The Social Contract is an old philosophical idea that people consent to be governed
Effectively this means that people give up some freedoms but benefit from the fairness and order provided by the government. The agreed strictures of government are an improvement over oppressive or quixotic rules of local leaders who have no representative role. Implicit in the idea is that people have the maximum freedoms consistent with the Social Contract. However there are limits to the powers of government. This is the case especially for democratic governments which are made up of our elected representatives who make decisions on our behalf.
public good thinks the Social Contract is a useful way of thinking about the relationship between government and citizens. Governments who make rules or levy taxes that are unfair face losing at elections but even between elections the Social Contract means that the government makes an implicit contract of fair, just and ethical behaviour with citizens. For example a government shouldn’t provide additional benefit to those who have more wealth, power or influence or try to hand on their responsibilities to legislate, support or care for citizens to other parties who are not able to make the same kinds of guarantees about fairness and equity.
Social Contract thinking in New Zealand
New Zealand economist Brian Easton writing in 1994 argued that New Zealand, more so than many countries, has an explicit social contract in the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document as well as in other legislation such as the Social Security Act of 1938. Easton wrote “the universalism we expect in our social security, health, and education arises because the contract involves a tradeoff between everyone contributing to the support of the welfare state, and thereby receiving reciprocal benefits when they are in need”.
He cites the NZ Treasury’s 1987 Briefing to the Incoming Government, also called The Limits of Government as a move away from the Social Contract by Treasury on the election of the Labour Government. Easton goes on to say that governments since then have not honoured the Social Contract with New Zealand citizens. He says that these things are the proper role for government. When the Treaty is not acknowledged as NZ’s founding document occur or cuts to Social Security provision or the privatisation of assets and of services these are breaches of the social contract. He wrote that thse breaches have led to the alienation that New Zealanders have felt from the political process and argues that it was this that led to the campaign for the adoption of MMP. He added that while reform of our electoral procedures was vital, it is not enough. We also need to “renew the covenant, the compact, and the contract of the Social Contract”
Philosophers and the Social Contract
Further back the Social Contract has an interesting history with its origins going back as far as Greek and Roman times. Many European political philosophers have been instrumental in it’s development.
John Locke’s (1632 – 1704) theory of rights proposed the idea that people established civil society as a way to resolve conflicts within a system that should protect life, health, liberty and possessions. Locke also advocated governmental separation of powers for example between elected lawmakers and the justice system. These ideas would come to have profound influence on the and the Constitution of the United States“. The expression Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” in the American Declaration of Independence is thought to have come from Locke’s ideas.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) wrote On the Social Contract or Principles of Political Rights (Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique) to explore whether there can be a legitimate political authority. He describes the Social Contract as being between people. The idea is that we each give up some freedoms and consent to be governed. Rousseau thought that the law should be the expression of the general will of all people (also understood by him as the Rule of Law). By joining together into civil society individuals can “both preserve themselves and remain free”. This is because submission to the authority of the general will of the people as a whole guarantees individuals freedom from oppression by the wills of others and also ensures that they are, collectively, the authors of the law. This was expressed in the Declaration of the Rights of Men and of Citizens during the French Revolution as “All citizens have the right to contribute personally, or through their representatives, to the formation of the general will”
John Rawls (1921-2002) was an American philosopher concerned with the nature of justice and the standpoint a person should take in thinking about it. His contribution to the Social Contract envisaged a thought experiment called “the original position” which considered the kinds of laws that would be made if the lawmakers didn’t know where they stood in society. For example a group of law-makers would not write laws which disadvantaged particular groups of people by gender, race, age, intelligence, wealth, skills, education, religion for example because they would not know the likely impact on them. He proposed that fair law-makers should take the position that they do not know where they stand in making rules. He also proposed that rules which give more of societies goods to its least well off members to overcome disadvantage should be more important than rules providing for exact equality.