At dinner last night with extended family, we discussed one person’s experience in New Zealand, a socialist country where most residents seem content with their government. I was informed that 96% of the population loves the country just the way it is. It’s fairly hard to immigrate there. The cops are actually nice to people. Health care – even dental work – is provided to all comers free of charge. And the income tax rate is about 50%. However, I was told that people are generally content with that. I did not try to verify any of this, but just assumed for now that it’s true and let it stew in my brain.
A few days earlier, I’d read a Time Magazine article about the best countries to live in. Interestingly, small, cold, politically neutral, socialist countries came out very much on top. The U.S. was in 11th place.
So what’s stewing in my brain is that socialism is something that a lot of people like and want. It’s something that many Americans are demanding more and more of. And socialism seems to be working for a number of countries. These countries are generally small, homogenous, neutral in geopolitical affairs, and spend most of the taxes they collect on stuff that benefits the people directly. I would note that these countries are not building empires or attempting to police the world. It looks to me like socialism “works” on a small and somewhat consensual basis.
A few days prior to that, at a family reunion, I was discussing what it could mean to be a “libertarian socialist,” which one young member of the family claims to be. Many libertarians would consider this a contradiction in terms, since socialism as we know it has always been a coercive system. But I guessed that this young person tacked “socialist” on there to counter an assumption that many people have about libertarianism – that libertarian necessarily means “every man for himself,” and somehow outlaws cooperation, charity, or any kind of social safety net. Socialism, of course, is entirely compatible with libertarian principles, as long as it’s voluntary, and no one is being forced into “the system” at gunpoint. Obviously, the elements of socialism in American society are part and parcel of our coercive system of government. I’m going out on a limb here, but I really don’t think that Americans object to socialism nearly as much as they object to coercion.
People have an underlying moral feeling that voluntary, contractual relationships are morally superior to forced relationships. Why else would people do mental gymnastics to fabricate a “social contract” within the forced relationship of citizens to government? We constantly hear things like: “you consented to their control when you did X.” And “X” could be when you were born here, when you got into your car, when you got a job, or whatever. But if you didn’t know you were consenting, or to what you were consenting, how could that possibly be valid? How can a person consent to anything by being born? We also hear constantly that we are bound by contracts that were made between other people, long before we were born, such as the U.S. Constitution. Or that we consented to “the way things are” when we voted, or when we didn’t vote!
Why would people so desperately try to find a consensual contract somewhere in there unless they felt that consensual relationships were morally superior to brute force? They are desperate to have us all believe that we consented, even though we didn’t know we did, and even though unknowing consent is no consent at all.
The fact is, none of us natural–born citizens consented to any of this, especially not in any conscious, specific way. I guess people who become citizens actually do take an oath of allegiance to the United States or something like that.
People like to say, “love it or leave it,” whenever we express a desire to change the status quo. Now “love it or leave it,” can be a reasonable choice – in a romantic relationship, perhaps, or your home town, or even a small country like New Zealand. However, to me, it seems unreasonable to say this about the United States, which has swallowed up most of the livable part of North America. People aren’t usually quite cruel enough to tell us to “love or leave” the whole planet – at some level, I think we all know that people have some kind of right to be at least somewhere that life is possible. “If you don’t like oppressive government, move to Antarctica,” does not strike me as reasonable at all. Neither does: “If you don’t like Jim Crow laws, leave the south.” Or, “if you don’t like Nazism, leave Germany.”
But I think that any “right” to live where we were born conflicts with our desire to form communities with like-minded people. And I think this conflict needs some closer analysis in light of what comes next.
My epiphany was that we actually could have social contracts – real ones, and lots of them. In the past, when I’ve tried to imagine an anarchistic society, I’ve often come up with lots of communities, each with its own rules. Anarchy, to me, is not an absence of rules, but the freedom to choose the rules one lives under. People obviously want social rules, but different people want different ones. And different people want different rules enforced in different ways, and arranged in different hierarchies of moral importance. For instance, in hypothetical community A, two men get married and everyone celebrates with them. In community B, there is quiet but tolerant disapproval. In community C, a gang goes to their house and kills them.
Any gay person with a brain would not choose to live openly in community C. Community B would have to offer compensating benefits to outweigh the disapproval. Community A would win unless other factors made it less desirable. Should community C be “allowed” to exist? Should gays (and others) go there and insist on their right to live there and be tolerated? If gays simply abandoned community C and flourished in communities B and A, would community C mind its own business? Community C might think that community A should not be allowed to exist.
I don’t know the answers to those questions. People would do what people would do. But the United States right now looks to me like hundreds of communities, wanting hundreds of different sets of rules, but all thinking they should have one set, and fighting bitterly over what set that should be. So we have approximately 400 million people hating and trying to change each other, and spending a lot of energy to forcefully impose their values on others who have different values. And if we don’t like all this hating and imposing – well, we should love it or leave it.
So, I propose social contracts – real ones, and lots of them. We can only imagine what this would look like; communities could be pretty big (like a state) or pretty small (like a town). Each community would have an actual contract between its organizers and every single adult resident, with specific rights and obligations on both sides. Each community could decide on an age of consent – how long people who are born there are allowed to live there without signing the contract, and whether or not to tolerate non-signers and on what terms.
If we like the mythology of the social contract, why not make it a reality? Imagine actually knowing what to expect from one’s “government” instead of pinning one’s hopes on campaign promises that a candidate has no obligation to fulfill (and most likely no intention, either). Imagine knowing your rights and obligations up front, instead of things being legal one month and illegal the next, and instead of your “fair share” changing drastically from one year to the next according to the political tides and the self-interest of professional liars.
It’s only natural to wish to impose our most passionately held moral principles on the whole world. Of course some communities would have rules and practices that were abhorrent to others. So what else is new? Abhorrent practices exist right now within the United States and all over the world. And much as I would love to have the whole world live by my values – it doesn’t.
To be quite honest, real social contracts actually would impose a few of my values on the world, and would create a path toward more of my values (if this were not true, I would not propose them, would I?). The value of “live and let live” is at least a start. Honest social contracts are more in line with my values than power-serving mythologies are. And, as I mentioned previously, I don’t think people would remain in places where they’re persecuted, and the sovereignty of the community where they are accepted would not allow persecutors to chase them wherever they go. Do we really care if people sit around hating people who are out of their reach?
I think, for instance, that if antebellum northerners had consistently and sincerely welcomed blacks to the northern states and protected them from pursuit, that the slave states could have been “drained” of slaves and a horrible war could have been avoided. I think this didn’t happen because northerners were racists and authority-worshippers, and had other reasons to conquer the south. Slavery (though not oppression) died in the Civil War, and that was a good thing as far as it went. What was not so good was the death of the idea of peaceful secession. Divorce, after all, can and does prevent murder. (“Is that a hint?” asks my husband.)
But seriously, some means for peaceful separation is an essential part of a voluntary contract. If there is no peaceful way to get out, then violence becomes the only way to respond to oppression (a la Burning Beds and such). The “contracts” we are currently born into willy-nilly have no escape clauses other than leaving our friends, family, and country.