Unlike pragmatism or the philosophy of mind, social contract theory is not so hot a topic among academic philosophers in youtube land. Rousseau (and Locke and Hobbes) are, of course, part of the canon and so taught as historical ideas, but I at least can't name any big time current "social contract" philosophers like some of the folks I've presented in past weeks here for these other topics.
Something I did want to throw out for discussion is libertarianism and its relation to social contract theory. Here's one of the more coherent videos of several I ran across of this sort:
The commentator here (Stefan Molyneux) claims to disprove social contract theory using bad logic and a bogus analogy. He begins in his "The SC as Justification" slide by mis-characterizing government as presenting itself as an arbiter of morality (whereas of course the relationship between these is purposely complex). Then in "The SC in Action" makes an obviously illogical move of giving some characteristics of the social contract (that it is implicitly made, geographically directed, and requires duties of citizens without requiring duties of the government to citizens, i.e. it's unilateral) and saying that these characteristics imply that "all contracts that fulfill these requirements must also be just." From there, he shows that this leads to absurd conclusions, which it does.
What he's trying to do is give the "essence" of the social contract and draw conclusions from that. This is like characterizing what traits make people count as worthy for consideration in our moral decision-making and then saying "ah, I see your characteristics include horses too!" That form of argument can work in that particular case, but here, the traits that Molyneux gives for the social contract aren't those essential ones that give it its force.
What makes the social contract valid (to the extent that it is; I don't want to actually commit to that) is the fact that we live in a representative democracy. We get to vote, and we have safeguards in place are supposed to prevent tyranny of the majority (i.e. we can't just all vote to kill off the redheads or whatever dumb thing we've come up with), so the government's decisions represent each of us, even if, as is inevitable, we as individuals don't always (or even usually) agree with its decisions.
This is the way that it's supposed to work, and this description points out where the system can go wrong: a government disconnected from public will at various points (in legislating or enforcing laws) or inadequate safeguards for minorities. Addressing these problems is not all a matter of just preventing corruption: there are legitimate theoretical and practical issues to be worked out on an ongoing basis re. how to balance these two goals and what mechanisms best serve them.
So if you're going to complain about taxes, then, you have to do so by saying either "The tax system is unfairly targeting me!" (i.e. as a minority, though maybe the minority is "rich people" or "smokers" or some other group that the majority doesn't feel so bad about squeezing) or "We only have taxes because the government is disconnected from the people," which is arguable re. many specific measures but which doesn't in general provide a way to argue for the illegitimacy of all taxation, which is what this brand of libertarianism pushes for.
Ultimately, this guy and his ilk can't be argued with any more than the anti-pragmatic Baptist minister, as will be clear if you look at his channel. I find extreme views like this fairly entertaining, so long as you can easily escape them; having this guy as your roommate would not be fun.
Might I suggest you peruse some of the work of Hans Hermann Hoppe.. Democracy the God that Failed comes to mind. The libertarian position or ‘minarchist’ movement has some more reasonable types than this chap.
Might be worth noting that it was the Austrian school of economics , which Hoppe is a part, which pretty much nailed the whole financial crisis but they get vanishingly little coverage in the press for the same reason, I suspect, atheists are under-represented in the priesthood.
Reasonable summary of the book here http://mises.org/misesreview_detail.aspx?control=199
And Long has some good philosophical podcasts on the Austrian school.
Mark Linsenmayer says
So Hoppe is a monarchist?? Flashes of the main character of “Confederacy of Dunces” are passing over me here. Interesting. I’ll look into bringing some of this up when we do our Locke social contract episode (whenever that may happen).
My point here is less to rag on libertarianism than to comment on the dismal amount of play that the notion of social contract seems to still play in current political discourse (at least on youtube), i.e. I don’t really see people defending the status quo, just a couple guys like this attacking the status quo by using this as a straw man. With a quick web search, I see that “Social Contract Press” is a right-wing anti-immigration organization; I guess they’re using “social contract” as a way of saying “we citizens have a social contract to form the government and these durn illegals don’t, so stop talking about their rights, because they don’t have any.”
In looking at a couple of other videos in this area here (like this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=swq4QU3t4Pw&NR=1), and again, I’m seeing arguments that certainly sound like “philosophy,” but which proceed from premises like “Anything that I don’t explicitly agree to is not binding on me,” which is to say that government itself of any form–apart from privately organized communes, I guess–is illegitimate. This gives me images of dudes declaring that their ranches have now seceded from the U.S. and if them FBI types don’t get off my lawn they’re gonna catch some lead!
Mark. You watched all of that? Indeed, you are a glutton for punishment. I made it to about 1’30” before I had to shut it off. Not out of any disdain for his arguments – I wasn’t really paying attention. It is just that I wanted to slap him as soon as he started talking. Something instantly triggered my “wanker” alarm. I find that this alarm system, though in no way infallible, saves me from having to make statements like “well there’s 4’58” that would have been better spent shaving my testicles with a cheese grater”.
I consider myself a Libertarian. I found this site by searching for “libertarian social contract”. I had a hard time following the fellow, not for any misstep in logic (necessarily), but I just thought he went too fast to really follow at all — other than the gist that you mention.
I have run into this “social contract” argument from my liberal friends. I don’t agree with “it” (still determining what “it” is), mainly because I don’t believe government should have that kind of ultimate power. But I’m still searching for some good reasoning to back up my feelings on that matter.
In the end, I have to harken back to the Constitution — perhaps our founding fathers were smart enough to understand why a limited Federal government was so crucial. That really the only function of the Federal government should be the protection of the rights, and left most of the “social contracting” up to the states. Would I be correct in that assumption?
