The idea that government authority derives originally from an agreement between ruler and ruled in which the former agrees to provide order in return for obedience from the latter. It has been used to support both absolutism (Thomas Hobbes) and democracy (John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau).
The term was revived in the UK in 1974 when a head-on clash between the Conservative government and the trade unions resulted in a general election which enabled a Labour government to take power. It now denotes an unofficial agreement (hence also called ‘social compact’) between a government and organized labour that, in return for control of prices, rents, and so on, the unions would refrain from economically disruptive wage demands.
The social contract derives its moral force from being one to which a free individual would reasonably consent. In Hobbes's version the position of free individuals ‘in a state of nature’ is presented as so dire that they contract to submit all except their actual lives to the will of the sovereign who thus exercises an almost absolute political authority. The contract in Hobbes is between individuals to give up their natural rights, leaving an all-powerful sovereign in possession of his or her own, thus unmodified by any promises on his part.
In Locke's formulation the contract is amongst the individuals in a more orderly state of nature, possessing ‘natural law’, a moral force limiting contractors as to what they can promise. The area of ‘trust’ or discretion allowed to the monarch as chief of the executive is thus limited by the intentions of those entering society (‘...the preservation of their lives, liberties and estates’ through the establishment of known, binding, and universally applicable laws). The exercise of prerogative power to the detriment of these ends is ipso facto illegal, and, if persisted in, justifies resistance by the citizens.
In Rousseau's version the moral justification for the exercise of political power requires constant reaffirmation in the meeting of citizens to endorse the decisions and personnel of the government, as being consistent with the ‘general will’, that is with the persistence of equality and freedom in the society.
Modern social contract theory
Social contract theory has survived a period of disrepute during the 1950s and early 1960s, and versions have been incorporated in the work of modern political theorists.
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