13 January 2020

The social contract

In the views of exponents of how society came to be constituted as it is (or was at the time, or should be) we note fairly constantly a willingness to ascribe untrammelled and overriding power to the legislators of the community, together with infallibility.

In early accounts some justification for society’s claim to possession of the individual is felt to be necessary. This is provided either by God, who bestows upon kings their divine right, or by a social contract, which is mythical, even if some writers lose sight of its historical implausibility. Desiring the advantages of an organised community, it is supposed that individuals freely choose to obey the government that shall be chosen by majority preference; hence minorities have nothing to complain of, as they have entered the situation of their own free will. So conflict is avoided.

I would have formulated the situation myself by supposing that, at a sufficiently primitive stage, when there was some realistic possibility of a dissident or disadvantaged individual choosing to fend for himself, there was a real balance of advantages and disadvantages for each individual which led, on the whole, to his preferring to remain, in fairly unstable equilibrium, in the settlement or compound occupied by his group. Fairly disharmonious associations of this kind gradually evolved social structures which reduced the squabbling and maximised the stability of the enterprise. At the time of, say, Hobbes, there was relatively little opportunity for any individual to dissociate himself from the pressures and demands of his society. By now there is even less.

We note that writers on political theory wish conflict between the individual and society to be an impossibility, or if not impossible, at least a clear aberration from a perfect underlying harmony.

Extract from the forthcoming book ‘The Corpse and the Kingdom’