Many of the political conversations I’ve been having lately seem to be based to some degree on the fact that I believe something, and the libertarian attack dogs believe its opposite. My belief is, quite simply: freedom doesn’t come for free. Freedom is not, unfortunately, the state toward which societies or economies tend when left alone; it requires eternal vigilance, and maintenance. Power attracts power, so centralization and consolidation of power, oligarchy and monopoly, are the almost-inevitable “end states” unless active measures are taken to keep power distributed. Those measures take many forms – enforcement of rights, government provision of certain public services to all citizens, and other measures such as the Sherman anti-trust act. Together, all of these measures create a system within which competition can occur without undermining freedom. The existence of rules does not preclude competition; ask anyone who ever participated in organized sports.

This system is often referred to as a social contract, but that’s a very misleading term because there’s little about it that’s like a normal contract. For a start, the social contract is not one to one, not quid pro quo. Services such as national defense, law enforcement, or public schools are provided to each citizen (and often non-citizens) without any expectation of repayment from that particular citizen. By legal definition, an agreement so one-sided and lacking in “consideration” for one side is not a contract at all and cannot be enforced.

Another problem that arises from this use of terminology is that people think they’re not bound by the social contract without explicit consent. That would be true in the case of a real contract, but the social contract binds everyone regardless of consent. My response to people who complain about that is: too bad. It’s always too bad; everyone is born into some society’s social contract. It’s still better to be born into a wealthy nation whose social contract is (mostly) democratic and (mostly) capitalist than into a feudal society or dictatorship or theocracy in a poor nation.

All of this brings us to the “something for nothing” crowd who think the social contract should be changed to suit them. They talk about “enlightened self-interest” but they are without exception the beneficiaries of a system based on a more enlightened kind of societal self-interest than their own narrow philosophy would admit. Markets don’t remain free without someone keeping them free. Speech doesn’t remain (meaningfully) free without someone providing the forum. The so-called libertarians want all that freedom for themselves, but do nothing to provide or maintain it for others. They often try to portray themselves as Nietzschean or Randian supermen (and they almost always seem to be men) but that hardly seems apt for people who consume what others provide and yet provide nothing themselves. Such people do appear in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but not in heroic roles. The name she gave those who live by sucking others’ blood suggests a new name for those who pursue only their own freedom without regard for anyone else’s.