May 11th, 2016
One of the most fundamental aspects of a legitimate government is having the consent of the governed—a point made clear in the Declaration of Independence. But you and I have never had a meaningful opportunity to consent to being ruled by the state.
Proponents of the elusive and undefined “social contract theory” concoct all sorts of mind-bending ideas to justify the plainly obvious fact that not all of the state’s subjects have provided consent. While much has been written in response to these ideas, it may be useful to analyze their arguments by substituting political rule for a situation in which every sane person agrees that consent is required: sexual intercourse.
We are often told that explicit consent to be governed is not necessary or practical, and that tacit consent is sufficient—as if our unwillingness to abandon our home and distance ourselves from a certain group of elected officials is a signal that we consent to their exercise of power over us. This is like saying rape is fine so long as the woman fails to flee her abuser—an obviously preposterous position to take.
It is also claimed that participation in the process of government constitutes consent—that voting, for example, is an indicator of consent. Lysander Spooner famously demolished this claim, noting that not everybody who is governed can vote, not everybody who can vote does, and that many of those who do vote are acting out of self-defense with no intention of giving consent to the entire affair. Those who advance this flawed argument might similarly claim that a woman who agrees to go out with a man consents to whatever he might choose to do to her as the night progresses. We shudder at the thought, and yet it’s that thought that serves as the foundation of statism.
Others have argued that unanimous consent is impractical or, as John Locke said, “next [to] impossible ever to be had.” Thus, rational creatures must be governed by a mere majority vote. Consent, then, is not of the governed, but of the majority of those who participate in the government’s process. This is an argument of convenience, not actual consent. It’s akin to arguing that a woman’s consent to sexual relations some of the time is approval for doing it at any time—or, worse, that the consent of some women is sufficient to assume that all women consent to intercourse with a man. Inconvenience for an individual or government does not justify circumventing actual consent.
Imagine, however, that consent to be governed was somehow at one point given. Can it be withdrawn? Or does the government set the terms and effectively disregard any revocation of consent? Would we expect that a woman who in the past consented to intercourse with a lover forever be forced into a sexual relationship with him in perpetuity?
Moving on from the nature of consent, we must address the question of what, exactly, we are consenting to. Are there terms and conditions anywhere written? In cases of an actual contract, the agreement is listed out in detail so that all parties are fully informed. No such list exists for the state; we supposedly consent to whatever is done by those in power, going so far as to bestow their majoritarian mandates with the sacrosanct label of “law.” This conjures up an image of Warren Jeffs making young women submit to his every whim, wrapping his sexual deviance in the color of religious authority. His harem didn’t know what they were in for—they simply knew that they must obey.
This takes us to the final point: why should we consent? Just as we might advise a battered wife to deny the sexual advances of her predatory partner, we should withhold consent from a group of men—call it a government—that imprison, steal from, and kill innocent people. We, the governed, have not consented; no such opportunity has been provided us. Our support for the state is a false presumption cloaking it in an aura of authority that does not actually exist.
“Yes means yes” has become the mantra of those fighting against sexual abuse by aggressors. The inverse implication is equally important: no means no. The state’s lack of consent from those who are governed by it means, quite simply, that the very institution operates outside the boundaries of law and morality. It is effectively a political rapist.