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The Implications of Social Contract Theory for Public Governance

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kimberley Garth-James
January 19, 2021 

The ideals of, “We the people,” and public governance are well established—or are they? Federal, state, and local governments in the United States address public problems more or less successfully while the citizens look to public administration to ensure social and economic vitality. Many fallacies are apparent in current debates about this social contract. Over the holidays, I re-read some public documents (U.S. Constitution, documents on Jamestown and the Mayflower Compact) and a variety of political thinkers across the centuries. I noted the emphasis on the consent of the governed. Reading these works in the context of recent events—the killings of unarmed Black people, backlash against the power of the wealthy few, conflict over mask-wearing to combat the pandemic and so on—inspired me to reconsider the language of the social contract that binds this nation together. As a public administrator, it is my conviction that a social contract must retain notions of consent of the governed, public trust and guaranteed rights. This remains crucial to good governance.

Historical perspectives of the social contract and implications for public administration and its servant are well known. The idea originated with the ancient Greek, and was developed by religious thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274); its modern articulation traces back to the philosophers John Locke (1632-1704) and Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). The duty of public administrators to establish and protect the public trust and seek the public good that they promoted stands in opposition to dictatorial governments from, in the past century, Hitler and Mussolini to Idi Amin and Pol Pot. Leaders may resort to self-other dichotomies that destroy the social contract, but they can also choose ethical approaches to solving dilemmas and demonstrate moral judgment. Faith and reason both contribute to moral behavior, including the conviction on the part of right-minded public leaders that there can be no self-other divide—which makes them inimical to dictators of the sort just listed.

Philosophers throughout history have recognized this truth. Thus, Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) based his theory of aesthetics and his epistemology on the distinction between that which cannot be seen—which is the realm of faith—and that which is observed—which is the realm of reason. In the generation before him, Locke theorized about sovereignty and freedom from oppressive governments in the 1689 work Two Treatises Concerning Government, arguing for religious diversity and tolerance while engaging reason. Notably, he refers to the role of civil government in containing the seeds of, “Perpetual disorder,” that threaten to undermine the social contract (as found in Book 2, Chapter 1, §4). At the same time, Locke remains attentive to the need to refrain from trampling on the rights of individuals and the complementary individual responsibilities not to harm others, to observe the law and to work to establish peace and preserve humankind (§7). Alexis de Tocqueville pointed in particular to the qualitative difference between United States presidents and European kings in the 1835 text, Democracy in America, noting the freedom and equality that early United States citizens enjoyed in their dealings with their government and its administrators.

Jonathan Bennett makes a key point in this regard in the notes to his 2010 edition of Rousseau’s The Social Contract, where he argues that it is the role of governments to help citizens to enjoy equality and freedom under the law. The language of the social contract includes limitations on the sovereign and the abuse of power that are essentially moral in nature. Thus, inasmuch as, “A state or city is a union of its parts,” the various parts need to grant their, “Consent to be governed,” and the elected leaders and voters must agree to value equal rights and shared ideals of justice if a government is to be effective (as stated on pages 14-15). Our country, the United States, has at least at times, faced geopolitical change by valuing human rights and justice and promoting our ideals in moral terms as the product of an obligation to show benevolence toward self and others. Christopher Watkin, in his 2020 work Christianity and the Social Contract: Preliminary Reflections, observes that leaders such as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and President-elect Joe Biden use the language of the social contract. Indeed, revolutionary movements and community groups alike are confronting the present public discord in these terms, thereby following the lead of, for example, the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (founded in 1913), the League of United Latin American Citizens (1929), and the Black Panther Party (1966), which have worked to expose social, political and economic injustices.

As 2021 dawns, the political-administrative class must empower enlightened leaders and thinkers who have been fighting for solidarity, unity and peace, to regain the public trust. Politicians and administrators alike must avoid the narrow-mindedness that can distance them from the citizens whom they serve. They—we—need to promote consideration of others, such as self-isolating to combat COVID-19, and to reintroduce moral considerations into public discourse. Now is the time for officials at all levels of government to reacquaint themselves with the principles of the social contract.

Thank you.


Author: Dr. K. Garth-James, Associate Professor & Director, MPA Program & Center for Public Affairs, Azusa Pacific University, [email protected]

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