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The Social Contract: One Size Fits All

March 28, 2011

Can the recent “popular” uprisings against several governments in the Middle East and North Africa be explained by the social contract theory of government set forth by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and then adopted by Thomas Jefferson as the intellectual underpinning of the American Revolution? Or are these protests proof of Edmund Burke’s argument that the “science of government” is practical and cannot be created a priori? The answer is clearly seen in the verbal contortions performed on the Sunday morning talk shows by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in an unsuccessful attempt to rationalize a blatantly inconsistent foreign policy. On the one hand, the United States government praises the revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt, depicting them as modern day descendants of the American Patriots, and commits American military forces to support Libyan rebels who have no apparent leadership or political goals other than to obtain power. Yet, these same officials stand by as the government in Bahrain slaughters its own citizens who have dared to ask for an easing of dictatorial rule. These contradictory policy positions can be understood by viewing the social contract theory as an artificial construct that is used to support just about any political position. In reality, as Burke noted, the social contract theory can and has been used to justify all manner of political actions, from the American to the French Revolution, from the peaceful transfer of power to the Reign of Terror.

In its simplest form the theory states that government exists to protect a person’s life, liberty and, depending on whom you read, property (Locke) or the pursuit of happiness (Jefferson). In order to achieve these protections, and “to avoid [the social contract] being an empty formula, it tacitly entails the commitment… that whoever refuses to obey the general will be forced to do so by the entire body.” (Rousseau, On the Social Contract) Yet, the determination of the “general will” can lead just as equally to tyranny (see France’s Reign of Terror) as it can to some measure of representative democracy (see the United States after the American Revolution). How has the American leadership determined that the street protestors in Cairo and Benghazi represent the general will, while those in Bahrain do not?

The answer lies in the human need to justify actions. This compulsion to explain and rationalize behavior is the genesis of the social contract theory. It is a theory that, because of the ambiguous definition of “general will,” can explain a wide range of often-contradictory actions and decisions. The general will can be said to support rebels in one nation while buttressing tyrants in the neighboring country. Invariably, as Winston Churchill, like Burke, a British conservative, noted more than one hundred years after Burke’s death, “history is written by the victors.” It should not surprise anyone, therefore, when, in the future, the victors in the current Middle East and North African turmoil, regardless of whether they are advocates of democracy or proponents of government-sponsored terror, each claim to represent the general will, and to be the descendants of Locke, Rousseau and Jefferson.

One Comment
  1. Brian Fisher permalink
    March 28, 2011 2:14 PM

    You make a very interesting claim here when you compare the situations in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya to Bahrain. you state that American forces support these uprisings in the former countries while “hese same officials stand by as the government in Bahrain slaughters its own citizens who have dared to ask for an easing of dictatorial rule”. you respond that our differentiation in response is due to the human need to justify actions. I think this is an extremely general term and can essentially be used to answer any question. you need to locate the issues at hand for these revolutions more and then I think you will uncover the reasons for America’s reactions

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