One knowledge or the quest for one knowledge can lead to knowledge of another thing. I was confronted with the case of a young man who says he feels caged when he is in school. I recalled the quote by Jean-Jacques Rousseau which fits the situation, “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.” I wanted to understand the reasoning behind the statement but found that it was the opening statement in Rousseau’s treatise on the fundamental concept of Social Contract. The concept is fundamental to the extent that it has been the basis for justification of government in all societies from monarchy (totalitarianism) to liberal democracies. I decided to put on hold my quest to understand Rousseau’s rationale and to look at the social contract concept first.
Anyone in Nigeria that has read the justification of the National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy (NEEDS) of the Federal Government of Nigeria in 1999 will see almost verbatim the basic wordings of the concept of social contract. A simple view of social contract – an aspect of political and moral philosophy – is that individuals in a given society as rational beings agree to give up certain liberties to power for collective protection of their rights. In law a contract obtains when there are offer and acceptance of which the terms and conditions are well known. A social contract, therefore, implies a relationship between the people and the individual or individuals given the power to act on behalf of the many or plurality. Nigeria’s problem may as well stem from the lack of understanding of the terms and conditions of the current union and lack of agreement between the rulers and the ruled.
Extending backwards, Swiss-born philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) used social contract theory to explain why there should be organized government in “The Social Contract” (1762). He used Hobbes’ idea of State of Nature as a starting point then introduced the issues of a moral and civic obligation of citizens or individuals involved in the contract with an authority. He also emphasized that ultimate power (General Will) lies with the people. Rousseau’s ideas deeply influenced the French Revolution (1789-1799) and to some extent, the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence of the United States which led to independence in 1776.
Further back in time, John Locke (1632-1704), British philosopher agreed and disagreed with Thomas Hobbes his elder, who was the modern pioneer of social contract theory. John Locke in “Two Treatises of Government” (1690) agreed with the principle of ceding some individual rights to a control mechanism once that mechanism assures the preservation and protection of both individual and property rights. Where that mechanism, whether a monarch or some other failed in these solemn duties, the people reserved the right to revolt and to remove that mechanism, call it authority or power. The divergence in views between Hobbes. And Rousseau were two-fold: inclusion of property rights and the need to remove an authority that fails to protect individual and property rights. Hobbes did not mention property rights in his treatise and he canvassed monarchy with absolute powers. Locke’s thoughts were central in the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence.
Going further back takes us to Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) regarded as the central figure in social contract theory. In “Leviathan” (1651) he argued against the divine right of kings but held that because societies were operating under a pristine “State of Nature” where life was solitary, nasty, brutish, and short, people, in their self-interest should agree to let go their individual freedoms to a central authority who should exercise absolute control and rein in the brutish and self-seeking instincts of individuals for their good and the good of others. Hobbes used this argument to justify the organization of societies and the need for government not necessarily giving absolute consent to dictatorship.
One way of bringing this nearer is to look at the Police. Imagine that with the terror inflicted on individuals by the many bad eggs in the Force, all citizens vote to disband it. In one week, it would be difficult to live in most cities for hoodlums would be cutting off heads of citizens on the streets in daylight. Hobbes, therefore, argued for a strong central authority if society is to survive.
One can still go further backwards in time on the origins of the social contract or compact theory. Social contract was intrinsic in the Platonian dialogue in Crito. Plato’s early dialogues were like a teacher speaking through the student for Socrates never wrote down anything although he is regarded as the father of Western philosophy. In Crito, Socrates tries to convince his students of the need for him to accept the verdict against him because it is line with Law and law is the basis for the sustenance of society. His students had arranged his escape from prison to avoid execution. He rejected the idea because it would work against the need for government and rule of law. In effect even when there was clear injustice against him, Socrates preferred maintenance of the rule of law to his life.
Religionists can also see a parallel in the position taken by Jesus in the Scripture. Temple officers asked His disciples whether Jesus obeys rules such as payment of temple tax. When Jesus was told, He sought to know who should pay that tax and was informed that it was for non-Jews. Rather than fall back on the law and hire Senior Advocates as some church leaders today would do, Jesus performed a miracle, raised the money, and paid the tax (THB, Matthew 7:24-27). The statement here was that laws, even if repugnant and conflicting, aim at group cohesion and survival and should be obeyed. And, even when there is unjust government or leaders, once they have been instituted, should be obeyed for collective good. A social compact comes alive and becomes relevant when the State or authority reciprocate by way of protecting the rights of citizens. It is necessary that periodically citizens should review their relationship with the rulers. If the former is playing its card well while the later keeps its card close to its chest, issues must be raised. This is discussed below.
As earlier indicated the social contract theory is fundamental not only to political philosophy but to the entire concept of society. It thus continues to generate further inputs as well as controversy. One of the most outstanding inputs came from John Rawls in his work “A Theory of Justice” (1971) in which he countered utilitarianism and extolled individual freedom, equality, and justice in a social contract framework. Each person should be well off and should aspire to any office in the polity. If the work of Rawls is as well regarded as the impression is given, one wonders why race should be such a burning issue in USA. We may not dwell on this contribution here.
