Tag Archives: Consent

On Whether Government Actions Toward Consenting Individuals Involve Force

In my post “A Foundational Argument for Libertarianism”, I advanced the claim that government actions involve force:  Specifically, governments exercise power over individuals by taking individuals’ property, restricting individuals’ movement, and in some cases resorting to physical violence.

But one might object to this claim on the grounds that sometimes individuals consent to government actions, in which case the actions do not involve force.  An argument for this position might be sketched as follows:

 

Premise 1If an individual consents to an action, then that action does not involve force toward that individual.

For example, suppose that John reads and signs a contract according to which Paul may take $20 from him, and Paul then takes $20 from John.  In this case, Paul’s taking $20 does not involve force, becase John has agreed (i.e., given his informed consent) to this action.

Premise 2:  In many cases, particular individuals consent to certain government actions.

Although no individual literally reads and signs a contract for every government action, many people at least voice general agreement with various government policies.

ConclusionIn many cases, certain government actions do not involve force toward particular individuals.

This clearly follows from Premises 1 and 2.

 

To determine the soundness of this argument, let us begin by taking a closer look at Premise 1.  What does it really mean for an individual to “consent to an action”?  The example of John’s contract with Paul appears to be instructive, so let us direct two important clarification questions toward that example.

First, when John signs his contract with Paul, what kind of consent is he giving?  Is he reluctantly agreeing that he will not resist Paul’s taking $20?  Is he passively voicing neutrality in regard to whether Paul takes $20?  Or is he making an explicit, willful decision to give Paul $20?  It seems that John must be making an explicit, willful decision by signing the contract, because anything less than this would probably not give Paul the right to take John’s $20.  Thus Premise 1 should be restated as follows:

If individuals explicitly, willfully decide upon an action, then that action does not involve force toward those individuals.

Second, when John signs his contract with Paul, how much pressure is Paul applying to John?  Is he applying extreme pressure (e.g., threatening to lock John in a room if he does not sign)?  Is he applying substantial pressure (e.g., yelling at John and demanding that he sign)?  Or is he applying nothing more than moderate pressure (e.g., offering John an argument as to why he should sign)?  It seems that Paul must be applying nothing more than moderate pressure, since any additional pressure would likely place John under duress and thereby nullify the contract.  This means that Premise 1 should be further restated as follows:

If individuals explicitly, willfully, and under no substantial pressure, decide upon an action, then that action does not involve force toward those individuals.

Now that Premise 1 has been reworded, Premise 2 must also be revised to preserve the argument’s validity.  The new version of the argument would be stated as follows:

 

New Premise 1If individuals explicitly, willfully, and under no substantial pressure, decide upon an action, then that action does not involve force toward those individuals.

New Premise 2In many cases, particular individuals explicitly, willfully, and under no substantial pressure, decide upon certain government actions.

ConclusionIn many cases, certain government actions do not involve force toward particular individuals.

 

In this updated version of the argument, although New Premise 1 is clear and convincing, New Premise 2 seems false.  Normally, individuals do not explicitly, willfully decide upon government action; at best, they merely make an explicit, willful decision to support a politician who takes general stances on major issues.  And very rarely are individuals under no substantial pressure with regard to government actions, since government actions are always accompanied by the rule of law.  For instance, if Paul asks John for $20, John has a reasonably free choice in the matter; but the same cannot be said for individuals whom the government “asks” for money, because the government rarely allows for a convenient alternative.

To summarize, in this updated argument, New Premise 2 is unconvincing, so I do not accept the conclusion.  Perhaps a much weaker conclusion might still be urged, on the grounds that in very rare cases, a select few individuals actually do explicitly, willfully, and under no substantial pressure, decide upon certain government actions.  However, I doubt the veracity of these cases, and even if they exist, they would not speak to the great majority of government actions.  So for now, I do not regard the possiblity of individuals’ consent as a compelling objection to the general rule that government actions involve force.

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