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The social contract

Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan argues that without government, society would devolve into a state of war and chaos, with individuals infringing on each other's rights. To prevent this, Hobbes advocates for a social contract, in which individuals give up certain rights to a central authority (government) in order to protect their most important rights.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] Before we dive deep into our study of government and politics, it's worth asking a fundamental question. And that's whether we even need government, or why do we need government? And I encourage you to pause this video and think about this. Do you think we need government, and why? Or do you think we don't need government, and why? Okay, now let's start to reason through this a little bit and start to think about the benefits or the pitfalls of a government. So let's say that we are in a world without a government. And this is me right over here. And at first, it sounds pretty good. I have unlimited rights here. There's no one infringing on my right. I can say what I want. I have the freest possible speech. There are no laws that I could break. I have the freest possible religion. I have no government telling me what to practice or what I can't practice. I have, I can own what I want. I have property. I can go anywhere, so I have movement. And I also have some freedoms that those of us who live in a government don't typically have. So I would have the freedom to tax others or to take from others, take property. If I'm stronger than them, or if I'm just sneakier, I go in the middle night, I can just take their property from them. I could just settle on their land. I could have the freedom to punish others or imprison others if I don't like 'em. It doesn't even have to be for a reason. This is a freedom that most of us don't have in the world that we live in today. But without a government, I would have this freedom, this freedom to go and take stuff from others and to do physical harm or imprison them or enslave them. Now, this might sound good to you as an individual, but remember everyone in this government-less society would have these same, would have these same freedoms. And I especially like the ability to have my own property and to have my own freedom of movement. But what if this person right over here doesn't like me to have freedom of movement? And so they say they're going to invoke, look, I can punish or imprison you because I don't like you. And so they're going to infringe on my freedom of movement by imprisoning me, or maybe I might do it to someone else. And so even though you have all of these freedoms, because everyone else does, especially these latter few, they might be able to take some of these from you, including your freedom to live, your health, your happiness. And this is well-described in political philosophy. In particular, you have a gentleman by the name of Thomas Hobbes, who's considered one of the fathers of political philosophy. And this is what he had to say about this state of nature. "As long as men live without a common power "to keep them all in awe, "they are in the condition known as war, "and it is a war of every man against every man. "In war, the two chief virtues "are force and fraud." I can do something by physical force, or I could trick you, or I could sneak around you and take something from you, or imprison you. "A further fact about the state of war "of every man against every man, "in it there is no such thing as ownership, "no legal control, no distinction between mine and thine," between mine and yours. "Rather, anything that a man can get is his "for as long as he can keep it. "In such a condition, every man has a right to everything, "even to someone else's body. "As long as this continues, therefore, "that is, as long as every man continues "to have this natural right to everything, "no man, however strong or clever he may be, "can be sure of living out the time "that nature ordinarily allows men to live." This was written in Leviathan, which was published in 1651. So he's framing the same thing. If everyone has a right to everything, well, they can infringe on other people, including their life, their health, their happiness, their freedom to movement. Now some of you might be skeptical of this. You might say, look, humans are fundamentally good. If you give 'em that freedom, they have a conscience. They're not going to try to do this to other people. But some of you might be able to cite times in society where there's more of an anarchy where actually people might devolve. And even if one or two or three, or even if a majority of the people have a conscience and aren't willing to imprison others and punish people arbitrarily, if even a few people are not willing to respect other people's rights, everything might devolve. And it's worth talking about the historical context here because this was near the end of the English Civil War, where there was chaos, where people were asking these questions. Well, what type of government should we have? And when there isn't a strong government, all of this chaos is really all about person versus person. It wasn't this degree of chaos that Hobbes is writing about, this kind of natural state without government, but this was a context where there was a lot of bloodshed, a lot of war, and a lot of chaos. Now, Hobbes had a solution, and this is actually why the book was called Leviathan. He was an advocate of a very strong central government. This keeps people in awe alludes to what he's thinking of. Leviathan comes from the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. It's the name of a sea monster. But Hobbes thinks that a government should be a Leviathan to keep everyone in check. He wrote, "When a man thinks that peace and self-defense require it, "he should be willing, when others are too, "to lay down his right to everything, "and should be contented "with as much liberty against other men "as he would allow other men against himself." Now, this idea that he's talking about, this is today referred to as a social contract. And this term social contract is first formally used by Rousseau, another Enlightenment author, about a hundred years later, talking about this willingness to give up some rights in order to protect the ones that you really, really, really want to have. And you would be giving up those rights to some form of a government. That is the social contract between the people that are governed and the government that governs them. So going back to that previous example where every person was out for themselves, what the social contract is saying is, well, look, certain of these rights, I really want to keep, my freedom of speech, my freedom of property, my freedom to move around, my freedom to have my life, my health, my happiness. In order to protect those freedoms, maybe I'm willing to give some of my other freedoms over to a central authority, as long as everyone is willing to give these up. And this central authority that we give it up to is a government. And the government, because it has this, it uses these rights in order to protect the other rights, the ones that I really want to keep. So the government enforces these other rights, and that's the social contract. I give away these rights in order to protect the ones that I really, really care about. And that makes sense, but it still leaves a very, very big question. What form should this government take? I'm willing to engage in this social contract, but how does this government govern? How are the leaders selected? What are the constraints on that government? And that will be our focus as we study government and politics.