During the Enlightenment, when the era of absolute monarchs was fading, many great thinkers pondered the basis of government. One of the ideas that took hold and has sustained many forms of government since then is the idea of a social contract by which the people give consent, implicitly, to whatever government they find themselves under. This implicit contract has worked well enough, though it has provided no guarantee that the people would not implicitly consent to tyranny.
Though the Declaration of Independence says that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”, in practice this consent is always assumed, as there is no way for an individual at any level of government in the US or elsewhere to give consent to their government except implicitly. Hence, their right as citizens to vote allows them to change the officers of their government, but not its form, and never enables them to excuse themselves from the powers of a government over them even if they do not consent to it. There is simply no mechanism anywhere for explicit consent to government.
We have employed the republican form of government for just over 200 years. Perhaps, after all these years, it is not surprising that it is beginning to unravel a bit at the edges. There are many today, for example, who feel that their voices are increasingly not being heard at all levels of government, but most especially by the federal government. Two recent examples of this show what I mean. Subsequent to the meltdown of the banking industry in 2008, the government proposed an 800 billion dollar bailout of the banks. This was largely opposed by the citizens of the US, yet passed into law. Likewise, though most citizens did not favor the massive expansion of direct government control of healthcare, that too was made law. Today we face a level of joint debt far beyond any we have seen in the past, such that every household is indebted by the actions of the federal government to a figure somewhere above $100,000 by one estimate, over $500,000 by another. This is a figure that exceeds the average net worth of households (under $55,000 for 2009).
Implicit consent has failed us. What is called for, and what I propose here, is a new form of government: government by explicit consent, Government By Contract. Let me illustrate this idea with an example at the level of a municipality.
The contract I speak of would be between each household and a local political party. The parties (there could be any number of them) would specify certain principles as part of their contract with members. Households who agreed with those principles would become members of the party, and fees (as stipulated in the contract) would be collected by their party. The parties would jointly work to approve and subsidize the budgets of the various departments of government within the municipality. The contract entered into between the party and the household would be for a determined period, one or two years. Participation by the party in the funding of departments would determine the household’s right to benefit from their services. Parties would not be bound to participate in existing government departments, but could find other providers (or none at all) of the services ordinarily provided by a department, either jointly with other like-principled parties, or on their own.
Politics is all about power, and power comes from money. Part of the money that provides that power comes from taxes and other forms of revenue. But another important source of money that conveys power to legislators and elected government officers comes from lobbyists and other campaign contributors who represent special interests. Campaigns are expensive. Contributions are made in the hope of gaining influence.
By creating governments by contract, taxes flow to government according to the wishes of those providing the money. Any party that seriously fails to deliver government according to the wishes of its members will soon find that they have no members. Those members will join or create another party.
The problem of special interest money effecting elections goes away when there are no public elections. Parties may determine how their officers are selected.
One of the most serious disadvantages of Government By Contract is the death of political entertainment. No more farcical speeches. No more grandstanding or demogogueing. No more promises that go unkept with zero consequences. No more government failure without heads rolling (figuratively speaking; I’m not calling for a revisiting of the French Revolution). All that will be left is the serious business of trying to provide services to all the citizens, giving them, finally, their true money’s worth.
Many will oppose Government By Contract. The vast majority of those who oppose it will be those who benefit directly from current governments. That would include those currently in office, all those who directly receive benefits from government, and all those who directly benefit from the political games that republican democracy requires (notably journalists and special interests). The timid will oppose it, preferring to keep the devil they know. The unimaginative will oppose it, putting up objections of every kind without giving a moment’s thought to try to figure out how it could work. Those who seek to force their ideologies on others will oppose it, since they know that republican democracy will allow them, through the ballot box, to legally take over the whole mechanism of government. Tyrants love republican democracy. If they cannot keep and hold the government, at least they can be in control of everything for some period of time.
Government By Contract is not about ideology; that’s what the various parties are for. GBC is about form, the form of government that can prevent tyranny and give people real and responsive control over their governments.
We get the government we deserve. I would like to think there are enough good and sensible people in the world that would see the advantages of Government By Contract and demand it quickly, enough people who see the disadvantages of Government By Implied Consent (what we have now), and long for it to take its place as an artifact of history. We’ll just have to see what kind of people we really are.