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  • Oren Levin-Waldman

The Importance of a Social Contract

Arguably an election and its ensuing peaceful transfer of power reflects a social contract of sorts. Through the ballot box, the public gives the sovereign the right to govern and in so doing it is offering its tacit approval for the continuation of that society’s governing arrangements. At a minimum, the government is supposed to provide its citizens basic protections. One wonders, then, when crime rates rise and the public feels increasingly unsafe, whether the basic social contract has not been broken.

We might want to look towards some of the classical social contract theorists for guidance. Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan wrote that life in a state of nature was nasty, brutish and short. While we all enjoyed perfect liberty, we weren’t necessarily free from an untimely death. Therefore, rational individuals would enter into a social contract with the sovereign whose power and authority would be absolute. They would surrender their liberty in exchange for protection, i.e. what we might call public safety. Hobbes is believed to be rationalizing absolute monarchy. And yet, he is also believed to be a precursor to liberalism. Although his solution isn’t liberal, the social contract nonetheless rests on liberal assumptions, mainly that individuals who are rational beings who follow their agency come to the conclusion that it is in their best interests to be safe.

John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government took this further. Individuals in a state of nature would enter into a social contract with the sovereign to protect certain things, mainly themselves and their property. Therefore, they would surrender their absolute liberty in exchange for the sovereign’s protection of them and their property. Because property obtained value from the labor that individuals invested into it, property was considered to be an extension of the individual self.

The sovereign, however, would only be empowered to provide protection, and Locke went so far as to say that if the sovereign violated people’s rights, mainly their property rights, they would be within their rights to overthrow the sovereign and form a new government that would live up to the terms of the social contract. Again, Locke is writing in a time of monarchy, but he is specifically offering justification for the Glorious Revolution of 1688. And yet, the American founders would incorporate this language in the American Declaration of Independence.

If we think about this, we have to consider the logical implications. This was certainly the argument that the confederacy made in the runup to the American Civil War. They said that secession was within their rights because they claimed the national government wasn’t going to protect their property, mainly slaves. But there are also obvious limitations to this argument as well. Rebellion against the sovereign is only justified when it is the only way to remove an ineffective and/or corrupt sovereign.

When there is in place an electoral process for removing the government and putting in place another, it is difficult to justify armed rebellion against the sovereign. One wonders, then, if those campaigning in the recent midterm election that rising crime was a problem, might not have had a better argument had they asserted that by not doing anything about it that the various state and local governments around the country were simply violating the basic social contract.

One might, of course, respond to this with the claim that the public had its vote and many of the officials who have been doing nothing about it were reelected. This would then suggest that these voters did not consider the social contract to be violated. Still, the question remains as to just what obligations does the government have to its citizens. Crime and public safety are the obvious examples because they speak to the physical safety that the social contract theorists had in mind.

There was no electoral process in Locke’s England that would allow the public to replace the sovereign. Still, in his preface to the Second Treatise Locke has a note to William of Orange, who became King during the Glorious Revolution, where he admonishes him that just as he swept out of power a corrupt sovereign, he too can just as easily be swept out of power too. Locke was also clear that he would be obligated to protect property.

Today property has different meanings and often refers to economic interests. To protect citizens can also mean to protect their welfare in terms of their economic well-being. In other words, how bad would the economy have to be for the public to rise up in rebellion for non-responsiveness? Although it is true that we go out every two years to elect and/or reelect our Congress, we also know from many studies out there that members of Congress tend to only be responsive to the affluent.

Or as has been the case in recent years, our public officials mask their non-responsiveness to the public by focusing on issues that fail to address their concerns. We saw this in the midterm. For many, the issues were rising crime, rising prices due to high inflation, and energy independence. But Democrats ran on a platform of “saving our democracy” from the Republicans. Republicans, however, in their constant state of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity, didn’t come back and say that they were violating the social contract by failing to protect American jobs.

The root cause of inflation is the disruption in supply chains. So why didn’t anybody campaign on a platform of bringing American jobs, specifically in manufacturing, back? Exporting jobs or allowing good jobs to leave the country actually does go to the heart of the government's obligation in a social contract because it ultimately affects national security.

When the country loses good jobs, which effectively means that the middle class disappears, there is potential for serious strife between the top and the bottom that the nation’s security is imperiled. A country without a strong economy is not really secure. The question remains as to just how secure we will be if inflation worsens, and we find ourselves in a recession (partly the result of Fed measures to curb inflation) where millions are out of work? To return to our philosophic point, would non-responsiveness to the public on these very issues be sufficient grounds for a rebellion against the government?

Of course, that isn’t how things work. It is only if and when rebellions succeed that they can be justified by the winners. And we still have our elections. Maybe it is time for those seeking office to really address the issues and whether they will uphold the basic social contract if elected.

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