, they have to leave their own residences?

      Of course not. Thus majority rule doesn’t change the principle involved in understanding that the social contract theory is unjust and immoral.

      As long as ONE person is forced against his will to pay up or leave, then it is immoral, regardless of how much “support” the aggressor has.

      Majority support does not, nor cannot, turn an evil into a good.

      1. M31

        Waaah, I agree with you. The majority rule and social contract are unjust and immoral.

        Can a social contract exist in a democratic state without a majority rule? If the answer is no, then the justification of a social contract perceived by statists in a democratic state is the majority rule. This means that the source of power and the justification of a democratic state is the majority rule and not the social contract according to statists.

        As the power of a social contract in a democratic state is derived from the concept of the majority rule, a statist will argue that the morality of the democratic state lies in this majority rule and not in the social contract.

        To give an analogy: a dentist diploma will not be given any value without the presence of the actual skills and competence of a dentist just as a social contract in a democratic state without the majority rule will not be given any legitimacy.

        Let’s say, the majority rule is the active ingredient in a social contract like the apples in an apple pie. Without the apples there is no apple pie.

        According to statists the source of power of a democratic state like the ingredient of apples in an apple pie is the majority rule. Statists will claim that a democracy is moral, because they perceive the majority rule as moral. Therefore they believe the democratic state is legitimate.

        Whether the justification of a democracy is the majority rule or the social contract – whether mistaking an apple pie for the apples- is not of real importance, because both justifications are self-contradictory and their application unjust and immoral.

        1. Douglas Barbieri

          “Majority support does not, nor cannot, turn an evil into a good.” Well said!

          M31: I think the bigger problem for statists is that they cannot prove the so-called “social contract” exists. Even if they went with the “majority rules” attempting to assert that a majority agreed to the “social contract,” it falls apart because no one can prove that ANYONE agreed at all. Mike does a great job deconstructing the “social contract” concept, destroying it utterly.

          I think it’s all just PR spewed out by our state-run schools and state-sympathetic media to keep people believing lies like that. There is no social contract, there never was, and you can prove it exists the same way you can prove Santa Claus exists.

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  12. Douglas Barbieri

    @gdw: I guarantee if you ask representatives of the “State” to walk you through a factual timeline showing where when and how they acquired control over your property, and to provide witnesses with personal knowledge of the facts, you would get a non-responsive answer. When you hold them to produce actual evidence they either will be non-responsive or eventually admit that they have none. Ask Marc Stevens about this.

    Mike is right–land ownership doesn’t come into it. This is about control over *your* property that the “State” claims it has, but which it cannot prove. They use the non-existent social contract to justify their actions. Somebody in this post’s comments said it amounted to the same tripe as the divine right of kings. :-)

  13. Simon Jester

    The notion of a “social contract” is nothing but a replacement for the notion that kings and aristocracies rule because it is God’s will that they do so. There are no legitimate governments. There are only governments that haven’t been overthrown yet.

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  15. Richard Allan

    I side with the people making reference to allodial land ownership on this one in that, if unlimited private land ownership is justified, then the unlimited state is justified, because the state really does own all the land.

    Let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s say I rock up and claim legitimate title to the land you occupy. You bought the land from the first homesteader, but can’t remember his name, so you can’t actually prove descent from the first homesteader. Everyone knows you aren’t the first homesteader yourself, because, well, get real, this land has been occupied for x number of centuries, and you were a foundling so you can’t have inherited it (I know we’re getting contrived, be with me on this). Do I have the right to expel you from your land? Of course not! And it’s because even if you aren’t descended from the first homesteader (by inheritence or trade), I can’t prove that I am either. And I need that proof in order to be able to dispossess you from the land you’ve claimed as your own.

    By that analogy, I think it’s only fair that, under “libertarian ethics”, the State remain in possession of the vast majority of the land they claim to own, unless someone can prove legitimate ownership in opposition to the State, exactly as they would have to if they wanted to claim the land from a private owner. The best you could say is that the State is collectively owned by all of its citizens, and so should be treated as a joint-stock company under their ownership. But even then, you don’t really get anywhere because the articles of the company would probably be equivalent to the State’s Constitution, such as it is.

    This is why I reject “mainstream libertarian ethics” as regards land ownership. Because I don’t agree with the first homesteader principle, and I don’t like the conclusions either.

