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Limits of Social Compact Theory

The social compact is the modern theory of government that underlies all liberal democratic regimes. This theory has its origins in the thought of Thomas Hobbes, who argued that in the state of nature there is no natural government. Because the state of nature is the state of war, people leave in perpetual fear for their self-preservation. To get out of this state of war, the people get together and form civil government to create a peaceful order.

Without entering into a debate on John Locke, Locke also believed that in the state of nature life was "nasty, brutish and short." In contrast to Hobbes, however, Locke believed that all governments received their power from the consent of the people. Without consent there was no just government.

This theory is the main justification for the revolution against the King of England. The King was trying to tax the people without their consent and was thus ruling as a tyrant.

Many consider the American regime to be based solely on this premise of the "social contract." It does, however, have two main draw backs.

1) It precludes the need for a founding. If you take the Hobbesian teaching to its extreme, all one needs to do to form civil society it get people in a room and hatch out a contract. Nowhere is there any mention in Hobbes' account for the need of a "founding," in the classical sense
2) It relies solely on a utilitarian or self-interested theory of government. While this theory has its advantages it also has its limitations. The drawback here is that if people rely solely on self-interest, their consent will always contain a "but not in this case" clause. For instance, if the goal of the regime is self-preservation, why should I lay down my life for the sake of my country? This in and of itself shows the drawback of the Hobbesian thesis.

After the Articles of Confederation were in operation for a number of years, a number of founders recognized this flaw in the social compact theory and saught a solution. Their solution was published in the Federalist Papers (Madison, Hamilton, and Jay) and contains the following premise

1) A founding is necessary to a republican regime. You cannot rely solely on enlightened self-interest
2) The union needs perpetual upkeeping. It will not survive on its own without the proper mechanisms and people.

To solve this problem, the authors of the Federalist went back to the classical understanding of "founding" and to the thought of Montesque. Their solution was a constitution that was to be revered and a separation of powers doctrine that would keep the federal governemnt from ovvereaching.

Thus, to call the American founding completely Lockean or completely modern is missing the bigger picture. While the American founding contains many Lockean elements, it also recognises the limits and the drawbacks of Locke's thesis.