The Myth of a 'Social Contract'


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Ever since monarchs first felt the rumblings of discontent, they reached for a way to justify their miserable existences in the eyes of those upon the product of whose labor they lived in luxury; for many centuries the "Divine Right" theory did the job. The theory had it that a God exists, supremely governing the whole universe, and favors were granted to the Church to help it perpetuate that idea in the minds of His or Her Majesty's subjects.

A simple extension to that myth was that since the King is at the top of the heap, God must have willed it so; hence, the King ruled on His behalf, by right of Divine appointment. The entire establishments of both State and Church did very nicely out of this scam for centuries.

It began to unravel when a few bright minds began to wonder whether the underlying myth was supported by rational fact, and found it wanting; that enlightening process began in the 18th Century and came to full fruit in the 20th, by when few monarchies remained and none of those are more than figureheads (observe Charles and Camilla, currently on a US visit.) Alas, however, the dictators were replaced by an even more insidious myth: that of the "Social Contract," the idea that all members of a society have in some way agreed to bind themselves to certain standards and laws for the common good.

No such signed agreement has ever been found, but the myth is powerful anyway; the Church still supports it (as in Romans 13) and the religion of universal government schooling has in any case taken the burden of indoctrination upon itself as security. The State is safe.

It will stay safe, I dare say, until the green curtain is moved aside and the "Social Contract" too is exposed for the fairy tale that it is. My attempt here will employ mathematics.

The proposition is that everyone in a society agrees to subject himself to laws (operated by an enforcer called "government") for the common good.

So let's assume that any one person in that society, being human, enjoys the freedom to make all his own decisions but that (for the common good, again) he will accept a general restraint in the form of a new law to the extent of 99.9%. That is: if a new law is proposed, there is a 0.999 probability that he will endorse and accept it, even though it may irk him somewhat. A well-known libertarian friend of mine recently wrote that he likened a very few laws to "two mosquitoes in a Summer" and that he could put up with that much government.

Now allow that a second law is proposed, all for the common good of course. What is the probability that our public-spirited friend will endorse that one too, and give it thumbs-up? It's 0.999 to the power of two, i.e. 0.998. And a third . . . and a tenth law? That would be 0.999*10 or 0.990. Our social-contract society still looks highly feasible.

However we've posited that the society has more than one member, so we must reckon the probabilities that all of them will endorse this decalog. Suppose there are 20 people, each of them equally selfless for the common good; then the probability that all 20 will agree to abide by all 10 of these laws will be 0.999 to the power of 10 multiplied by 20; that is, 0.999*200. And that is only 0.819 or 81.9%.

It still might fly. A society of 20 persons might all sign up to obey 10 vital laws, to preserve peace and harmony. A piece of weatherproof paper could bear 200 sets of initials and be posted in the public square to prove it; 81.9% is still pretty probable.

But I dare say you can tell where this progression is headed. Twenty people with 10 rules is a club; a real-life "society" will have hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of people and laws will grow like weeds and there will be thousands of them proposed. What then of the likelihood that a true "Social Contract" could prevail?

With 10,000 members and 500 laws it's 0.999*5,000,000 (five million) or a probability so close to zippo that my calculator cannot display the number of zeros after the decimal point.

And with 300 million members and an estimated one million laws in America, the probability is so infinitesimal that it is truly amazing that any intelligent person, least of all a libertarian, can give the idea more than a passing moment of the time of day. This myth is BUSTED.

No Via Media

So it's impossible to have every player agree to every law--even in this age of the Internet. Fine. But is there some kind of middle way, by which every member of a society delegates certain limited powers to representatives to make rules on his behalf? Might that be accepted as a type of "Social Contract"?

Let's see. The premise here is that each individual will surrender control over his own life not just law by law for the common good, but that he will give carte blanche to a group of others to make a whole slate of laws that they say are for the common good. Would that fly?

Above, we assumed that our public-spirited resident would be 99.9% likely to agree to "good" laws one at a time, that he could see and evaluate. But now, that carte blanche idea must seriously reduce that probability. Even so, let's be very optimistic and suppose that on average, it remains as high as 99.0%.

Further, let's suppose that the grant of limited powers is no larger than 50 clearly delineated items. The representative government may make laws such and so, but not so and such; 50 clauses need endorsement. Will that become airborne?

The probability of one person approving all terms in such a "constitution" or social contract would be 0.99 to the power of 50, or 0.605, i.e. 60.5%. And of course, there's more than one person, or else the proposal would have no meaning.

If the society had 20 persons as above, the probability of flight would be 0.99*1,000 or 0.000043. Oops!

And if it had 300 million persons in membership, once again we can be certain that no such social contract will become remotely possible.

We can notice that this prediction fits very well with actual history. The 2005 Iraq Constitution was put to a popular vote but drew only a 78% level of support--very far short of the 100% essential for any valid social contract, binding every one in the society (since nobody can vote away the rights of anyone but himself.)

In the case of the U.S. Constitution, the matter was not even put to a vote! Only state legislatures were asked to ratify the proposals, and they in turn were allegedly representing only a majority of people in their respective states, and even then in several cases approval was given only after a cliffhanger. If the question had been submitted to a popular vote (as was certainly possible, given a few weeks for the counting) on that basis, I would doubt whether as many as 78% would have approved; and for certain as proven mathematically above, not the necessary 100%. Hence its opening three words ("We the people") are pure fiction.

So on these assumptions also, very generous to the proposal, the "Social Contract" myth is well and truly busted.

What, Then?

I have no obligation to propose an alternative; myth is myth, and math is math. There is no social contract, nor ever was. Even so, it's so powerful that some readers will be unable to visualize life without it, unless given a little help. So--since it's very easy--I'll offer some.

Just this: that in a free society, behavior will be governed not by general laws but by specific, voluntary contracts drawn between individuals in the society--or small groups of individuals, as in the "club" above. All such contracts would impose obligations, but all of them would be undertaken voluntarily and none of them would otherwise exist. Hence, every person would be subject only to a small number of rules, every one of which he had accepted willingly in exchange for some clearly specified benefit.

He might, for example, undertake to pay 10 grams of gold in exchange for the right to live in a certain house, owned by the other contracting party, for an agreed period.

Apart from those few explicitly-accepted obligations, he could do anything he wanted--with his own life. So of course could everyone else, and therefore nobody could oblige, act against or aggress upon the life of anyone else. That's a free society. That's anarchism. High time to try it.

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Jim Davies's picture
Columns on STR: 243

Jim Davies is a retired businessman in New Hampshire who led the development of an on-line school of liberty in 2006, and who wrote A Vision of Liberty" , "Transition to Liberty" and, in 2010, "Denial of Liberty" and "To FREEDOM from Fascism, America!" He started The Zero Government Blog in the same year.
In 2012 Jim launched , to help lead government workers to an honest life.
In 2013 he wrote his fifth book, a concise and rational introduction to the Christian religion called "Which Church (if any)?"