We The Individuals - "Society, Government, and Social Contract"


By Thomas J. Michie VII

children's hands
In a previous article, I wrote about the commonly held belief in Western thought that society and government have a tacit and symbiotic relationship – some would even say they are one and the same. This, of course, is nonsense. Governments have a parasitic relationship with society, whereas society itself operates by mutual, cooperative transactions and interactions. No two institutions, organizations, or objects in this world could be more diametrically opposed to one another. Today, I am elaborating a bit more on the subject as it relates specifically to taxation and social contract. The so-called Social Contract, which no one has signed or even seen, dictates that individuals within society owe a certain amount in expiation to society itself. We are all essentially in debt to society. In many ways this is true. Society was here before any of us who are currently on this planet, and society built everything we have subsisted on prior to our birth. Everything we have been able to do today is because of societies functioning cooperatively before us. This, however, does not imply we should remit portions of our labor to a government. As I argued in one of my earlier articles, government and society are not the same thing, therefore it is of no service to society to remit wages to the government. It is the widely held belief that we owe it to society to pay taxes to a separate entity, the government, which perpetuates the debt-taxation cycle.

Like any cultural norm we are born into the culture of indebtedness to the state, and are expected to abide by it without any say in the matter. This is not a new phenomenon in human thought. In fact, the notion that we are all in it together, therefore must remit hours of labor to a higher institution is actually older and even more outdated than the already old and outdated ideologies we are currently accustomed to. To borrow a phrase from Edward Abbey, it is “older than Babylon and evil as hell.” In ancient and medieval civilization, society was expected to sacrifice their animals to a god, or gods, in order to repay a portion of their debt for what they have been given by the gods, i.e. life. In even more primitive societies, like the Mayans, society offered a human sacrifice to temporarily appease the gods, or, more precisely, the creditors. Little has changed. In today’s “civilized” society we are expected to sacrifice a portion of our labor to the government in order to temporarily square away the debt we owe the government for everything it has “given” to us. Clearly a cycle has made itself present in society. Since the rise of governments, whether local or central, societies are almost always obliged to make a sacrifice to some higher being, whether it be a god, gods, church, city-state, or nation-state.

The problem with such thinking is the lack of reciprocity and gift giving in the society-government relationship. The Hávamál, an ancient Viking collection of poems dating as far back as the 10th century, possibly even the 9th century, offers us a description of the individual-to-individual relationship in society, gift giving, and the feeling of indebtedness which follows:

I have never found a man so generous and hospitable that he would not receive a present, nor one so liberal with his money that he would dislike a reward if he could get one.

Friends should rejoice each other’s’ hearts with gifts of weapons and raiment, that is clear from one’s own experience. That friendship lasts longest—if there is a chance of its being a success—in which friends both give and receive gifts.

A man ought to be a friend to his friend and repay gift with gift. People should meet smiles with smiles and lies with treachery.

Know—if you have a friend in whom you have sure confidence and wish to make use of him, you ought to exchange ideas and gifts with him and go to see him often.

If you have another in whom you have no confidence and yet will make use of him, you ought to address him with fair words but crafty heart and repay treachery with lies.

Further, with regard to him in whom you have no confidence and of whose motives you are suspicious, you ought to smile upon him and dissemble your feelings. Gifts ought to be repaid in like coin.

Generous and bold men have the best time in life and never foster troubles. But the coward is apprehensive of everything and a miser is always groaning over his gifts.

Better there should be no prayer than excessive offering; a gift always looks for recompense. Better there should be no sacrifice than an excessive slaughter.

When one is given a gift, or helped in one form or another, they feel indebted to those who did so. Naturally, we wish to repay them by giving them a gift in the future or by helping them when help is needed in the future. We are fitted with an illusion that returning such favors is a voluntary act. It is to an extent. No one literally forces anyone to return a favor, unless it is explicitly written in a contract, in which case it probably is not a favor at all, but society does obligate such behavior. The ones who only receive favors and gifts, and never return the favors or give gifts, are usually cast out of society. I think we are all familiar with that friend at some point in our lives. As Marcel Mauss wrote in the introduction to his book The Gift, “In theory such gifts are voluntary but in fact they are given and repaid under obligation.”

To put this into even simpler terms, we look no further than any restaurant to more properly examine why and when a debt is owed. Upon arriving at your typical sit-down restaurant you are ushered to the table you will be dining at and handed a menu. After assessing the menu you order drinks, then appetizers, then the main course, and then, if you are feeling up for it, you order dessert. The prices are next to each item you order off the menu, but at no point do you sign any contracts with the restaurant management declaring you will pay X amount for Y goods and services. This is an actual example of a social contract. You know exactly what you will be receiving, and it is understood between you and the restaurant that there will be a transaction when satisfaction is met at the end. Once services are rendered, you pay the amount requested, and even add gratuity to indicate your enjoyment and appreciation.

