Dennis Hackethal’s Blog

My blog about coding, philosophy, and anything else that interests me.

Governments Are Involuntary

The vast majority of citizens see governments as a good idea. They’re convinced that without government, chaos would ensue. Many even think being forced to pay taxes is a good idea.

So, can we claim that most people consent to being governed?

I find it difficult to use the word “consent” to describe the attitude of those who do not resist government force. For something to be consent, it means that the person affected was asked and then agreed. The government does not ask any of its subjects if it may tax them, it just does it. And the absence of resistance is not consent.

To illustrate the distinction: if somebody shows up at your house with a group of bullies and an overwhelming amount of guns and threatens to shoot you if you don’t come with them or even make so much as a wrong move, you may decide not to resist. But no Western court would consider your lack of resistance consent, and rightly so.

The present relationship between the government and its subjects is often referred to as a “contract” (Hobbes). A common claim is that those who do not want to sign the contract can just leave the country. That is not so, because the state has a monopoly on travel documents, so you’re not free to leave without signing the contract first. Nor are you ever asked to sign it—the signature is implied by the lack of resistance to a threat of force. And a forced signature is null and void.

There’s also a question as to whether the people who do “consent” to taxation came to that belief voluntarily, or if that belief was forced on them through years of coercion and brainwashing in school, in which case the problem is the same as that of the forced signature.

Some may assure you that they positively consent to paying taxes. People can be mistaken about the reasons for their beliefs and behaviors (cf. David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity (BoI) ch. 15). Those who think that it’s okay that they’re being forced to pay taxes remind me of adults who are glad that their parents forced them to, say, play the piano as a child. They’re broken enough that they retrospectively condemn freedom and value force.

Schools are institutions that the state and static memes (BoI ch. 15) use in part to make sure children grow up to be tax payers that don’t resist. Even better if those memes somehow get the child to believe that coercion is just a part of life, even a necessary one. There are many parallels between coercive government and coercive parenting.

I’ve written some about the purpose of schools here.

Lastly, there is the issue that some people are mistaken about what coercion and consent are. For example, an idea I run into from time to time says “it’s not coercion if you receive something in return.” The argument is that you receive, say, roads in exchange for paying taxes, so it’s not really coercion. There are many problems with this, including that people have different preferences as to what they may want to buy with their money, and some value roads more than others. Another problem is that the victim of force in this example does not get a chance to agree or disagree—his agreement is (mistakenly) assumed because he receives a “benefit.” His “participation” is completely passive and he becomes a mere pawn. The perpetrator can then also force the victim to do just about anything and give him something—anything—to justify their force and to shut the victim and bystanders up. In this power dynamic, the “benefit” is always going to be worth less than the extorted value—both in terms of the stolen money, and, more importantly, in terms of the freedom that is lost, which is priceless.

This last issue is reflected in coercive parenting when children are expected to be thankful to their coercive parents, if not in childhood then at least in adulthood. Some parents may even expect something in return—time, money, things—once their children are adults, which is awful. The parent may try to justify this by claiming that the child received a “benefit” which the parent now considers a loan that is due, especially if the parent made sacrifices “for” the child—even if the child never asked the parent to make sacrifices or consented to any of that. The parent has an overwhelming amount of force available to him over the child, so the child may choose not to resist, which, just as in the case of bullies knocking on your door, shouldn’t be mistaken for consent.

In short: the absence of dissent or resistance does not imply consent, nor does anyone, even in the free world, consent to being governed or taxed. It’s something that happens to them, not with them.


What people are saying

Excellent explanation of your views, Dennis!

It’s interesting to note that this started out as a response to a discussion with me. I had asked a number of questions about why libertarians saw government as uniquely involuntary (not just for libertarians, who clearly don’t approve, but to non-libertarians as well) when it seems fairly obvious that most citizens of the US, at least, do see their government as worth defending philosophically – and, if threatened, maybe even physically. How is this not consent? The very fact that libertarians spend so much time arguing with non-libertarians over things such as ‘taxes are theft’ proves that nearly everyone else is consenting to taxes in exchange for the services governments provide. This seems to me like consent, and thus I reject the view that it’s involuntary. I personally do not at all feel like taxes are involuntary. (Or at least no more involuntary for me than paying my internet bill. I don’t really want to pay for that either, but I do want access to the internet and the money seems like a fair exchange to me.)

