Perhaps one of the most misused devices for arguing against classical liberalism has been the social contract “Taxes is the price we pay to live in society” is something one might hear to argue for state intervention and taxation. Before we dive into how social contract theory and classical liberalism interact, it is important to note that it is not the only explanation for the foundation of political society, but one among different ways that classical liberals rationalise it. Even within social contract theory, there are branches of thought. Ultimately, I aim here to explain how some classical liberals view the social contract, which other classical liberals will find as a contentious explanation for political society and that its conclusion is not necessarily statist. For anyone interested in another explanation for political society, I would direct you to Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. In here, Nozick uses an invisible hand explanation that also sits well in the classical liberal tradition.

Let’s start with a little use of imagination. Imagine that you and your family are living in a time where life is “short, nasty and brutish” and where “force and fraud are the cardinal virtues”. It is a constant battle not just to survive nature but also other groups who might kill you or rob you for your hunt of the day, a practice your family and you participate in as well. Simply put, the struggle is real. How do you solve this terrible situation? You could try and strike a bargain with the other groups that you would not invade them in exchange that they act in equal restrain. Perhaps with a stroke of luck, a brief period of respite allowed for ease from the nastiness of invasion and all individuals in each group like that ease. The ease where no one would kill you, kidnap you into slavery or steal your food and tools. Having known the ease known as peace you can focus on making better tools and building better settlements. In either method, the social contract is formed explicitly or implicitly.

This life is what Hobbes calls in The Leviathan, the state of nature. Doesn’t sound too fun does it? It is not uncommon for me to hear “This is why we need government!” as the answer to this state of affairs. While it is true that this was also Hobbes’s answer to the problem, it does not make it a necessary conclusion that government – or in Hobbes’s case a sovereign with unlimited power – should arise.

The social contract does not tell us what ought to be done for us to uphold the contract only what we must not do in order to uphold it. What we must not do then is invading the life, liberty and property of each other. If we think of it this way, we are upholding the social contract when we do not take what is not ours, whether by coercion or fraudulent means whether socially, politically or economically. The social contract entails the recognition of each individual’s right to themselves, their autonomy and their property. If this is so, how does the social contract – which is the agreement not to invade and coerce each other – allow the notion of a coercive and invasive institution?

This is where Rousseau comes in, with The Social Contract. Rousseau argues that the collective is an individual and supersedes the individuals that compose it. He boils down his theory of the social contract to this:
“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”
It is perhaps in this vein that we get this conclusion of the necessity of government. Yet there is something off about this line of thinking. What is the general will? How do we know the general will if one is all and all is one? If I am the general will as you are, how would either of us know the supreme direction to be taken when we disagree? A great deal of hocus-pocus is required to rationalise the general will. Rousseau’s rationale is this:
“As long as a number of men gathered together regard themselves as a single body, they have only a single will, which is concerned with the survival and well-being of all of them.”
Again this raises more question than answers. The assumption that there exist uniform desires and degrees of desires in each of us does not correspond to reality. This mystical general will then has no value so far as we can see in determining any direction, moreover the subtle claim of the general will’s moral supremacy is unsubstantiated as well.

How does classical liberalism view social contract theory?

Within the natural theory framework that some classical liberals – like Locke and Hobbes – adhere to, the social contract is the mutual recognition between individuals to acknowledge the natural rights of individual sovereignty, which is violated by force and fraud. However, it is up to only this point that Hobbes is being followed, since his premise while strong is reasoned to an unnecessary conclusion, as mentioned before. It is here that Locke becomes a beacon. Locke saw that government was only meant to uphold the life, liberty and property of citizens. This government is necessarily built upon consent and the first object of consent is the rules of government and decision-making. Here Locke argues that consent to majority rule is a condition for government to be formed. We see then that government is very limited.

As set out before, that even within social contract theory there are variants, of which there is Gauthier and Narveson. They both set out the social contract in the form of a Prisoner’s Dilemma, within which individuals would want to maximise their gains and the result being the social contract. The assumption here is that we are all rational agents and that values are subjective. Given that nothing has inherent value but the one that we as rational agents impute to it, consent arising from a mutually advantageous exchange lends itself to the creation of the social contract. This approach is thoroughly minimalistic and gives one a better view of the various approaches to social contract theory.

Of course social contract theory is not without its weaknesses, namely how can we prove that the contract actually exists or if at any one time in history this occurred and why are any of us bound to a contract that we did not agree to. These are questions that demand answers since they threaten the foundation of social contract theory, namely consent.

It is not uncommon for the accusation of “hyper-individualism” to be thrown at classical liberal thought. However, that is a result of conflating the political and the social use of individualism. No one is born in a vacuum and we have communities that we belong to, but that does not immediately translate into extending political action into the social sphere. Within the social sphere an individual is free to do whatever he pleases except using force and fraud. Whatever lifestyle is chosen is equally acceptable and norms are developed by participation to whatever degree one chooses to. This allows individuals to express themselves free from coercion by virtue of the social contract.

Hopefully when one is thinking of invoking the social contract as a call to state intervention, one will question if it requires the use of force. Laws and policies are necessarily backed by force and the social contract does not mean that we get to rob each other blind through a third party i.e. government by mere votes. Individuals willingly doing good for their fellow men instead of being extorted is the purpose of the social contract and the classical liberal call.

This article is written by Job Lee, member of Students for Liberty (Singapore). Job is a fresh graduate of law from the University of Northampton and is temporarily working in the belly of the beast at Strata Titles Board as a case officer.

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