    The state is not moral. That is easily demonstrated. So why then worry about the moral nature of its claims to land? Such claims cannot possibly be moral. They can only be backed by violence.

    I say the same about private claims to land. Claims to ownership of something you didn’t produce (or buy from someone who did produce it) cannot possibly be moral in my eyes, just by virtue that you “got there first”. And by that standard, if the State “got there first” (or at least, it cannot be proved otherwise), then the State’s claim to land must be moral, if anyone else’s is.

    1. Mike P (the emptiness pro) Post author

      Its important to understand that my argument does not rest on land ownership in any way. This issue actually only confuses the matter and in my opinion this is why people keep bringing it up. Subconsciously they are seeking a moral escape hatch for the state. Likely when they were kids their father told them, like mine told me, “live by my rules under my roof”. This is NOT the same thing as a social contract.

      The argument rests on the state’s claim that it can make social contracts and no one else can. If in fact the state owns all the land as certain theories suggest, then the state is still the only entity that can initiate social contracts, because they are the only owner of land. And why should it be the case that only the state could own land? If they can, why can’t anyone else? So either way the state is a group of immoral hypocrites.

      The land ownership thing is really just a distraction in my opinion.

      1. Gil

        I say the argument rests on who has the power – currently governments own the land so they get to make the rules. If the U.S.A. governments (local, state and federal) were removed somehow and all the land was privatised then the new private landowners get to makes the rules and charge rent to those who don’t own land. For those who don’t own land the situation is more or less the same – you’re follow someone else’s rules and pay them rent. An analogy would be that of a boy who leaves home because he can’t stand his parents and ends up with foster parents only to find out that all adults are pretty much alike and decides to suck it up until he becomes an adult.

        However I don’t how many politicians really talk about the “social contract” rather it’s philosphical concept as to why governments arise and there are many versions. The one I like the most is Hobbesian version – the weaklings work for some strong people in exchange for protection from other strong people as the weaklings don’t believe they can defend themselves on their own. It’s akin to those who seek a job with established businesses because they believe they can’t successfully run their own business (and they’d probably be right).

        There’s nothing to say that the current government form is pre-distined to rule. After all, royal families were the rulers up to a few centuries prior. Then again the burden of change is for those who want change to literally and physically change things. Most people don’t have a particular hatred of governments and don’t want to overthrow governments therefore waiting for governments to dissipate naturally isn’t going to happen. On the other hand, Communist governments didn’t evolve rather militant Communists forcefully overthrew the previous governments and forced change upon everyone there.

        1. Mike P (the emptiness pro) Post author

          Well, currently we have a system where in theory there is private land ownership in the “United States”. I live in an apartment building. I have an explicit, voluntary, bilateral contract with my landlord. The state is an uninvolved third party that comes to me and charges furthers rents (taxes). Where did they acquire the right to do this? If they can do it, then why can’t anyone else?

          This seems pretty simple to me. I don’t see how land ownership comes into it at all.

          Again, I think concentrating on this is just a way of making an excuse for the state, and there is no reason to do that.

          1. Gil

            Well take Australia for a moment then. The natives there were hunter/gatherers and no concept of land ownership therefore modern claims to “native title” are bunk because merely walking over a large area isn’t homesteading it. So when the British strolled arrived and established colonies they were the first homesteaders of Australia. Since the settlers were working under the system of the British empire then the British monarchs could be considered the owners of Australia. To a certain extent this is still somewhat recognised as Queen Elizabeth II is still formally the Queen of Australia.

            So what right do Australians have in saying that the Australian Government is inherently wrong since it is the descendent of the original homesteaders of Australia? There were no private landowners who existed before then to claim that the government “stole” or “seized” their property. Hence the Australian Government has the greatest claim to be the rightful owner over the land of Australia.

      2. Richard Allan

        Anyone can own land and found a State, as long as they can find a State that’s willing to sell some of its land to them, same as any other commodity. Good luck!

        Thus there’s no need for the State to claim a monopoly on “social” (ie. land access) contract formation. If you can get hold of allodial land title for yourself then you can make whatever “social” (ie. land access) contract you want. Nothing is stopping you other than the unwillingness of landowners to sell up, which is absolutely their right as property owners.

      1. Mike P (the emptiness pro) Post author

        Now that really is the question. Statists will usually give you some kind of crazy answer that has no basis in fact about some group of people that all got together in some primordial fantasy land and agreed on this and that and blah blah blah. That crap all comes from Locke and Rousseau and fifth grade social studies.

