Max Borders

The Real Social Contract
A challenge to partisans: What if you really could have your chosen system?




This essay, that presents beautifully the challenge put forward by Paul-Emile de Puydt in 1860, has first appeared in the web site of the Foundation for Economic Education, September 2013 (see here).



Even the wisest and best of governments never functions with the full and free consent of all its subjects. There are parties, either victorious or defeated; there are majorities and minorities in perpetual struggle; and the more confused their notions are, the more passionately they hold to their ideals. — P. E. de Puydt


You’re a died-in-the-wool Democrat. No? A staunch Republican? My mistake. Democratic Socialist?
Most daily readers of this publication would say they are “none of the above.”

Most, but maybe not all. If you’re a political partisan, I have a challenge for you.

Have you dreamed of a day when your favored party could finally implement every plank in its platform? Seriously. What if it were possible? What if you could live in your favorite system of government—and keep all those idiots in that other party from obstructing your plans?

The Challenge

We can imagine such a possibility, only with a twist. But first I want to take you back in time—to Belgium. It’s 1860. By the way, I thought I was the first to come up with the challenge. But my friend Gian Piero de Bellis told me about the work of a Belgian named Paul Emile de Puydt who proposed this great partisan challenge more than 150 years ago...

In each community a new office is opened, a "Bureau of Political Membership". This office would send every responsible citizen a declaration form to fill in [...]

Question: What form of government would you desire?

Quite freely you would answer, monarchy, or democracy, or any other.

Anyway, whatever your reply, your answer would be entered in a register arranged for this purpose; and once registered, unless you withdrew your declaration, observing due legal form and process, you would thereby become either a royal subject or citizen of the republic [or a Democrat, or Republican]. Thereafter you would in no way be involved with anyone else's government [no more than an American is with Canadian authorities]. You would obey your own leaders, your own laws, and your own regulations. You would pay neither more nor less, but morally it would be a completely different situation.

Ultimately, everyone would live in his own individual political community, quite as if there were not another, nay, ten other, political communities nearby, each having its own contributors too.

See the challenge?

In short: You can live under any political system you like without leaving your driveway. Instead of joining a party, you join a political association and agree to live under its auspices—rules that track with your sense of the right and the good. A real “social contract.” The only cost of this quantum leap forward is this: You cannot force anyone to join your chosen association. 

So, would you do it? If not, why not?

Some Worries

Could it be that you’re concerned about how people would resolve disagreements? De Puydt says:

If a disagreement came about between subjects of different governments, or between one government and a subject of another, it would simply be a matter of observing the principles hitherto observed between neighboring peaceful States; and if a gap were found, it could be filled without difficulties by [appeal to] human rights and all other possible rights. Anything else would be the business of ordinary courts of justice.

While we may agree that “human rights” is an ambiguous term, we assume given de Puydt’s liberal commitments that he means people should be protected from involuntary servitude.

Maybe you’re worried all the rich people would flee your chosen association or form their own association—leaving less wealthy, less greedy members of your association to care for the poor. Wealthy Americans can already leave the United States (and some do). But most do not. If the voting patterns of the wealthy are any indication, plenty of rich people in America tolerate higher taxation rates and support government systems intended to help the poor. Those who don’t support these policies overwhelmingly believe that delivering aid to the poor through the State is particularly ineffective and inhumane; while they oppose State welfare, it isn’t because they have no interest in relieving distress.

In any case, why not let the best system win?

The Dilemma

For the statist the dilemma becomes: why the territorial chauvinism? In other words, does something as arbitrary as geography determine your right to exit from some system of government? As I have written elsewhere:

For the statist— i.e., one who believes in the ultimate authority of the State—there seem to be two possible responses:

X: If they could get their hands on me—my body and/or my wealth—whether in Sweden, or down there on my secret island, they would be justified. There is really some objective, global justice, the ends of which justify their means of getting to me; or

Y: Considerations of pragmatics and citizenship mean that once I’m in another jurisdiction, so long as I haven’t broken any laws in the old jurisdiction, I’m no longer your concern. Because I am living in another place, under different auspices, you have no right to bother me there—whatever your concept of justice.

I think fair-minded statists will stick to Y.

Whatever your worry, doesn’t it say a lot about a system if it turned out that system’s very existence depended on forcing people to be members?

