In the history of Western philosophy and social theory, no really silly idea has been more successful than the theory of the social contract.
It is in fact not a theory of the social contract. It is a theory of the political contract. It is the idea, promoted by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that, at some point in history, people got together and voluntarily transferred their personal rights to the state. Their rights, in short, were alienable.
Hobbes and Locke spoke of this event as if it really happened. Rousseau was much more honest. His words in his essay, “A Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind” (1754), went right to the point:
Let us begin then by laying facts aside, as they do not affect the question. The investigations we may enter into, in treating this subject, must not be considered as historical truths, but only as mere conditional and hypothetical reasonings, rather calculated to explain the nature of things, than to ascertain their actual origin; just like the hypotheses which our physicists daily form respecting the formation of the world. Religion commands us to believe that, God Himself having taken men out of a state of nature immediately after the creation, they are unequal only because it is His will they should be so: but it does not forbid us to form conjectures based solely on the nature of man, and the beings around him, concerning what might have become of the human race, if it had been left to itself. This then is the question asked me, and that which I propose to discuss in the following discourse.
This was the theoretical foundation of his 1762 book, which has had enormous influence, almost all of it pernicious: The Social Contract.
First, the whole idea the social contract assumes that there was a covenant among men at some point. These men represented all of humanity, which means they were something comparable to the society of Cain and Abel. The promoters of social contract theory don’t say this exactly, but this is what they mean when they are talking about the state of nature.
I’m a great believer in representative covenants. The doctrine of original sin is based on such a concept. There was a covenant between God and Adam, and Adam and Eve broke it. This is a familiar doctrine in history of the West.
Immediately after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden (Genesis 3), we have story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). This is where all discussions of political contract should begin. There is a bad guy, filled with envy: Cain. There is a good guy, doing his best to serve God: Abel. The bad guy uses violence against the good guy.
In the story, Cain knows that he has committed a sin. At first, he tries to cover it up. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He assumes that God cannot figure out where Abel is. Then, when God pronounces negative sanctions against him, he cries out in despair, because he knows that other men will bring negative sanctions against him. This line of reasoning rests on the assumption: there is an existing structure of civil government. There is some kind of a criminal justice system. There is a system for bringing negative physical sanctions against trespassers.
Here, in incipient form, we have the story of the origin of civil government. There is no discussion of exactly how it began, but it is clear that it existed by the time that Cain slew Abel.
I have a phrase for this theory of the origin of civil government. I don’t call it a social contract theory. I call it the bully theory of government. I don’t mean bully in the sense of Theodore Roosevelt’s bully pulpit, although the two are related in the person of Teddy Roosevelt. He spoke loudly and carried a big stick. My bully theory is basically the Scut Farkas theory of government.
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)