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.

INSERT DESCRIPTIONFrom left to right: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Captain Blackbeard (a.k.a. Edward Teach).

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.


science minded

Dear H Dizzle,

You raise a very interesting and complex question. Why do people form contracts? Under what circumstances are they honored, continued, violated etc. But I am not sure why you assume there is not a social contract in poor neighborhoods-- perhaps the question is between whom and for what purpose. Ever go into a poor neighborhood- people hanging out on streets all seem to know one another- it's the stranger who is not privy to the contractual obligation that exits And what do you mean by accustomed to poverty and dependence? Where is the job opportunity? You seem to be assuming that people accepting welfare are happy that way and are comfortable with their dependent situations. Do you know this to be true or are you assuming that it is so? I was teaching a hs student once. He apparently had a drug problem and did not see any way out of the situation he was in- he talked about it, but it was as if he were stuck in a situation that he did not want to be in, but there was no place to exit i.e. he did not see how he could. As I recall, The student's family circumstance seemed to make matters worse-not better. So what did this student need- probably a school counselor he trusted- did he have one- I doubt it.

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H Dizzle

How does welfare fit into the idea of a social contract? I am interested in this idea as a Detroiter. I see my city's problems mostly stemming for over-dependence on welfare systems through generational poverty. My personal theory is that there must be a grassroots effort to create social contracts in order to become sustainable and independent of hand-outs from the gov.

Even changing the name of "welfare" to make it sound less of a lifestyle and something like "emergency relief" would, in my opinion, make people only use it in true emergency situations and motivate them to get back on their feet with creativity and hard work.

How do you create a social contract of independence in poor neighborhoods where everyone is accustomed to poverty and dependence?

Bruce Humphrey

With regard to the claim that the existence of a social contract is a myth, I refer everyone to Nathaniel Philbrick's discussion of the Mayflower Compact in his book "Mayflower." This is clearly a case of a group of people threatened with internal dissension formally establishing a social compact for the "general good of the colony."

science minded

Dear peter;

You began with a premise- being told of a social contract and then told that it is not true. By whom is my first question- philosophers- that is fine- and dandy- I do enjoy reading philosophy- the questions, the thoughts it evokes- a beginning-

I am looking foreward to reading your book and will soon/ However,

If you look at ancient peoples and how social contracts were created- their reality becomes obvious. Take China for example and the clan organizations. The social contract originated with the use of the idea of common ancestry to evoke loyalty (on and off the battlefield) whether it was grounded in natural kin relations or not- call someone a brother or sister and it meant and still means something- I see this all the time- my daughter was having a disagreement with a friend and once she called her "sister" the fight stopped- a social contract was created that they both agreed to be interested in sustaining. Back then in ancient China- it meant even more than kinship, but common ancestry i.e., you merely did not die, but left this world immediately for another where your position was a stable one of advice giver. So there was no need to worry about death and dying- your immortality was guaranteed. What a powerful idea- And it worked back then- at least for a while--

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Paula Hall

@29

Thank you for the information about Rousseau. I am still unclear, however, about the distinction you are drawing between social contract and direct democracy, so I have a few questions.

>>"The ‘general will’ is what is the decision that is optimal for all that are in the society."

When Rousseau (and you) characterize something as "optimal," by what standard have you judged it be optimal?

Who is the optimal "decision" made by? Is it by majority? If the agreement underlying social contract is not the agreement of a majority, then who is party to the agreement, and how is it decided who is party to the agreement that will be expressed in the "general will?" Who decides what is optimal for "all?"

>>"The Social Contract in no way has anything to do with “Mob rule.” It is about government needing to have the best interests of its society’s members in mind in order to be sovereign."

"Best interests" -- by what standard? Is the standard mere agreement by a majority, or something else?

When you refer to "society's members," do you mean to include even those members of a given society who disagree with a society's policies, as expressed in the official "general will?" Is it ever possible for those in disagreement to be right, and for the "general will" to be wrong?

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Liz

1. Poorly researched-- social contracts are supposed to be implicit not explicit.

2. How can teaching 5th graders about sex be a private decision? For an economics blog, you sure did not look into statistics about reduced pregnancy rates and sex ed.

3. If you replaced "pirate" with "moose", you could write for Sarah Palin.

Bachelor's (degree) Delight

Yet another thought provoking post Mr. Leeson.

I look forward to your future posts.

Now can I have an 'A' in your class?

Ben

@24:

If you had actually read Rousseau's 'The Social Contract', you would know that there is a distinct difference between the 'general will' and the 'will of all.' The 'general will' is what is the decision that is optimal for all that are in the society. Whereas the 'will of all' is what you are describing which is none other than the collective opinion of those in society. Rousseau makes a point to say that any type of government can appeal to the 'general will' and thus become a sovereign state.

The Social Contract in no way has anything to do with "Mob rule." It is about government needing to have the best interests of its society's members in mind in order to be sovereign. Perhaps you should read up before your next diatribe.

Maria

Coercive-free anonymous voting? This is what we have in the US and let me recall the voter turnout in 2002: 37% and in 2006: 43%. How are we then "to increase the extent of social agreement underlying the rules that govern society" ? Pure voluntary contract? Are we going to force more than half of the American people to vote in order to have a "pure voluntary" contract?

And, there is every indication that with greater voter turnout, there will be more political interference rather than less. If the remaining half of the American population did vote, the voting population would be even more diverse than it already is and thus undermine the author's willingness to "strengthen the consensual basis of American government, and hopefully enhance social agreement over the rules we have" - even if this agreement is limited to a modest range of issues. The author mentions murder as an example of issues over which most of us agree. True. But, just go one step further: is someone who is found guilty of murder to be sentenced to death or not? Do Americans readily agree on this?

