What gives some people the right to rule others? At least since John Locke’s time, the most common and seemingly compelling answer has been “the consent of the governed.” When the North American revolutionaries set out to justify their secession from the British Empire, they declared, among other things: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” This sounds good, especially if one doesn’t think about it very hard or very long, but the harder and longer one thinks about it, the more problematic it becomes.
One question after another comes to mind. Must every person consent? If not, how many must, and what options do those who do not consent have? What form must the consent take ― verbal, written, explicit, implicit? If implicit, how is it to be registered? Given that the composition of society is constantly changing, owing to births, deaths, and international migration, how often must the rulers confirm that they retain the consent of the governed? And so on and on. Political legitimacy, it would appear, presents a multitude of difficulties when we move from the realm of theoretical abstraction to that of practical realization.
I raise this question because in regard to the so-called social contract, I have often had occasion to protest that I haven’t even seen the contract, much less been asked to consent to it. A valid contract requires voluntary offer, acceptance, and consideration. I’ve never received an offer from my rulers, so I certainly have not accepted one; and rather than consideration, I have received nothing but contempt from the rulers, who, notwithstanding the absence of any agreement, have indubitably threatened me with grave harm in the event that I fail to comply with their edicts. What monumental effrontery these people exhibit! What gives them the right to rob me and push me around? It certainly is not my desire to be a sheep for them to shear or slaughter as they deem expedient for the attainment of their own ends.
Moreover, when we flesh out the idea of “consent of the governed” in realistic detail, the whole notion quickly becomes utterly preposterous. Just consider how it would work. A would-be ruler approaches you and offers a contract for your approval. Here, says he, is the deal.
Such a deal! Can we really imagine that any sane person would consent to it?
Yet the foregoing description of the true social contract into which individuals are said to have entered is much too abstract to capture the raw realities of being governed. In enumerating the actual details, no one has ever surpassed Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who wrote:
Nowadays, of course, we would have to supplement Proudhon’s admirably precise account by noting that our being governed also entails our being electronically monitored, tracked by orbiting satellites, tased more or less at random, and invaded in our premises by SWAT teams of police, often under the pretext of their overriding our natural right to decide what substances we will ingest, inject, or inhale into what used to be known as “our own bodies.”
So, to return to the question of political legitimacy as determined by the consent of the governed, it appears upon sober reflection that the whole idea is as fanciful as the unicorn. No one in his right mind, save perhaps an incurable masochist, would voluntarily consent to be treated as governments actually treat their subjects.
Nevertheless, very few of us in this country at present are actively engaged in armed rebellion against our rulers. And it is precisely this absence of outright violent revolt that, strange to say, some commentators take as evidence of our consent to the outrageous manner in which the government treats us. Grudging, prudential acquiescence, however, is not the same thing as consent, especially when the people acquiesce, as I do, only in simmering, indignant resignation.
For the record, I can state in complete candor that I do not approve of the manner in which I am being treated by the liars, thieves, and murderers who style themselves the Government of the United States of America or by those who constitute the tyrannical pyramid of state, local, and hybrid governments with which this country is massively infested. My sincere wish is that all of these individuals would, for once in their despicable lives, do the honorable thing. In this regard, I suggest that they give serious consideration to seppuku. Whether they employ a sharp sword or a dull one, I care not, so long as they carry the act to a successful completion.