Three Great Social Contractarians: Hobbes, Locke, and … Blackbeard? A Guest Post
Peter Leeson, the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism at George Mason University and author of the forthcoming book “The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates,” blogged here earlier this week about U.F.O.’s and dominoes. This is his final post.
We’ve all heard the idea of the social contract before. This is the notion of government as the product of a grand, unanimous agreement between society’s members that brings political authority into existence. In school, we read the great social contract theorists: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
And then we’re told that none of it’s really true.
No society literally created its government through a genuine social contract, conventional wisdom goes. That would require every member of society to voluntarily agree to such a contract’s terms and to express consent explicitly through their signatures.
Even America’s founding, which involved a written “agreement” of sorts, fails this test. Only a few members of American society actually signed the Constitution, and some disagreed with it but were stuck with its terms nonetheless. The social contract might be an important analytical device for evaluating government’s legitimacy. But, taken literally anyway, it’s a myth.
The social contract may be mythical when it comes to societies of honest individuals. But recent research suggests it’s very real when it comes to some societies of rogues.
Eighteenth-century pirate society had a genuine social contract at its foundation, a unanimous social agreement that created the pirates’ constitutional democracy. Pirates’ floating societies were forged without government to create government and used actual written contracts — “pirate codes” — to do so.
Pirates weren’t the only rogue societies to forge their “governments” via literal social contracts. David Skarbek shows that a contemporary California-based prison gang, La Nuestra Familia, has similar social contract foundations, and a recent discovery suggests the Mafia may have a social contract at its base as well.
Could murderers and thieves be more familiar with Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau than honest citizens? Probably not. But criminal societies emerge with very different purposes than regular ones; these differences may account for why Blackbeard’s “government” was a more faithful representation of a true social contract than the U.S. government is.
Rogue societies’ criminality puts social harmony at a premium. Since any disgruntled member of a criminal society could turn on his comrades and inform authorities of their skullduggery, leading to their capture and punishment, it’s critical to make sure everyone is happy. This means ensuring everyone is pleased to live under society’s rules and is satisfied with the people who administer those rules. A social contract, which secures citizens’ unanimous agreement to political rules at the outset and enshrines this agreement in writing, helps to secure such harmony.
In contrast, societies formed without criminal intent don’t confront this problem. In “regular” societies, a disgruntled citizen can’t bring down the rest of us by tattling to outside authorities. Here, then, securing every citizen’s agreement to political authority through universal social agreement is less critical.
Of course, there are other important factors that influence criminal vs. “regular” societies’ reliance on genuine social contracts. But the difference between their criminality appears to be an important one. And, as my forthcoming book The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates discusses, criminality, perhaps unexpectedly, seems to favor governments based on true social agreement.
What can criminal consent teach us about American government? A few things, actually.
First, society works best where the need for policemen is least. Precisely because in self-regulating societies individuals regulate themselves, these societies can afford more freedom and the benefits that come with it. But self regulation is only possible where most citizens agree with the rules that govern them. The key, then, is to increase the extent of social agreement underlying the rules that govern society.
There are two ways to do this. The first way is to try and build greater agreement over the existing range of issues we decide socially (i.e., in the public sphere). That seems unlikely, though, if for no other reason than Americans are as diverse in their beliefs and preferences as they come.
The second way is to be more modest about the range of issues we seek social consensus on in the first place. Most of us agree that murder, for instance, should be prohibited. Making this decision through the political process is unlikely to undermine social agreement.
But there’s much greater variation in Americans’ thinking about, say, what schools should teach fifth graders about sex, whether trans-fats pose an unreasonable risk to one’s health, and whether Andres Serrano produces provocative art or sacrilegious smut.
By depoliticizing decisions — making more of them private choices instead of public ones — we can strengthen the consensual basis of American government, and hopefully enhance social agreement over the rules we have.