In studying the influence of the social contract theory on the American nation historians and philosophers always mention the names of two philosophers, John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. The two philosophers had divergent viewpoints about people, freedom and politics.
Whereas John Locke held the view that all individuals were born free with the capacity to make independent decisions either as individuals or collectively as a group in pursuit of liberty and preservation of life in peaceful coexistence with each other, Thomas Hobbes held the views that human beings were selfish, in constant war with each other and incapable of surviving without the input of a strong and absolute ruler who would protect there collective right to life (Hume 452-73).
The founding fathers of the American nation decision to reject the social contract theory as advocated by Hobbes was valid then as it is today, an examination of nations that have adopted Hobbes theory such as North Korea and Burma reveals that absolute leadership can have negative consequences on peoples civil liberties and rights.
The idea that an absolute leader will always make the best decisions for the good of the nation is not always right. The founding fathers faith in Locke’s values on the social contract is evident in the American government success in promoting peaceful co-existence of different cultures and people (Gaus 84-119).
The main concern of Locke when he advocated his social contract theory was the protection of civil liberties which were always going to be under threat if Hobbes theory was to be adopted by any republic. Locke viewed the “sovereignty” or monarch as a threat to civil societies and consequently could not be trusted with the task of protecting the interests of its citizens.
The governance system that was adopted by the framers of the American constitution that gave each arm of the government sufficient authority and powers to function as well as strong checks and balances between them was a sign of support of Locke’s ideas on politics, freedom and people, and would surely get widespread support today as it did in the 18th century.
I hold the opinion that the first statement holds some truth in it even though Locke’s ideals seemed to have been accepted during the formation of the American state, in today’s world the government is increasingly taking control of our daily lives from smoking in public places, to increased government involvement in our diet, health, trade, leisure among others it seems the Orwellian world is fast becoming a reality with increased government surveillance in whatever we do, in private or public.
Hobbes acknowledged certain essential attributes of the ‘sovereign’, in any social contract; one of which entailed people having no right to criticize the government for any decisions they make for the ‘good of the nation’, censorship and political correctness is now generally accepted as part of modern day reality (Mack 45-73). In ending, Hobbes held he view that the sovereign was steadfast and could be trusted to use his vast powers for the good of society.
Individual rights were subordinate or subservient to state power and could be removed at any time by the state for the overall good. It seems man is ready to endure appalling laws such as the Patriot Act or oppressive rule purely for the sake of avoiding living in a state of war.
John Locke’s social contract theory influence on America is unquestionable and the second statement clearly demonstrates that reality; the countries constitution and criminal justice system borrows heavily from Locke’s social contract theory.
Locke held the view that in the ‘state of nature’ man had the capacity to own land and property and therefore the government could not grant that right to man this meant that property rights existed before the formation of the ‘sovereignty’, Locke postulated that in the natural state man had the inalienable right to life and resources and man could translate shared resources into private property (Gaus 84-119).
These rights are independent of government and are not dependant on the existence of the same; Locke’s idea was that the government’s role on the issue of property rights both physical and abstract was that of a facilitator and not a competitor. It is thus encouraging to note that our founding fathers choose Locke’s ideas over Hobbes.
The Fifth Amendment is an embodiment of Lockean ideals which protect individual property rights, and the right for fair compensation should the state requires private property for public use. This right has also been protected by the federal courts which have recognized the importance of due process and property rights as enshrined in the American constitution.
Gaus, Gerald F. “On Justifying the Liberties of the Moderns.” Social Philosophy & Policy 25.1 (2007): 84-119.
Hume, David. “Of the Original Contract.” Essays Moral, Political, and Literary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963. 452-473.
Mack, Eric. “Scanlon as a Natural Rights Theorist.” Politics, Philosophy & Economics 6. February (2007): 45-73.