No, the personal interests held by the founding Fathers has little to do with what is good. Specifically they would not have granted all power to the federal government because that could have easily ended up impeding on their often exploitative local business operations, ethics was not very much involved in coming to the decision. Regardless of where we choose to make the distinction where power should be held between states and the fed that is still all power being held by government just the same, even moreso today where some states have grown so large that they might as well be mini-sovereign nations. As long as there is some state no matter how “limited” (this word is so loaded at this point that it is basically meaningless, conservatives allege to be aiming for a more limited government and yet instead constantly expand it in all the wrong directions) and no accompanying social contract, that is exactly the situation in which a government wields potentially unlimited powers while the public has no right to oppose them.
A better question is what specifically embodies the social contract, obviously it is not simply a piece of paper on which the government has “agreed” to not act tyrannically. This is why I would implore you to reconsider, as to me what it means to have a social contract is to live this relation as a well-informed citizen critically suspect about your government in order for there to be a truly democratic life.
Mark Linsenmayer says
I’m glad to say that the ep after Lucy Lawless will be on the Federalist Papers, which I’m just reading now, so while I don’t think we’ll be revisiting at any length Locke’s foundational arguments about property and social contract and such, we will definitely be getting into the details of what went into the Constitution and the rationale behind it (according to Hamilton and Madison, anyway).
Jackon Smith says
“What he’s trying to do is give the “essence” of the social contract and draw conclusions from that. This is like characterizing what traits make people count as worthy for consideration in our moral decision-making and then saying “ah, I see your characteristics include horses too!” That form of argument can work in that particular case, but here, the traits that Molyneux gives for the social contract aren’t those essential ones that give it its force.
What makes the social contract valid (to the extent that it is; I don’t want to actually commit to that) is the fact that we live in a representative democracy. We get to vote, and we have safeguards in place are supposed to prevent tyranny of the majority (i.e. we can’t just all vote to kill off the redheads or whatever dumb thing we’ve come up with), so the government’s decisions represent each of us, even if, as is inevitable, we as individuals don’t always (or even usually) agree with its decisions.”
Lysander Spooner does a better job:
The war waged by the North showed definitively that the U.S. government does not rest on the consent of the governed, as theory might have it, but on compulsion and force.
The Constitution at its inception was consented to by only a small number of people living in the country.
The consent of that small number could not extend to future persons.
When persons voted subsequently, that cannot be construed as consent. Voters, being forced to pay taxes and being ruled in other ways, being “under peril of weighty punishments” if they rebel, will vote in order to try to relieve their condition. This in no way indicates that they consent to it.
In the century after the U.S.A. began, only a small fraction of the people were allowed to vote and still fewer actually voted, thereby limiting greatly any consent to the Constitution, the government, or the laws promulgated by that government and limiting the legitimacy of all of these with respect to the nonvoters.
The payment of taxes can’t be construed as consent because taxes are compulsory.
There is nothing for a voter to consent to anyway, since the Constitution is not and never was a valid agreement or contract.
The voters cannot possibly be providing consent when the Constitution’s powers are so vast that the lives, properties, and liberties of the people are delivered up to the State by this document.
Government power can’t be legitimated or justified by consent of the strongest party or by consent of the majority.
Voting amounts to a situation in which a fraction of the population appoints agents who will administer the government under the Constitution’s name. This however cannot legally bind those others who do not so vote. And even that authority is undermined by the fact that the principals (the voters) are unknown and unnamed, their ballots are cast in secret, and they can have no responsibility for the acts of their agents. The agents (elected officials) do not know who their principals are either.
Can the Social Contract make *any* action by the government legitimate so long as it arises in a representative democracy with checks and balances?
Timm Simpkins says
The idea of the social contract conflicts with what we determine to be morality. While I disagree with the conclusions of the video, I do not agree that a social contract is valid, and it is rather trivial to demonstrate.
The reason given for the tacit agreement with the social contract is invalid, namely that because you choose not to leave, you agree.
This means that a woman who is abused by her boyfriend or husband gives tacit approval of the abuse if she doesn’t leave. If that is the case, why should the husband/boyfriend be considered to be doing anything wrong? What is the difference between that and an S&M session, since she does agree after all?
Further, imagine that a person is born here, but is born as a parapalegic. They have the right, but not necessarily the ability to leave the country. Should that person not then be held responsible for any crimes they may do?
What about people that can’t afford travel? What about those that can’t get permission to go to other countries? These people are essentially placed under this “contract” against their will.
Analogies, and problems are abundant with the idea of a social contract. It simply doesn’t hold water.
Lloyd Ritchey says
If one is confident in the validity of one’s arguments, one doesn’t use parenthetical hedges like “(to the extent that it is; I don’t want to actually commit to that).” Either it is logically valid or it is not.
Seriously, if you are certain of the validity of your position, and the superiority of your knowledge as your insults (your entire last paragraph) imply, you should challenge the guy to a debate. Or perhaps go on his show. You’ll receive a great deal of exposure for your own by so doing, and this will afford you the opportunity to correct his errors–something he has repeatedly stated he finds welcome, and which has happened on a few occasions He has interviewed over three hundred experts in their fields; if you feel intellectually equipped to do likewise, you could provide a great deal of value to his community.
Or is your preference that the value of philosophy not be promulgated as widely as possible?
Really, anything of substance would be better than this dismissive and insulting blog post.
Mark Linsenmayer says
So are you some dude that just searches around the Internet for people saying negative things about libertarianism? I can think of no reason why you’d respond to a 4-year-old blog post that I can hardly recall. Do you even know what site this is? This was posted as a supplement to our Locke episode, which you’re welcome to listen to, and we’ll be revisiting libertarianism soon in doing Nozick in the next month or so.