Can Anyone Consent to The State?

Charles Johnson


These are some remarks on the State and the conceptual possibility of consent, which I originally prepared for my appearance at the Molinari Society’s Authors-Meet-Critics last week in Philadelphia, but which I opted not to read because of time constraints. Fortunately, blogs are not subject to the same constraints of time or topicality, so I have expanded a bit on what I originally prepared, and now I offer them to you, gentle reader.

In their remarks on Crispin Sartwell’s Against the State, both Christopher Morris and Jan Narveson object to Sartwell’s conclusion that existing states are conceptually incompatible with the very possibility of consent (40, emphasis added). Specifically, they object to the strength or the sweep of the incompatibility claim: Morris thinks that thisis an exaggeration and an unnecessary one, and Narveson insists that such a strong claim of incompatibility cannot be taken literally. Each attempts to refute the incompatibility claim, at least as originally stated, by means of counterexamples. Presumably, if you can point to at least one case where individual consent to be ruled is actually secured by an existing state, then clearly (modal logic and all that) it must not be logically impossible for existing states to secure it. And each argues that Sartwell could have done just as well, for the purpose of undermining consensualist accounts of legitimacy, with a much weaker claim. Narveson goes so far as to attribute this weaker claim to Sartwell, insisting that Sartwell really must have meant to say, not that existing states operate in a way that logically precludes any of their subjects from consenting to their rule, but rather that they operate so as to preclude the unanimous consent of all their subjects — that is, that there must always be at least one dissenter in any given state, not that there never can be anynon-dissenters.

What then are the counterexamples to be considered? Narveson mentions those who voted in a government election for the party currently in power. Morris, for his part, says that at least some people seem voluntarily to perform acts that seem to constitute consent, and they seem to do so with the requisite understandings. I’d be interested to know whether the performances Morris has in mind are performative utterances like the Pledge of Allegiance or citizenship oaths, where the utterer explicitly declares her support for a particular government, or whether he also means to include other kinds of acts, which have some other purpose but from which consent can reasonably be inferred. But whatever sorts of spontaneous or ritualized performances Morris or Narveson may have in mind, what puzzles me is that, while they indicate these cases as counterexamples to Sartwell’s strong claim — as presented on page 40 of Against the State — neither Morris nor Narveson seems to engage with the direct argument for which the strong claim is the conclusion— as presented on page 50 — in which Sartwell explicitly considers and rejects the claim that these sorts of individual performances could count as consenting to the State’s rule. Thus:

… consent is always compromised by force; the mere existence of effective force dedicated to some end constitutes coercion toward that end, whatever you may think or want. If I consent to abide by the law when that law is enforced by a huge body of men with guns and clubs, it is never clear, to say the least, whether my consent is genuine or not. … It will always be prudent for me, under such circumstances, to simulate consent, and there are no clear signs by which a simulation could be distinguished from a genuine consent in such a case. That I am enthusiastic in my acquiescence to your overwhelming capacity for violence—that I pledge my allegiance according to formula, sing patriotic songs and so on—does not entail that I am not merely acquiescing. … [T]he mere existence of an overwhelming force by which the laws will be enforced compromises conceptually the possibility of voluntarily acceding to them. Or put it this way: the power of government, constituted by hypothesis under contract, by which it preserves the liberties and properties of its citizens, is itself conceptually incompatible with the very possibility of their consent. (50-51)

That is, the standing threat of overwhelming force ensures that any individual performance is made under duress, ruling out the preconditions for any genuine consent. I’d be interested to hear what Narveson and Morris make of this argument for rejecting their purported counterexamples to the strong claim. Unless there is some response to it, then it seems like the attempt to use individual performances as evidence for the actual existence of (at least some) individual consent to the State, which is to say, as evidence against Sartwell’s strong incompatibility claim, is simply question-begging.

Now, I think it would be perfectly fair for Narveson and Morris to object that Sartwell’s argument, as stated, does need some tightening, and may also need some elaborating. But I think that once the tightening and the elaborating have been done, the argument does in fact provide a basis for a very strong version of Crispin’s strong incompatibility claim — and the strong version of that strong claim will be of general interest for anyone who intends to connect their notion of political right to respect for individual liberty, and their notion of liberty to respect for individual consent in the use of person or property.

