Does the Social Contract Exist?

The purpose of this post is to explore whether the concept of the Social Contract possesses validity (I was stirred into action after watching the following Youtube video by the Anarcho-Capitalist Michael Shanklin which dismisses the concept out of hand http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j38KEmUWl3w). The Social Contract is the idea that individuals surrender some of their liberty to the state and, in return the state protects their natural rights. For example supporters of the Social Contract contend that we surrender the right to enforce our own law and order in return for the protection of the state’s police and armed services. Writing in his Leviathan in 1651 the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes describes the period prior to governmental authority coming into force thus
“Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. … whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of warre, where every man is enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherin men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, no use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force: no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short”. To avoid the evils of nature, Hobbes argues man instituted government.
In his video Shanklin portrays those who support the idea of a Social Contract as actually contending that the Contract does, in fact exist. This is not correct. Hobbes, for example did not believe that people had literally contracted with a ruler and surrendered their liberty in return for the protection of government. Rather Hobbes as with many other supporters of Social Contract theory use the concept of the Social Contract as a convenient fiction to explain the emergence of governmental authority.
Leaving aside the issue of whether adherents of some form of Social Contract literally believe in it’s existence, let us turn to Shanklin’s arguments against the concept of the Contract.
According to Shanklin for a contract to be valid it requires the offerer of the service/product and the purchaser to voluntarily agree to perform the transaction. In the unfettered free market championed by Anarcho-Capitalists each person is free to contract or not without compulsion. This free market is contrasted by Shanklin with the state which he describes as “thieving” and “corrupt”. According to this line of argument we gain nothing from the state and everything from exchange of goods and services in the market place.
Shanklin argues that the idea of a contract requires competency. We do not allow young children to take out a mortgage on a home as we don’t accept that they are competent to enter into a contractual arrangement of this nature. Shanklin contends that just as we assume that a child is incapable of entering into a contract for the purchase of property we should likewise assume that a very young infant can not be said to have agreed to be bound by the provisions of the Social Contract.
In the same manner that infants can not be said to be bound by the Contract nor can adults. We have (according to Shanklin) the right to enter into (or not) contracts for our own protection. Such contracts (being voluntary) are legitimate unlike the forceable contract imposed upon us by the state.
Let us examine Shanklin’s position more closely. He is correct that we have not literally entered into a contract with government. However in democratic societies parties contend for office on the basis of manifestos. These documents can be construed as contracts with the electorate and the party which achieves office is contracted by the electorate to implement the measures set out in the manifesto. Of course not all those who vote will have cast their ballot for the winning party or parties, however they accept the result on the basis that within a specified period (4-5 years in the UK) the electorate will have the opportunity to either reelect the current incumbent or enter into a contract with another party with a different prospectus/contract. It may be objected that parties do not always implement all the proposals in their manifestos and that they may introduce legislation not previously put before the electorate at election time. This is true but as Winston Churchill once remarked “democracy is the worst possible system until you consider the alternatives”.
Turning to Shanklin’s championing of the unfettered market, it is certainly true that socities which have embraced a strong element of Capitalism have thrived economically and have, on the whole prooved to be freer and more humane than the authoritarian alternatives offered by Marxism, theocracy etc. Some form of mixed economy is inevitable and desirable for the forseeable future. However what Shanklin is arguing for is not a mixed economy, rather he wants a “nature red in tooth and claw” form of capitalism. In suchan Anarcho-Capitalist society those who can aford to contract for protection services would be able to do so but what of those who do not possess the resources to enable them to do so? They would be left to the tender mercies of the criminal world or, if they where lucky perhaps be granted protection by a charitable institution.
Shanklin is correct to point out that the state can be an exploiter. The horrors of Nazi Germany’s murder of six million Jews, Stalin’s purges and Mao’s Cultural Revolution are testament to the abuse of state power. However the unfettered market can also be exploititive. Let us imagine an unemployed man in Shanklin’s Anarcho-Capitalist utopia. He is offered work by a construction company, however given that in an Anarcho-Capitalist society there would be no state enforced health and safety regulations our imaginary worker is faced with the prospect of contracting to work in an unsafe working environment or, alternatively to go home and explain to his family that he refused the only job on offer. He takes the job and is killed due to a lack of care by his employer. Given that he freely contracted to take the position his wife and young family have no redress against the employer. In civilised societies governments of the democratic left and right recognise the need for legislation to protect workers. It is therefore the “corrupt” state so vilified by Shanklin which protects employees from exploititive working conditions.
Shanklin’s presentation is an engaging one but it is, at bottom full of holes.

