Isn’t it obvious that we can’t say that a (good) government is legitimate if and only if I have consented to it, because of the nature of public goods?

I can withhold consent from Sweets, Inc.’s claim on my money by refusing to buy its donuts. However, I cannot say that I refuse to benefit from the government’s deterrence of crimes and thereby avoid taxes, because I can’t be excluded from enjoying this good.

Simmons points out:

How is the consent theorist to avoid the charge that if unanimous consent is required for legitimacy, no government will be legitimate?

The answer, for Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, is found in the notion of “tacit consent through residence.” For if mere residence can be taken to be a sign of consent, then unanimous consent is guaranteed.

This, however, seems to show more than the consent theorist wanted, for it seems to show not just that some governments are after all legitimate, but rather that all governments are legitimate. (73)

If the legitimacy of Sweets, Inc. depended on everybody’s in some area wanting its products, then neither it nor any other private business could ever get off the ground. If, on the other hand, Sweets had the right to collect money from anyone who happened to reside near its headquarters, then Sweets would cease to be a business and become a tyrannical state. Clearly, there is a fundamental difference between business and government.

If consent to being ruled by a state can be given by living on the territory controlled by the state or using its roads or some such, what would constitute refusing to consent? The world has been partitioned between multiple states, and I have to live somewhere. Again, I can’t help using the roads. How can I withdraw consent, and what would that mean?

For example, is the government immediately to be dissolved if even one person refuses to consent to it? If the majority refuses to consent? If the social elite?

The consent of the governed tradition in this crude a form seems absurd. Some sense can be made of it is by distinguishing between the government’s power and its might. My withdrawal of consent undermines the government’s might but not straightaway its power.


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