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The Social Contract II

I have got to tell you, my co blogger on this site, IanB, sometimes pisses me right off. There I am, getting on with my life, all safe and secure in my smug and insufferable superiority towards my fellow man (and woman)(fellow woman? Hmm. Let me think about that), and I come across a posting or a comment by Ian which brings me right back to Earth. I read his words and, again, yet again, have my nose rubbed in the reality that there really are people out there with a level of insight way beyond mine.

Time and time over, in the presence of Ian’s musings, I find myself wondering why I didn’t think of that, and feeling annoyed that he did first.


So, it is with the most inordinate pleasure I find myself, possibly, being able to address a question he has declared himself unable to answer.

Ian wrote:

A post over at Charlotte Gore’s gaffe ask for discussion of one of the most vexing collectivist arguments- well at least I find it one of the most vexing anyway. It started me thinking very hard, as this is one collectivist position I’ve had intensely frustrating arguments about, but have never been able to score a palpable hit. It came up over and over again at one particularly progressive-liberal place I used to frequent, and my opponents would always ride off with a triumphant smirk while I was left mute and stymied, despite being certain I was right somehow. In a nutshell it goes like this-

“The state can bring in whatever laws it likes, as everyone is a signatory of the social contract who empowers the government to legislate. If you don’t like it, you are free to leave”.

Now libertarians don’t accept any of this of course. But the issue is; can we prove it wrong?

I think I can, and it is all about the validity of the ‘social contract’ itself.

First of all, we are presupposing a state where I, in my small way as a citizen, have an equal input into the policies the state pursues. This could happen in a number of ways, but lets just, for ease, call them all democracy. This is important, because if I have no say then there is no contract, only forcible coercion, and the question is moot.

So, we have our democracy, and the people in electorates assembled make their decisions using whatever means they have decided are fit. Now, when contributing my mite to the decisions, the more perfect the information available to me the better will be the quality of my decision making. The less perfect the information available to me the more questionable the decision I, and everyone else, makes.

If we are lied to, fed disinformation or am otherwise deprived of pertinent information the less valid will be the choice I and everyone else makes. If the state, through one means or another, acts to limit or degrade the information available the less valid will be the contract between me and all other parties in the wider society, because that contract won’t be an informed agreement. If the state, through its representatives, acts to limit my freedom and reduce my access to information I, or they, may have considered pertinent, then the social contract is abrogated.

If we jointly elect a repressive government, then fine, the contract is intact. However, the instant that government enacts mildly repressive legislation, affecting my ability to make fully informed decisions, the contract is diminished. As repression builds, and information is degraded, so the contract is whittled away, until the state abolishes it completely.

So, there we have it. The social contract cannot be used to justify anything other than requiring the state to leave us to our freedom. Any other course of action by the state is a breach of that contract.

Now, I fully accept that this thesis isn’t complete, It needs a great deal of work done expanding it to cover areas of repression where information degradation isn’t immediately obvious, but still, it is a start.

Ian, I would appreciate being shown where I am wrong.


  1. IanB says:

    Ian, I would appreciate being shown where I am wrong.

    I don’t think I can do that, it’s a good argument IMHO.

    If I understand your point correctly, you are asserting that a contract is not valid if signed under conditions of incomplete information. This is interesting, because The Enemy frequently assert this regarding the private sector and free markets in general- that consumers do not make correct choice because there is an informational imbalance- the capitalists have more information than the consumers.

    Now on the one hand accepting this argument appears to lead us to have to accept a criticism against free markets, which at first sight isn’t good for Our Side. But we can turn this around and say, “if you say that free markets are compromised by incomplete information, then you must accept that democracy (voter choice) is similarly compromised by incomplete information; if private contracts are compromised then so must be the social contract for an identical reason”.

    That’s a very simple and neat argument to present to an opponent. I like it. It’s not an approach that had occurred to me. It’s certainly more straightforward than mine, and also has the glorious advantage of not straying anywhere near land value tax.

  2. CountingCats says:


    I suppose a contract can be valid if it is entered into knowing and accepting that the information is incomplete and both parties are equal, but if one party, the state or MegaGlobalCorp, actively ceates conditions where there is an information inbalance then yes, the contract is questionable. And to be blunt, I would rather trust MegaGlobalCorp than HMG because HMG doesn’t have high street rivals I can turn to.

    Further, it is not just that there is incomplete information, the very act of implementing repressive legislation abrogates the contract, because information immediately degrades.

    The social contract does not cover just elections, it covers my day to day dealings with anyone and everyone under the law. Whether it is answering a coppers questions, snarling at a parking inspector, being abused by an underground inspector, or even buying a can of cat food. All my interactions and decisions are conceivably affected from the day said legislation becomes law. This is not only a matter of election day.

    BTW, that particular argument against capitalism is known and accepted by our side regardless.

    And stuff LVT.

