According to one defense of government, citizens’ use of government services adequately explains and justifies the existence of political obligations. By attending government schools, walking on government sidewalks, and calling 911, citizens “tacitly agree” to taxation, jury duty, and military registration, or so the argument goes.
One tempting rebuttal—that enforceable agreements cannot be tacit—fails pretty quickly. It seems clear that when we order food at a restaurant, for example, we tacitly agree to pay for our meal, unless we say otherwise at the outset.
I therefore favor another rebuttal: the pro-government argument relies on a causal link that does not actually exist. If, as the original argument posits, we incur political obligations just because we use government services, then surely we may relieve ourselves of political obligations by simply declining to use government services.
As we know though, this is not how political obligations usually operate. On tax day, the government does not ask us how frequently we use its services. In fact, a woman who never once calls the government’s fire department still must subsidize it. A man without children still must subsidize government schools. People who never travel by airplane still must subsidize the Transportation Security Administration.
The government, in other words, is not an ordinary waiter who expects payment for services rendered. Instead, the government is a “waiter” who shows up at our homes and declares, “I am here to offer you a meal. You may accept the meal or refuse the meal, but I demand compensation no matter what.” Accepting services under these conditions surely does not justify the waiter’s initial imposition.
Some government proponents respond that citizens necessarily benefit from government, that we incur political obligations because we receive government assistance whether we like it or not. The fire department keeps proximate fires from spreading to our homes, for example. The military deters foreigners from invading our communities. The police deter thieves from robbing us. In these ways, the government is similar to a fairy that, with or without our permission, painlessly cures our illnesses while we sleep.
Though this point makes the pro-government argument somewhat more alluring, it too proves deficient. Even if we do inadvertently benefit from government action, why must we pay a penny for it? If we never request the service and never even imply that we will pay for it, then we should consider it nothing more than a gift.
One pro-government response is that each citizen, by voting for politicians who superintend this system, actually does request government services and the attendant political obligations. Attractive at first blush, this response neglects the fact that many citizens do not vote for government action but are forced to facilitate it nonetheless. Citizens who endorse losing candidates, for example, still have political obligations. So do the millions of citizens who choose not to vote. When a democratic government obligates you, it does not care whether you voted for the obligation—only that someone did.
Another pro-government response is that citizens implicitly request government services and the attendant political obligations when they opt to live on the government’s territory. But why assume, as this response does, that the US government legitimately owns all the land from New York to San Francisco or that the Turkish government rightfully possesses every natural resource from Bodrum to Kars? Only by a stretch of the statist imagination, redolent of Sir Robert Filmer’s contention that God granted exclusive dominion to the world’s kings, do governments simply “get” to own vast swaths of the earth. Far fairer is the Lockean principle, established contra Filmer, that people must actually mix their labor with unused natural resources in order to own them.
It is clear, then, that citizens’ use of government services can neither account for nor excuse the existence of political obligations. For one, the government obligates people who do not use its services. People who use government services, in other words, do so with the understanding that the government will likely coerce them even if they refuse service. Moreover, in those cases where the sheer ubiquity of government essentially forces citizens to use government services, the users are not necessarily “asking for” the services or the accompanying political obligations. Simply living under a democratic government does not count as requesting government action. Neither does living on territory that the government has improperly arrogated to itself. Exchanges born of interpersonal coercion, even when the government is involved, possess no legitimacy.
This article originally appeared at c4ss.org.