The Social Contract

John Locke (1632-1704) developed a theory of natural laws and natural rights which could be used to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate government, and to argue for the legitimacy of revolt against a tyrannical government. It was the government’s responsibility to protect them. Reason served to control and order political life. Individuals relinquish power, but not rights to government (as the government is supposed to preserve rights) He believed that no one ought to harm another with respect to his life, health, liberty, or possessions. For Locke, the role of the social contract that placed authority over people was to protect human equality and freedom; this is why social groups agreed to a social contract that placed an authority over them.1

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), a political philosopher and essayist, criticized some features of the Enlightenment; he claimed that Aristotle and Plato were wrong to think that the ability to reason was natural, and wrong to think that the human being was naturally directed by applying reason toward one final and universal state of perfection. Rousseau argued that inequality was not only unnatural, but that – when taken too far – it made decent government impossible. He believed laws should pursue freedom and equality.

Rousseau’s statement, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” is a reference to the social contract of his day. He maintained the wealthy trick the poor into creating a government with the sole purpose of protecting their property and locking in moral inequality as a permanent feature of civil society. In this manner, the social contract is promoted as treating everyone equally, but in reality, it is in the interest of the few who have become stronger and richer. For Rousseau the income gap is a problem – the very rich and the very poor would value money more than liberty.

The increasing income gap has become a source of concern today. In England, it is claimed problems were created because of a recent rewrite of the social contract. The government wants people to become more self-reliant, and less reliant on government programs. One measure of this was the discontinuation of free university education which closed a route out of poverty, while unemployment had doubled.This was the root cause of the riots in England in August, 2011.

Increased income inequality is occurring in the US, affecting how people think about each other, and society. Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard law professor, campaigning for the US Senate in Massachusetts, made a vigorous defense that the rich got rich courtesy of the social contract, that provides society with the rules and laws that allow a functioning society to prosper. The news media on the right join in unison to accuse her of encouraging class warfare. Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929), an American economist and sociologist, provided contemporary critique at the turn of the 20th century on the economic processes in the US. The reaction to Warren’s comments is consistent with the observations of Veblen, that is, the power of the wealthy to respond to minor challenges from new ideas as a constituency, and when they do, to claim the whole system is threatened. This class warfare label in the media, as such, is engineered over reaction.2

1 Horsman, Greg. Objectivism Lost and an Age of Disillusionment. 2012 (p 55)

2 Veblen, Thorstein, The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. New York:The McMillan Company, 1912 (p 201-202)

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