The Politics Of Consent

Consent seems like a simple concept, but when you really dig into it how you define it is one of the major rifts in the politics of our time. Consent, and what it means to have given consent, is at the center of all democratic ideologies. Where all men are said to be equal the definition of equality is of significant importance. The typical definition of consent will speak of permission or agreement on what should happen, but says very little of the conditions under which that agreement is made. I wish to explore that side of consent and show how differing definitions of consent are at the heart of our differing political parties.

What do I mean when I speak of “the conditions under which that agreement is made”? Well, before any contract can be agreed upon there must first be a negotiation, and rarely do negotiators meet on an even playing field. The outcome of a negotiation, the agreement, the final contract, are heavily influenced by the power dynamics between the negotiators.

As an extreme example of the role of power dynamics let’s imagine this scenario; one man is the owner of a lush oasis, surrounded by hundreds of miles of desert on each side, and a thirsty survivor wanders in from the sands. How they might interact will depend heavily on the power dynamics between them. The owner of the oasis, having been there first and having laid claim to all of it’s resources, may offer to allow the survivor to stay and eat the food and drink the water so long as the survivor agrees to do all the work to gather food and water for the both of them, as well as build the shelter and perform all the other maintenance necessary. Having no other option, the survivor may agree to this contract and give his consent.

On the other hand, perhaps the survivor arrived with a deadly weapon. Now having the upper hand, the same contract is struck but in the reverse, with the original owner of the oasis now becoming the workhorse of the survivor, having no other option and thus giving his consent.

Alternatively, in either of the above scenarios the two may instead decide to prioritize the collective best interest above their own and agree that they should both partake in the labor and enjoy the benefits of the oasis. While this scenario is possible, it is also unstable as long as one of the participants has more power than the other (for instance, if the survivor keeps the weapon despite having reached such an agreement), since the one with the power may always decide to change their mind, and it will always be in both of their minds when future agreements are made.

From this example I hope that you will see that while in one way each person has given consent, in another way they very much have not. These differing understandings of giving consent are at the heart of each political party.

One political philosophy views the mere act of reaching an agreement as a proof of consent; power dynamics either don’t exist or are natural, and questioning them is not important. Since no one would enter a contract that makes them worse off, all contracts make the parties to the contract better off, and are therefor good. In this view of the world it is ok that the powerful take advantage of their power and strike agreements that are primarily for their benefit, because a side affect of them pursuing their own interests is that they also create benefit for everyone else.

Another political philosophy acknowledges that power dynamics exist and that they can produce negative outcomes. They are aware that while paying minorities and women less is better than not hiring them at all, it is still a much worse outcome than hiring them and paying them as though there was not such a large gap in their negotiating power. They’ve determined that a subset of the working class is privileged because there is less of a gap between their negotiating power and that of the owner/employer class. If only they could erase the historical power differences between these two subsets of the working class then they could reach equally consensual agreements.

However, a new ideology that I see gaining momentum takes this a step further. Yes, a lower class basically being held at gunpoint in an employment negotiation can hardly be called consensual and produces negative outcomes, but also to some degree almost all employment negotiations are heavily lopsided in the employer’s advantage. This is due to a variety of factors, but one of the largest is that employers can typically afford to lose an employee without it hardly making a difference, whereas an employee who loses their job also loses their sole source of income and often a large part of their identity. To correct this difference in power dynamics or even shift if in the other direction they call for a larger reform to ensure that workers of all demographics are not dependent on owners and employers. There are many competing ideas for how this can be accomplished, from relatively minor amendments to the existing structure of society such as universal healthcare and base income, to much larger overhauls such as combining workers and owners into a single unified class.

For both moral and efficiency purposes consent for me is not just an agreement, but an agreement reached under relatively equal power dynamics. When negotiators are playing on the same field they can each trade concessions that have little value to them and high value to the other negotiator and maximize the outcome of the negotiation. When one negotiator overpowers the other they may demand concessions that have little value to them but high value to the other, since the other will be forced to agree anyways. For this reason my thoughts tend towards the new ideology taking shape. When we level the playing field we create a better and more bountiful world.

More than agreeing with me or arguing ideologically my hope is that you will see that not all consent is created equally. How loosely you are willing to define it and the conditions under which it can be acquired has a huge impact on what you view as morally imperative or reprehensible.

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