Philosophy against Misosophy



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5. Abolition versus Redistribution: 

A Summary Reply to Stuart Burns*

Anthony Flood

     Stuart Burns 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 premises. 

     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."[1] 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.[2] 

    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."[3] The "social contract" necessarily generates such schemes. 

     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." [4] 

     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.  

(c) Anthony Flood 2003


*This essay first appeared in Philosophy Pathways, 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.


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