Questions for Independence Day Evening
I thought it best to honor the principles of liberty on Independence Day by reviewing a long defense of the idea that governments’ claims to political authority are indefensible. I’m finishing a review if Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority. I’m especially interested in his discussion of the social contract: he argues that theories of social contracts that justify government coercion fail.
For a few years, the bloggers at Let a Thousand Nations Bloom would call the week of Independence Day “Secession Week.” In this light, here are a few questions:
1. Is our “social contract” valid?
2. Six years ago, Bryan Caplan wrote that “it’s hard to see why American independence was worth a war.” Is Bryan right?
3. If political bonds were to dissolve, what would a new Declaration of Independence look like?
4. North Colorado. Baja Arizona. Jefferson. Seven (my comments here). Arnold Kling has written that “We Need 250 States.” Is he right? If so, how might we go about it?
Jul 4 2013 at 5:08pm
Our “social contract” is not a valid contract in any normative sense of the term, since the supposed parties never agreed to it. The standard response is that you agree by choosing to remain in the country. But that only works if the government already owns the country and so is entitled to decide who is permitted to live there, a claim that is itself based on the supposed social contract, which makes the argument circular.
A better metaphor than a contract would be a peace treaty. Different people in a society have different, and sometimes inconsistent, views of what each is entitled to. Since none of us has an unlimited ability to enforce his view, in practice we settle for some compromise, the best outcome we think we can get given the existing balance of forces. Viewed as a contract that is a contract made under duress, so not binding—but then, the same is true of a peace treaty, since the usual alternative to signing it is having people continue to drop bombs on you.
Jul 4 2013 at 5:31pm
See Huemer’s _Problem with Political Authority_ for a pretty thorough demolishing of the validity of any hypothetical social contract.
Jul 4 2013 at 6:23pm
Where the real separations are needed: social infrastructure for services needs to be local, whereas the (nationally coordinated) physical infrastructures for manufactured product are generally okay, although some decentralization would help. But in order to gain local services outside of existing institutions, taxes would have to be demolished that currently pay for said services, and people would need the same protected rights for direct knowledge and skills use that they have for property rights, now.
Jul 4 2013 at 6:27pm
#2: Britain peacefully granted independence to both Canada and Australia. Both countries did well while British colonies, and they did well after independence. There is no reason to believe that the American colonies would have fared differently. So, Bryan Caplan is right.
Jul 4 2013 at 6:48pm
Also, it behooves us as reasonable people to read both sides of the argument. We have read the Declaration, but have we read any rebuttals by royalists? Here’s one by Thomas Hutchinson, who seems to have invented “fisking” a full 200 years before the seeds of the internet were born:
(hat tip to Moldbug, of course. See “why I am not a libertarian”)
Jul 4 2013 at 7:26pm
Lots more states! Lots more state governments! All brought to you by the people who hate government?
Is this meant for Independence Day or April Fools Day?
Jul 4 2013 at 8:59pm
Thanks Art for bringing up Bryan’s past posts on whether America’s independence was worth war. I was thinking about it just this morning. The post of Bryan’s that you cited, along with similar ones here and here, were among many insights that helped make me a libertarian.
Jul 5 2013 at 2:30am
Is Bryan right?
There certainly was nothing particularly revolutionary about the American Revolution — which is largely why it succeeded without being the bloodbath of the French, Russian, Chinese, etc., Revolutions.
Social structure did not change at all. Economic structure did not change at all. To a first order, government structure did not change at all. The only thing that changed was the top level government — and that was manufactured from whole cloth after the fact rather than as the intent of the revolution.
The American Revolution did not occur because people wanted independence: it occurred because people wanted their rights respected, just as their countrymen’s rights were respected in Great Britain. If the government in London had respected their rights, they would have been quite happy remaining British.
Jul 5 2013 at 2:48pm
There’s plenty of historians who would dispute you on that point, not least among them being Gordon Wood in his Radicalism of the American Revolution. He shows how many of the social and cultural practices still favored a quasi-feudal type arrangment of society with linkages of hierarchy and patronage that the revolution (partially accidentally from the founder’s perspective) broke down with the vitally important exception of slavery. The society of men who view themselves as equal, dynamic, and democratic that de Tocqueville saw in the early 19th century largely hadn’t been there prior to the revolution (Wood acknowledges that pre-revolutionary Americans had been closer than anywhere in Europe to a modern society of self-consciously equal people, but that they still weren’t there until the revolution broke down the remaining quasi-feudal societal bonds).
Probably not true here. Tax rates were higher in Britain and it’s certainly not clear the British government was a bigger threat to the rights of individual Americans than their own local governments were. Theocracies in New England and the rule of planters in the South tended to limit freedoms more than the British government did (and at points, the British government actually tried to limit some of these assaults on individual rights, especially with regards to some of the more enthusiastic religious persecutions that had occurred in Massachusetts and Connecticut). Americans didn’t really want the same rights as the British subjects (which actually would have been rather problematic for slavery given that the British common law had scrapped slavery centuries prior) especially given Britain’s significantly higher tax rate. They wanted to be de facto independent with British protection when required. That’s the deal they’d had for pretty much the entire 18th century up to then.
As to the question of whether the revolution was good from a libertarian perspective. The slavery and Native American questions are really big reasons to suspect it may not have been. At the same time, some of the comments of Bryan’s original thread are rather thought provoking so I withhold judgement for the moment.
Jul 8 2013 at 7:23am
Everyone will always be proud of their birth land. However, a citizen can only tolerate a certain amount violations by the government, specially if the government is not acting in their citizens interest. That’s why the revolutionary war occurred.
I’m sure all americans have a good reason to celebrate because they are able to act for their personal interest.
Jul 10 2013 at 11:03pm
No king. No noblemen. No established church. Those are fairly revolutionary.
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