Hobbes and the Social Contract

In dealing with the problem with political authority Thomas Hobbes proposes that state’s derive their power from a hypothetical social contract that is made between a government and its citizens. It attempts to solve the problem with political legitimacy and political obligation; the right to rule and the reason citizens obey those in power.

Hobbes believes that the only way to get out of a wild and unjust “state of nature” is to collectively give up some of our rights in order to secure more basic inalienable rights that will be accepted by all because they have all consented to a “contract”; to do otherwise would mean punishment by those elected to arbitrate the social contract. In order to arrive at this social contract, Hobbes constructs a “state of nature” where there are humans in a world without government. There is no law of the land and there is no justice.

Without a central authority people would inevitably harm, kill, and steal from each other. Hobbes then goes on to state that since everyone would be so worried about being killed or stolen from, nobody would produce a large amount of goods because they would be stolen. As a result, everyone would be reduced to poverty. In this state of nature disputes would arise between neighbors and strangers alike and these small disputes would eventually lead to warfare because there is no neutral third-party to be the deciding factor.

Hobbes believes that a social contract would be arrived at because of four guiding principles. The first is that there is equality of power in regards to strength and intelligence. He claims that there is no one who is so strong and intelligent that he cannot be overwhelmed by the collective desire or larger group of people. The second is that there is an equality of need. Everyone in the state of nature has the exact same needs for survival (food, clothing, shelter, water). From the second principle he derives the third that since everyone needs the same resources there will inevitably be scarcity in a finite world.

The last principle he describes is that there is a limited amount of altruism in the state of nature. The majority of people are more inclined to help themselves and better their own agenda as opposed to looking out for others. Given these equalities in the State of Nature, Hobbes creates an undesirable situation where the only means of escaping its chaos, poverty, and unjustness is to create a social contract between citizens and elect an official/officials to be the neutral, third-party who will carry it out effectively.

Thus Hobbes arrives at the beginnings of a legitimate government through the social contract. Hobbes does provide reasonable argumentation for the grounds of there being a social contract; however I do not think this social contract can be so easily extrapolated from the hypothetical into the actual for several reasons. My first objection to this argument is that the social contract can only reasonably exist in reality when implicit consent is taken as the primary acceptance of the contract. This is problematic due to the vagueness and undetermined idea of what actually constitutes implied consent.

It is argued that when we accept certain goods from the government (i. e. be protected by military/police services, go to public schools, use public roads, etc. ) we are implicitly agreeing to the contract; however this disregards cases where using these services does not necessarily constitute consent. Consider two cases: One where someone is born into a ghetto and has limited resources to make it out, and one where someone simply does not want to use any of the governmental services and does not want to pay a tax.

The first case it would seem that a social contract between the individual and the government has been forced upon the individual and not consented upon. The person may not want to be governed by the government in power but really has no choice in the matter because they are stuck in the system and even if they did opt out of receiving some governmental provisions they would still be expected to obey the laws and pay taxes. In the second case the person has willingly decided to dissent and openly disagree to the social contract.

In the state of nature, this would constitute a person breaking off from the contract and devolving back into the “chaos”; however in the current state of things by willingly dissenting the person has actually done very little besides warrant punishment from authorities. For this individual, there is no reasonable means of opting out of the contract because doing so would constitute punishment for tax evasion or moving to another country (where there would be another contract in place unless it is Antarctica). Unless one can refuse consent and have reasonable alternatives to obeying the contract, it is does not constitute mutual consent.

I believe one way Hobbes might respond to the principle that we have no reasonable way of opting out of the contract or disregarding it is that he is talking about the hypothetical state of nature which provided ample opportunity for both the creation of a contract and for people to opt out of the contract. In reality we are born into these “contracts”. However, the hypothetical nature of the contract does little to ease uncertainties surrounding the problem with political authority. There are several flaws with this argument which in the end constitute its rejection.

The social contract works up to a certain extent in that there is a certain level of implicit agreement between a state and its citizens, but these agreements do not go so far as to constitute a mutually accepted contract. If there is a contract, it is not arrived at through implicit or explicit consent from the citizens. It is arrived at through coercive and/or collective force and most commonly citizens move into/are born into a previously constructed “contract” that is in effect whether you agree or disagree with it. So in the end it is not much of a contract at all.