Assess the social contract theory of the nature and purpose of the state

Social contract theory is a theory first talked about by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and then other philosophers such as Rousseau, Paine, and Hume; it is a theory suggesting that without state there is the state of nature, which is essentially the state of anarchy and consent is made by individuals to create a state as a ‘necessary evil’ as Tomas Paine describes the state. There are two points of disagreement in relation to the state.

One is the nature of the state- whether it should be coercive or not, whether it is necessary; the other is the state’s purpose – whether the state should just provide negative freedoms, or whether it should offer some king of welfare. On the one hand the state is a necessary evil. According to Hobbes the state of nature is the state of licence, where everyone can kill anyone and it is terrible so the state is necessary. Hobbes describes this state as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

Hobbes said that individuals consent to give their rights and licence up to the state in order to get stability because the state will be their ‘night watchman’, as Ferdinand Lassalle referred to the minimal liberal bourgeois state in one of his speeches (although Hobbes did not believe that the state should necessarily be reduced to this form, he accepted that the state can be coercive and dominant). Hobbes claims that in the state of nature most effort would be spent by individuals in protecting themselves and their rights, according to this reasoning a good type of defence is offence, e.g. kill or be killed, making individuals in the state of nature more prone to violence.

Since according to Hobbes in the state of nature people are preoccupied with protecting themselves and also since there are no guarantees of protection of property and rights, there would be no point in progress and hence no progress. For example industrial progress would’t be happening because why build a factory if it can be taken away or destroyed the next day.

So existence of the state and social contract is the only condition at which social and economic progress can take place. Hence social contract is made in order to create stability and let individuals and society develop safely and for Hobbes any state produced will be better than the state of nature of chaos and licence. According to Hobbes the state is a ‘necessary evil’ as Thomas Paine described it and it is coercive as it takes away rights and licence, becoming the single source of legitimate violence and coercion.

It is also necessary to point out that Hobbes considered the social contract to be binding as any state is better than its absence, whereas trying to replace one state with another would cause a civil war which is the same as absence of state – the natural state. On the other hand, there is a disagreement between supporters of social contract theory on whether all forms of state are necessary and are better than the state of nature. Many later social contract theorists would believe that the contract is non-binding and that the state can be dispersed by the people.

The first Social Contract theorist to talk about that was John Locke. He argued that the natural state is not the state of licence, that there is the law of nature, which is established by god and is based on reason. But according to Locke within the natural state there is the problem that anyone can be the judge, meaning a range of problems, such as the fact that the judge is likely to not be impartial or enforcement of this law can be difficult and even dangerous to the enforcer. Therefore, Locke argues, a state should be set up.

However, according to Locke not any state is better than the natural state, only the one, which is not tyrannical, where the judge is fair and impartial, where legislative is separated form the executive (Locke included the judiciary in the executive, Montesquieu was one of the first to propose a 3-way separation of powers). Locke believed that if the state becomes too dominant, coercive, corrupt or not impartial people have the right to ‘appeal to heaven’ which in reality means a right to revolt, which is a fundamental disagreement with Hobbes, who believed that the contract is binding and there is no right to revolt.

This idea was furthered by Thomas Paine in his ‘Rights of Man’ where he suggests that people have the right to revolt to protect themselves, their rights and interests from the corrupt state. Moreover, supporters of anarchism and radical Marxism, more specifically Karl Marx himself argued that all forms of state are both evil and unnecessary, at least on the long-term. Marx and Engels said that any state is just a form of a class exploitation and will be abolished after a proletariat revolution.

Engels said that the state would simply ‘whither away’ after the final switch in the ruling class as when proletariat becomes the ruling class and dictator of proletariat is surpassed there will be no class, hence no class conflict and therefore no politics and state. By this Marx suggests that the state is not necessary and does not help society, but is the materialisation of dominance of one class over the other. Hence there is no social contract as the state is a structure born through dominance and exploitation.

A group of philosophers separate from Marxists but similar to them would believe that the state is not necessary but is the simple reality. One of their most prominent members Eugene Durhing, a socialist, though somebody who would be considered to be an enemy of Marxism, would say that there is no social contract at all, the state is just a result of domination of one group over the other. According to this theory initially there is conflict of one group over the other, from which eventually property, class and state is eventually born.

