5. Abolition versus
A Summary Reply to Stuart
expresses "full agreement with the essential principles" that inform my
articles on the ethical dimensions of redistributionism. He says he
"completely" agrees with my "underlying foundation," yet there are
"differences in the basic premises with which we approach the topics under
discussion." Unfortunately for his agreement, my principles are my basic
Modern politics is
essentially about the involuntary transfer of resources (or their control)
from owners to nonowners. Euphemistically dubbed "redistribution," this
transfer is an intrinsically unethical affair. "Property radiates . . .
lines of demarcation that morally limit what nonowners may do. With one's
own property one may do as one wishes, logically excepting interfering
with another's use of his property." To discuss the ethics of the
transfer mechanism apart from the ethics of the transfer itself is unreal.
It is as weird as deliberating about whether to give chattel slaves the
right to vote for their overseer, all the while prescinding from the issue
of slavery. This was the gist of my comment on Jonathan Wolff's paper.
Mr. Burns challenges
my alleged "presupposition" that "there is and can be no such thing as a
'social contract,'" even though I have repeatedly granted that one can
stipulate the meaning of any term. My concern, which he mentions but does
not engage, is that if contracts are enforceable, then so are "social
contracts." Historically, the "social contract" gets enforced in ways
inconsistent with that to which it makes analogy. The enforcement
apparatus depends utterly on noncontractual taxation to fund interferences
with bona fide contracts. "Redistribution schemes blur the distinction
between title and possession and are therefore incoherent, for they both
affirm and deny that forcible expropriation is a morally justifiable means
of acquiring property." The "social contract" necessarily generates
Now contract is not
socially basic. What is socially basic, or close to basic, is the
willingness to refrain from initiating force or violence against another's
person or property. "Refraint," Henry Hazlitt's convenient locution, is
prior to and presupposed by every contract. There is no call, however, for
regarding pre-contractual refraint as itself a "contract":
"People do have
moral obligations before they enter into contracts. Each party expects
that the other will abide by the contract's terms and... not just
because of their fear of penalties. You and I cannot enter into an
arrangement to exchange titles unless each of us understands that
neither may take by force or stealth what the other one has, even if he
can. Generally, members of society share an understanding of their moral
relationship to each other as requisite to their respective hopes of
achieving a good life. That understanding may be unarticulated or
implied. But mere understanding does not a contract make." 
If a contract
presupposes a pre-contractual understanding that is itself a contract,
does not the latter depend on yet another contract? If not, why not? And
what about that contract? We can avoid an infinite regress of
conditioned conditions that are never fulfilled if we allow that our
mutual risking and exchanging of values does not require that we first do
anything else like that. If one is not doing anything like that
(risking and exchanging values), one is not entering into or performing a
contract. And refraint is not anything like that.
In short, we should
not use the same word to refer to what is conditioned and its condition.
The immigrants of Mr. Burns' example entered into contracts -- period.
When they presumed to bind their descendants in perpetuity, however, via
the mystique of a divinely ordained State, they behaved noncontractually
toward future persons who, of course, could not enter into contracts with
them. These descendants, we among them, are free to repudiate that alleged
bond. How we go about that may be a matter of prudence, but our right to
do so is, I hope, not in question.
Mr. Burns fears that
if I am right, and "all of our government structures" are revealed to be
"morally foundationless" just because there is no social contract,
"there would appear to remain only immoral coercion to prevent a total
collapse of society." On the contrary: if I am right, then all of those
structures have historically been predicated on immoral coercion, for
which "social contract" is but modernity's distinctive cloak.
If the modern State
"pains" Mr. Burns, he should welcome attempts to demystify and
delegitimize it, just as (some of) our ancestors did chattel slavery. The
latter was a much longer affair than is modern democracy, whose
"persistent longevity and infectious spread" apparently impress him. The
longevity and spread of Christianity and Islam, for example, may provide
talking points for Christian and Muslim apologists, but have little
evidentiary force beyond their respective choirs and those inclined to
join them. I suggest the same holds for democratic apologetics.
What will remain
after violations of liberty are cured? Nothing less than liberty itself.
This includes the liberty to provide for security against those who have
designs on the property of others. People will not undertake to abolish
the State, however, if they have not first demystified it. They must be
convinced that abolition is morally necessary, not just intelligible and
morally permissible. They must also be morally willing to act on their
conviction. Intellectual conversion and moral conversion must go
hand-in-hand. If this exchange of views has prepared the intellectual
conversion of even one reader, I will regard it as wholly justified. I
reiterate my thanks to Stuart Burns for his critical efforts and to
Geoffrey Klempner for publishing them and my responses.
1. Anthony Flood,
"'Redistribution' as Euphemism or, Who Owns What?,"
Philosophy Pathways, Number 65, 24 August 2003.
2. Anthony Flood,
"A Comment on Professor Wolf's 'Four Forms of
Redistribution,'" Philosophy Pathways, Number 53, 9 March 2003.
3. Anthony Flood,
"Redistributionism, Continued," Philosophy Pathways,
Number 56, 20 April 2003.
4. Anthony Flood,
"Contracts, Coercion, and Condo Boards: A Reply to
Stuart Burns," Philosophy Pathways, Number 61, 29 June 2003.
*This essay first
Number 68, 5 October 2003.
It is a rejoinder to Stuart Burns, "More in the
On-Going Discussion of Social Contracts: Reply to Tony Flood," which
appeared in the same issue.