This is the first article in a series critiquing Social Contract Theory. The second is located here: If you don’t like it, leave!
If you’ve ever discussed politics at a level more in-depth than red vs blue, someone has probably brought up Social Contract Theory. This topic is filled with more convoluted and fuzzy thinking than nearly anything else. In this series, I intend to help clear things up as well as show why at best, we should be highly skeptical of any variant of Social Contract Theory
What is Social Contract Theory?
Social Contract Theory is a concept that attempts to explain why states (governments) have the authority to rule. In other words, it addresses the question of why it is O.K. for state agents to do things to civilians which civilians are typically not allowed to do to others. Additionally, Social Contract Theory tries to show why citizens of a nation-state should be obligated to obey the rules which are set forth.
Why does Social Contract Theory matter?
As I have mentioned, the state and/or state agents do things to people most of us would consider illegitimate if done by a non-state agent or entity. They can tax, imprison, conscript, fine, enforce myriad laws and in general, order others around. How we view the nature of the state is greatly affected by whether or not there is a convincing and coherent argument that explains why it has these privileges. Without a robust theory, law enforcement looks more like arbitrary violence, conscription starts to look similar to slavery, and taxes become comparable to robbery. Understanding whether or not these theories have merit informs our broader perspective on politics.
What is the theory?
That’s actually not an easy or simple answer, and since it is not, adherents of Social Contract Theory are faced with a problem. If you ask 10 people why states have the authority to make and enforce law, you will probably get 10 different answers (or more). But as the name implies, many versions of Social Contract Theory center around the idea that there is some sort of agreement between the state and its citizens, or between all members of society. So the fact that many people have varying ideas of what the social contract actually is and the obligations it entails, makes a claim about some “agreement” rather dubious. If there really was an agreement about such a crucial issue, wouldn’t we all know what it was? Sure, there could be some minor differences in interpretation, but common responses range from “we delegated the state to rule over us” or “we all owe something to each other” and “you benefit from state services, so you are obligated to obey.” to “the state protects your rights in exchange for your obedience” and even “you consented to the social contract by living here.” All imply some agreement or common understanding of obligations or means of acquiring obligations, yet all these examples describe a social contract that is somewhat different. Clearly, there is no common understanding.
This lack of consensus is a glimpse into the difficulties any theory must overcome. Throughout the rest of this series, I will describe all of the justifications for state authority and versions of Social Contract Theory that I have encountered. I will also present my critique of each and every one.