Although different ideologies, both Marxism and Durhing’s ideology would oppose the social contract theory by suggesting that the state is born out of coercion and violence, rather than being a result of consent; both deny existence of a contract in the first place. The idea of the Social Contract actually being a ‘contract’ is often attacked from other perspectives as well. The problem with it is that there is actually not much consent being made by the citizens even if we assume that the stat is not a product of conflict.

The social contracts implies that one’s duty to a government comes from him having consented to that government, whereas government’s decisions and initiative come arrive from people’s consent. However Lysander Spooner argued that in reality few would voluntarily give up rights and take responsibilities such as paying tax to their governments; he said that when governments set up new taxes individuals pay them not because they have consented to do so but because they are forced to, as if they don’t force and sanctions will be applied to those individuals.

Supporters of the social contract theory would argue that individuals due to being rational would always pick consenting to the government, but in actual fact if the concept of rationality is dropped, as most individuals won’t be entirely rational and will tend to prefer the short-term rewards, the theory of consent and hence the social contract theory wouldn’t work. A similar criticism is offered by Mure, who argues that there is never ultimate consents even if an extreme of a fully democratic referendum is taken there is firstly coercion happening towards the minority as their interests become unrepresented.

Secondly coercion and gorse is applied even to the individuals who have been the majority as if any voter changed his mind next day, there is no reason but fear of force, which we are not considering as part of consent, why he should resist to serve. Therefore firstly, at least on the short-run the contract becomes binding (as individuals cannot dissolve it simply by changing their minds) and secondly many of governments actions such as changes in taxation are made without getting any formal consent from the public.

Another weakness of the social contract theory presented by David Hume is that there was actually never any state of nature and it is a highly-philosophical and made up situation. Hence discussing a contract in the first place is useless as absence of a natural state undermines many social contract theory principles, such as equality and individualism. Hume would support the idea that humans are naturally social and therefore state and society is inevitable, it is the point zero.

Another aspect of the social contract theory brought to debate is the role which the state should have. The issue arising is how large state’s authority should be and to what degree should its interference spread. One side of the argument would be the one offered by Hobbes. Hobbes argued that due to the ‘wicked’ nature of men, men will tend to succumb into a state of anarchy and therefore a strong and authoritative state is needed. On practice this means that the state should be able to interfere with individual’s personal liberties.

Locke countered that position, arguing that role of the state should be minimal as possible. Locke had a much more positive view of the human nature and therefore thought that individuals’ liberty should be left untouched by the state as individuals will be unlikely to offend and exploit others’ rights. Later the argument over the purpose of the state continued in the key of whether the state should provide positive freedoms and means of fulfilling the liberties, or should it limit itself to giving a negative freedom to people.

Nozick and Hayek, who were neo-liberals, would support the idea that the state should limit itself to a ‘night-watchman state’ and that the only type of freedom provided should be the negative freedom – lack of constraints. Essentially this means that as soon as individuals are given their rights the state should only be occupied in watching over these rights not being abused and otherwise should not intervene. Modern liberals would say that the state should provide positive freedoms instead of a negative liberty.

Hobhouse or Cohen would argue that the state shouldn’t just be a mechanism of coercion, but should also bean enabler. According to Cohen liberty would rise if the state didn’t just provide the negative freedom, but also the means to fulfil them as essentially through existence of money the state abuses the rights to many actions, such as going on a train, of individuals who do not obtain the necessary sum of money to pay for the services or goods.

Beveridge believed that the state should be focused on trying to tackle the ‘5 giants’ through creating an equality of opportunity and a minimal equality of outcome, only in this case individuals would actually be able to fully use their rights and freedoms . Nozick, Hayek or Adam Smith would counter that by arguing that state’s intervention is going to lead to harmful consequences. It will firstly be inefficient as society is most efficient when everything is left to the free market.

Secondly this will mean that the state intrudes some individuals’ personal rights, i.e. the right to hold property, which is right abuse and an exercise of slave labour and exploitation by the state. Overall, the social contract theory does provide a sound basis for justifying a democracy, but actually it itself is based on many assumptions such as that there is a state of nature in the first place, which are not necessarily true and a rejection of which would mean of collapse of the social contract theory. Therefore to some degree social theory is a ‘convenient fiction’ as David Hume had described it.