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The social contract is a political science theory that was first proposed by Thomas Hobbes, who was one of the most influential political thinkers from the renaissance period. The social contract was based on the notion that a legitimate government is based on agreement among the governed to accept central authority (Parson, 2017). Social contract theory expanded on Machiavelli's theory, which purported that humans are naturally inclined to fight, threaten, and fear each other (Parson, 2017). Hobbes followed the same line of thought and added that rational beings would create a social contract to form a government for law and order (Parson, 2017). Hobbes's social contract theory is one of the philosophies that form the basis of liberalism. The social contract theory perceived government as a product of individual actions as well as human characteristics. Therefore, interest is the primary motivator for the government. The term "interest" was significant for the development of liberalism since it supports the idea that individuals can self-regulate and self-govern. Hobbes argued for the right of nature and right of an individual to defend themselves, even against the government, hence taking a proto-liberal position (Parson, 2017). This work will discuss how social contract theory differs from the philosophies of other associated thinkers such as Niccolo Machiavelli and John Locke and how their philosophies form the basis of liberalism.
Niccolo Machiavelli is one of the well-known political thinkers due to his heavy-handed approach to leadership. According to Machiavelli, a ruler was better off being greatly feared than to be significantly loved (Delphin, 2014). Despite advocating for authoritarian leadership, Machiavelli's there are sections of his philosophies that served as a complimentary resource to liberalism. According to Osborne (2017), there was no way for Machiavelli to anticipate liberalism or a precursor to it directly. Machiavelli's philosophies provided a nuanced account of a kind of calculus of fear and cruelty in political life (Osborne, 2017). It also lays down a section of the rudiments of a prudentialism take on politics.
As an associated thinker, Machiavelli's philosophies might have been a negative resource, but they contributed to the possibility of liberalism through his realist political philosophies. Machiavelli supported the republican government, government expenditure restraint, personal property protection, and citizen armies as the necessities for the liberties of a republic. According to Machiavelli's logic, individual initiative is the primary feature of a stable government. Machiavelli's principles held the government responsible for the protection of liberty.
Both Machiavelli and Hobbes agreed on the absolute power of kings. According to Hobbes, only centralized and a powerful government can keep anarchy at bay. Hobbes and Machiavelli perceived individuals as the most fundamental political unit and based their understanding of politics on human nature (Butler, 2018).
However, there were also stark differences in politics and philosophy. Foreign policy and the use of power are areas where the two thinkers differ. The two thinkers shared differing ethical theories. Hobbes, through his social contract theory, Hobbes argues that the morality of the sovereign comes from his legitimacy, while Machiavelli argued that the morality of the ruler comes from his actions and the consequences of such actions (Butler, 2018). Machiavelli's philosophy justifies the oppressive actions of a leader against his people if it is done for the sake of achieving political stability. Based on Hobbes's philosophy, a leader cannot act unjustly against his people because his citizens are the source of his or her legitimacy. In short, Machiavelli and Hobbes agree that the end justifies the means, but they disagree on what those ends are.
One historical example of Hobbes's philosophy happened during the Second World War. Americans agreed to give up some of their civil liberties and belongings for the sake of contributing to the war efforts. People agreed to food rations, purchasing war bonds, recycling materials, and even working in war-related industries as part of supporting the war effort so that the government can guarantee their security against Nazi Germany. As for Machiavelli's philosophies, a modern example would be Muammar Gaddafi's prevention of political activities in 2011. He arrested several political gathers and sentenced them to death. Gaddafi took such actions to prevent a political revolution that had started to brew in his country. Based on Machiavelli's philosophies, his actions are justified as they sought to maintain political stability. The exit of Gaddafi has left an enormous power vacuum, causing the country to plunge into near anarchy.
Sometime later, another influential political thinker, by the name of John Locke, sought to expand Hobbes' social contract theory. Hobbes had flirted with the Machiavellian perspective of constant strife and conflict (Parson, 2017). Lock diverted away from such Machiavellian view and instead theorized that human society, in the absence of government, would be less chaotic as Hobbes has described. Hobbes suggested that society in the absence of government would exist in an all-out war of all against all. Locke was against that view and instead theorized that humans in a state of nature would exist reasonably well. However, such a society would be in constant competition for limited resources, which would eventually lead to crimes such as theft.
Both thinkers were for the idea that in a state of nature, rational beings would come together to form a social contract to create governance (Parson, 2017). They both didn't view the state of nature as a long-term solution as governance would eventually rise as rational beings search for order and uniformity in life.
Locke's philosophy formed the basis of liberalism through its advocation of limited governance. Locke's politics and philosophy advocated for a government that has the consent of the governed. The philosophy perceived a highly centralized abolitionist king or monarch as worse than the state of nature. Locke's advocacy of the human right to property, life, and liberty, as well as a society founded on tolerance, laid the blueprint for the development of liberalist ideology. According to Parson(2017), Locke's normative arguments for human rights inspired the American revolution, kickstarting centuries of liberal ideas. Therefore, the American revolution forms a historical example of the application of Locke's philosophy. The Arab spring is an excellent modern example of the application of Locke's philosophies as the citizens o various countries in the Arab world rejected absolutist rulers in favor of limited kind of government and, in some cases, an absolute state on nature.
Therefore, the main difference between Hobbes and Locke's philosophies is that Locke believed in the goodness of human nature. There is no doubt that Hobbes, perceived humans as naturally selfish and self-centered. The heavy criticism of human nature is a common theme in both Hobbes and Machiavellian philosophies (Butler, 2018). Locke believes in the ability of humans to self-govern and self-regulate hence reducing the conflicts that would emerge in their natural state.
In conclusion, the social contract is one of the most important philosophical theories in human society. Its relevance is felt even in the 21 century. The relevance of social contract has been displayed through the Covid 19 pandemic. People have had to give up some of their freedom so that the government can keep them safe. Restriction of movement, as well as being prevented from conducting economic activities, are all social contracts between the state and the people.
Butler, U. (2018, November 2). ResearchGate. Retrieved May 6, 2020, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328696050_A_Comparison_of_the_Views_of_Niccolo_Machiavelli_and_Thomas_Hobbes_on_Politics
Delphin, A. (2014). Machiavelli and the principles behind authoritarian rule; Could he explain the fate of Muammar al-Gaddafi?.
Osborne, T. (2017). Machiavelli and the liberalism of fear. History of the human sciences, 30(5), 68-85. https://doi.org/10.1177/0952695117723223
Parson, C. (2017). Introduction to political science: How to think for yourself about politics. Pearson.
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