Common Interests

What about common interests affecting all the inhabitants of a certain area—whatever their political allegiances? De Puydt says:

Each government, in this case, would stand in relation to the whole nation roughly as each of the Swiss cantons, or better, the States of the American Union, stand in relation to their federal government. (Note: ironically, this was published one year before the U.S. Civil War. The Swiss system has held up better and remains far more decentralized.)

I would add that such “issues” must be linked specifically to territory. That is, most issues taken up by our national governments are not relevant to questions of territory per se, but are laws attached to history’s contingencies—e.g., to national boundaries drawn after the ends of wars. In other words, people in Washington get to decide what healthcare system you live under, and for most people that is because your mother gave birth to you on a certain patch of soil. De Puydt’s panarchy helps shed that arbitrariness.

Upgrading DOS

Still have concerns? Whatever your objection to de Puydt’s challenge, is it so great that you’re willing to continue in this wasteful, unsatisfying game of partisan tug-of-war? Are you so blinkered by the status quo that you just can’t imagine people joining their own political associations and living by their own rules? Or does your bias boil down to the idea that your political preferences are best, so you think your political party should dominate all others? It’s not like there’s much good in the blur of politics.

Democracy is a system that leaves us all at the whim of mob rule. It may be formalized mob rule — and that mob has to share power with representatives captured by corporate interests. But at the very least de Puydt’s proposal should prompt us to think what kind of human social arrangements are possible beyond democracy.

If you’re opening your mind to de Puydt’s proposal, you have come a long way. And if you have taken the challenge and come out of the other side convinced, then you are probably ready to upgrade DOS (our “Democratic Operating System”). Under DOS you have two apps: the red app and the blue app. And that’s not much of a choice for anyone these days.

Wouldn’t it be better if politics was more like choosing from apps on an iPad? We’re stuck in a social technology that no longer makes sense. Democracy is not a system designed to grant us our political wishes. It is a system in which, at best, random clustered preferences of others get mixed together—bizarrely, as a feature of the system. And the rules we have to live under are arbitrary with respect to our real political preferences.

When you go to the voting booth, you might as well be sending your prayers up to Washington. But how many times do those prayers get answered? Even if your guy gets elected, he doesn’t give you the policies you’d like to see. Hardly anyone is happy with the sausage that gets produced in our legislatures. Only an ignoramus who thinks of politics as a kind of team sport is happy two months after Election Day, whether he wears a red or blue jersey.

Power to the People

Belgian statesman Charles de Brouckère commented just before his death,

M. P.-E. de Puydt [has furnished] an outline of a system that would have the advantage of submitting the industry of security production, otherwise known as governments, to a competition as complete as that in which manufacturers of fabrics, for example, engage in a country under free trade, and achieves this without having recourse to revolutions, barricades, or even the smallest act of violence.

If democracy is a way of transferring power without bullets, de Puydt’s “panarchy” is a way of distributing power among the people. Here’s de Brouckère again:

If society were to adopt the system proposed by M. de Puydt, each citizen would be able change governments at least as easily as a tenant changes furnished apartments in a large city; because he would need to commit himself for only one year to follow the laws of the government of his choice and to defray expenses at rates discussed in advance. At the end of this year’s trial, the citizen would be free to subscribe, for his consumption of security and other public services, to the establishment that produced these things in the manner most congruent with his tastes and for the amount that he desires to devote to this expense.

Instead of a game in which the red team and the blue team fight over who gets to make and enforce the rules, why don’t we have an honest competition in which associations compete for members by offering better systems with better rules—as determined by those members?

Please Share

The next time you hear someone lazily toss out a reference to the “social contract,” send them this article.

Indeed, now that you’ve taken the challenge, I encourage you to send this to your most partisan friends. If nothing else, this great partisan challenge is an interesting way to infuriate your in-laws and Facebook contacts. (And notice the similarities between de Puydt’s system and Facebook itself.)

With this challenge, we can go a long way in exposing the fact that politics is just another sort of religion—a religion that is fundamentally about forcing others to live the way we want them to. (And that’s so twentieth century.)


Many thanks to my Swiss friend Gian Piero de Bellis, my Australian friend John Zube, and my American friend Adam Knott for helping me explore these ideas in greater depth.


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