  3. IanB says:

    I suspect that one answer there is that one can agree to a Known Unkwown, but not an Unknown Unknown.

    That is, you can agree to buy “a batch of assorted eletric motors, various types” without knowing the specifics of the motors, since you know that the contract is constrained to purchase of motors. But if the contract included a secret clause that you must also give the other person your house, which you did not and could not know about, it would be invalid and the other person would have no contractual right to your house.

  4. CountingCats says:

    Unless the contract were with the state of course, in which case you are stuffed.

  5. IanB says:

    Well, I think one counterargument here is that the contract with the state is of limited duration; if you contract some unknown unknowns you dislike, you can abolish that part of the contract with the next election (so long as the state hasn’t killed you during the current contract).

    So, thinking about it, as I said in my previous post somewhere, any social contract argument is contingent on unrestrained democracy; that is the population can always vote for anything they care to vote for. Under those circumstances- so long as free elections for any representatives of policies remain- the social contract argument holds water. Voting for a perpetual dictatorship woud invalidate it automatically.

  6. CountingCats says:

    Actually, the social contract, in order to be valid, requires free of movement, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of conscience and free markets.

    Without all of these things the contract has no basis.

    Want me to explain?

  7. CountingCats says:

    Under those circumstances- so long as free elections for any representatives of policies remain- the social contract argument holds water.

    No it doesn’t. Unrestrained democracy is a necessary but insufficient precondition. Under a repressive regime information about policies, or some set of external conditions, will be constrained, so any decision at all will be invalid. The least invalid decision will be the one leading to a lessening of the repression, thus allowing a more informed decision next time.

  8. IanB says:

    Actually, the social contract, in order to be valid, requires free of movement, freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of conscience and free markets.

    Actually it doesn’t. I could choose to live in a religious commune that offers none of those things, for instance. As I tried to assert below, all it requires for validity is the right of the members to vote for anything, and the right to leave, which I attempted to prove requires not just the right to walk out, but for any land resources one contributed to go with you, since a state is a land collective.

    My argument below was that rather than freedom of movement, it requires freedom to resign from the collective while physically staying where you are.

  9. CountingCats says:

    Ok, fair point. However, lacking this power of resignation the others must be in place for the social contract argument to have any validity.

    I think it would be easier to have these other freedoms in place, which would help validate the contract, than it would to arrange to wihdraw politically without moving physically. I would argue that my conditions could be easily met while yours would be much more difficult.

  10. RobtE says:

    First of all, an enormous well-done and thanks to both of you, Mr. Cats and Ian. This is great stuff, real meat to get your intellectual teeth in to.

    I read Ian’s piece last night. Unfortunately it was through the bottom of a bottle of gin, which makes it surprisingly hard to read, what with everything being a deep shade of green. I swear, it was like being in the Emerald City. There was something in Ian’s argument that bothered me more than somewhat, though. I’ve been thinking about it most of the day and I think I’ve finally put my finger on it. The same problem is there in Mr. Cats’s argument too, though to a lesser degree. It’s the underlying Theory of Government where it’s going wrong.

    A blog comment isn’t really the place to go into it in detail, but briefly, the Theory of Government is itself a derived doctrine. The definition of a just government, i.e., a moral government, is built on the doctrine of the liberty and absolute sovereignty of the individual. To answer Ian’s original question, whether the collectivists can be proved wrong, you have to back all the way to what it means to be an individual, then define the nature and character of a just government, i.e., a government that is morally valid. Eventually you end up with the answer to Ian’s question: that there are limits on a just governments actions and a just government cannot take an action that works against the liberty of an individual, regardless of the size of the plurality that advocates that action.

    Ian’s argument has a lot going for it. It’s coherent, internally consistent, novel and really quite interesting. But in the end it comes down to an end run round a fundamentally unjust government and, by extension, the unjust society that created it.

  11. […] Counting Cats starts arguing with itself! (you’ll see what I mean – […]

  12. Excellent train of logic, but what I can’t work out is whether IanB meant to refer to Charlotte Gore’s ‘blog as a “gaff” (a place where she resides) or whether he thinks her whole ‘blog is a “gaffe” (as in embarrassing mistake).

  13. Elizabeth says:

    I wonder if the “social contract” also acts against improvement? On the basis that an individuals growth and development is constrained by adherence to it.

    This blog post refers to the authority of parents, wonder if it might refer to the authority of government in a similar way?

    Seems to explain some of the crap we see around us at the moment.

  14. […] to the effect that the "social contract" trumps "civil liberties". IanB and CountingCats have both had a go at suggesting arguments, and there’s been plenty of good discussion in the […]

  15. […] Don’t be confused by the use of the buzzword democracy, it is irrelevant. Democracy has value only as the most appropriate means by which free people govern themselves. Abolish freedom, the sovereign right to live under laws we freely choose, and democracy ceases to have any more validity than any other form of tyranny. Democracy is a symbol, freedom is the substance. […]

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