The contemporary or emerging issues on social contract theory include:
1. Assumptions – theories are generally built on a pedestal such as assumptions. All the versions of social contract theory are based on the Hobbesian “State of Nature” idea. It is so clear that the words solitary, nasty, brutish, short referred to the Caveman. This is identified with the Palaeolithic period about 3.3 million years ago as indicated by Wikipedia of 2020. The humanoids were assumed to live mostly in caves apparently given the well-preserved cave paintings. They were few; had few tools; were agrarian, had few comforts and had to compete fiercely with each other and other animals for food. Would one be surprised if they were solitary, brutish, nasty, and had short life spans? There were few reasons for communal life that would necessitate leadership. This makes Hobbes’ assumption weak as a basis for the justification of the need for leadership. Nevertheless, Hobbes must be given credit for his neural effort that has had to define influence in the development of societies and nations the world over millennia. His conceptualization can be seen in the retention of the state monopoly of law enforcement (for collective security) or indirectly through the positions of Locke, Rousseau, Rawls, and others.
More evolved humans had a wider scope to operate and to achieve. Achieving meant property accumulation which reflected individual capacities. This, in turn, meant economic stratification with the corollary of social stratification. Moral issues inevitably arose including jealousies, justice in the distribution of wealth, greed and stealing among others. It can be deduced that it was at this stage that the need for security of life and property arose with the better endowed seeking ways and means of defending their territories against the unscrupulous desirous of both the comfort that goes with material things and the social status.
This line of reasoning justifies John Locke’s inclusion of property rights as the catalyst for the organization of societies and the need for authorities now described as government. It can also be deduced that realization of the cost and scope of individual security led to the need to pool resources into a larger block to be managed by persons accepted on the basis of tradition (monarchs and despots) or selected (democracies as far back as ancient Greece).
It is pertinent to point out that in pre-historic societies group heads existed with established procedures for selection. Having a human society or group in a state of anarchy without leadership structures appears unrealistic more so when the lower primates have been established to have had structured leadership patterns (see the case of gorillas with alpha males as well as several animals that the heads create and defend territories). It is good that analysts have agreed that Hobbes’s assumption of the state of nature as the precursor for the organization of societies is unrealistic.
An issue which emerges from this analysis is the misconception that certain human societies have no history and were anarchic. The word primitive it should be noted applies to all of mankind irrespective of race and location.
2. The theory train is derailing – aside from some countries in Western Europe, the social contract concept is gradually becoming an endangered species. What is more certain is that in the two-party tango, one party – the individuals as the collective – are dancing according to the beats as written down while the second party – the rulers – are dancing out of tune.
In some countries, while the notes as scripted remain unchanged for the collective, those for the rulers are manipulated frequently in an Animal Farm style with impunity. The collective – the electors – either watch helplessly or like Boxer in that George Orwell classic, fatalistically decide to work harder for the rulers cannot be wrong. Is there a more fitting case on this than the Trump base in the US? In the world’s most populous black nation what can one say when a handful each earn in multiples more than the country’s Chief Executive Officer for attending meetings in a cosy chamber sometimes less than one month in a year?
3. The Way Forward – human beings have evolved in such outstanding proportions the world is almost experiencing a return to Hobbes’s State of Nature which can be equated with anarchy. People in high offices, worst of all leaders of nations are restructuring their systems to fit their desires and doing so with impunity. The USA is struggling to hold out as the incumbent systematically demolishes and emasculates democratic structures and family values. But for an unbending press and a few strong voices, US would be close to the Banana Republic by now.
That Russia is a shadow of its glorious past requires little emphasis. Putin pops in and out of the office on his terms and now the rubber-stamp legislature is restructuring the Presidency the way the Boss wants. China is not part of the discussion because it’s brand of democracy is unique to that traumatized nation. In Nigeria, politically the country has but a refined State of Nature status.
A system, therefore, has to be designed to ascertain that the piper plays as the payer dictates and the dog wags the tail rather than the obverse.
One action that can keep political office holders from becoming feudal rather than the workmen they are elected to be is a system of recall. Article 1 Section 5 Clause 2 of the US constitution was the best the framers could give on the issue of holding legislators accountable for misdeeds. It is believed that the framers considered the idea of recall but there was no provision to allow for debate before the document was adopted. Thus, the much electors can do is to wait till the next election to dispense with an unpopular legislator. If it is nearly impossible to remove a Congressperson, removing a President is more difficult. Because it is the same persons that can amend the Constitution, a recall will remain a will-o-the-wisp. Same applies in other systems including Nigeria.
At the end of the day citizens have to accept that democracy as Aristotle saw it, is a perverted form of government. Polity which he recommended appears to be hazy. There is, therefore, the need for more intellectual effort to determine which form of government best suits each society and plant the social contract concept in that framework.