An explicit social contract and non-coercive law enforcement

why should i obey the law? it's part of the social contract / i didn't sign any social contract / you have to it's the law

In philosophy, the idea of a social contract is one way of justifying the government’s authority over individuals. The idea is that you’ve somehow agreed to submit to the authority of the state in return for the state’s protection of your rights (or at least, those of your rights that you haven’t surrendered by submitting to the state’s authority).

But where can I find the terms of this social contract? What if I don’t want to agree to it? What happens if I break the contract? What happens if the government breaks the contract?

Could we come up with an explicit social contract that answers these questions? Would most people actually want to sign it? Would other people have a meaningful choice not to sign it? I think so.

Recall that Jubilee is a hypothetical settlement where the value of the natural resources (most notably land rent, or, more precisely, location rent) is distributed equally among the residents in the form of a guaranteed minimum income. It’s reasonable to expect that those who want to receive this income will agree to live peacefully with the other residents, and to acknowledge their ownership of those resources that they’ve acquired with their guaranteed minimum incomes, or through their own labour or someone else’s gifts.

This agreement could be codified in a social contract that residents sign when they want to begin receiving the guaranteed income. And the social contract could specify which courts have jurisdiction to settle disputes, and what penalties they might impose. The courts might have the authority to order that the offender compensates the victim, either financially or by some other means, for the harm they’ve suffered, in the style of restorative justice.

But what if the offender refuses to comply with the court’s order? Well, the social contract could specify that the victim or the government has the right to obtain the compensation by force, or the right to use force to punish the offender. But in Jubilee, there’s another option.

If the offender is uncooperative, then there’s always the option of deducting money from their guaranteed income and paying it to the victim until the victim has been compensated.

(Of course, there are some crimes — murder, for example — for which no monetary compensation could ever be sufficient. But then, neither could any vengeful punishment bring the victim back to life. Better for the victim’s family to have some compensation, and to have the offender continue to contribute their labour to benefit society — probably more so now that they have less or no guaranteed income to rely on.)

So the entire social contract — including provisions for its own enforcement — can be non-coercive, in the sense that it requires all the parties (including the government) not to initiate coercion against anyone. It may allow people to use reasonable force to mitigate other people’s coercive actions, and even to use reasonable force to prevent likely coercive actions, but it needn’t require residents to submit to government coercion; if they break their side of the agreement, the respose is not “we, the government, will forcibly punish you”, but, “You agreed to live peacefully in this community in exchange for your fair share of the natural resources. You broke this agreement, so we, the community, can justifiably withdraw (part of) your access to those resources.”

But what if you find the social contract in a place like Jubilee morally repugnant? It might, for example, require you to provide military service. Well, you’re not obliged to sign it. You won’t receive the guaranteed income, so you’ll have to work harder if you want to be able to afford to live there, but you’re not forced to sign it, and so you’re not forced to provide military service. But it’s worth noting that refusing to sign it doesn’t give you the moral right to go stealing things from people, or injuring or killing them.

Ideally, there would be more than one place that operates like Jubilee. If the social contract of one of them is morally repugnant to you, you may be able to find another whose social contract is more to your tastes. If there is some kind of government coercion that actually benefits people, then people will be keen to move to places whose governments are allowed to, and do, impose that coercion; people will be willing to sign a social contract that submits them to that coercion in exchange for the benefits it provides.

But if such coercion turns out to be more of a burden than a benefit, then people will move away from such places, and Tiebout competition will favour non-coercive social contracts.

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2 thoughts on “An explicit social contract and non-coercive law enforcement

    1. Yes, in order for the choice to sign the social contract to be meaningful, the contract needs to be sufficiently short and intelligible. Even a single statute of current New Zealand law, for example, would be too much. But the social contract might specify a mechanism by which other laws come into effect, in which case that mechanism might attract some people, but put others off.

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