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Social Contract (Liberalism)

A-Level, IB
AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 3 Jun 2020

The social contract is a common term within political discourse which refers to an invisible contract between the people and the state.

Both parties to the contract should behave as if it was tangible and real. Thomas Paine once observed that the social contract “is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.”

The liberal position on the social contract derives almost entirely from the pioneering work of John Locke (1690). John Locke argued that individuals consent to be governed. This consent may be tacit; in that it is not formally expressed, but consent exists and is provided to the government. Locke also believed that individuals are shaped by their rational interest. For instance, they leave the state of nature (in which no social contract exists) to protect their individual rights. Crucially, only the agents of the state are powerful enough to provide the required level of protection against that which threatens our liberty. By entering a social contract with the state, the individual is seeking to protect their liberty from the actions of those that pose a threat to it. Far from representing a loss of liberty, offering consent to the state strengthens the liberty of the individual.

As with any contract, there are rights and duties that both parties must abide by. To illustrate, the state has the right to punish those who break the law in some way. Equally, the state must limit itself to that which protects our liberties and freedom. In Locke’s words “government has no other end than the preservation of property.” If the state were to exceed this power, it would violate the social contract. Individuals would therefore be within their rights to withdraw their consent to be governed. This right is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence.

The Lockean notion of the social contract remains one of the most enduring aspects of liberal thought. As with all liberal theorists, Locke believes that authority should arise from below rather than above and can only be based solely upon the consent of the governed. In other words, the role and legitimacy of the state must be based upon the agreement of the people. Locke was also the first to put forward the liberal view that law is an essential prerequisite of freedom itself with his maxim “where laws do not exist, man has no freedom.”

The central themes of the social contract have been explored further by latter-day liberals such as Karl Popper. He argued that good government can only exist in an open society in which we are free to express our thoughts effectively and replace the government by peaceful means. He also claimed that restrictions upon freedom of speech tend to serve the vested interests of the powerful. Partly because of this, liberals strongly support dissidents who express opinions that are critical of the ruling regime. They also celebrate those who seek to impose change via peaceful measures.

In the contemporary era, the issue of consent remains as relevant as ever. The principle that consent should derive from the people holds a large degree of consensus (particularly in the West), although its application is hardly applied in a consistent manner. Where power is exercised without the consent of the people, the principle of gaining the consent of the people offers the hope of a more democratic way of life. In doing so, Lockean ideas are brought to life.

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