        Factually the state is a group of people that claim the right to initiate force and be the ultimate decision makers over a certain geographical area. They do not ask for anyone’s consent in doing this.

        1. Dooglio

          I would go a step further. Factually, the state is a mental construction. Men and women with shiny badges or fancy titles behind their name will enforce the idea that it exists, but it does not exist. They will beat you or even kill you to comply with their rules. However, the State is a legal fiction that they treat like a person with rights.

          I could walk around with my own shiny badge and gun and force you to agree that Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny exists too. It still does not make it so.

    2. Justin Keith

      Absolutely! I see no difference between a state that calls itself a gated community or a state that calls itself a government. Both are control over physical reality that one needs access to to survive. Both have rules that may or may not be bullshit. Both enforce those rules with sanctions. Both give you the false choice of love it or leave it.

      This is one of the areas where I differ from mainstream libertarians and anarchists. Firstly, because there can be no stateless society so long as there are rules that are enforced in a geographic area. Secondly, because the consequences to newcomers are the same regardless of the form of the purported method of acquiring ownership. If we take rights to be a form of respect, then there’s no logical reason to respect any state be it a government or a homestead if there’s no benefit for the person deciding whether or not to respect a claim.

      The best we can probably do is some form of panarchism within a framework of bidding and Coasian bargaining for exclusive use of natural opportunities.

  16. Jason

    Interesting post. I don’t have time to right a lengthy treatise. But just a suggestion for other posters. Be careful with what grounds you argue this. Children especially in the case of parental guardians are not treated the same as an adult citizen. They don’t have the same Rights or Responsibilities.

    In a crude sense, they’re considered property. (Paternalism, in a nut shell) Therefore, the parental guardian IS accountable for their children’s actions.

  17. Gil

    Aw shucks, gdw, said what I was going to say: a theoretical private landowner can make a one-sided contract and force others to comply and that’s okay. Yep, there’s nothing wrong with such a contract per se.

    1. Mike P (the emptiness pro) Post author

      Such a contract would not be one sided. The contract I have with my landlord is not one sided.

      1. Gil

        I mean a contract in the sense that the private landowner has a parcel of land for which he has instantly made everyone a trespasser until they can prove otherwise yet no one signed anything.

        1. Mike P (the emptiness pro) Post author

          But he owns the land. So you can write a contract with him to use it, which would not be one sided and he would be bound by the terms, or you can trespass which is not a contract situation. It is his land.

          If you are saying that the state owns all the land in the country, then there is no such thing as a private landowner, and the state is still the only group of people that is allowed to initiate social contracts.

          If the state does not own all the land, then they are forcing you to be bound by terms you never agreed to in order to stay on land that they do not own. In this case they are also the only group in society that is allowed to do this.

          1. Gil

            I, like gdw, am going for the ‘yes’ argument. Unlike some who like to believe the government started off as a mafia group who swaggered into a village and declared ownership via greater physical force than the villagers, I believe history has shown that modern governments are descended from opposing monarchial rule which in turn started off as feuding private family landowners. In other words, government have evolved as opposed to merely appearing out of nowhere and destroying everything that is good like a locust plague.

  18. Mike P (the emptiness pro) Post author

    @gdw. The in print vs. not in print distinction is not the only distinction between my contract with my landlord and the “social contract”. The “social contract” is unilateral. This is the entire moral problem with it. It is imposed on me and you. I cannot “take it or leave it” like I can with my landlord’s contract. Land ownership doesn’t really come in to it at all. Frankly I find the issues with “allodial land ownership” to be very arcane and hard to understand. I also think they are irrelevant.

    This is a logical/moral issue. The only institution in society that can initiate social contracts is the state. The state will condemn me as evil for attempting to initiate these kinds of contracts myself. So by the state’s own standards the “contract” on which they base their legitimacy is evil. That is the point, not arcane theories of land ownership.

    1. Mike P (the emptiness pro) Post author

      @gdw Another point. In your post you say “This says nothing about whether the state is actually moral”. This is why I think the issue of “allodial land ownership” is kind of silly. The state is not moral. That is easily demonstrated. So why then worry about the moral nature of its claims to land? Such claims cannot possibly be moral. They can only be backed by violence. You have to deal with them in the real world of course, just like you have to deal with state violence in every other area of life, but there is no reason to recognize any claim of the state as moral.

