Consent: Libertarians’ Ace in the Hole – The Lowdown on Liberty


Last month, I wrote an article about consent in which I not only illustrated the importance consent plays in civil society, but also the inner workings of where it derives its value. Consent is often an underutilized and – judging by the comments from critics – poorly argued point for most libertarians. As the title suggests, the issue of consent is libertarians’ “ace in the hole,” not just for winning arguments, but winning converts as well. Our consistency regarding consent is the underlying reason that we’re correct and others are not. Both progressives and conservatives believe that they value consent (who doesn’t?), and so it also becomes a less-abrasive way of guiding people toward shedding their pre-conceived fallacies regarding consent, and arriving at the position that unapologetically values it: ours.

Therefore, I would like this to serve as a quick, concise guide, highlighting arguments and criticisms you may hear along the way and providing a few appropriate responses to help navigate these mental labyrinths and arrive at the proper conclusions. Generally, these conversations tend to take a predictable path, so let’s begin with the objections most people start with and work from there.

Almost immediately, the most common response you will hear to your explanation is that “you did consent,” implying a violation has not occurred, oftentimes assuming consent by entering a market or simply being in a certain area. As previously stated, however, consent is only valuable due to the capacity to withdraw it, and therefore these claims are false. One can simply ask where they gained the authority to sculpt the rules of the “market” in the first place, and if I may withdraw my consent from such rules. The answer, inevitably, is no.

From here, we’re told we may not withdraw consent, but that we could withdraw entirely, often encouraged moving to a different country if we don’t like the rules. As Tom Woods excellently points out, this falsely implies that we have not already searched for a more suitable place, and have decided that this is the most accommodating arrangement currently available – as is often the case. Therefore, arguing that one should not attempt to change the rules, instead opting to leave, suggests that it’s easier to continually move from place to place, searching for a perfectly agreeable system – assuming one already exists – than it is to simply alter the current system to align with one’s wishes regarding consent. By that logic, no one should ever try to change any rule they find disagreeable, but instead just continually pick up and move every time they find a quality they don’t like. The lunacy of that idea should be self-evident.

As things take a turn toward the collective, people tend to rely on the belief that the popular consensus must be correct, often claiming that the majority of people voted for X policy, or that “society” agrees to do certain things. It’s important to point out that society is simply a group of individuals, so saying that society’s right to consent outweighs an individual’s is exactly the same as saying one person’s consent is more important than another’s, simply because more people agree with them. As Mary Ruwart points out, rights are absolute, and people do not lose rights when they become outnumbered. You cannot morally take someone’s consent through a majority anymore than you could take their life. If so, the accusation of rape could be nullified simply because a majority voted in favor of it.

If someone gets defensive at this point, it may help to point out that you aren’t actually trying to “change” the rules of society; in that you aren’t imposing anything new on the person you’re talking with, but simply pointing out your desire to not be forced to partake in their ambitions.

Most often from here you will be told that you cannot be allowed to withdraw from these policies because you benefit from them. The important question here is: do you? While they may say we benefit from having an army for defense, police for security, or roads for infrastructure, this claim raises two immediate problems.

First, it overlooks the opportunity costs involved. In a voluntary transaction, both sides believe they benefit. Otherwise, one of the two parties wouldn’t have agreed to partake (aside from after-the-fact cases like fraud). By definition, however, coerced exchanges only benefit one side. While it may be seen that one benefits from government-funded programs, what is unseen is what could’ve been gained had the coerced transaction not taken place. (If you’re hit with the “who will build the roads?” it may be worthwhile to pause and discuss the alternatives to such a frivolous claim.) Just like with the shopkeeper and the broken window, not only do the unforced alternatives to these programs result in a greater benefit for those involved, the compounding effect results in society benefiting as a whole too, showing that the inability to withdraw consent actually makes us worse off.

Besides that, changing the standard for morality from consent to proving whether one benefits is extremely dangerous. You can no longer argue that your neighbor broke in uninvited because he doesn’t need your consent, so long as he can prove his intrusion and subsequent robbery benefited you with a new fence along your properties. A woman can’t say she was sexually assaulted against her will if her boss can prove she benefited from it through a promotion. Watering down morality to who benefits simply because one refuses to acknowledge the important role consent plays and their contradictions regarding it will only result in the loss of morality altogether.

Finally, upon realizing their inconsistency, you’ll arrive at the argument that in order to respect consent absolutely, we’ll have to wreck the status quo, thereby inviting anarchy, and, therefore, “chaos.” This argument is no different than the fearmongering mindset held by anti-abolitionists throughout time. And that’s all we are really: modern-day abolitionists. Being told we can’t achieve our goal because it doesn’t currently exist, or that it’s a “fantasy to fight for” were the same things told to slavery abolitionists and suffragettes; and reality shows us not only that it happened anyway, but which side upheld morality.

It’s good to point out here that “society” is simply the macro-level result of continuously compounding interactions between individuals. And the idea that the long-term effects of compounding, voluntary transactions will somehow be worse than the similarly compounding effects of involuntary or coerced dealings is completely illogical. Ironically, when asked why this coercive society must remain in existence, the answer, as we’ve seen, is to avoid the devolution of society into one where force becomes the norm (chaos). Yet, one can hardly imagine a privatized society operating in such a large-scale, coercive manner as any modern-day government does on a daily basis. And, what’s more, there appears to be a paradox, by which those who are most adamantly afraid of this forceful society materializing in the state’s absence are most often the ones who defend the forceful dealings of the state and its disdain towards consent today.

It’s important to remember you can’t have civilization without civilized people, and the simplest qualifier in that regard is recognizing the importance consent plays in interactions with one another. I understand that most people operating under the contradiction of false-consent don’t willfully disregard it, they simply believe others truly want what they want as well. Our society today recognizes the importance of consent, it’s just time we stop allowing it to be violated through false premises, and I hope this serves to help in that endeavor.

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Thomas J. Eckert

Thomas J. Eckert is the Managing Editor of Think Liberty and Copy Editor for Being Libertarian. With a passion for politics, he studies economics and history and writes in his spare time on political and economic current events. He is a self-described voluntarist.


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