Consent & Legitimacy

— Very interesting post by Chris Bertam on the problem of intergenerational sovereignty. I agree with Jacob Levy in the comments that the problem basically tells us to pick only one: consent theory or the possibility of state legitimacy. (Not to say we HAVE to pick either.) I also agree that tacit consent is not consent. The best we can hope for is hypothetical consent. But then that's not consent at all. The idea of hypothetical consent boils down to the idea of what we would consent to if we were smarter, knew a lot more, were rational, and appropriately motivated. Which is to say, basically, we would agree to whatever would really be conducive to our lives going really well. So, a set of institutions is legit if it is conducive to our lives going really well. But we don't exactly know what it means for our lives to be going really well, either, although I assume there is some fact of the matter about what it means, and that we do know a lot about what it means. (Maybe, say, democracy leads to “suboptimal” results relative to an idealized version of human nature, but it turns out that real people need to feel like we have some sort of democratic voice in the system in order for our lives to go really well, and so we need democracy in order to satisfy this need to have a voice, although we'd be better off relative to some of our other needs and aspirations if we didn't have this particular need. Who knows!?) And this seems plausible. We're justifiably confident that some kinds of institutional forms aren't legit. Soviet Union. Taliban Afghanistan. Canada. (Just kidding!) But we don't really know enough about well-being and the possibilities for beneficial coordination to say whether or not fairly liberal democratic institutions like our own are fully legit.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center