      1. gdw

        IF someone actually owns a piece of property, whether or not that person is moral is irrelevant to their claims of ownership.

    2. gdw

      “Allodial land ownership” is essentially the difference between OWNING and RENTING. Nothing more on its own. Of course the manner of enforcement is bullshit.

      The unilateral part I also find irrelevant. As mentioned, if you own a piece of land, and I go onto your land, you are the one who set’s the terms, I have no say in them.

      You are correct in the fact that I can just leave your land, especially if I just wandered onto it without knowing.

      Also, as mentioned there are plenty of contracts that involve the ability for one party to make changes and enforce them on the other part.
      Of course, again, the other party is free to exit the agreement if they do not like the changes.

      We are not exactly free to do this when dealing with the state.

      Look, the reason I am harping on a lot of this is because from the point of view of anyone you would be trying to, or need to convince, these things all seem like huge gaping holes in your argument. And if they don’t see these as holes, but still dismiss your argument, then if they ever stumble upon these points elsewhere it just further gives credence to their dismissal.

      Similarly, if someone DOES accept your argument, and THEN stumbles upon these issues, they may reconsider and dismiss your argument.

      My point is, don’t leave any holes, or even the appearance of holes. Just because you think they don’t count, or aren’t really holes does not matter. The fact that they appear to be holes/flaws in your argument does matter.

      I’m not saying abandon this argument, just flush it out, and address things that are far more concrete, like the fact that you simply are NOT free to leave, or, as you mentioned in your podcast, that the state has said they are not obligated to provide you with their services.

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  20. Ames Friedman

    Um, I don’t remember signing a contract. That’s one of the big things that gets me. When you ask someone who believes in the social contract how it is that you came to be bound by it, they say it’s because you choose to live here. Again, um, excuse me, but I was BORN here. So my birth was my signature, I take it. How is that a voluntary action?

    If my birth is my defacto signature, and the state gets to just claim that by being born I agree to all the terms that it levies upon me, then what’s the difference between me and a… ugh, I hate to say it, but the word “slave” comes to mind.

    1. Mike P (the emptiness pro) Post author

      Right. And if your birth was your signature once again the state runs up against a contradiction since according to the state itself babies cannot sign contracts because they are not old enough to give consent.

      1. gdw

        No, but their parents, or legal guardians, can on their behalf.

        So, let’s say I owned a building, and created my “social contract” where anyone who lived in my building had to pay me a fee, and I would provide certain services, and if anyone refused to pay, then I could have armed uniformed men come and remove them from the building with force. Similarly, I would have rules about what other things they could do in my building, how loud they could be, and I could hold them accountable for any damage they did to the building.

        Now, any one born into a family already living in my building would have to “obey” the rules, and if they did not, then their guardians would be the one’s held accountable for any damages, etc. When they are old enough to decide themselves, they don’t have to live in my building anymore. They can go somewhere else.

        So, yes, other people can make similar contracts to the “social” contract of the state.

        The difference is whether or not the state legitimately “owns” the “building.”

        If they do, and can enforce the contract in question, then there is simply no such thing as private land. We are all just renting the plots our houses are on.

        If this is the case then the state needs to prove their ownership of the land.

        1. Mike P (the emptiness pro) Post author

          The situation you are describing would not be a social contract. It would be an actual contract.

          1. gdw

            Yes, but at THAT point the ONLY difference is that it is written. We have verbal contracts, and even implicit ones.

            The real concern is whether or not the state can be said to own the land. As it turns out, we actually do not have any actual full ownership claim to the land our homes are built on.


            The state never gave it up, or when they did, they eventually took it back, or gave it up in such a way that it reverted back to them after the last living resident at the time of giving it over had died, or gave up the ownership.

            Of course, this is simply what is written by the state. Mind you, that means in any contract we sign in regards to purchasing a home, it is implicit, or perhaps even explicit, that one does not hold an Allodial title to the land.

            So, the debate becomes a matter of whether or not the state’s initial claim of ownership was legitimate? However, if it was NOT legitimate, then everything that was derived from said ownership is also no legitimate.

            A bit of a pickle, no?

            This still does not say anything about whether or not the state is actually moral, nore whether or not we would flourish far better without it.

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