All people have rights. When we all try to exercise our rights at the same time, we fall into conflict. Therefore, we make an unspoken agreement with one another. We surrender some of our rights to the government, and we give that government the power to protect our remaining rights. Which rights we surrender and which we maintain—that is the difficult question. Nations differ from one another in their answer to that question, and citizens within nations argue with each other about the answer to that question.
Like many ideas of western philosophy, the idea of the social contract has its roots in the writings of Plato and Aristotle. The idea first reached its full structure in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. All three agreed that government is a necessary evil. All three wanted to see the size and the power of the government limited. Hobbes even compared human government to the Biblical monster, Leviathan, writing that it must be tamed as much as possible, because things would be worse without it.
All people have rights. Locke summarized these rights as life, liberty, and property; in the Declaration of Independence of the United States, Thomas Jefferson rephrased the third right as “the purfuit of happineff.” (All his Ss looked like Fs—Stan Freberg.) Governments exist to protect the rights of their citizens to life, liberty, and property; they do not exist to take these rights away. Locke, and later Jefferson, said that when a government fails in this basic duty, citizens have an additional right to take power from their government and give it to a new government. Locke saw that very event happen twice, first with the end of the Puritan Commonwealth and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and later with the Glorious Revolution bringing William and Mary to power in Great Britain in 1689. Jefferson was, of course, key in seeing the same thing happen in the British colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America.
All people have a right to life, but government can deprive a murderer of life, since that person has deprived someone else of life. All people have a right to liberty, but government can put a convicted criminal in prison to protect its other citizens. All people have a right to property, but the government can take property away from some people in the form of fines if they have broken certain laws. Citizens surrender to the government the power to seek, capture, convict, and punish criminals rather than having each citizen responsible for defending his or her life, liberty, and property all the time.
In additional ways, citizens surrender liberty and property to the government for the greater good. (In times of war, some citizens even risk their lives for the good of their country.) Many people want to travel between City A and City B. If each citizen made his or her own path between the two cities, many property rights would be threatened, and the environment in general would be harmed. With the agreement of the citizens, the government claims a strip of land between the cities, giving the owners of that property due value. The government then builds a road on that strip of land. The road belongs to the government, by agreement of all the citizens. Therefore the government can charge people money to use that road, whether through tolls or through gasoline taxes or through fees paid for vehicle licenses and drivers’ licenses. Because the government owns the road, and make and enforce rules about the road, such as speed limits, stop signs, and laws against littering. Citizens agree to use the road and to obey the rules. This is how the social contract works.
In every family, parents could teach their own children; or groups of families could band together to provide private schools for their children. However, the citizens living in a town or city have an interest in seeing that all the children are in school, both to keep them out of trouble and to prepare them for useful lives in the future. Generally in the United States public schools are funded largely by property taxes. Even households without children and families which homeschool or send their children to a private school pay for the public school, because it is in everyone’s best interests to send the neighbor’s children to school. This is how the social contract works.
Taxes are a visible result of the social contract, but most political controversies also concern the social contract. Governments decide how best to protect the lives and liberty and property of all citizens. Sometimes, however, the rights of two people conflict, and the government must decide which right to protect or how to compromise the conflicting rights. Does a child’s right to life deserve more protection than the right of the child’s mother to liberty and the pursuit of happiness? If so, when does that right to life begin—at conception, at birth, at some arbitrary time between conception and birth, or perhaps a certain number of years after birth? Americans disagree with one another about the answer to that question, as do the members of the American government. Because of the social contract, the government must provide and enforce some kind of answer.
In socialism, the government owns all businesses and industries and decides how much workers will be paid and how much products will cost. Socialist governments generally charge high taxes and then provide many services for free. These can include public transportation, education, medical care, and even housing. In capitalism, private citizens own business and industries. Those private citizens decide how much workers will be paid and how much products will cost. Taxes are lower, but people must pay for things that they need and want. Even in capitalism, though, a social contract exists. Citizens trust the government to inspect factories for the safety of the workers and the quality of the products (such as food and medicine) that are produced. Citizens trust the government to regulate industries to reduce pollution, noise, and other problems. Citizens trust the government to make laws about child labor, limits on how many hours of work a worker must perform each day and week, and even minimum wage rules. Some liberty is surrendered to the government for the good of workers and of customers. People debate the details of such regulations, some wanting more and others wanting less regulation, but very few people want absolutely no regulation of privately-owned businesses and industries.
Human life requires food and shelter. To protect the right to life, should a government guarantee that every citizen has access to food and to shelter? Locke and Jefferson would have said “no,” but today American government provides unemployment compensation, food stamps and other welfare programs, and low-rent government-owned housing. Citizens object to abuses of the welfare system, but few would say it ought to be abolished. Most Americans are willing to see some of their tax money spent to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and care for the poor people who are our neighbors.
Access to health care is also necessary for human life. Since the 1960s, American citizens have debated heatedly the question of government involvement in the nation’s healthcare system. Most Americans are opposed to socialized health care in which the government owns all the hospitals, medical clinics, pharmacies, and other health care institutions. In socialized healthcare the government pays the doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care professionals. That same government sets rates for medical procedures, making the most essential procedures available for free to those who are poor. Most Americans prefer capitalism in health care. Most Americans do not want governments to own the entire system. Most Americans want doctors and other professionals to have freedom to do their jobs in the way they think is best. Most Americans want freedom to make their own choices among doctors, hospitals, and the like. Americans disagree with one another about how much the government can control the health system through regulation. The goal of government participation in health care is to protect the right to life of poorer citizens. However, the same government participation reduces the liberty of doctors and patients, and reduces the property of citizens who must pay taxes to support the system. Discussion of what compromises should be made among these conflicting rights is part of the social contract.
On another occasion, I will write more about taxation and the social contract. J.