Your plea deal for freedom: the social contract

Why a Plea Deal for Freedom?

You’ve already got a plea deal for freedom as a citizen. It’s called the social contract. “Hey!” you say, “What did I do wrong to need a plea deal?” Simple fact: without a government, you were out for yourself alone in what they call “the state of nature.” So was everyone else. Your life, your property and your freedom were at the mercy of anyone who came along and wanted to take them. So we Americans all agreed back in 1789 to give up a tiny bit of that freedom and obey the laws in order to be safe, secure and happy — to abide by the new Constitution. That became our social contract.

Today we hear cries from an extreme and angry rabble that our government restricts freedom and should be abolished. A little bit of education in the basic grade school civics would go a long way toward debunking this false argument.

Rousseau was a Swiss thinker who helped lead 17th century France from the monarchy and church-led rule of kings into the era of the Enlightenment and rebirth of reason. His analysis forms the basis for modern democracy and, along with the other enlightened philosophers, guided the French and American revolutions.

The State of Nature

The life of the solitary man in the state of nature without a ruling principle, said Thomas Hobbes another clear thinker back in those days, is “nasty, brutish and short.” Even if one man enslaved half a world of such individuals in order to defend them all, when he died his empire would once again become scattered, Rousseau added. He further explained in The Social Contract:

The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person in goods of each associate, and in which, while uniting himself with all, they still obey himself alone. This is the fundamental problem of which the social contract provides the solution.

–Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). The Social Contract, 1762, quoted in Mendenhall, et al., The Quest for a Principle of Authority in in Europe, 1715-Present. Henry Holt and Company (New York), 1948, P. 45

The Social Contract and the Law

The social contract between the individual and his country requires giving up some of one’s freedom to receive the protection and security that the government can provide. For example, although it guarantees free speech to the citizens, one still cannot yell “Fire” in a crowded theater, which would risk harm to fellow citizens. By consenting to preserve the “general will,” which is to maintain order, freedom and property of the individual, we agree to obey laws which ensure these benefits of citizenship. As Rousseau expressed it in The Social Contract:

How can it be that all should obey yet nobody take it upon himself to command, and that we all should serve and yet we have no masters, but be the more free, as in a subjection, each loses no part of his liberty but what might be hurtful to another? These wonders are the work of law. It is to the law alone that men owe justice and liberty. It is this salutary organ of the will of all which establishes, and civil right, the natural equality between men.

–Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), A Discourse on Political Economy, 1758, quoted in Mendenhall, et al. op. cit., P. 47.

Rousseau concludes that political leaders must speak when they command with the voice of the law. No sooner does such a leader set aside the law and subject another to his private will, than he departs from civil society and confronts him face-to-face in the pure state of nature, in which obedience is required solely by necessity. Does this sound familiar? Angry mobs armed with automatic rifles?

Can we really improve on the Constitution?

Do we really want to take a chance on abolishing our Constitution, our own social contract, to take our chances on writing a better one? Really, in this political climate? We saw what happened when the French tried to do it. The Jacobin Party and Robespierre tried and tried again to rewrite their constitution: it got bolder and nastier with every draft. It ended up with the guillotine for anyone who disagreed with the few self-righteous individuals who had taken charge.

Why risk another revolt? The founding fathers already thought of that. With an excellent social contract, they gave our system a built-in revolution. Every election year we have a chance to start over with new ideas and platforms. All we have to do is make sure we go to the polls and vote wisely. We are fortunate to have revolution built-in through the vote of the people to reflect our needs and hopes for ourselves and our fellow citizens. It is for this very reason that we have traditionally in this nation treasured the right of citizens to choose their own leaders through the popular vote. All we must give in return is our voluntary submission to our own creation, the rule of law.

We have a pretty good plea deal for freedom right now. We had better take it. The results to our democracy of ignoring it will be nasty, brutish and short. Let’s get out and vote this November!

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