The original questions that I asked (not specifically to Dennis, but to libertarians in general) I published on the 4S blog here if you want to see the full original questions with my explaining what I feel is the full context of my view:

http://fourstrands.org/2021/01/14/do-most-citizens-see-governments-as-involuntary/

You can see how my questions inspired this response from Dennis. I suspect Dennis does a good job laying out the libertarian view here. But I’d love to see how other libertarians react to his arguments and if they agree or disagree with these arguments.

I feel like Dennis’ response does a good job explaining his thinking on why he feels that, even though the vast majority of citizens clearly do see themselves as consenting to their governments (or at least in western nations), that he still feels they are in some sense still involuntary. His response hits upon quite a number of points from public schools, to people being mistaken about their own consent, to even analogies with ‘coercive parenting.’ This certainly feels like a fairly complete articulation of why and how libertarians view ‘consent’ quite differently than most people.

I reserve the right to offer criticisms of his views at a later date. But for now, I’m excited to really see a libertarian be willing to explain his views like this and make his arguments public. Also, I felt it was quite thoughtfully put together and not a quick ad hoc response. I am pleased to see that I don’t feel like it just took my questions out of context.

I’d encourage other libertarians to publish their own views if they agree or disagree with Dennis.

Bruce Nielson | 6 months ago

To others reading Bruce’s comment: yes, this blog post is an edited version of a response of mine to a post of Bruce’s in a private forum. That forum has a privacy policy which requires consent (how topical!) before quoting or paraphrasing someone publicly. I reached out to Bruce before writing this post and we discussed my quoting him but that ended up in a rather complicated email exchange about the terms of quoting, so I decided I would publish my response without context to make things easier and to be in line with the privacy policy. I informed Bruce of this and sent him the link to this post after posting it so that he could comment. He had also sent me a link to his blog but I only saw that later.

Now, regarding what Bruce wrote:

[…] most citizens of the US, at least, do see their government as worth defending philosophically – and, if threatened, maybe even physically. How is this not consent?

It’s like I wrote above: because the government does not ask its subjects’ consent. It taxes them and provides services for them whether they like it or not. It’s consent only if the government asks first and then refrains from doing anything if the answer is “no.” Consent is a kind of handshake between two parties. It requires active participation on both sides.

The very fact that libertarians spend so much time arguing with non-libertarians over things such as ‘taxes are theft’ proves that nearly everyone else is consenting to taxes in exchange for the services governments provide.

That’s not proof because people can be mistaken about what theft, coercion, and consent are, and even about whether they are consenting. Likewise, rape victims can be tricked by the perpetrator into thinking that they consented or even “asked for it.” The rape victim may genuinely believe that to be true, and yet would be mistaken about that. What really happened was rape, whether the victim knows this or not. And since it was rape, by definition that means the victim did not consent.

I personally do not at all feel like taxes are involuntary. (Or at least no more involuntary for me than paying my internet bill. I don’t really want to pay for that either, but I do want access to the internet and the money seems like a fair exchange to me.)

The difference is that you requested the service your internet provider provides. Your internet provider won’t start serving you internet if you don’t specifically ask for it and agree to pay them. Businesses do not provide services unsolicited, much less expect or even enforce payment for such unsolicited services. But the government does just that.

You say you don’t really want to pay for your internet either, but I think you mean something else. I think you mean that if you could have free internet instead of paid internet, you’d choose the free one. Yes, of course that would be nice. But you did agree to pay your internet provider when you signed up with them. You consented. You have never consented to the government building roads for you and then billing you for it. That happens whether you like it or not.

The internet provider would only be comparable to the government in this context if they installed the requisite telephone lines at your house, connected them to the internet, and then started billing you for it, even if you never agreed to that. And even if you started using the internet they provide—because now that the lines work, you “might as well”—there still wouldn’t be any consent. The internet provider forfeited the right to claim consent the moment it decided to go ahead without asking you first. It’s not consent if you don’t get a chance to say “no.” Consent requires free choice.

