The Contract Theory of State

In moral and political philosophy, the social contract is a theory of state or model that originated during the Age of Enlightenment and is usually concerned with the legitimacy of the state’s authority over the individual. In this condition, individuals’ actions are bound only by their personal power and conscience.

The Theory Explained:-

As stated above, the organismic theory represented a reaction against the so-called contract theory, which dominated the political thought of the eighteenth century. This theory must now be explained. In the minds of its votaries, it often assumed two forms:

  • First, it explained the origin of the state.
  • Second, it was a theory of the relation between those who govern and those who are governed.

Those who adopted arid expounded it as a theory of the origin of the state assumed the existence of a primitive, pre-civil (some maintained. that it was also a pre-social) condition of humanity, escape from which was effected using a contract, pact, or covenant, express or tacit, between each individual and his fellows, by, which each surrendered his natural right to do as he pleased and received in exchange civil rights, that is, rights created and protected by the state. This pre-civil condition of society was described as the original state of nature.

According to Hobbes, men’s rights in this condition were limited only by their physical power. There were, in fact, no such things as right or wrong, no justice or injustice, and no property since all these are creations of the state; naturally selfish, egoistic, brutal, covetous, and aggressive men were, potentially at least, in a perpetual state of war each with all.

According to Locke’s conception, on the contrary, men in the state of nature were naturally sociable, altruistic, and peaceable. Moreover, the state of nature was not a lawless statemen; in fact, they were bound by that vague, indefinite thing called natural law or the law of nature, the existence of which was generally recognized by jurists before the nineteenth century, although Hobbes denied it.

That law, said Locke, was plain and intelligible to every reasonable creature. Still, the inconvenience lay in the fact that each man was necessarily the judge as to what is permitted and what it forbade, and he was also the executioner of the law.

In these circumstances, there was a need for a common judge to interpret the law and a superior authority to enforce it, considering that men are biased and not therefore competent judges in their own cases.

Nature of the Contract:-

Whatever the difference of opinion among the philosophers as to the state of nature’s actual character, they were all in accord that it was an unsatisfactory condition of society and that the only means of escape was through covenant. As to the nature of the transaction, the philosophers who defended the theory held different opinions.

According to Hobbes, each individual agreed with all the others to surrender his right to govern himself to some particular man or assembly. By doing this, they established the state, and the person or assembly upon whom they had bestowed their power was the sovereign of whom they were subjects.

On the other hand, Locke wished to justify the principles of the English Revolution of 1688 as Hobbes had wished to justify the absolutism of the Stuart kings, maintained that the surrender of rights was to the community and not to any man or assembly.

According to Hobbes, the king was not a party to the contract and was not therefore bound by it according to Locke; on the contrary, the people rather than the king was the sovereign, and the latter might forfeit his office by a violation of the terms upon which he was vested with authority.

Rousseau’s idea of the transaction was essentially the same as that of Locke. Each individual puts his person and faculties into a Common stock under the direction of the general will each man giving himself to all, gives himself to none; what he loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to anything that tempts him which he can obtain what he gains is civil liberty and the ownership of all that he possesses.

Rejection of the Contract Theory of state:-

In one form or another, this theory of the origin of the state was supported by a long line of philosophers, jurists, political writers, and even poets beginning with the monarch of the sixteenth century and including, in addition to. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, such well-known writers as Hooker, Milton, Grotius, Pufendorf, Wolff, Suarez, Kant, Blackstone, Spinoza, Fichte, and many others.

But in the latter part of the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century, it was attacked by such writers as Hume, Bentham, Burke, Von Haller, Austin, Lieber, Woolsey, Maine, Green Bluntschli, Sir. Frederick Pollock, and others. All of them pointed out that the theory had no historical foundation and that it was untenable on the grounds of philosophy and reason since it presupposed the existence of political consciousness in the minds of men living in the state of nature, a consciousness which they do not possess.

By some writers, like Maine, it was pronounced to be worthless others, like Green, pronounced it to a Fiction Woolsey declared it to be utterly false Bentham dismissed it as a rattle for amusement. At the same time, Sir Frederick Pollock characterized it as one of the successful and fatal political impostures. As an explanation of the state’s origin, the theory is now entirely discredited, like various other early political doctrines, and no reputable philosopher or political writer could be found to defend it.

The Theory of the Governmental Contract:-

Nevertheless, some of those who reject the theory as an explanation of the state’s origin maintains that it is valid to explain the relationship between those who govern and those governed. While there may be no well-authenticated historical examples of a formal Contract or covenant entered into between the people and their rulers, such an agreement or understanding, it is argued, exists by implication in every democratically governed state.

The secret act doctrine that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed and that peoples have an inalienable right of revolution against governments and rulers who violate the conditions upon Which they have been entrusted with the power of government, rests, it is said, upon the principle that there is an implied contractual relationship between those who have been so invested with power and those who have conferred it.

There is, in short, a reciprocal obligation upon both parties an obligation on the part of the one to govern by the terms of the grant and to furnish that protection for the guarantee of which the state was in large part established, are the obligation on the part of the others to render obedience, and where necessary, service to the duly and legally established authorities. If, therefore, one party defaults in the obligation’s performance, the other is released from the duty of performance.

Evaluation of the Theory:-

In this sense, the doctrine of the contract is more defensible. However, the terminology is not entirely satisfactory since the word contract’s employment may lead to false and dangerous implications. Thus if the 5mm is merely the result of the contract, it might be argued that since the whole idea of the contract implies a voluntary relation, any individual is free to become a party to it or to remain outside in a state of outlawry, as he may elect, just as one is free to become a member of a business partnership or not as he pleases-a proposition which of course cannot be admitted.

Furthermore, it might be equally argued that the contract is binding only upon the original parties and not upon their successors who have never given their adherence to it. In that case, the state would expire with the original parties’ death and would have to be renewed by their successors.

To hold that the original contract is perpetually binding not only upon the original parties but upon future generations who have never consented to the agreement would be in the face of the principle that a contract is binding only upon those who have voluntarily entered into it. Thus the contract theory tends to make the state a matter of caprice. If followed out to its logical conclusion, it would lead to the subversion of all authority and possibly the state’s dissolution.


The only tenable conclusion is that membership in the state and the obligations of allegiance and obedience can not be interpreted in the terminology of a legal contract. We can no more explain to them the theory of contract than we can account for the membership of a child in the family or its duty of obedience to the parent, on the principle of consent.

These relations rest upon utility, and the general interests and necessities of society are independent of consent. They are entered into without any more thought as to their justification or legal basis than one bestows upon the principle of gravity or the Operation of nature’s laws in general.

Finally, the contract theory tends to reduce the state to the level of a partnership or joint-stock company-an artificial creation rather than the product of historical growth and social necessity.

It was against such a view of the state that Burke directed the most eloquent of his attacks. He said society was something more than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and then dissolved by the Iancy of the parties. The consent, he said, upon which the contract theory rested was in fact no true consent at all, and the assumed contract, so far from being a matter of choice, was imposed by the necessities of man’s nature.

It would be impossible, says an eminent political philosopher, to define the ends of the state more nobly or more completely than did Burke in this partly quoted passage, and he adds that it would be equally impossible to define them in a sense more absolutely opposed to the external and limited aims assumed by the individualists.

However, the contract theory, like the organismic theory, served a useful purpose in its day by providing a weapon for combating irresponsible rulers and a justification for resistance to tyranny. Out of it, there deVeloped the doctrine that kings derived their authority from the people, were responsible to them, and could be deposed for breaking the pact which they were assumed to have entered into at the time of their coronation.