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About kevinmorris101

I live and work in London and blog as a hobby. If you would like to contact me please send an email to animalia at shiftmail.com (the address is rendered in this manner in order to try and defeat spammers)!
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9 Responses to Does the Social Contract Exist?

  1. tomandlavernavickers says:

    Very interesting post. Thomas Jefferson was very dubious about freedom depleting social contracts. He believed that a bloody revolution may be required every 10 years to maintain personal liberty. He would have started a revolt himself over the U.S.’s Patriot Act. He stated that any human entity started “living for itself” after about a decade.

    • Many thanks for your comment. I don’t know a great deal about Jefferson, however your reference to him has inspired me to look him up. I seem to recollect on a different topic that Jefferson was (personally) opposed to slavery but he himself kept slaves, however perhaps I am mistaken on that point. I hope that we can avoid a bloody revolution every 10 years!

      • tomandlavernavickers says:

        You are correct about his slave owning. Unforgivable in the one who wrote The Declaration of Independence. I hope we can avoid it too, but the income disparity in the USA may eventually cause bloodshed.

  2. thelyniezian says:

    I disagree with the concept of “social contract”- a contract is something freely signed into by both parties. If I am born into a country of parents who are citizens of that country, I become a citizen of that country- I ddidn’t agree to this, it’s just assumed. If I am in a country, I am expected to obey the laws of that contry, whether or not I agreed to them.

    But just because there is no true sense of “contract” doesn’t mean the situation we have is wrong.

    • Thanks for your interesting comment. From where does the legitimacy of government derive in your view?

      • thelyniezian says:

        As a Christian, I believe it ultimately derives from God. As such, ideally, the state is there to maintain order and restrain evil, citizens have a duty to follow the laws as far as they are just, and the government has the duty to act rightly and justly and to serve the people, and in accordance with the will of God. (This, of course, rarely if ever happens.)

        On a human level, though, it rests on the mutual understanding of society and its members that that’s the way it should be. I don’t call this understanding a formal contract- it’s implicit. And if that unerstanding is stretched too far, people will decide they’ve hd enough and revolutions happen (though it rarely is that simple).

  3. Decent enough treatment on the subject. I suggest that you find, and read “Moral Principles and Political Obligations,” by A. John Simmons. He is the leading political philosopher at the moment and has caused a great stir among the contractarian community (Margalit, Raz, Miller, et al.)

    In essence you will find that short of explicit consent, that is, some conscious, deliberate, and affirming action indicating acceptance to some set of terms, e.g. being morally and politically bound to some government, one can give tacit consent. The requirements for such tacit consent foil the popular notions of tacit consent espoused particularly by Locke. They are paraphrased as follows:
    1) The agent must have awareness that consent is needed and have capacity to understand the same
    2) Must be aware that dissent is possible, and what means of dissent are recognized
    3) Must have time to dissent, and know the duration for which it is allowed
    4) Must not have unreasonable consequences to such dissent
    5) Must be reasonably easy to perform

    The first three are critical, but argument can be made about the last two.

    You will see that no population generally fits the bill for express or tacit consent, nor does any particular nation qualify as having a polity that as consent expressly or tacitly. These are the “generality and particularity” requirements for determining dissent. Continue onward in your study, philosopher. You will find that philosophical anarchism has great merit.

    Yours in contemplation,
    Kierkegaard

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