The Social Contract is one of the keystones of modern democracy. From the United States, all the way to Oceania, South America and the European Union have some form of Social Contract even if it is not a democracy. But just because there is a Social Contract that does not mean that it is being used to its full extent.
I would like to establish what is the difference between a Social Contract and what was the way of living before it was proposed by authors like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes.
After the fall of Rome, while Gothic tribes were settling down, the notion of the tribe slowly eroded and shifted to a property perspective, the King or head of state owned the land, or at least owned some part of it while his vassals owned other land and promising paying liege tax to the King. This system of liege and a Kingdom is feudalism. In an interesting a system with balances and checks since the King is accountable by Independent cities, Nobles, and the clergy.
With the progressive Absolutism of Kings during the reign of Louis XIV, with academic justifications put forward by Robert Filmer, the King was the owner of the land and only judged by God that chose him as his representative. This is when John Locke publishes Two Treatises on Government, a first one counter augmenting Filmer’s thesis, and a second treatises laying the basis of the Social Contract.
For Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, men decided together to converge in society due to the benefits of a society over the Natural State of living. The opinion of how the natural state actually was established differs in all these thinker’s opinions, but they all agreed that God did not have anything to do with the social fabric that was put in place, and neither that the King, who neither owns the land nor represents god.
For Hobbes what would keep the Social Contract intact would be a Leviathan of a leader. To read more on Hobbes’ ideas you can read this article.
For John Locke a government would exist, but its only function would be to protect people’s three rights, a right to life, a right to liberty and a right to property. If this government would be just an executive/judicial power, then the theory would prove itself more libertarian. But Locke defended legislative power, and that this government would contain judicial, legislative, and executive power. And that this government could stay in power for life.
The separation of power came with Montesquieu and his The Spirit of Laws.
But it is in Jean-Jacques Rousseau that we see the form of government that we are more familiar in democracy. Separation of Powers, Voting of legislative bodies, a constitution, and mainly the justification for this way of government.
The point to make here is that all of these are Social Contracts. And that all of these are subject to the same critic. How would this contract be handled? Is it an actual physical contract? Is it ever renovated?
Jean-Jacques’ Social Contract is the one that answers the most questions: the physical contract is the Constitution that lays the rights that the future bodies of government swear to protect, and it is renovated with voting.
But what happens when people vote for someone that does not swear by this constitution? The easy answer would be that this party or candidate is unconstitutional and thus it should not be voted in. But what if the candidate does not look unconstitutional? Then one would argue that the people were tricked.
This is what happened to several liberal democracies in Europe during the 20th century. And sometimes the candidates were openly against the constitution.
The reality is that in the same way that the people can overthrow the government and institute a new social contract, the people can also vote someone that will be against the constitution which is the closest there is to the physical version of the constitution. A modern-day example of this would be Lukashenko.
The same unconstitutional candidate can completely break the social contract, if this supposed candidate decides arbitrarily who gets to live or not, like Franco used to do, then the candidate cannot qualify for a Lockean Social Contract.
And if a candidate decides who can or cannot operate business like Hitler used to do, or even examples like Xi Jinping clearly benefiting businesses that pay loyalty to the regime, then he does not qualify for the position of Leviathan as a moderator of conflict, because the candidate becomes, through corporativism, owner and decider of the land.
The conclusion that I want to reach is that no dictatorship or authoritarian regime could ever be considered a Social Contract, even if voted by the people. The human being may accept slavery as an alternative to death, but just because such decision was made one cannot say it is a social contract, because no unfair contract could be called a willingly signed contract; any signed contract under coercion is considered an invalid contract. The reason why Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract is the most common is because it is the one that went the furthest to prevent a dictatorship. And yet it still allows one to happen. Thus, the paradox of the Social Contract.