Now, if someone goes through the motions of consenting while under a background threat of force against dissenters, for Narveson or Morris to be able to insist that it is possible for that to express genuine consent only if they deny at least one of the following principles:

  1. Any seeming expression of consent to a condition C, if given under a standing threat of force against refusers, is given under duress.
  2. Any seeming expression of consent to a condition C, if given under duress, cannot be treated as a genuine expression of consent to C.
  3. If you cannot do anything that could be treated as a genuine expression of consent to a condition C, then you do not count as having consented to C.

All three seem initially plausible, to me at least, but if Narveson or Morris accepts all three, then it quickly follows that he cannot count as having consented to any condition C when there is a background threat of force against those who refuse to consent to C. Since that’s how existing states roll, nobody could do anything that would count as having consented to the state — and that would remain the case even for those who say that they consent with all their heart out of an earnest feeling of duty and with a great deal of pride. If all three principles are accepted, then even if you want to give your consent to the State’s rule over you, you can’t do it, because the state’s unilateral imposition of the terms preempts your efforts to consent to the terms.

So, if Narveson or Morris wants to avoid that conclusion, he’ll have to pick one of the principles to reject, and the question is which one to pick.

Principle (1) looks like it’s not very far off of a definition of acting under duress (or performing the specific action of seemingly-expressing-consent under duress). I doubt that much of anyone will be inclined to reject that — or, if they are so inclined, it will probably be because they first rejected a principle very similar to principle (2) — basically, (2) modified so that under a standing threat of force against refusers substitutes for under duress — but are inclined to think that any case of genuine consent should (therefore) not be considered a case of action under duress. In which case you have a counterexample to (1) rather than to (2), as I’ve stated the principles. But if so, then the motivations for rejecting (1) will be similar enough to the motivations for rejecting (2) that my comments below should apply equally to either.

Principle (2) may look much more promising to someone who wants to defend the claim that people may be voluntarily consenting to state authority — even though they would have been forced to acquiesce even if they had tried to refuse. The idea would be something like this: Look, you’ve given us a perfectly good reason to think that there are at least some people who would seem to be consenting but aren’t actually consenting. Fine, but why think their situation affects those who sincerely do want to agree to the terms the State sets down? At most this seems like an epistemological problem — that we may have trouble finding out whether somebody consented or not just on the basis of their outward actions. It doesn’t make it logically impossible for them to have done so.

Some of the ways in which Sartwell tries to state his case might indeed incline you towards a worry like this — as when he argues that It will always be prudent for me, under such circumstances, to simulate consent, and there are no clear signs by which a simulation could be distinguished from a genuine consent in such a case. The mere fact that a second or third party couldn’t distinguish a simulation from genuine consent wouldn’t (just by itself) warrant the conclusion that there can be no such thing as genuine consent. But I think that there are two possible responses to this worry. First, if the worry is purely epistemic, it still poses a serious problem for any consensualist justification of the state — if it is the case, as I think it is, that it is illegitimate not only to use someone’s person or property without her consent, but also to use someone’s person or property when there is no possible way for you to find out whether she has consented or not. (Consider this an argument to the effect that the State cannot be legitimate because it has no reliable procedure for determining whether its rule over any given subject is in fact legitimate or illegitimate. Take that, Robert Nozick.) But, secondly, and more to the point, I think that there is a stronger interpretation of Sartwell’s argument, on which the worry is logical rather than epistemological, because the lack of clear signs of a distinction is not just a lack of diagnostic symptoms, but rather a lack of necessary criteria.

Think of it this way. The claim that a seeming expression of consent does not count, when given under duress, is usually justified by something like the following principle:

Principle of the Alternative: If Norton wants to place Twain’s person or property under a condition C, then Twain’s performing an action A expresses consent to Conly if there is some alternative action B, which Twain could have performed, which would have counted as refusing consent to C.