In the situation that you are dining at a restaurant, the amount you are in debt to the restaurant is clear and precise. With the advent of currencies it becomes even easier to know the exact amount you owe, rather than figuring out what the accepted amount of gifts and favors down the road is. In a free society, one does not actually have to pay the restaurant. Skipping out on the check, or dining and ditching, is an option. With no state to kidnap you, it could even seem like a good option. The reason one would typically pay regardless of not actually being obligated to by the threat of force is because they want to remain in good standing with society. Someone who habitually refused to abide by the customs and cultures of society will be rejected from society. The languages we choose to use is another example. If I am in America and choose to use my own make believe language, and my own make believe alphabet, I will not make it too far in society. Yes, I am not literally forced to use the English language when interacting within society, but I am obligated in a way to speak English if I want to remain in good standing in society (as most of us do). Without a good standing in society, no one will want to do business with you, trade with you, give gifts, or provide any sort of service to you. This, in many ways, obligates most of us to abide by an unwritten code of law, i.e. a social contract. When we look at governments, however, we see nothing that resembles such a thing as the restaurant and language analogies.

It is hard for most libertarians to acknowledge a social contract, most will outright reject this very article because of it, but this is because many tend to reduce society and government down to being a single entity. Yes, even many libertarians are guilty of such thinking. There is a distinctive difference between an actual social contract, like the ones explained above, and the one often attributed to government. The one attributed to government is a fantastic myth.

In our restaurant and language scenarios there is no physical force obligating anyone to do anything. Instead there is a social norm which obligates us, and the threat of becoming outcasts if we do not abide by such norms. In the instance of taxation, we are not obligated merely by societal forces, rather we are obligated by the threat of physical force from the state. This can be seen throughout the entirety of human civilization. If Mayans did not make human sacrifices they would face the wrath of the gods, or so they believed. If the earliest Jews did not offer an animal sacrifice to appease god they would face the possibility of an eternity in hell. In the most extreme case of Judaism, Abraham was expected to sacrifice his own child to prove his faith. For centuries following the rise of Judeo-Christian states, and before the rise of nation-states, the people were obligated to pay taxes to the Church, or face jail time. In today’s world of nation-states, we are expected to pay taxes to our respective state, or be physically removed and thrown in prison. At no point in this timeline were the sacrifices, whether they be wages, livestock, or human life, considered voluntary. In every instance people’s physical livelihood was, or is, at risk.

It is important to note here that the examples of religion above should not be considered attacks on Christianity or organized religion whatsoever. It is when religion is used in a Machiavellian manner to further perpetuate political objectives that we have a problem. I think most would agree.

Not only is the government’s social contract a myth because of its reliance upon the use of force, but it is also such because of its lack of clarity and reciprocity. In the restaurant we know what we are getting, and we can likely guess the portion sizes, the quality, and the service. We can judge all of this based on the prices next to the items on the menu, the aesthetics of the restaurant, the dress of the other customers and staff, etc., etc., but we do not know what we are getting when it comes to government services. Even worse, we are forced to pay prior to receiving any services, rather than paying once we are satisfied, as we do at restaurants. Not only that, we generally have no clue what we are paying taxes for. We cannot predict what the government will do in the next year. And if any of us are not satisfied with our service, or the government’s overall function, we do not get a money-back guarantee. Under no circumstances in day-to-day life would anyone pay a business without the business’s services being explicit and absolute.

The governmental side of the social contract is merely a desperate attempt to create a greater link between society and government. If we believe we are socially obligated to repay a debt to the state, only then can the state can get away with taxing our labor. First the state must make its people feel indebted to it by, say, convincing them it keeps them safe. So far the state has succeeded, thus why mankind continues its perpetual debt-taxation cycle. The thought process which goes into rationalizing our debt to the state, and subsequent taxation, is no more advanced than the Mayans sacrificing human life because the Gods supposedly kept them safe. It is high time we dismantle the debt-taxation cycle which has been thrust upon society for millenniums, and start to be a society only in debt to those who do provide services, favors, and gifts for us.


Hávamál, vv. 39, 41-2, 44-6, 48 and 145, from the translation by D. E. Martin Clarke in The Hávamál, with Selections from other Poems in the Edda, Cambridge, 1923.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. New York: Norton, 1967. Print.

Courtesy of We The Individuals.

For more from this blog, check out an interview with the editor, Thomas Michie, on today’s episode of Biology of the Blog.