Beginner’s Guide to Political Theory: The Social Contract

The foundations of modern political discourse have been lost in a wave of misinformation, echo-chambers, and an onslaught of facts and figures brought upon the average person by social media – so much so, that it could satisfy lifetimes worth of research in centuries past. As such, it’s important to stay informed of how to form your own opinions on the political world, free from the influence of news outlets and opinions of others. This article, to be followed by a series of others, will condense and simplify the important aspects of political theory which will provide a comprehensive way of navigating through the political world, without requiring a formal curriculum. Better yet- there aren’t any tests!

At the core of most people’s ideologies is their approval of the government. Regardless of how the average person views the government, positive or negative; the basis of any society is founded upon the idea known as the “social contract”. This contract is not something signed, or even seen- it’s not even written. It’s a purely theoretical idea which is fundamental of every successful state. 

The social contract was theorized (as we know it) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762, in his book “On the Social Contract”. Within the social contract, there is a transfer of “natural rights”. A “natural right” is something that any human can do or be free from in a stateless and conventionless society, whether it is morally correct or not. To give up one’s natural right in exchange for another giving up their natural rights as well is known as a “contract”, which is the foundation of modern law. Laws are the manifestation of these contracts, such as laws condemning murder or robbery. People within a society give up their “natural right” to murder another, as it is deemed mutually beneficial to live in a society where people are free from murder. Despite those rights given up, people are still free, since everyone exists under the same commanding law that they shall not murder each other. 

The social contract exists between the government and the people as the foundation of the dynamic between them. People agree to be ruled, and in exchange, the government provides peace and security. There is an exchange of natural rights between the government and the people for the sake of mutual benefit. Most successful governments (by Western standards) use a democratic structure, in which the “general will” (the manifestation of the idea that people are letting themselves be ruled) comes about by participation in the political system. People vote because they have confidence that their will is heard, and that the government represents that. 

Some examples of policies trying to take advantage of this social contract are the extreme surveillances done into people’s lives through social media. At first, they might be declared a necessity during their campaigning stage, for the purposes of “peace and security”. These kinds of surveillance policies are often never enforced universally- and are often used to root out certain groups of people associated with political opposition groups, such as in North Korea. 

It is when the government fails to provide peace and security that societies begin to fall apart, since the governing class is in violation of the social contract. On the other hand, when the populace no longer agrees to be ruled (known as an insurrection or revolution), the government no longer guarantees peace and security- which can manifest either through violent suppression, or the dissolution of the government as a whole.

The question remains, what should we learn from the social contract? How does it help us make criticisms of the political world? In short, it should be used as a tool to gain an understanding of who is responsible for the failings of a modern state. Successful states tend to have an exchange of the populace being ruled for peace and security, between people and government respectively. Finding which end of the contract is being violated (or is being taken advantage of) allows the blame to be appropriately placed with adequate historical knowledge. 

Let’s tackle the recent events of police brutality in the United States in mid-2020. The failings of the police (which are extensions of the government, since they enforce the social contract) to provide feelings of peace and security to the populace places a violation of the social contract upon them. The populace was no longer letting itself be ruled (which manifested itself in the riots and protests) since it felt the social contract was being violated. This is just one application of the social contract theory in practise.

To cover the important aspects once again: the social contract is a fantastic analysis tool for modern political events, and breaks them down to the core. The social contract is most applicable in analyzing when a political system begins to break apart, finding who or what is the inciting event which causes the contract to break- and the chaos which ensues.