Kiwi Polemicist

July 21, 2009

• What is a “social contract”?

The comments button is at the bottom right of this post.

A few commenters have used the phrase “social contract” and this concept affects all of us but is widely misunderstood, so I thought that I’d have a closer look at it (don’t worry, it’s much simpler than it sounds).

This post has four parts:

  1. What is a social contract?
  2. Is a social contract a contract?
  3. What’s the real agenda behind social contracts?
  4. Conclusions

1-> What is a social contract?

A social contract is supposedly an agreement between individuals and the state, where the individuals surrender some rights to the state and receive social order in return.

For example, a proponent of social contract theory might argue that it is reasonable for people to pay taxes (surrender part of their property rights) to fund a police force which maintains social order by punishing those people who do things that society considers to be unacceptable¹.

To put it another way, some people view a social contract as a trade, i.e. “I give some of my money to the state and in return the state provides a police force that prevents the break down of social order”.

2-> Is a social contract a contract?

A contract has been described as an exchange of promises, e.g.

◊ Fred: “I promise to mow your lawn if you will give me $20”

◊ Barney: “I promise to give you $20 if you will mow my lawn”

Another example:

◊ Me: “I promise to give you $800 if you will give me this washing machine”

◊ Pimply, ignorant counter jumper: “I promise to give you this washing machine in the rudest manner possible if you will give me $800”

I believe that a contract is only valid if both parties freely choose to make the promises, and Western legal systems generally recognise that a contract is invalid if duress or undue influence is involved.

The state has never come to me and said “Would you like to enter into this social contract?”. Instead, the state unilaterally imposed a social contract on me because I was born in this country. There was no exchange of promises, instead the state said to me “Pay taxes (i.e. surrender your property rights) or we will send you to jail. If you do not want to go to jail and provide sufficient resistance to the police force that your taxes are paying for then we will kill you”. Thanks, that sounds like a great deal.

I believe that a social contract is not a contract because it does not involve an exchange of promises given without duress. Courts enforce the state’s unilateral social “contract” every day, but that so-called contract has never met the legal definition of a contract.

3-> What’s the real agenda behind social contracts?

Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are the three philosophers best known when it comes to social contracts. Rousseau is considered to have the greatest influence on the present democracy movement², so let’s have a look at what he said in his book titled The Social Contract (1762). If you find that it’s too chewy for you just focus on the blue bits:

“The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.” This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract [supposedly] provides the solution.
These clauses [of the social contract], properly understood, may be reduced to one — the total alienation [a legal term meaning “transfer of ownership”] of each associate [individual], together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others.

Moreover, the alienation being without reserve, the union is as perfect as it can be, and no associate has anything more to demand: for, if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all; the state of nature would thus continue, and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical [Translation: Rousseau believes that his system will only work if each person transfers ownership of themselves and all their rights to the collective].

Finally, each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.

If then we discard from the social compact what is not of its essence, we shall find that it reduces itself to the following terms [the social contract can be summarised thus]:

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.”

At once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, this act of association creates a moral and collective body [the state]… (Emphasis added. Source)

This is pure philosophical garbage and is only worthy of attention because people have adopted it and it affects how we live today. A few points to note:

  • Orwellian doublespeak #1: Rousseau contradicts himself when he says that a social contract allows each person to be “as free as before” and then says that each individual must transfer ownership of his rights to the “whole community”.
  • Orwellian doublespeak #2: “…each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody…“.
  • Rousseau is supposedly talking about democracy, and by “general will” he means “the will of the people”. This fiction is still heard today, i.e. that democratically elected governments represent the will of the people, when in fact democracy is mob rule, as described in my post The problem with democracy – Part One. Rousseau expects individual to surrender “his person and all his power”, as well as all his rights, to the “supreme direction” of the mob that is ruling the country.
  • stick figure group of 63 place of the individual personality...

  • “”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.” At once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party…“. Rousseau clearly expects each individual to allow himself to be absorbed into Big Brother (hence “in place of”). I am reminded of the Hindu goal of nirvana – nothingness. Individuals are not welcome in Rousseau’s version of utopia.
  • Rousseau is supposedly describing democracy, but it sounds a lot like a Marxist vision of a classless society. Did Marx read Rousseau?

Rousseau really does expect us to surrender every right to the state, including the right to life. The following quote shows Rousseau’s true colours – arrogant, brutal, murderous, authoritarianism:

The social treaty [contract] has for its end the preservation of the contracting parties. He who wills the end wills the means also [note the dishonest depiction of a contract freely entered into], and the means must involve some risks, and even some losses. He who wishes to preserve his life at others’ expense should also, when it is necessary, be ready to give it up for their sake. Furthermore, the citizen is no longer the judge of the dangers to which the law-desires him to expose himself; and when the prince says to him: “It is expedient for the State that you should die,” he ought to die, because it is only on that condition that he has been living in security up to the present, and because his life is no longer a mere bounty of nature, but a gift made conditionally by the State. (source)

Yes, in Rousseau’s utopian nightmarish society your very life is a conditional gift from the state. That is so twisted that it makes a spring look straight.

The true agenda of the social contract concept is revealed by Rousseau’s words, i.e.:

  • ownership (and hence control) of individuals by the state
  • surrender of all personal and property rights to the state
  • ownership and control of life itself by the state (for life to be a gift given by the state the state must first own it)

4-> Conclusions

-> It is dishonest to say that a social contract is a contract or a trade. Rather, it is a set of conditions unilaterally imposed upon people by the state, at gunpoint.

-> The goal of social contract theory is absolute state power, death of individuality, and death of personal and property rights (often mistakenly called civil rights or civil liberties³).

-> The social contract concept is a convenient deception for those people who wish to rule over other people and have those people obey them without question, up to and including the point of death.

-> Governments and individuals in power who wish to run a nanny state and control the actions of individuals use “maintenance of social order” as a justification for their actions (e.g. the anti-smacking law).

-> Unless you want your very life to be a “conditional gift from the state” you should oppose social contract theory.

What do you think about the social contract concept and the points that I have raised here?

Highly recommended: the Mises Institute has a good article on Rousseau and how he affects us today titled Modern State’s Evil Prophet.


1. In fact the police punish those who do what the state thinks is unacceptable – click here for for an example of this.

2. Source, para 3.

3. This is explained in my post There is no such thing as “human rights”: a classical liberal perspective on the Electoral Finance Act.




  1. […] If they did something like this they’d justify it by saying that we should be willing to give up our right to privacy in order to allow the state to maintain social order – read more about that in my post What is a social contract?. […]

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