I take this principle to be a necessary condition for a performance to meet the concept of expressing consent. An expression of consent is necessarily a choice among alternatives; if there is nothing that would even count as a refusal, then what we have is just not a matter of consent. Whatever Twain’s personal feelings about A or C may be, what he’s doing when he does A may be an expression of deference, or of obligation, or of some other similar sort of commitment. But whatever it is, it’s just not an expression of consent.

More strongly, and more importantly for the purposes of our argument, it is not enough that there just be something that would count as refusing consent. Consent is a property of transactions between two or more parties, and for you to have it, there must not only be something that would count as a refusal; your partner must also be willing to count that performance, whatever it is, as a refusal which she is bound to respect. An alternative must not only be available; there must be some reasonable expectation that the alternative would be practically effective.

Opt-Out Principle: If Norton wants to place Twain’s person or property under a condition C, then Twain’s performing an action A expresses consent to C only if there is some alternative action B, which Twain could have performed, which would have counted as refusing consent to C, and which Twain can reasonably expect Norton to accept as a decisive reason not to place Twain’s person or property under C.

Again, I take this principle to be a necessary condition for a performance to count as expressing consent; just as the lack of a possible refusal makes the issue one of obligation rather than consent, if Twain performs an expressive act without any expectation that there is some expression of refusal that Norton would consider himself bound to respect, then the issue is no longer one of consent, but rather of unilateral command. And again, it hardly matters what Twain’s personal feelings about the command may be. Maybe he’s into that kind of thing. But whatever he is doing, he is not succeeding at doing anything that would count as expressing consent. You can’t consent if you’re never asked, and if there really is nothing that Norton would count as a binding refusal, then Twain has never even been asked, in any meaningful way.

I think the Principle of the Alternative and the Opt-Out Principle, or something a lot like them, are central to Sartwell’s worry about the difficulty of telling a genuine willingness to accept the state’s terms apart from a willingness simulated only under duress. I also think that these principles, or something a lot like them, provide the only reasonable explanation for why, as a general thing, we should disregard a seeming expression of consent that was only given under duress, and would not have been given but for the threat. (It might seem important that such seeming expressions are not sincere reflections of the utterer’s inner state. But that by itself is not enough. I might freely give an insincere expression of consent — say I consent to let you use my car, but I secretly intend to call the cops on you and report it stolen. But then the expression, even though insincere, is still genuine consent; given my expression of consent to you, it would be false for me to claim that you had stolen my car from me, no matter what I may have whispered to myself in the dark recesses of my soul.) But if both principles, or something a lot like them, express necessary conditions for a performance to genuinely express consent, then it looks like Principle (2) follows without much delay. And it follows in its full logical force — the worry here, remember, has nothing to do with whether or not Norton knows that Twain is genuinely expressing consent; it has to do with whether or not necessary criteria have been met for Twain’s expressions to count as expressions of consent. If the state rigs the situation in such a way that there is nothing it would count as opting out, then it has also rigged the situation in such a way that there is nothing it could really count as opting in;opting just isn’t part of this game. Neither expressing consent nor expressing dissent are even options that are on the table; if the state gives non-negotiable, unilateral commands, merely being cheerfully responsive to those commands is not enough to count as consent in any meaningful sense. And if this is the case, then it ought to be clear that it immediately defeats any claim that, for example, voting, or paying taxes, or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, or anything of the sort, could count as giving your consent to be ruled by the government that you vote for, or pay taxes to, or pledge your allegiance to. If not voting, not paying your taxes, not reciting the Pledge, or whatever, would exempt you from the terms that the United States imposes on you, then those who chose to do so anyway might well be counted as consenting to be ruled by the United States. But anarchist activism would also be an awful lot easier than it is, and the United States would not, in fact, even amount to a State — at least, not in any sense of the word that anarchists use when they proclaim all States to be illegitimate (because nonconsensual). In the real world, where government taxes and government prohibitions fall on the heads of the voters and the non-voters alike, there is, as Lysander Spooner argues, no way that an performance under such conditions can count as consent to government.