I find the conclusions drawn by the author from his historical detour into 18th century pirate society for today's American government naive or contradictory, or both.

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liberty

"That is — what if people agree on the wrong thing? Poll the people in Saudi Arabia and Iran and they’ll all agree that women ought to be stoned for marrying someone against her father’s wishes."

-- even the women?

The ideal is "behind the veil" so that nobody would vote to stone women, because they might be one. That isn't possible in the real world.

It must at least be coercive-free anonymous voting (with full franchise) if it can't be a pure voluntary contract, otherwise it isn't even close to being a social contract.

reservoirgod

@14

"Slaves might not want to try to escape because the costs of trying to leave (possibly death, beating, or ending up under a worse master) were lower than their benefits (achieving freedom)."

Live free or die. Give me liberty or give me death. The ballot or the bullet. I don't think slaves decided to remain slaves based on a cost-benefit analysis. Harriet Tubman said she could've freed more slaves if they knew they were slaves. Malcolm X said the difference between him and the so-called American Negro was that he knew he wasn't American because if he was American he would already have equal protection under the law instead of having fight for it.

I guess there is some ignorance of history in this forum.

reservoirgod

@14

"Slaves might not want to try to escape because the costs of trying to leave (possibly death, beating, or ending up under a worse master) were lower than their benefits (achieving freedom)."

Give me liberty or give me death. Live free or die. The ballot or the bullet.

I guess #17 was right, there is some ignorance of history in this forum.

Slaves didn't remain on the plantation based on a cost-benefit analysis. Harriet Tubman said she could've freed more people if they knew they were slaves. Malcolm X said the difference between him and the average American Negro was that he knew he wasn't american because if he was american then he wouldn't have to fight for equal protection under the law.

Paula Hall

Any time I read someone extolling the virtues of some variation of social contract, I observe the failure to address the parallels between social contract and direct democracy -- and the widely observed dangers of such policies (The Federalist Papers comes to mind). That is -- what if people agree on the wrong thing? Poll the people in Saudi Arabia and Iran and they'll all agree that women ought to be stoned for marrying someone against her father's wishes. Surely, when we pronounce policies like that one vicious, despite the fact that there is wide agreement about them in the polities affected, we are applying some standard of governmental legitimacy OTHER than mere agreement.

But if we're applying some other standard, then we're not conferring governmental legitimacy by agreement.

It will not do to reply that, well, we all agree on the standards by which we will judge our political agreements. Another commenter (#10) has already pointed out the he doesn't see the Religious Right or the religiously environmental giving up their dreams of thought dictatorship any time soon. Nor does it do to reply that, well, we agree to limit our governments with constitutions and bills of rights and the like. To rely on "agreement" as the standard of everything, all the way down, leads to a reductio ad absurdam. The question remains: by what ultimate standard do we judge what it is proper to agree to?

Social contract is just another variation on mob rule -- it's setting policy by polling and forcing minority dissenters to comply, whether those dissenters have a legitimate beef or not. The basic philosophy of such a policy is: might is right.

I have two questions for Mr. Leeson. First, do you argue that just any old social contract is legitimate, by virtue of it having been agreed to? Second, if your answer to the first question is "no," then what do you believe is the origin of the standard by which we ought to judge the legitimacy of any social contract?

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Bill Harshaw

"Americans are as diverse in their beliefs and preferences as they come."??

That's either a thoughtless statement, or you've failed to consider deeply the characteristics of other nations in the world. We may have diverse backgrounds, but compared to the diversity of cultures and tribes in many countries, we share a common consensus. Consider Russia, India, China, even Georgia. Consider old Europe, which is more riven over immigration than we are.

Maria

I'm a big fan of freakonomics also, and I'm not at all disturbed about the political orientation taken by those who post here. What matters is not whether what they write has a libertarian or statist leaning, but whether it is based on correct facts and analysis.

Though a libertarian myself, I'm afraid that this author's "The Invisible Hook" will remain something of, well, an Invisible Book to me, one that I am not at all ready to spend money on, the reason being the caricatures and errors which some have already mentioned above, which reveal a "profound ignorance of history" as Kevin Love (post no. 17). See also Sean and JBH above.

Ironically, this post renders no service to libertarianism...

liberty

"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."

So, far from being an example of pure private contract (anarchic order), this example depends on a higher order government, it would seem.

Joel

As both an econ grad student and proud alumnus of East Carolina University (home of the Pirates), born and raised in Eastern North Carolina (home of Blackbeard), I can only say...

AAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!!

Coronella Keiper

The enemy group includes Selfish Greed, Arrogant Pride, and Unhelpful Gossip. We do need to band together to defeat our real enemies.

Jayson Virissimo

"I’m a big freakonomics fan and all, but this blog is becoming annoyingly libertarian. "

I'm a big New York Times fan and all, but it is becoming annoyingly statist.

Actually, I find that it is true of most newspapers. I would appreciate it if newspapers didn't support public policy that takes away my civil liberties and wastes my money on foreign wars. Is it really so bad when someone in the mainstream media questions the ability of central planners to know what we need better than we do?

BlackBellamy

All things considered, most pirate crew members were uneducated sailors or even more so uneducated freed-would-be-slaves. Can one accurately legitimize a social contract knowing full well that those locked into signing it have no understanding of consequence for signing away their lives?

More so, wouldn't the conditions considered in the drafting of a piratical social contract, say being on an overpopulated ship some thousand miles away from the nearest coast, provide some sense of coercion?