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100 Q’s for Government: What is the Social Contract?

February 23, 2013

This is Question 3 from the “100 Questions (that may be politically incorrect) for Government” series.

Supposedly some of our greatest thinkers have contemplated this obscure concept in some detail[1]. As far as I can work out the basic premise is something along the lines of:

  • If you want to avoid lawlessness and anarchy it’s probably worth agreeing to participate in some sort of community
  • If we’re going to have a community there will need to be rules and people who organize stuff
  • To make it all work you can’t do anything you want without referring to the rules and implicit consequences


To cut a long story short, this can then be summarized as follows:

 “You never get something for nothing.”

 If you see value in some sort of government, it will almost certain cost you. This price might come in the form of giving up certain:

1)    Opportunities

  • Killing whoever takes your fancy
  • Sexual gratification without the other participant’s permission
  • Occasional pillaging
  • Unencumbered imbibing of alcoholic beverages
  • Other minor transgressions like:
    i.      False witness
    ii.      Nuclear war
    iii.      World domination

2)    Giving up certain things of value

  • Money
  • Property
  • Goats

3)    Freedoms and rights

  • Speech
  • Travel
  • Privacy
  • Property ownership

Admittedly, the mix of forgone opportunities, items of value and freedoms or rights can vary depending on the government you make you social contract with. However, the social contract seems a reasonable exercise in give and take as you might receive the benefits of:

a)     Reduced anarchy

  • Not being killed on someone’s whim
    (Unless the government permits this, which can be a bit of a bummer)
  • Not being raped or pillaged
  • Less drunks

b)    Gaining value

  • A social safety net
  • A regulated system of commerce
  • Defence of your homeland

c)     Gaining freedoms and rights

  • Property ownership
  • Walking the streets at night
  • Due process

Of course, the fun thing about the social contract is that when you’re born it’s almost certainly already been negotiated for you, and everyone in a particular society can hold different views on the contract they’ve signed up for. In theory, you can withdraw from the contract at any time. However, the government you’ve inherited may not recognize your right to do so.

Conclusion:

As with any contract, you give up something to gain something, and the deal can be anywhere from awful to great. In asking 100 Questions about government we’re really asking what the optimal balance is for what we give up and what we receive. It’s important to recognize two things when pursuing this symmetry:

  1. The value of government, and therefore the amount one will give to “contract” with it, will vary significantly from person to person
  2. By “contracting” with government you implicitly become part of a community where what’s right for you may be in conflict with what’s right for the populace as a whole (also known as the common good)

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AS ALWAYS, YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOMED WITH OPEN ARMS – ANY INSIGHTS, WISELY PHRASED OBJECTIONS, OR ADDITIONS, WILL BE CONSIDERED AND ADDED IF SEEN FIT. MAY THE DISCUSSIONS BEGIN!

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