The Social Contract

The idea of a social contract between the people and their rulers was explained by John Locke in his book Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690). He argued that the people must freely give, and renew, their consent to be governed. They have a right of rebellion if the government breaks the contract.

The liberal position on the social contract derives almost entirely from the pioneering work of John Locke (1690). John Locke argued that individuals consent to be governed. This consent may be tacit; in that it is not formally expressed, but consent exists and is provided to the government. Locke also believed that individuals are shaped by their rational interest. For instance, they leave the state of nature (in which no social contract exists) to protect their individual rights. Crucially, only the agents of the state are powerful enough to provide the required level of protection against that which threatens our liberty. By entering a social contract with the state, the individual is seeking to protect their liberty from the actions of those that pose a threat to it. Far from representing a loss of liberty, offering consent to the state strengthens the liberty of the individual.

As with any contract, there are rights and duties that both parties must abide by. To illustrate, the state has the right to punish those who break the law in some way. Equally, the state must limit itself to that which protects our liberties and freedom. In Locke’s words “government has no other end than the preservation of property.” If the state were to exceed this power, it would violate the social contract. Individuals would therefore be within their rights to withdraw their consent to be governed. This right is enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence.

The Lockean notion of the social contract remains one of the most enduring aspects of liberal thought. As with all liberal theorists, Locke believes that authority should arise from below rather than above and can only be based solely upon the consent of the governed. In other words, the role and legitimacy of the state must be based upon the agreement of the people. Locke was also the first to put forward the liberal view that law is an essential prerequisite of freedom itself with his maxim “where laws do not exist, man has no freedom.”