The Social Contract: Summary & Author

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and experience teaching.

Do you think that the people should set the laws? Or maybe that government is best suited just enforcing the laws that the people place? If so, you're probably going to like the idea of The Social Contract.

What is The Social Contract?

Imagine that you are playing a game of dodge ball. Suddenly, just about the time you're about to win, the rules change, and you find yourself without your advantage. What would you do? Would you endeavor to fight it out, just taking the rule change as your lot in life? Or would you quit, citing the fact that the rule change was unfair? Chances are, unless you're playing with a 4 year old, you'd just walk away if not everyone was respecting the original rules. After all, it doesn't make much sense to play a game you can't win, does it? This idea that the rules, or laws, must be created by the people who play the game and must be respected in a society is part of The Social Contract, a central philosophical thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a political philosopher who influenced the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. Basically, Rousseau argued against monarchies or governments that gave all the power to only a few people. He said all men are born free, and that they are only subject to the laws they created or agreed to.

Title page of The Social Contract
Title page of The Social Contract

But how can you keep fellow players in dodgeball from changing the rules? Many children appoint some kind of a judge, a person who decides whether or not all of the original rules are being respected. All of the players of the game must respect the judge's decision. So, all of the children agree to the rules of the game, but enforcement itself is up to the judge. This is another central part of The Social Contract - the rules are decided upon by the people, but it is left to the government to actually enforce them. In fact, that's what makes society efficient - it is left to a specific assigned group of people to enforce the laws, but society as a whole mandates them.

As another example, say someone mugs you on the street one day. As you are giving him your wallet he explains that the mugging is fair because he needs the money more than you do. You do not think he is correct. Laws that have previously been agreed upon state that mugging is illegal, no matter how much someone needs money. However, you don't initiate a fight with your mugger over the matter because someone could be hurt. Instead, you report the incident to the police, who work for the government and serve as enforcers of the law.

Best Forms of Government

Obviously, not everyone can decide if a law was broken; not everyone can be a member of the government. Imagine if, in our dodge ball game, every time someone got hit he or she would claim the move was unfair and the entire game would stop in favor of an argument. Nothing would ever get done! In short, by having so many people involved, the government would be so large as to interfere with society itself. As such, Rousseau mandates for a smaller government.

However, by mandating for a smaller government, Rousseau is not necessarily saying that it should be just an absolute monarchy or even under the control of a small group of nobles. Generally, monarchies or small groups of nobles tend to make laws that benefit only themselves. According to Rousseau, the people in the government must always be mindful of the wishes of the group as a whole. In short, they must make the laws according to the wishes of the people and they are subject to the law as well.

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