Why should I be nice to another citizen in the society I live in? If I am stronger and smarter than that person, and there is no risk for me to take from them what I want, including their life, what is there to stop me from doing that? The Social Contract is an ambitious political and sociological notion that stipulates that the strong cannot prey over the weak in civilized society. This notion presumes a community with agreed-upon moral and social precepts, that allow us to set the stage for legislative measures that will bind each citizen to one another, in mutual dependency. I therefore depend upon the weak to respect his part of the contract as I do the strong. In essence, then, the Social Contract nullifies the “natural state” where the strong prey over the weak.
Some even go so far as to say that the Social Contract is simply being used by the weak to force the strong to behave in society and not take power. To a key, this is true, but time has proven that civilizations who flourish have some kind of system like “law and order” in place. Not always, however. Sometimes, the social contract is inferred rather than institutionalized. This was the case for Lakotà tribesmen and women, who obeyed a natural order, but there was no written text or document for systematic legislation of these social mores. These people are not alone, but to go from them as an example, we can attest that this contract has its roots in biology, and that any society that thrives is one where “members” cooperate to a common goal.
For Western societies right now, the common goal is economic prosperity. In the past, for the Lakotà, it was living in harmony with nature, exchanging wisdom and culture at every turn. While we deal in economic capital, they dealt in cultural capital exclusively. An inevitability in all cases for any social contract is the eventual breach. What happens when the contract is breached by one or many members of the society that hosts it? Depending on the society, there are contingencies in place that are more or less effective.
Some societies may rely upon the wisdom of an elder to decide upon a litigious matter and others may rely upon the government or a police officer, while some others may do justice themselves, etc… In the end, these have all had some presence in history and have had varying levels of success, based on the era they existed in. Self-justice nowadays would definitely be seen as wrongdoing by the law, but it could be seen as “proper” justice by the people who do tend to fantasize putting the guilty behind bars themselves or doing the execution.
It remains to be said whether one method works better than all others. A liberal would say that the legislative system is better, a libertarian might say that self-justice is ideal while another, the anarchist, might say that things must be discussed as a group prior to be carried out, even things such as punishment for wrongdoing. The red line across all of these is the notion of justice and how it must be done. That is how the Social Contract remains even when there are people who breach it.
Why is justice so important to a social contract theorist? Because like any contract, there are clauses for breaching. You cannot simply decide to forego the conditions for the contract to remain and still wish to be respected as an equal member of society. If you do wrong unto another, you must be brought to justice so that the field can be equalized once again. Equality is thus extremely important to the social contract. Without it, justice would not make sense.
Why not? Because if you had the presumption that some citizens are better than others, then there would not be any need to provide them with justice when wrong is done unto them. On the contrary, you might even say that this injustice is a worthy price to pay for their character. One of the main characters in the Social Contract is the Legislator, he who holds the power to enact laws that bind individuals together and allows the Magistrate to condemn using this law, those who breach the contract. At this point, it becomes quite apparent that although the individual is imbued with some free will, he must restrain himself for the preservation of the Social Contract, which he should recognized is the only thing that keeps society from becoming utter chaos.
The basest instincts of humanity must be held back by an adequately structured government that will provide both the protection of the weak from the strong and the regulation necessary for growth and self-actualization within society. One would be hard-pressed to find a reason to privilege the individual in front of the collective, with such a notion as a social contract, because for the individual to thrive in society, he must depend upon other people’s willingness to honor the social contract.
Growth in equality
Is it possible that too much legislation causes those who are inherently “better” to have to underperform so that those who are “less” can keep up? Not necessarily. When you legislate in order to provide equality, you do not equalize with the intent of restricting one’s privilege with regards to another. The legislation does not account for individuals but for the collective. As such, the collective may be represented in averages or medians, and as a result, regulation can be put to allowed the bare minimum to oscillate around the average of performance in society, so that people can at least perform on average with others.
Performance here refers to the ability for citizens to grow and acquire wealth (in the case of a capitalist economy) on the same level as others in minimum. Therefore, for this to be possible, the average citizen must be capable of at least (for example) buying a car, having an apartment, making an average salary that allows them to live comfortably, having a decent education level, etc.
