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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 72

The Social Compact

The Social Compact.

In his remarkable work, 'The Leviathan,' published in 1651, he assumes a state of Nature preceding the existence of society, in which all men are equal, but in a condition of constant war and constant fear of violence. Unlike the halcyon days Rousseau pictures, pre-social times, in Hobbes's view, were marked by misery, dread, and bloodshed. There was no supreme power to preserve order, protect the weak, or punish the wrongdoer. The remedy for this intolerable condition was the institution of a supreme power, and this remedy involved the surrender by each of such natural rights as were inconsistent with the exercise of sovereignty. But the surrender of these natural rights must be voluntary, and hence Hobbes supposes the formation of a mutual agreement between each person living in this state of nature and a person or body of persons chosen to fill the post of sovereign, whereby an unlimited power and discretion for the common weal is granted by the people to the governing body. From this hypothetical contrast Hobbes deduces the principle that no man may attempt to change the form of government, since this would be a breach of his original agreement. No subject can dissent from the institution of sovereignty without thereby ceasing to be a member of the community and remitting himself to his original state of war, while every sovereign is irresponsible, for the control given him is irrevocable, and no one can justly complain of the exercise of the authority he himself has given to his agent. This imaginary contract was introduced not to correctly explain the creation of society, but to originate and justify supreme power, and prove that rebellion was a gross breach page 4 of man's natural duty to keep his promise. Hence (as we shall see) this so-called apostle of "Divine right" and "passive obedience" employs the fiction of the social compact for purposes the very antithesis of those Rousseau had in view. But before this speculative chimera reached the French father of the revolution it had passed through the hands of John Locke, one of the most eminent and valuable English political writers of his century. In his essay on 'Civil Government' he bases his theory upon the hypothesis of the social contract. He, like Hobbes, began with a state of nature; but he conceives its features differently. It is not, in his view, an intolerable condition of war—a condition of utter lawlessness, fear, and rapine; for the law of reason exists, which teaches all mankind who will but listen to its dictates, that as they were all born equal and are by nature independent, no one should injure or destroy another's life, limb, liberty, or estate. These are, strangely enough, almost the very words of the text from which the Anarchist of to-day preaches. The reign of this natural law would, if undisturbed, result in universal peace, harmony, and happiness. But even in the supposed state of nature the law of reason is heard and widely obeyed, nor does any state of war arise until men refuse to listen to Nature's voice or violate her mandates. While Hobbes employed the fiction of the social compact to generate absolute power and inculcate passive obedience, Locke employs it to establish constitutional government and justify in certain cases disaffection and rebellion. His work is, in fact, an elaborate apology for the Revolution of 1688. With this aim he strives to show that all the fundamental rights of man were antecedent to the formation of Government, and that there existed in a state of nature a natural right of property in one's person, and in those things with which he has mixed his labor. These natural rights are observed as far as the law of reason is obeyed, but to prevent and punish disobedience a common judge, armed with authority, is necessary. It is important to observe, then, that in Locke's view man in a state of nature is already enjoying certain rights, and any social compact is necessary only for certain limited purposes. Men give up, he says, much of their natural rights to the governing body, but they do so conditionally, and not absolutely, as Hobbes contends. The condition is that the power thus parted with shall be exercised strictly for the good of the whole community, and anything done by the sovereign foreign to that object is, as lawyers would say, ultra vires and void. Hence it has been said that Locke employed his conception of the original contract to show not merely that constitutional government was justified by the law of nature, but that it was the only form of government so justified. And now I return to Rousseau. With the writings of both Hobbes and Locke he was familiar, and his celebrated essay 'Du Contrat Social,' published in 1762, is based upon what he borrowed from these English writers. Already in Locke's essay the tendency to treat the state of nature as subject to the law of reason is clearly seen, and in Rousseau that tendency reaches its furthest limit. With him the sovereign is not a privileged person or body of persons, but the collective body of the people themselves, and sovereignty but the exercise of their general will. The right of sovereignty residing in each is inalienable, and hence no such delegation of supreme power as Hobbes and Locke refer to is possible. There can be no separation and independence between the subject and sovereign parts of a State, for the people are at once subjects and sovereign. We have seen in Hobbes how this social contract was employed to serve the ulterior object of establishing supreme and irresponsible power; in Locke to serve the object of justifying constitutional government; and now in Rousseau we see it engaged to create a sovereign power, and yet leave each party to the contract as free as he was before. There is in Rousseau, as in his predecessors, a contract entered into by each man living in the state of nature; but it is entered into (in Rousseau's view), not with any particular person or body of persons, but with the whole community, and results merely in a surrender to the community of certain rights. The general will is the supreme power, which will itself compel obedience to its dictates, and there is no king or ruler of the people but the people. Thus we see how this fiction of the social contact first served Hobbes to erect and justify a sovereign body, and finally served Rousseau to justify its destruction. The former tells us that in the state of nature true liberty has no place; the latter that man was originally free, and has undergone enslavement by the form of our society. The bearing of such conclusions as those of Rousseau upon modern Anarchism are not hard to trace. His conception of the origin of society is the chief principle of