When Social Contracts Are Valid

We libertarians are often fond of mocking those who flaunt “social contracts” to justify state-enforced rules, laws, regulations, and policies. This is usually followed by the equally popular, “if you don’t like America, you can get out!”

Suffice to say, the idea of social contracts is absurd when applied to legal issues. I don’t “consent” to sell my house because someone enters it and, finding it agreeable, and puts a certain amount of money on the table and I do nothing in response. They may consider this tacit consent, but if I do not, then there is a lack of reciprocity.

I also don’t “consent” to buy a car because I took it for a test drive, no matter what the car salesman may believe.

People can certainly get angry that I neither sell nor buy in these instances, but they are not justified in forcing me to engage in a sale or purchase.

Social contracts are not legal contracts because both sides need to explicitly agree to them.

Inasmuch as it is amusing to hear people talk of how we consent to things without our knowledge or explicit agreement – a definition they would never apply to any other kind of relationship such as sex or marriage – we need to keep in mind that the idea of a social contract is not invalid or illegitimate.

In fact, social contracts play an indispensable role in society and culture. These contracts enable communities to organically and spontaneously establish de facto customs, traditions, expectations, and values.

What makes a social contract valid is the manner in which the terms are enforced.

No one is required to heed the terms and can ignore them at any time. The contract is not binding or permanent. One side can also carry on their perceived duties when the other side does not, and vice versa.

Here are some examples of a valid social contract:

  • Young men are expected to be proactive in approaching girls romantically, and in return the girls show respect towards those who take the risk of rejection with a polite, direct answer either way and not gossiping about it.
  • A man plows the snow on a private road used by himself and another residence, and in exchange can put whatever political signs he wants on it.
  • Ethnic groups agrees not to discuss controversial subjects with each other guaranteed to cause tension and strife
  • Whether to tip or not tip at restaurants

These agreements can be created implicitly; no one says anything outright. The contract is created organically, over time.

Where social contract advocates stray is when they argue for the state to enforce it. Because it is a social matter, it must be dealt with by the society, not the state.

If you do not like how someone is not adhering to a social contract, the only legitimate response is to convince them to comply, or cease enforcing your end of it.


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3 Responses to When Social Contracts Are Valid

  1. Pingback: Gender Is Voluntary, But Somehow Political Consent Is Not | The Anarchist Notebook

  2. Grady says:

    The short-short version: social contracts can be valid when they have absolutely no characteristics of a contract.

    Slightly longer version. If I define “Social Contract” to mean a completely non-binding, unilateral “agreement” between an individual and “society” (an indefinite compound entity of completely fluid membership) – by definition, incapable of agreement – all of a sudden, “Social Contract” becomes a possibility! Never mind that it requires total and complete redefinition of the meaning of the word “contract”, and an equally devastating redefinition of “society” …

    This may have been posted on “The Anarchist Notebook”, but the only thing anarchist I see is the total absence of the rules of language construction …


    • The Question says:

      The short-short version: social contracts can be valid when they have absolutely no characteristics of a contract.

      This is what we call totally missing the entire point of the post. This is like a scientist explaining the cause for the reddish orange colors in a “sunset” and someone pointing out that the sun doesn’t “actually set.”

      I call them “social contracts” because that is the name given to them – or, if you prefer “social norms,” which are only legitimate when they are enforced non-coercively. All of the examples I give are of what people would call “social contracts.”

      They are not legal contracts and I clearly explained the difference and why they cannot be enforced through the same means, as social contract advocates claim.

      Whether calling them “social contracts” is an appropriate term, is another matter. The point of this post is that the concept described is valid only when it is consensual for all parties involved. Someone voluntarily engaging in behavior as part of an implicit agreement is free to cease doing so whenever they please, and vice versa.


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