Where such is not present, it is indication that the social contract is being breached behind the scenes or insidiously, within society itself. Referring to the idea that certain people are to be legislated against because of a perceived lesser worth than others, economically speaking, we may find that there are holes in the social contract that do not account for behaviors. Simply because the law is the will of the people, does not make it right. One should question the stability of the social contract at all times, because as times change, societies evolve and old laws eventually become void. They must be done away with or amended to change with the times.
If the law of a land does not change while its people does, there risks to be serious anachronistic discrepancies between the people and its legislative texts. As such, magistrates will protect the people from something they might no longer identify with or that a large enough portion of society no longer identifies with. Therein lies the risk of legislation with old-aged virtue that cannot possibly be bound to the will of the people.
In Rousseau, this was to be amended by making the Legislator’s existence bound to the will of the people, but as history has shown us, we’ve grown outside of these reverences of philosopher kings. This sort of ideology of stoic, centrist distance from politics has allowed for many to abuse the lack of involvement in the Republican system, for example. When you have the environment, as Spinoza says, for people to abuse and become corrupt by nature of having access to so much power, it is inevitable that this would happen, if we believe the little people unable to resist their urges, how can we believe the Aristocrats to be able of the same thing?
Only through a vision of natural inequality can we come to such a conclusion.
When a collective loss of identity can be perceived in the general population, that is when upheaval occurs and when the government becomes too detached, too stoic to recognize the basic desires and needs of the people, their identity loss will be found in radicalized and simplified worldviews, that through their simplicity, provide strength to their defunct reason, due to being told that they are less-than. An inevitability thus exists between the distancing of government from the people and the likelihood of revolution. The more aristocrats believe themselves to be working for the good of the people, the less they think about the people itself. How easy must it be to look at a budget in terms of excesses and losses? It would not matter to one who is not of the people that an excess is necessary, based on the needs and that a loss might be indication of lacking administration, not of indecent funding.
Austerity rises at this junction, because those who would do good believe that if the government’s treasury is emptying, then the whole of society is at risk, and their positions must be justified by the safekeeping of such public funds. Why is it then that despite that, the powers that are held by those to whom it most righteously belongs keep them from acting against those who would diminish the people’s sovereignty? A notion that Jean-Jacques Rousseau spoke of very well in the Social Contract, when he said that the people are ultimately the sovereign to whom the government must answer. Yet, we see that “the good of the people” can be easily interpreted as doing what magistrates wish with the wealth of the people, and give it to fellow aristocrats, who then send it overseas in tax havens.
The Liberal institution of the Republic as it is known, particularly the constitutional Republic, serves not the good of the people, but the thing that allows the people to be kept in check for the powers that be. Every revolution was preceded by apathy from those in governmental institutions, in the last few centuries. There is no reason to believe we are not at the eve of a similar event, even in 2017, considering the way our governments behave with extremely pressing issues, as if they should be seen from the point of view of the economist.
The teleology of liberalism is that of a guardian, in the Panopticon of Jeremy Bentham, which leaves the inmates wondering whether they are being watched and behaving solely for the hope of being seen as ideal prisoners, while wishing nothing more but to tear down the tower which surveys them. An Overseer as cruel as the Republic seeks nothing more than to feed itself off of the misery of the people, to preserve the power of its caretakers: the Aristocrats. Without them, the system falls to representative democracy, which gives the managers of the prison more incentive to be watchful of their own behavior, for the people are not only prisoners, but also guardians, who can decide when the watchful eye is to be taken down from its thrown at a whim.
Certainly that last paragraph veered into metaphysical meanderings, but that is because the reasoning behind liberalism is metaphysical in itself. The a priori conceptions of liberalism is that the people are irrational and must be bound by a set of rules, a constitution, that will force them to do so, by risk of being ousted by their society. However, contrary to a democracy, where the people could do so themselves, the Republican system said “let us take care of that for you” so that the people could mind their own business and think about anything. Anything… other than politics and who governs them and why?
The only reason we should be nice, it would seem, is to preserve the status quo.