In the history of Western philosophy and social theory, no really silly idea has been more successful than the theory of the social contract.
It is in fact not a theory of the social contract. It is a theory of the political contract. It is the idea, promoted by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that, at some point in history, people got together and voluntarily transferred their personal rights to the state. Their rights, in short, were alienable.
Hobbes and Locke spoke of this event as if it really happened. Rousseau was much more honest. His words in his essay, „A Dissertation on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind“ (1754), went right to the point:
Let us begin then by laying facts aside, as they do not affect the question. The investigations we may enter into, in treating this subject, must not be considered as historical truths, but only as mere conditional and hypothetical reasonings, rather calculated to explain the nature of things, than to ascertain their actual origin; just like the hypotheses which our physicists daily form respecting the formation of the world. Religion commands us to believe that, God Himself having taken men out of a state of nature immediately after the creation, they are unequal only because it is His will they should be so: but it does not forbid us to form conjectures based solely on the nature of man, and the beings around him, concerning what might have become of the human race, if it had been left to itself. This then is the question asked me, and that which I propose to discuss in the following discourse.
This was the theoretical foundation of his 1762 book, which has had enormous influence, almost all of it pernicious: The Social Contract.
First, the whole idea the social contract assumes that there was a covenant among men at some point. These men represented all of humanity, which means they were something comparable to the society of Cain and Abel. The promoters of social contract theory don’t say this exactly, but this is what they mean when they are talking about the state of nature.
I’m a great believer in representative covenants. The doctrine of original sin is based on such a concept. There was a covenant between God and Adam, and Adam and Eve broke it. This is a familiar doctrine in history of the West.
Immediately after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden (Genesis 3), we have story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4). This is where all discussions of political contract should begin. There is a bad guy, filled with envy: Cain. There is a good guy, doing his best to serve God: Abel. The bad guy uses violence against the good guy.
In the story, Cain knows that he has committed a sin. At first, he tries to cover it up. „Am I my brother’s keeper?“ He assumes that God cannot figure out where Abel is. Then, when God pronounces negative sanctions against him, he cries out in despair, because he knows that other men will bring negative sanctions against him. This line of reasoning rests on the assumption: there is an existing structure of civil government. There is some kind of a criminal justice system. There is a system for bringing negative physical sanctions against trespassers.
Here, in incipient form, we have the story of the origin of civil government. There is no discussion of exactly how it began, but it is clear that it existed by the time that Cain slew Abel.
I have a phrase for this theory of the origin of civil government. I don’t call it a social contract theory. I call it the bully theory of government. I don’t mean bully in the sense of Theodore Roosevelt’s bully pulpit, although the two are related in the person of Teddy Roosevelt. He spoke loudly and carried a big stick. My bully theory is basically the Scut Farkas theory of government.
In every society, there are bullies. In every society, the victims and potential victims have ways of imposing negative sanctions on these bullies. The bullies are always operating in terms of limitations. One of the limitations is the incompetence of their subordinates. They must use the division of labor, and the kind of people who are willing to subordinate themselves to bullies are third-raters. I have written about this here: http://www.garynorth.com/public/12462.cfm.
Hayek wrote a famous chapter, probably his most famous chapter: „Why the Worst Get on Top.“ It is Chapter 10 in his book, The Road to Serfdom (1944). What he did not mention there was this: the worst who get on top always do so by means of the misuse of state power. This always backfires on them or their institutional heirs. The constant expansion of the state leads to built-in resistance. The more that the state attempts to control, the less it is able to control. The more that the state attempts to imitate God, the more it stumbles against its limitations. Above all, this is the problem of the centralization of knowledge. The central planners want to be omniscient, but they are not omniscient. We must we go back to another essay of Hayek’s: „The Use of Knowledge in Society“ (1945). No bureaucratic committee can ever possess the same amount of knowledge as society in general. This knowledge is possessed at the local level. It takes the profit and loss system of the free market to mobilize this information.
I don’t need footnotes to demonstrate this. I demonstrate it — demon-strate — with David Warner, in Time Bandits.
One of my favorite movies is devoted to this theme. Almost nobody has ever seen it. It starred Frank Sinatra: Johnny Concho (1956). I wish it were online. It is about a man who has carte blanche in a small town. He wins at card games. He doesn’t have to work. He lives the good life. He lives the good life because his older brother, Red Concho, is a gunslinger. Red doesn’t live in town. He rides around the West. The town likes it this way. The sheriff likes it this way. Johnny likes it this way.
Then, one day, two gunslingers come to town. There is a leader, and there is a subordinate. They inform the town that they have killed Red Concho. They take over the town. Two bullies have eliminated one bully, and the town now suffers.
The town’s redemption comes only when Johnny faces up to the two bullies. They pull their guns and begin to fire bullets into him. At that point, every man in town is lined up along Main Street. From windows, they start shooting the gunslingers. The town finally stands up for its rights. Concho represents them. But there is still going to be a sheriff. The town is armed, but there is always a representative of the town. This is part of the system of negative sanctions. Somebody has a badge. Somebody has a gun. But when people with badges and guns get out of hand, there are two ways of dealing with it. One is revolution, which is what the town imposed on the bullies in the movie. The other is the patient bearing of burdens, on the assumption that illegitimate civil government ultimately fails. All empires die. All empires run out of money. All empires run out of victims to extract wealth from.
You don’t need a convoluted theory of the social contract to explain civil government. All you need to know is this: at some point, Scut Farkas is going to push someone too far.