5 Ways to Defeat Social Contract Theory

Social contract has been a staple philosophy in formal debate since its inception. It’s usually defined something like this:

“An implied agreement between citizens and governments in which certain individual freedoms are surrendered for the social benefits and protection.”

Despite its popularity, solid arguments against it are rare. Debaters tend to favor adjusting their advocacy so they can agree to the concept of social contract. And who wouldn’t? Social contract came from the infallible John Locke and formed the basis of modern democratic constitutional governments. How we could we possibly object to it?

Here are a few ways.

1. Clarify the Definition

This is by far the most important step. Surrendering “certain freedoms” for “certain benefits” is ambiguous enough to let your opponent worm his way out of anything. In cross-ex, clarify the terms of the social contract.

“Exactly what freedoms do citizens forfeit in the social contract?”
“Exactly what benefits are guaranteed to citizens?”

Often, the answers themselves will do a lot of damage to the position. Even more often, debaters will have a really hard time answering those questions. They may even refuse to, which makes your job pretty easy.

2. I Didn’t Sign Up

Since when were contracts implied? I never agreed to forfeit my freedom to strangers.

Am I responsible because I use government services? In most cases, I have no choice. It’s not like I can choose to forego the benefits of police. I can’t call up the Social Security Administration and cancel my subscription (if only). Claiming that I’m responsible on those grounds is like delivering surprise pizza to my house and charging me for it because, well, the pizza is here now.

Am I responsible because I was born in a certain country? The circumstances of my birth were completely out of my control. Claiming that the social contract is my birthright is just as fair as enforcing a contract that applies to all Hispanic people by sole virtue of their ethnicity.

In short, the notion is pretty offensive. Show me the actual contract with signatures at the bottom; then we can talk.

3. I Have Nowhere to Go

A popular defense of the social contract: “If you don’t like it, you can leave.” While this statement only makes the previous argument even stronger, it is also problematic.

Where am I going to go to escape the social contract? To a country offering a contract I like? What if there aren’t any? What if that country won’t let me go? What if my current one won’t let me leave?

Most importantly: isn’t it completely unreasonable to say someone’s only recourse to escape an implied contract is to leave the country? Go back to the pizza example.

“I didn’t order this pizza.”
“Well, it’s here now, and whoever lives here has to pay for it.”
“I live here, but I don’t want to pay for it.”
“No problem! You can just move out.”

4. Ambiguous Terms

It is very unlikely that your opponent will be able to pin down the exact terms of the contract. Whoever you ask, you’ll get a different set of definitions. Some people are willing to give up just about all of their rights, and expect massive government involvement. Others want to live and let live.

So what is too far? Is it possible for government to go too far and take away some essential rights that aren’t covered in the social contract? If so, where is that line? If it doesn’t exist or we can’t quantify it, isn’t that terrifying?

If it’s possible to be more confusing, establishing what government is supposed to do to keep its end of the bargain is just hopeless.

5. Better Alternative

The social contract is wishful thinking. It tries to explain why we can have an intrusive, statist government that has legitimate authority over people. It’s like pulling a pillow-case over one’s head and whispering: “We’re in an anarcho-capitalist society, we’re in an anarcho-capitalist society …”

The real appeal of social contract sets in when you face the hardest part of arguing against it: finding an alternative. The very existence of government means coercion. Whatever model you propose as an alternative, embrace that element. Claim, for example, that governments have objective responsibilities that they must uphold whether or not their citizens are on board. Or claim that governments draw their legitimacy from something other than the consent of the governed.

Don’t give arguments a free pass simply because they’re popular. Always look to challenge the prevailing narrative, and you’ll be amazed at what you learn in the process.