If You Don't Like it, Leave it: The Problem of Exit in Social Contractarian Arguments

Phil. & Pub. Affairs 31:1, 40-70 (Winter 2003)

Stanford Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 31

32 Pages Posted: 18 Jan 2002 Last revised: 17 Oct 2012

Date Written: January 9, 2002


One of the most notable developments in political philosophy in the past thirty years, starting with Rawls, has been the ascendency of hypothetical social contractarian arguments for deriving the contours of a just state. This paper examines the construction of exit options in such arguments, focusing on one set of constraints on exit out of an existing bargaining unit: those imposed by the social costs of rearranging one's life (the costs of negotiating secession, relocating, relinquishing existing social, cultural and economic ties, etc.)

The paper argues first that: (1) how we treat such social constraints on exit is critical to the outcome of most hypothetical bargains; (2) the solutions that social contractarians have adopted range dramatically, from very realistic treatments to highly idealized ones; (3) notwithstanding the importance of these choices, they have rarely been explained or defended.

Although solutions to the problem of exit have ranged widely, the predominant tendency in social contractarian arguments cast in the classic liberal/libertarian mode has been to enlarge exit options, by suppressing many - in some cases most - of the social costs of exiting existing arrangements. The predictable consequence of that move has been to increase the share of the joint surplus that the most privileged members of society are imagined to be able to claim for themselves in the hypothetical bargain, by endowing them with a credible threat of self-segregation. In the last part of the paper, I consider the question whether that move is justified by the philosophical commitments of classic liberalism/libertarianism. I tentatively conclude no. If one starts from the libertarian presupposition that the just state has no role to play in evening out differences in fortune that it has not directly brought about itself, one is driven to the view that the social contractarian bargain should take existing social arrangements, and the intrinsic costs of rearrangement, as it finds them. Of course, if we require libertarian-minded theorists to treat exit options more realistically, we make it much more likely that the outcome of their social contractarian thought experiment will simply end up legitimating what is. That result - turning libertarians into apologists for the status quo - may seem ironic, or at least counterintuitive. But, as I suggest at the end, it follows from the relatively thick view of selves, and parsimonious view of our collective responsibility to fix the exigencies of fortune that befall those selves, that animates classic liberalism and libertarianism.

Suggested Citation

Fried, Barbara H., If You Don't Like it, Leave it: The Problem of Exit in Social Contractarian Arguments (January 9, 2002). Phil. & Pub. Affairs 31:1, 40-70 (Winter 2003); Stanford Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 31. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=296584 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.296584

Barbara H. Fried (Contact Author)

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