Social Laws, Part 10
Smith explores Emile Durkheim’s major objections to Herbert Spencer’s theory of a free society based on voluntary contracts.
My Cato Essay #145 is now up.
George, is there any particular reason for why contracts are so important? When I go through libertarian literature, I get a fill of writing that treats contracts as if they fit into every aspect of human life. I mean, when I think of freedom and liberty and all that jazz...a commercial tool is not what I imagine.
In the classical liberal tradition, contracts were viewed as far more than a "commercial tool." As I explain in the current essay, "contract" was used as a generic term that covered voluntary agreements of all sorts, whether informal or formal. When Lockeans spoke of a "social contract," for example, they didn't mean that a people had entered into formal contractual agreement with a ruler. Rather, the point was that voluntary consent was required for a legitimate government. That consent might be "tacit," however, and such variations generated an extensive literature on the meaning of "consent" and "contract."
In short, if we advocate a free society, we are advocating a society based on voluntary consent, and that demands that we understand the nature of noncoercive agreements, or "contracts." The matter can get quite complicated.
Aye. I think the problem though is that with contracts you've got a problem when someone changes their mind later on, at which point it ceases to be "voluntary". Another problem, I think, is the fact that there are multiple perspectives on what counts as forcing someone to do something. I, for example, have advocated laws barring employers from requiring that employees proffer their passwords for social networks. It always seemed to me that it was the case that the employers were doing coercing. A third problem is the distribution of wealth or property, the rules for which are not voluntary. It was because of this that I gave up on political contractarianism and embraced more Burkean views on government. None of the stuff about holism or individualism factors into it, though.
ETA: I've always been fond of the idea of consent. But it gets tricky when talking about what consent should be required for. Should consent apply to using others inventions? How about their faces or likenesses? I'm a big advocate of privacy and I wrote a bill in model legislature that would've made it illegal to take pictures of people in certain settings without their consent. See also personality rights
I've also bristled with libertarians over what constitutes a contract. Marriage, for instance, is one thing I've been telling them isn't a contract. Sales are another, though I might be wrong.