Natural Law Matters > Voluntary Society

The Problem of Political Authority


Dale Eastman:
From "The Problem of Political Authority:"
I shall not attempt a complete account of when a valid agreement exists. But the following are four plausible general principles governing valid agreements:

1. Valid consent requires a reasonable way of opting out. All parties to any agreement must have the option to reject the agreement without sacrificing anything to which they have a right.

Consider a modification of the boardroom example from Section 2.3. The chairman says, ‘Next week’s meeting will be moved to Tuesday at ten o’clock. Those who object will kindly signal this by cutting off their left arms.’[9] The chairman pauses. No arms come off. ‘Good, it’s agreed!’ he declares. This is not a valid agreement, because the demand that board members give up their left arms as the price of dissenting from the schedule change is unreasonable. On the other hand, in the party example from Section 2.3, the demand that you leave my party if you do not agree to help clean up is reasonable, because I have the right to determine who may attend my parties.

The important difference between the modified boardroom example and the party example is not a matter of how large the costs are; that is, it is not simply that losing your left arm is much worse than being expelled from a party.[10] The chairman would not be justified even in demanding that board members pay one dollar to express their objection to the schedule change. Rather, it is a matter of who has rights over the good that dissenters are asked to give up. Those who seek your agreement to some proposal may not demand that you give up any of your rights as the cost of rejecting their proposal. I may demand that you give up the use of my property if you do not accept some proposal of mine, but I may not demand that you give up the use of your property.

2. Explicit dissent trumps alleged implicit consent. A valid implicit agreement does not exist if one explicitly states that one does not agree.

Consider a modification of the restaurant example from Section 2.3. Suppose that, after being seated, you tell the waitress, ‘I will not pay for any food that you bring me. But I would like you to give me a veggie wrap anyway.’ If the waitress then brings you the wrap, you are not obligated to pay for it. Given your statement, she could not plausibly claim that you agreed to pay for the meal.

What about the party example? I announce that anyone who remains at my party must agree to help clean up. Suppose that after my announcement, you reply, ‘I do not agree.’ I then ask you to leave, but you refuse and instead remain until the end of the party. Are you then obligated to help clean up? You did not agree to clean up, since you explicitly stated that you did not agree (how much clearer could you have been?). Nevertheless, it is plausible that you are obligated to help clean up – not because you agreed to do so, but because I have the right to set conditions on the use of my house, including the condition that those who use it help clean it. This derives not from an agreement but from my property right over the house.

3. An action can be taken as indicating agreement to some scheme, only if one can be assumed to believe that, if one did not take that action, the scheme would not be imposed upon one.

Suppose that in the board meeting example, the chairman announces, ‘Next week’s meeting will be moved to Tuesday at ten o’clock, and I don’t care what any of you have to say about it – the schedule change will happen whether you object to it or not. Now, does anyone want to object?’ He pauses. No one says anything. ‘Good, it’s agreed’, he declares. In this case, there is no valid agreement. Though the board members were given a chance to object, they were also given to understand that if they objected, the schedule change would be imposed anyway. Their failure to express objections therefore cannot be taken to indicate agreement. It may simply indicate that they did not wish to waste their breath protesting something about which they had no choice.

4. Contractual obligation is mutual and conditional. A contract normally places both parties under an obligation to each other, and one party’s rejection of his contractual obligation releases the other party from her obligation.

Suppose that you order food in a restaurant. There is an implicit agreement between you and the restaurant’s owners: they provide food, and you pay them. If the waitress never brings the food, then you need not pay them; their failure to live up to their end of the deal releases you from the obligation to live up to yours. Furthermore, if one party simply communicates that they don’t intend to live up to the agreement, then the other party is not obligated to live up to it either. Thus, if, after ordering food but before receiving it, you inform the waitress that you recognize no obligation to pay the restaurant, then the restaurant may conclude that you have rejected the agreement, and they need not bring you any food.

These four conditions belong to the common sense conception of consent and contracts. In the next section, I apply these principles to the putative social contract.



[0] Message Index


Go to full version