I would therefore like to introduce a new proviso, which continues in the same vein of these first two: an expression of consent, where there is a credible alternative but said alternative is not viable due to pre-existing conditions, is as invalid as one given without credible alternatives.
There’s more stuff to unpack here, so let me use a simple example to illustrate it. A man (to follow the convention of the first proviso, let’s call him Twain) falls into a well. How this happens is not relevant: it could be distraction, carelessness, or maybe he was pushed in by some miscreant. Either way, he is stuck at the bottom of the well for a few hours, and then a guy (let’s call him Norton) comes by with a bullhorn and tells him something like this:
“Right, this well is kindof out of the way, so no one’s gonna know about it. I, however, intend to help you. No, I’m not actually gonna call for help or anything, in fact I won’t tell anyone else about this. But I will send you food down every day, I’ll send you a flashlight and some reading materials, and I’ll send you a bucket so you can, you know. In exchange, I want you to do a little gig for me for a few minutes. Sounds like a fair deal to me. If you refuse, I’ll just leave and never come back.”
Here we have a credible signal: if Twain refuses Norton’s offer, Norton will treat it as a signal to desist and leave forever. And yet we cannot say that consent is present, because if he refuses, Twain will basically die in horrible sufferings. Even if he resented Norton’s help, or the modalities of his help, he cannot refuse if he wishes to not suffer.
We can clearly attribute this to the pre-existing conditions, which in this case consist of Twain being stuck down a well with no means to get out. If Twain was not stuck in the well in the first place, the question would not arise at all. But given these conditions, his approval to Norton’s plan may very well be voluntary, but it is not consensual.
It would be blindingly obvious to anyone (putting the dumb “anarcho”-capitalists aside, who have zero ethics or compassion) that Norton’s actions are unethical. I may be wrong on this but I don’t think any sane human being would claim that Twain is beholden to the terms of his agreement with Norton. And it’s obviously because no consent exists in this scenario.
If Norton’s voluntary actions are immoral, then what would not be immoral? We must be clear that the only just thing for Norton to do is to help Twain get out of the well as soon as possible. It will do no good for people to complain and whine that Norton is not committing a crime if he doesn’t help Twain, that Norton is under no obligation to do anything at all, and so on. We should not tolerate such anti-social twaddle. It may or may not inherently be a crime for Norton to not help Twain, but that has little relevance to the issue that Norton’s refusal to help is unethical, regardless of whether it should be punished or not.
The analogy should, I hope, be at least somewhat obvious at this point. I am using this as an analogy to all hierarchical work contracts, and since we live under capitalism, the capitalist kind specifically. We exist under a society where a number of pre-existing conditions prevail, caused by the State and, more recently, capitalism. The commons has been appropriated for centuries, creating lower classes which were then attracted to the high demand for workers in the new capitalist order. This created an ever-growing mass of population which could not sustain its own existence, and thus was wholly dependent on selling its labour to the existing ownership class. This in turn accelerated the corporate accumulation of surplus (profits), accelerated inequality, and, coupled with the extermination of the natives and the freed slaves, created the pre-existing conditions that we know today.
The upshot of all this is that the capitalist system we know is an inherently classist system, with a class of rich business owners at the top, controlling the means of production and how they are used, and a class of wage workers at the bottom. The actors may trade places, but the conditions remain. To the person who did not have access to opportunities due to his starting conditions, the economic system is the equivalent of a well.
Sometimes the Nortons of this world do give some Twain a pull upwards. Indeed, without this possibility, there would be a great deal more rebellion against capitalism than there is today. It is the prospect (however tenuous) of one day being on top that keeps people playing. But that being said, there can be no doubt that there’s no other viable alternative for the vast majority of us but to play the game.
We have to distinguish between two kinds of consent in this case: consent to the capitalist system as a whole versus consent to a specific job within that system. Certainly one cannot presume any sort of consent to the capitalist system, as no viable alternative exists (“go live somewhere else” is no argument when moving on this scale is tremendously expensive, not to mention most often made impossible by immigration restrictions, and the fact that there’s no society with a good standard of living that offers the choice). Depending on one’s status, one may or may not be able to choose a specific job: most people can’t.
Likewise, we are all subject to the democratic system, and thus we can ask whether the individual consents to democracy as a whole, which we have already discussed. But when a person votes, we can also ask whether that voting represents some form of consent, for instance consent to a specific party ruling over them. Lysander Spooner famously argued against this notion (paragraph break mine):
The consent, therefore, that has been given, whether by individuals, or by the States, has been, at most, only a consent for the time being; not an engagement for the future. In truth, in the case of individuals, their actual voting is not to be taken as proof of consent, even for the time being. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, without his consent having ever been asked, a man finds himself environed by a government that he cannot resist; a government that forces him to pay money, render service, and forego the exercise of many of his natural rights, under peril of weighty punishments. He sees, too, that other men practise this tyranny over him by the use of the ballot. He sees further that, if he will but use the ballot himself, he has some chance of relieving himself from this tyranny of others, by subjecting them to his own. In short, be finds himself, without his consent, so situated that, if he use the ballot, he may become a master; if he does not use it, he must become a slave. And he has no other alternative than these two. In self-defence, he attempts the former.
His case is analogous to that of a man who has been forced into battle, where he must either kill others, or be killed himself. Because, to save his own life in battle, a man attempts to take the lives of his opponents, it is not to be inferred that the battle is one of his own choosing. Neither in contests with the ballot – which is a mere substitute for a bullet – because, as his only chance of self-preservation, a man uses a ballot, is it to be inferred that the contest is one into which he voluntarily entered; that he voluntarily set up all his own natural rights, as a stake against those of others, to be lost or won by the mere power of numbers. On the contrary, it is to be considered that, in an exigency, into which he had been forced by others, and in which no other means of self-defence offered, he, as a matter of necessity, used the only one that was left to him.