Politics in Minutes (2016)

The social contract

With the formation of new nation states came the opportunity to decide their form of government. It also prompted thinkers to examine the more fundamental questions of why government is necessary, and the relationship between its power and the rights of the citizens. At the heart of this was the realization that social order and law, like society itself, are human creations, and depend on a consensus. Enlightenment political philosophers, including Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believed that a legitimate government is granted its power by a ‘social contract’: the citizens agree to surrender some of their liberty and submit to the authority of the government in return for protection of their other rights. Hobbes saw this as a way of maintaining social order, with the people abdicating their rights to an absolute sovereign, while Rousseau emphasized the idea of consensus, where individual citizens submitted to the ‘general will’. Locke’s position came somewhere in between, arguing that a government protects the ‘natural rights’ of its citizens and arbitrates civil disputes.

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