Democracy Doesn’t Rest on the Consent of the Governed
By Jason Brennan
There’s a popular idea—an idea you might get from middle school civics classes—that democracy is based on the consent of the governed. Now, democracy is more responsive to what people want than other forms of government, and it gives the governed a large say in what happens. However, it’s a mistake to say that the relationship individual citizens have to their government in a democracy is consensual. Let’s think about why.
Recently, I purchased a Marshall JVM amplifier from a dealer. It was an archetypical consensual transaction. It had each of the following features:
A. I performed an act that signified my consent. In this case, I ordered the amplifier. The outcome—that I lost money but gained a JVM—would not have occurred but for my performing the act that signified consent.
B. I was not forced to perform that act—I had a reasonable way to avoid doing it.
C. Had I explicitly said, “I refuse to buy a Marshall JVM at that price!” the exchange never would have taken place.
D. The dealer was not entitled to take my money unless it sent me the amplifier—it had to hold up its end of the bargain.
Now, imagine that any one of these conditions didn’t happen. Suppose, instead of A, that the dealer just extracted money from my bank account and sent me the amp, even though I’d never placed an order. In that case, that would be strange kind of theft. The dealer would have taken my money without my consent. Suppose, instead of B, the dealer (or someone else) had said, “Buy this amp or I’ll murder you.” In that case, we still wouldn’t call it consensual—it would be a weird form of theft. Suppose, instead of C, I tell the dealer, “I absolutely refuse to buy a JVM!,” but the dealer just sent it to me anyways. In that case, it would have been like it had given me a gift without my consent. If they then sent me a bill, I wouldn’t have any duty to pay it, since I’d told them I didn’t want to buy the amp. Suppose, instead of D, the dealer takes my money but never sends the amp. In that case, it would be fraud. In each of these cases, the transaction would not be consensual.
In general, our relationship as individuals to our government doesn’t look much like a consensual relationship.
If you don’t vote or participate, your government will just impose rules, regulations, restrictions, benefits, and taxes upon you. Except in exceptional circumstances, the same outcome will occur regardless of how you vote or what policies you support. So, for instance, I voted for a particular candidate in 2012. But had I abstained or voted for a different candidate, the same candidate would have won anyways. This is not like a consensual transaction, in which I order a JVM and the dealer sends me the amp I ordered. Rather, this is more a like a nonconsensual transaction in which the dealer decides to make me buy an amp no matter whether I place an order or not, and no matter what I order.
If you actively dissent, the government makes you obey its rules anyways. For instance, you can’t get out of marijuana criminalization laws by saying, “Just to be clear, I don’t consent to those laws, or to your rule”. This is unlike my relationship with my music gear dealer, where “no” means “no”. For government, your “no” means “yes”.
You have no reasonable way of opting out of government rule. Governments control all the habitable land, and most of us don’t have the resources or even the legal permission to move elsewhere. Governments won’t even let you move to Antarctica if you want to. At most, a privileged few of us can choose which government we live under, but the vast majority of us are stuck with whatever government we’re born with. This is unlike buying an amp from Sweetwater.com, which, by the way, I highly recommend as a dealer.
Finally, governments require you to obey their rules, pay taxes, and the like, even when they don’t do their part. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the government has no duty to protect individual citizens. Suppose you call the police to alert them that an intruder is in your house, but the police never bother dispatch someone to help you, and as a result the intruder shoots you. The government still requires you to pay taxes for the protection services it chose not to deploy on your behalf.
So, in summary, it looks like in general our relationship to our governments lacks any of the features that signify a consensual transaction.
None of this is to say that governments are unjust or illegitimate, or that we ought to be anarchists. There are other reasons to have governments. Nor is it to say that democracies are not in some way special. Democracies in fact do a much better job than alternative forms of government of responding to their concerns and interests of most of their members. But it’s a stretch to say that democracy rests on the consent of the governed, or, more precisely, it’s a stretch to say that you consent to democratic rule.
Check out Jason Brennan’s recent post on Why Smart Politicians Say Dumb Things.
Jason Brennan is Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of Markets without Limits, with Peter Jaworski (2015), Why Not Capitalism? (2014), Compulsory Voting, with Lisa Hill (2014), Libertarianism (2012), The Ethics of Voting (2011), and A Brief History of Liberty, with David Schmidtz (2010). He is currently writing Against Democracy, under contract with Princeton University Press, and Global Justice as Global Freedom, with Bas von der Vossen.