The Myth of the Social Contract

June 30, 2015

Time has now come in our discussion to take a hard look at the purposes of what the early moderns called the political “commonwealth,” or what later became “the state” or “nation-state.” Why do we all live in nations anyway? Why bother with political institutions that set laws and have powers to punish us, jail us, and take away our liberty, or even put us to death? Surely people who celebrate liberty should prefer to have no constraints and live with as much freedom as possible. So why choose to live in a state rather than in a state of nature? This paradox has been obvious to modern thinkers in the rights tradition from the beginning. As Locke said, “IF Man in the State of Nature be so free, as has been said; If he be absolute Lord of his own Person and Possessions, equal to the greatest, and subject to no Body, why will he part with his Freedom? Why will he give up this Empire, and subject himself to the Dominion and Controul of any other Power?”1

And yet there is something very deeply wrong historically and morally about the conception of the state as a social contract that is rarely if ever talked about anymore.4 We will talk about it here. The idea of the state as a social contract is a myth. It hides and trivializes both the actual histories of violence in human history that preceded the formation of any state as well as the inequalities of human life caused by the accidents of history and the violent nature of some human beings. We got here, to the place we are now, in whatever state we now live and with whatever property we now own, through a long series of events that were neither entirely fair nor equitable nor exclusively our own efforts. This is a critical insight that gets buried in the image of the state as a social contract. The idea of a contract carries with it the idea that everyone joins voluntarily and within a framework that is more or less fair to all.

You can download a copy of The_Myth_of_the_Social_Contract_Chap_8.