In truth, in the case of individuals, their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent, even for the time being. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having ever been asked, a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments. He sees, too, that other men practise this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, be finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two. In self-defence, he attempts the former. His case is analogous to that of a man who has been forced into battle, where he must either kill others, or be killed himself. Because, to save his own life in battle, a man attempts to take the lives of his opponents, it is not to be inferred that the battle is one of his own choosing. Neither in contests with the ballot – which is a mere substitute for a bullet – because, as his only chance of self-preservation, a man uses a ballot, is it to be inferred that the contest is one into which he voluntarily entered; that he voluntarily set up all his own natural rights, as a stake against those of others, to be lost or won by the mere power of numbers. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, in an exigency, into which he had been forced by others, and in which no other means of self-defence offered, he, as a matter of necessity, used the only one that was left to him.

Doubtless the most miserable of men, under the most oppressive government in the world, if allowed the ballot, would use it, if they could see any chance of thereby ameliorating their condition. But it would not therefore be a legitimate inference that the government itself, that crushes them, was one which they had voluntarily set up, or ever consented to.

Therefore a man’s voting under the Constitution of the United States, is not to be taken as evidence that he ever freely assented to the Constitution, even for the time being. Consequently we have no proof that any very large portion, even of the actual voters of the United States, ever really and voluntarily consented to the Constitution, even for the time being. Nor can we ever have such proof, until every man is left perfectly free to consent, or not, without thereby subjecting himself or his property to injury or trespass from others.

— Lysander Spooner (1867), No Treason no. 2, § II ¶¶ 12–14

Spooner, for his own reasons, couches his argument in epistemological terms — or, more specifically, in terms of legally cognizable proof. But, once again, the argument that he frames epistemically can be reframed in terms of the conceptual criteria for a public expression of consent by means of the Principle of the Alternative and the Opt-Out Principle.

I suspect, then, that someone who wants to defend the claim that it is possible to consent to the state’s authority — in spite of the background threat of coercion against anyone who attempts to refuse — will ultimately have to fall back on rejecting Principle (3). That is, in order to defend the claim the claim they are trying to defend, they will need to make some kind of distinction between the property of consenting as such, and the property of expressing consent. In fact I think it’s likely that this is the real core of Morris’s and Narveson’s intuitive sense that of course there must be some people who are consenting to existing states. It may seem like we just know that it’s possible to consent to the state, because we think we see it in people all around us, in their everyday practices and beliefs — whatever attitude the state may have towards them, their personal attitudes involve an acceptance of the state. We might have the same feelings ourselves, or even if we do not, we might imagine that we have them. We might even express this attitude of acceptance with a form of words like I want the State to rule me, or even I consent to the authority of the state. But if the discussion is about consent, and not merely about acceptance or desire, and if consent is supposed to have any kind of weight in ethical deliberation about the transactions between two or more agents, then I doubt that such a notion of private attitudes of consent — attitudes which might not only be unexpressed at the moment, but might not even be expressible in principle, under the prevailing circumstances — is likely to be coherent. That is, I doubt that private acceptance of the state can be understood as consent, at least in any sense that would preserve the connection between consent and political legitimacy, which is after all what inspired us to introduce the question of consent into the discussion of political theory in the first place.

If there is no effective possibility of refusal, then there is no possibility of publicly expressing consent, and if there is no possibility of publicly expressing consent, then there is no possibility of consenting. If existing states make a standing threat to force people to submit to their terms, even if they do not agree to those terms, then governments cut off any effective possibility of refusal, and thus nobody can do anything that would count as consenting to be ruled by an existing state — even if she wants to do so, and even if she sincerely says that she agrees to the terms. Since all existing states do make that standard threat, no existing state rules by consent over any individual subject. And if governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, then no government has any just powers at all. Even the most patriotic pledger or the most dutiful voter has not consented to be bound by the terms the state imposes, even if she tried to get herself bound by them; she is not bound in conscience to pay taxes, or to obey government prohibitions, or to obey the government’s requirements in any other way, for even one second longer than she wants to. And no existing state has either the duty or the right to enforce those terms on her.

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