The Social Contract

The Social Contract Criticisms of Social Contract Theory

"We Shall Force them to be Free."

Rousseau's famous statement in The Social Contract has been called into question by a number of critics who believe that the idea of "force" negates the requirement that a contract be entered into voluntarily. Contract theory - as distinct from social contract theory - permits individuals to abstain from entering into a contract. Rousseau, however, holds that even individuals who disagree with elements of the social contract must nevertheless agree to abide by it or risk punishment. This perspective, however, ignores the fact that social contract theory is more of a philosophy than an actual contract, and is thus not held to the same standards.

Tacit Consent

Rousseau specifies that by taking up residence in civilized society, individuals tacitly consent to the dictates of the social contract. However, how can it be guaranteed that every resident is fully cognizant of the specifics of the social contract? For example, consider a squatter who has spent his entire life living in a small hut in the woods. One day, a government representative arrives to lay claim to the trees surrounding his abode. While the man has no legal right to what he considers "his" land, he certainly seems justified in being angered at the idea. Indeed, one might argue that he does not necessarily have an explicit awareness of the contract that he "signed" simply by choosing not to flee the United States. Social contract theory includes no clause to exempt individuals who are not cognizant of the fact that they have entered into a contract from punishment.

Ethics vs. Jurisprudence

While Rousseau's work is certainly admissible on a moral or philosophical level, many criticize his apparent efforts to position social contract theory as a legitimate means for governing the people. As Ronald Dworkin writes in Law Empire (1986):

So some political philosophers have been tempted to say that we have in fact agreed to the social contract of that kind tacitly, by not just emigrating when we reach the age of consent. But no one can argue that very long with a straight face. Consent cannot be binding on people, in the way this argument requires, unless it is given more freely, and with more genuine alternate choice, than just by declining to build a life from nothing under a foreign flag. And even if the consent were genuine, the argument would fail as an argument for legitimacy, because a person leaves one sovereign only to join another; he has no choice to be free from sovereigns altogether.