For instance, consider marriage. It is generally agreed that it ought to be voluntary – that both parties should be mutually consenting. And not just to the initial union, either – but to the union on an ongoing basis. If at any point the union is no longer satisfactory, the couple’s right to part from one another is rarely questioned. This is sane. The idea that they should be forced at gunpoint to stay together is (rightly) regarded by most people as insane.
Yet the same principle is rarely translated over to the realm of politics. We are told as children by our teachers about the “consent of the governed.” But when that consent is withdrawn, why is it that most people recoil from the idea of peaceful separation? Why do most people celebrate the forcible “union” of unwilling partners? How is it different to be told you must accept being lorded over by a certain form of government – or else – vs. being told you must stay with your husband or wife – or else? Is it a function of numbers? That is, because more than just two people are involved, it becomes ok to force some to be bound by others? Is it because of “process”? What makes that any different from a husband declaring he has a piece of paper in his hand that entitles him to “perpetual union” with his unwilling wife? Society, after all, is just intellectual shorthand for all the people in a given area. “Society” does not consent to anything because society does not exist. Only individual people exist – and do – or do not consent.
This right to consent – or not – necessarily implies the right to go our separate ways in peace, if the arrangements are not to the liking of each party to the “contract.” Each of us has an absolute right to demand our free consent before we are bound by anything. And to be unbound when the arrangement is no longer mutually satisfactory. It is a simple, logical argument – based on the same premise as a married couple choosing to part from one another. Yet most people – who agree that an unhappy married couple has a right (each of them) to pursue their own happiness, to leave the “union” if that is their choice – deny that same choice to themselves and everyone else when it comes to consenting to being governed. It is like insisting that before a woman may divorce her husband she must seek and obtain permission from her parents and his – perhaps also from the larger “community.” And that the “community” has a right to veto the woman’s free choice – and compel her to remain, by any means deemed necessary.
Is it not bizarre?
Americans pay homage to free choice – in theory – but increasingly deny it in everyday practice. This is so obvious it ought not to be necessary to mention examples, but: You are not free to hire whom you wish, to sell to whom you wish, to do as as you wish with your own property or your own physical body – even when none of these actions involves harm to the persons or property of others. It is enough that others don’t like whatever it is you’re wanting to do. This gives them the justification – as they see it – to take away your freedom to choose and in its place, compel you to accept the tyranny of others choosing for you. The circle of real free choice grows smaller almost daily in the “land of the free.” You may choose “venti” or “tall” at Starbucks. A Chevy rather than a Ford. But you may not choose to sell people coffee – or cars. Not without permission – and only under certain conditions. You’re not even free to travel without permission.
You have the freedom to do as you are told. To decide whether or not you will obey.
Democracy is founded on this idea. The notion that if six out of 10 people get together and vote to take away 30 percent of the property of the four out of ten – and back up their claim with the threat of violent reprisals if the funds are not handed over – this is acceptable. It becomes not-theft. Not-extortion. But how? If it is wrong for one to steal how can the same act (the taking by force of someone else’s property) become right – ethically permissible – when done by several people? It will be claimed that takings-by-force performed by several people – by a majority that votes to do so and uses laws and processes to sanctify the act – transforms the act into something else. You are paying taxes. You are “contributing” to Social Security (or “purchasing” health insurance).
Slavery, we are told not infrequently, was a horrible wrong. True. But what, precisely, was horrible about it? The assertion of ownership by one person (the master) of another (his slave). The slave was the physical property of his master, which meant the master had the lawful right to control his property – to do with it as he wished and contrary to the wishes of the slave himself. The slave was not at liberty to choose where to live, nor where (or when) to work. He was certainly not free to retain the product of his labors. He needed to obtain permission to marry. The Master allowed the slave to live in a certain cabin, to work at a certain kind of work, to perhaps keep a small garden for his own use. But ultimately, he was not free to do as he wished – and faced physical reprisals that were fully “lawful” if he disobeyed his master.
And what are we allowed to do today? We are allowed to work – under certain terms and condition – the rules laid down by Master. We are allowed to keep a certain portion of the product of our own labors – but Master claims ownership of all of it, in principle if not in actual fact. He may – at at any time – take whatever he wishes. There is no limit – in principle – to the extent of his control over us, to what he may do to us.
Like the slave, we own very little – not even our own bodies. Perhaps we are not whipped for disobedience. But we do face electro-shock (Tasers) and cages if we assert ownership over ourselves. If we disobey in any meaningful way. We certainly do not control our lives. Our lives are controlled by others. And therein lies the subtle genius of those who do control us – who own us. Instead of the all-too-obvious Master in the great house, we have millions of nameless masters – and believe we are free because we are permitted periodically to vote for some of them. But are we any less in their thrall?
Just a few thoughts to consider as we approach the day when we celebrate “our freedoms.”
Throw it in the Woods?