January 4, 2008

5 Common Libertarian Arguments Debunked: Part IV – “The Social Contract”

Posted in Economics, Politics tagged , , , , , at 8:45 pm by Travis Bedford

On to part four of the series. Anyone who has read the prior entries is probably familiar with the way I’ve used the term “social contract”. Libertarians take the argument, and, as usual, come to an insane conclusion based on it.

The argument can be summarized by this:

4. The contractarian argument, which (greatly to oversimplify) argues in general that all moral claims rest on a (hypothetical) “social contract” between the individuals comprising society, and in particular that a libertarian society is what rational individuals would contract for. This sort of argument is represented by such libertarian theorists as Jan Narveson and James Buchanan.

As the author acknowledges, this has been simplified, but the core of the argument remains. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article “The Definition of Morality”,

The term “morality” can be used either

1. descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forth by a society or,

  • a. some group, such as a religion, or
  • b. accepted by an individual for her own behaviour or

2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forth by all rational persons

The libertarian social contract argument seems to be using the second definition. What’s left to be argued is what is rational for a society.

Governments are supposed to serve the people. That is their purpose, after all. Therefore, the best system of government is the one which best serves the people. With a bit of modification, the argument I am about to present could be used to present socialism. Don’t worry, though. In Soviet Russia, argument makes you.


Laid out semi – formally, my argument is this:

a) The best system of government (or lack of) is the one which does the most good for its citizens.

b) Organized governments do the most good for their people.

c) A regulated capitalist economy does the most good for those who use it.

d) Therefore, if a, b, c is true, it is true that the best system of government is an organized government with a regulated capitalist economy.

Pretty straight forward, but that’s logic for you. It’s not a dump truck you can just pile assertions on. You need to keep the tubes clean. Premises b) was proved in Part II – “Inviolable Rights”. Premise c) was proved in Part I – “The Free Market”. Premise a) requires a bit more thought.

If a government (or non government) is supposed to be a moral body, it should try to do good, or at least try to prevent bad. An immoral government is something nobody (bar the occasional masochist) wants. Their purpose is to take care of the citizens, and you can’t very well ‘take care” of someone by shooting them in the face. Unless you’re Hitler (I had to mention Hitler, it’s necessary for all arguments to have at least one Hitler reference).

If a rational individual will choose the best government, a rational individual will not choose a libertarian non – government.

Check back soon for part 5, the conclusion of the series.


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  1. […] Part IV – “The Social Contract” […]

  2. […] Part IV – “The Social Contract” […]

  3. […] Part IV – “The Social Contract” […]

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