Philosopher’s Corner: Why Don’t You Move?

It’s that time again. Time for another (and perhaps the last!) Philosopher’s Corner, the recurring feature where I explore questions of justice that pose interesting problems to libertarians.

This one is about a common argument against libertarianism. Many of you libertarian readers may have heard it. It’s simple – and incredibly bad: “Why don’t you move?” When discussing how you believe that the government should be bound by the same principles as individuals, and thus not allowed to use force on someone without their consent except as punishment for having used force on another, with your philosophically-uninformed friend, your friend may reply, “Well, if you don’t like our government, why don’t you just get out of here?” Other variants include “Well, you consented to it by staying here!”, “Well, you consented to it by voting!”, and “Well, you consented to it by benefiting from all the government has done for you!”.

Though unbelievably common, this is probably the worst argument I have ever heard against libertarianism, for several reasons.

First and foremost, this argument could be applied to any state, no matter how unjust it is. Imagine, for example, a society that outlaws homosexuality and punishes “homosexual acts” with fines or jail time. Surely such a society is unjust, but one would never know it from the tacit consent argument. For the unfortunate gays and lesbians who exist within the confines of the state have “tacitly consented” to abide by all the laws of the state; if they engage in “homosexual acts,” they have no grounds for complaint. Any attempt to challenge the justice of the law will be met with the response, “but you agreed to it!” This applies to all laws and all challenges to them. No one can argue about political morality, for they have affirmed the particular laws (either legislative or constitutional) by their existence in the claimed territory of the state. Thus, the tacit consent argument eliminates all normative political discourse in favor of blind acceptance of the status quo.

Further, the tacit consent argument relies on a terrible analogy. I could have actually consented to abide by the laws of the state; I could have signed a contract. Indeed, I sign contracts all the time. But I did not actually sign an agreement to abide by the laws of the state. Further, if I did, one might reasonably ask if I was coerced. If the state threatened to either enforce its unjust laws upon me or make me leave the land I own and live on unless I signed, then the state would have coerced me. But even if for some reason I signed willingly, my status would be the same as a voluntary joiner of a community. That is, I could back out at any time. While the exact principle of rectification that applies when contracts are broken may be difficult to spell out (and I cannot do so here), it would surely not require that the contract be carried out. Rather, after paying appropriate damages (which, if I gave more than I received, may be zero), I could divorce myself of the obligations of my contract and lead my life as I wish, using my own body and property as I choose.

Still, one might challenge my conception of the principle of rectification and argue – for one of three reasons – that I have tacitly consented. First, I am staying in the state. If the state is so unjust, one might ask, why don’t I just leave? Simply, people have reasons other than the laws of a state for remaining there. As Nozick points out in Anarchy, State and Utopia,

We do not hold the nonviolation of our rights as our sole greatest good or even rank it first lexicographically to exclude trade-offs, if there is some desirable society we would choose to inhabit even though in it some rights of ours sometimes are violated, rather than move to a desert island where we could survive alone. (p. 28)

I’m not threatening to move to Canada, like the subjects of Stuff White People Like. I have my friends, family, history, jobs, language, culture, and property here. These reasons might, on a personal-moral calculation, cause me to come to the conclusion that a place where I would be subjected to injustice is still on balance the best place of all the possibilities in the world for me. This does not mean that I am not subjected to injustice. And I might find the US’s laws on the whole better than the laws that govern any other land in the world.

But I have done more than stay in the state. I have also voted in the state’s elections. Since I have participated in the political process, shouldn’t this mean that I consented the outcome of the process? It is difficult to see why. My vote does not determine what the state’s policy will be. For groups that consistently lose every vote (such as libertarians), the suggestion that their voting has generated in them an obligation to obey the laws of the state seems comical. Their act of voting can be seen as an attempt to alleviate their condition of injustice (the only non-violent way available to them), not an affirmation of it. Indeed, voting in general is an attempt to change the laws of the state. If I attempt to change the laws of a state and fail, then I have not agreed that the laws are just and that I should abide by them.

But I have not just stayed and voted; I have benefited from the very services they object to. They live in safety, without much fear of theft or violence, because I live in the US. I have even directly received those services I find wrong, by doing things like driving on state-owned roads. Does this not oblige me to do my part by paying for the service in abiding by the laws of the state? No. As Nozick points out, “you may not decide to give me something, for example a book, and then grab money from me to pay for it, even if I have nothing better to spend the money on” (p. 95). One must first agree to exchange the money for the book; the book-giver cannot simply assume the agreement (even if she reached the agreement with millions of others beforehand). Providing someone with a benefit does not generate an obligation in them. A system where you could make me unfree to live my life as I choose by giving me an un-agreed-to benefit anytime you wish would be unjust. Thus, “one cannot, whatever one’s purposes, just act so as to give people benefits and then demand (or seize) payment. Nor can a group of persons do this” (p. 95).

So, the next time some ill-reasoning supposed friend of yours asks why, if your country is so unjust, you don’t just move, send her here. Or just have her email me. I’ll set her straight.