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Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Social Contract

I've been giving some thought to the premise of a "social contract." As I understand it, it goes like this:

I'm born in this country and by that involuntary act I'm given "citizenship." Citizenship allows me to vote on issues and people, which then become governing factors in my life, whether or not I agree. The "social contract," to which I never put my signature, binds me to accept whatever the majority decides.

Those who favor the premise say that chaos and debauchery will reign without it. Those like me, who have some reservations, think that mob rule is mob rule whether or not the mob believes it is in the right.


caheidelberger said...

The social contract theory is a little deeper than that, and it runs somewhat independent of the particular political system we choose (majority-rule democracy, representative republic, socialist consensus, philosopher-kings...) to enact it.

I think of the social contract as a deal we make with each other and with the governmment that we create. Without the social contract, we have freedom—you can do whatever you have the will and strength to do. But without the social contract (i.e., in the state of nature), you have no rights. I can, for instance, beat you senseless and throw you out of the house you build for yourself. You can moan about "property", but the only means by which you can enforce your "right" to what you build or acquire is through your personal force. Your "freedom" in the state of nature, as Thomas Hobbes said, is a solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and likely short existence. There would be chaos, but not much debauchery, as you'd be too busy digging tiger traps in your driveway and loading your shotgun to enjoy much of anything... assuming any industry remained to produce anything to enjoy.

For 99% of human beings (especially us skinny guys), the state of nature sucks. We thus make a deal with each other: we give up freedom. Instead, we create liberty, the idea of action limited not by our own individual will and strength but by rules, by laws. We create the concept of rights, things/actions/whatever to which every human is entitled, by dint not of power but of humanity.

To ensure these rights, we also make a deal with this beast (Hobbes called it the Leviathan) called government. Here lies the fundamental limitation of the social contract: we agree that, in exchange for enforcing our rules and rights, we will accept government as the biggest ass-kicker on the block. Liberty does not include the freedom for any individual or institution to become bigger and more powerful than government. The only time when we can do so is when government isn't enforcing the contract (a threshold open to much debate).

Once government and rules and rights are in place, various advantages accrue: specialization of labor, commerce supported by legal contracts, SaladShooters®, the Internet, and general social stability that beats anything most of us can enforce with two strong arms and a shotgun.

Mob rule sucks, too: that's why we need a social contract that offers strong protection of minority rights. The social contract can do that much better than the state of nature.

taco said...

@ caheidelberger - well said!

larry kurtz said...

Cory, quit being so practical.

I have great sympathy for those like Bob and ip that resist the long arm of DC and its appentages. My fear of the South Dakota Department of Public Safety is far stronger, however, than the Montana Highway Patrol or even the FBI, for example. The reasons should be obvious since you extolled them so perspicaciously. If you like the free market, think Ciudad Juarez. I'm with you..."carrying a lawyer is like carrying a gun--sooner or later you'll have to use it."

East River and West River are two very different places, think Detroit and Billings, if Rapid and Sioux Falls aren't contrast enough.

This discussion is happening here, too.

Bob, do you have to live in South Dakota?

larry kurtz said...


Duffer said...

Corey . . . if you rattled that rap off the cuff . . that's something. It reads like a Cliff-Notes from Political Thought class. Clarity.

Neal said...

Bob said:
"[M]ob rule is mob rule whether or not the mob believes it is in the right."

The Bill of Rights guarantees that certain freedoms cannot be abridged, regardless of what the mob says.

Bill Fleming said...

I agree, Duffer. Cory's blurb should be published somewhere. It's excellent.

Bob Newland said...

The Bill of Rights hardly "guarantees" anything. It does specify certain rights, which the courts abrogate daily.

The 4th Amendment specifies, for example, that we shall not be subject to unreasonable search and seizure. The courts act as if the word "unreasonable" is not subject to reason.

Duffer said...

Bob - B I N G O

Is it the Court's ignorance of the intent of the documents, or their surrender to pressure from police-state prosecutors and politicians that mine career capital through (ends justify means) methods?

The criminal justice system in this country rivals the military industrial complex as a self-sustaining bureaucracy.

The vote against protection from unreasonable search/seizure in Pierre is 3-2. Should Supreme Court judges be selected by some other process? Sure looks that way.

Zealous prosecutors strive to become politicians or judges. Either way, we're screwed.

Bob Newland said...

Legislators arbitrarily create crimes from whole cloth. Prosecutors are largely gel-haired punks (Glenn Brenner and Lance Russell come to mind, except that gel on Russell's hair would be somewhat superfluous) who maintain that convictions are synonymous with justice.

Judges? Who can fathom what they have on their minds when they listen to cops lie and know they're lying and still judge in their favor?

Bob Newland said...

I think government would serve itself better if it confined itself largely to its primary mission, i.e., the protection of folks' rights to cut deals with each other, along with the the enforcement of the terms of those deals.

Secondary to that (and not objectionable, generally, to me) is the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges.

Education? Government has never educated a person except in corruption.

Bill Fleming said...

So, did you go to private schools, Bob? And what about your stint in the military? Didn't you get any education there? (Just kidding... happy new year, man.)

caheidelberger said...

(Thanks, taco, duffer and Bill: I'm glad that brief discourse came out clearly. Yes, that was off the cuff: comes from years of teaching kids the concept in Lincoln-Douglas debate. High schoolers debate it regularly.)

Larry, yes, South Dakota's Leviathan does screw up and deserves a good swat on the nose. Bob, I love the 4th Amendment and agree it deserves much more respect from government (sobriety checkpoints, eminent domain for TransCanada, warrantless wiretaps —all crap!). But Bob, I'm still inclined to choose efforts within the current system to make government better fulfill its obligations rather than pursuing your minarchist agenda of shrinking government's obligations.

And on education: I quit Harvard after two months because I could get a comparable education at SD-State-U and incur zero debt. I still have no regrets about taking that bargain.


Bob Newland said...

I grant the inevitability of government and the social contract, even if I don't recognize government's legitimacy in almost any of its incursions.

Given the inevitability of government's self-assignment of the monopoly of force, then there is little we can do except attempt to limit its incursions. That is what minarchists do.

I don't know anyone who does not believe that government attempts to do too much. We diverge on where we should place our efforts to slow its incursions.

caheidelberger said...

Ah, but it's not a self-assignment: we assign that monopoly of force to the government. I agree that our actual agency in that assignment is complicated by what you cite above, our involuntary act of being born into a society where the government does its thing. But perhaps we can say each of us "ratifies" the social contract when we oppose other individuals who would reclaim their individual authority to use force. When one person starts acting up (stealing, raping, killing), most of us call the cops. Even if you show a little extra initiative and collar a fleeing mugger, you probably don't haul him to your woodshed and incarcerate him yourself. You call 911 and get the government to handle the lasting application of force. We may not sign the social contract in the delivery room, but we tacitly accept it through our later actions and the social pressure we bring to bear on our neighbors and kids.

As for government trying to do too much: add me as a counterexample to your list. Government tries to do too much in some areas, but it does too little in others. Local example: my school district spends far too much to support athletics. It spends far too little to support foreign language, arts, debate, and other valuable academic skills. I would speed government incursion in some areas (like government protection of net neutrality so we can keep having this discussion and share it freely with others).