Concerning the protests against then-Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, Barack Obama released a supportive statement on Jan. 28 addressing the popular revolt that eventually led to Mubarak’s ousting.
Obama expressed that the “people of Egypt have rights that are universal.” Later, he added, “Violence will not address the grievances of the Egyptian people. And suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away.” The goal, as he saw it, was to erect an open, democratic government that enabled Egyptians to govern themselves. How he concluded his statement is what interested me. He said that “all governments must maintain power through consent, not coercion.”
In one respect, I understand the point he was making. That is, in the long run, government power relies on the acquiescence of the vast majority. In Egypt, enough people were willing to raise a fuss. An insight made by Etienne de la Boetie in “The Politics of Obedience” is that revolution does not require that anyone “place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer.”
My objection to Obama’s statement, and to the general notion of a just government resting on consent, is that one cannot consent to a government. My thinking is two-fold.
First, consent can only be granted if the agent responsible for granting consent had a choice. Some people say that everyone in the United States is free to leave, so anyone remaining within a particular geo-political landmass has consented to the government in place.
Now, I concede that being able to leave is one necessary but not sufficient aspect of choice. Even that, however, is not entirely respected. High-income earners who choose to expatriate are still required to pay taxes for up to 10 years after leaving the United States.
Another method of leaving (or withdrawing) that must be respected is secession. A statist might argue that there has to be some fine or penalty for reneging on a contract. Even so, those would have to spelled out in a written contract to be binding, which a wordless (and therefore thoughtless) implicit social contract cannot be. Lysander Spooner said, “To call such a contract a ‘constitution,’ or by any other high-sounding name, does not alter its character as an absurd and void contract.”
Theorists like John Locke might also argue that the merest participation in a governed society is a performative act of consent. But, again, this fails because there is no free choice to participate or not, just as a person imprisoned at the bottom of a well does not consent to his or her capture by accepting tokens of food.
Seeing how the government would (inferrably based on prior incidents) oppose attempts at individual secession, individual consent is impossible. If individuals cannot consent, a society, which consists only of individuals, cannot consent either.
The second point is an ontological claim that consent to government, as a matter of fact, is impossible. Ontology has to do with the empirical study of the nature of things in existence.
In a recent post, I explained why my understanding of the principle of rights does not naturally allow for the central tenet of government, the coercive enforcement of its ultimate decision-making authority to resolve disputes, to be logically construed. A contract for individuals to grant such a power to government would also be invalid.
It has to do with inalienability of rights. Free will is indivisible — all or nothing — and inalienable. To act on one’s will is the essential feature of the right to life, the fundamental of all corollary rights. Had someone made a contract for a transfer of will, the contract would not be executable and is thus groundless and unenforceable. For the sake of argument, were a contract to transfer one’s will executable, the slave would have no means of discerning when an order to act was given (having no will on which to act) and no obligation to follow those orders. The idea of alienable rights is ridiculous from top to bottom.
Were I even to agree with the statement from the Declaration of Independence that “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” it just so happens that as a practical concern and a philosophical one, no consent has or could have been given. The only just powers of government, then, are none at all.