It would be astounding for your internet provider to do such a thing, and in fact, they would be prohibited from doing so. But the government, for some reason, is allowed to do that.

Do you see the difference? If not, what would illuminate the difference for you?

Dennis | 6 months ago

Absolutely I’m saying I want my internet free!

If I understand your argument correctly, you are saying that it is literally impossible for me to consent to taxes in any sense. Even though I feel like I do and I’m convinced that I do. Is that correct?

Bruce Nielson | 6 months ago

I do want to point out that Dennis does take one of my arguments out of it’s original context so I wish to correct it.

I never said paying for internet was involuntary. In fact, I actually said the opposite. I used it as an example of what I see as a valid voluntary/consensual transaction. My actual point was that the concept of voluntary/consensual transactions often have elements we don’t really want, such as being limited in our choices or paying for something because we can’t survive without the benefits. We are forced to weigh the pros and cons of each choice. Since I can’t feed my family without the internet, and feeding my family is a very high priority for me, I really have no choice but to pay for the internet.

Dennis seems to have missed the fact that I was actually agreeing with him that this is well within the concept of voluntary/consensual transactions and attacked it as if I had claimed that it wasn’t. So hopefully this helps Dennis realize that I actually agree with them here.

I suspect the point Dennis actually should have made to me was that governments are less voluntary/consensual than paying for the internet. Had he made that argument, that would have been a fair argument. But at this point, I’m simply pointing out that governments like that of the US are not entirely non-consensual things and that there is a heavy element of consent involved.

Bruce Nielson | 6 months ago

If I understand your argument correctly, you are saying that it is literally impossible for me to consent to taxes in any sense. Even though I feel like I do and I’m convinced that I do. Is that correct?

Yes. Because you can’t consent to something for which nobody is asking your consent. What you’re doing is not resisting and then labeling that consent.

I never said paying for internet was involuntary.

Neither did I.

We are forced to weigh the pros and cons of each choice. Since I can’t feed my family without the internet, and feeding my family is a very high priority for me, I really have no choice but to pay for the internet.

That’s an equivocation of the word “force.” What you’re talking about is necessity. Force is something else. Logan and I wrote a bit about that here.

Dennis seems to have missed the fact that I was actually agreeing with him that [the internet example] is well within the concept of voluntary/consensual transactions […]

I don’t know why you think I missed that when I wrote:

[Y]ou did agree to pay your internet provider when you signed up with them. You consented.

Back to your comment:

[…] and attacked it as if I had claimed that it wasn’t.

“Attack” is a strong word, don’t you think? I’m merely criticizing.

So hopefully this helps Dennis realize that I actually agree with them here.

A bit condescending. And again, we agree that you purchasing internet is voluntary.

I think we disagree about what consent is and whether you have consented to the government taxing you.

I suspect the point Dennis actually should have made to me was that governments are less voluntary/consensual than paying for the internet.

did make that point by saying governments are coercive. If something is coercive, it’s less voluntary than paying for internet, because that’s not coercive at all.

But at this point, I’m simply pointing out that governments like that of the US are not entirely non-consensual things and that there is a heavy element of consent involved.

For there to be consent, the government must have asked you, at some point, e.g., “would you like us to build roads?” Were you ever asked such a question? Do they ask you to please pay your taxes? Do you have an option to answer “no” to these questions?

Do you see the difference now?

Dennis | 6 months ago

Following a suggestion, I want to point out that some situations do not require explicit consent. Instead, consent can sometimes be implied. For example, enthusiastic participation in an activity such as sex can reasonably be understood as consent. In other words, explicit asking and granting of consent is not always necessary for something to be consent.

What is necessary is:

  1. An ability to say “no” beforehand
  2. An ability to change one’s mind and say “no” as it’s happening

One has neither option when it comes to taxation. And my point that a lack of resistance to force does not imply consent stands.

Dennis | 6 months ago

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