The Constitution of No Authority

The Constitution of No Authority

Why do you obey rules that you don't like but are written in the Constitution?

Have you ever explicitly agreed to them?

Have you ever signed the Constitution?

The Book in 1'

The problem around which The Constitution of No Authority revolves is the problem of political authority.

That is, how is political coercion possible? Why can some people make us do something that we wouldn't voluntarily do?

And further, why do we accept it?

His answer is extremely simple and straightforward.

No agreement (such as a Constitution) can ever have binding force on individuals as long as it is written and explicitly individually signed by them. Stated differently, the only legitimate agreement that implies coercion is one that has been signed by the parties involved. No other agreement (by voice, tradition, imposition) can have any binding force on anyone.

It is a general principle of law and reason, that a written instrument binds no one until he has signed it.
But the people have never been asked to sign it: And the only reason why they have never been asked to sign it, has been that it has been known that they never would sign it.

Social Contract Theory

Spooner is an anarchist, no doubt, and whatever the social implications of his theory, he makes us reflect on why we obey.

The mainstream view of political obedience is the "social contract theory," which is the idea that at one point in time, a society, nation, or group of people has written a document that established the rules of organization and then they signed it. The idea is that the people who wrote and signed it unanimously agreed about those rules.

This is essentially the goal of the modern Constitution: to reflect universal (or majoritarian) values and make clear the limits of people's behavior. Obviously, given the size of that society/nation/group, those rules and intents had to be written and signed by a tiny delegation of representatives of "the people" (the Founding Fathers).

The difficulty that you individually have not signed it is overcome by the doctrine of "tacit understanding." That is, if you vote, pay taxes, live in a state, you automatically agree to its rules.

This view has major flaws, and different arguments have been given about why people should ever gather to write rules, how much a delegation of representatives can reflect the state of a society, how it is possible for people to agree more or less unanimously on rules, and why people would want to set rules that bind them to a group as large as a state - just to mention some.

However, in just 59 pages, Spooner debunks the social contract theory with the following arguments.

1. Written by Dead Men

The Constitution (of the United States in his case) has been written by dead men. Therefore, why could an agreement between dead men bind the posterity?

If a very small group of people decided in the past of calling themselves "the people of the United States of America" and established a self-enforcing governing agency, why should this agreement bind also future generations who have not decided at one point in time to call themselves "the people of the United States of America"?

2. 1/15 of the Population Could Vote

The constitution was drafted in a historical period when only a very small percentage of the population could vote. They were selected according to their age, race, and sex. Therefore, even if we relax the assumption that anyone had to write and personally sing it, those who could actually vote it were just a bunch of men. They could not represent or reflect the whole population at all, Spooner argues.

And what about those voted explicitly against it? Why should they have to be subject to the will of the majority?

3. Happy to Pay Taxes?

First answer: No.

Second answer: No, but…

For Spooner there is no second answer. It is an either-or matter. If you have reasons to pay taxes because you think benefits overweight costs, then you would pay your taxes even voluntarily. Instead, the payment of taxes, being compulsory, of course furnishes no evidence that anyone voluntarily supports the Constitution.

Taxes are paid under the compulsion of threat. The government is like a highwayman, according to Spooner. They both say to a man: Your money,or your life.

4. Whose Benefit?

Who was interested in creating a government? Who could have benefited from the establishment of a coercive monopolist?

According to Spooner, there cannot be commonly shared security concerns, otherwise the agreement would have been written and singed together and would have been voluntary. Instead, there were just a group of people who organized for exploiting and robbing other people.

They are successful in so doing as they promise peace and security in return. But if you resist, they will kill you. They say, “Submit quietly to all the robbery and slavery we have arranged for you, and you can have it peace.”

“These so-called governments are in reality only great bands of robbers and murderers, organized, disciplined, and constantly on the alert.”

My Take Today

Spooner grounds all his arguments about the problem of political authority on the writing and signing of an agreement as the necessary and sufficient condition for legal coercion. His argument is an "only if" argument. "Only if" a document is written and personally and voluntarily signed, then it is enforceable.

However, when you think about the legitimacy of institutions enforcing rules against you, the "social contract theory" may not be the first thing that comes to your mind. You probably think there are reasons other than your explicit acceptance of a contract that make it legal for someone to enforce rules against you.

The problem in Spooner's argument, I think, is that there are millions of rules we obey every day without having explicitly accepted any of them. We show up in class on time, we don't cheat in exams, we avoid plagiarism, we drive on the right side of the highway, etc.

Rules, norms, ways of conduct, and institutions do not arise with explicit agreement exclusively. Most of the time, they are the result of informal rules, cooperation, and individual behavior. And sooner or later, they become socially accepted and enforceable. Furthermore, the individual cost of explicitly signing all these rules would be extremely high.

The real questions will be slightly different then: At what point do institutions become self-enforcing? When do informal norms transform into formal and binding norms?