Updated: May 12, 2020
Wealthy white men wrote the rules to benefit themselves. Now they won’t follow them.
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chandler Christy
The State of Nature
The idea of the Social Contract, like much that inspired the Founding Fathers, began with the ancient Greeks but found its clearest articulation during the Enlightenment. Two of the primary architects of social contract theory were Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Both agreed it was necessary to bring mankind out of the “State of Nature” and into society, although they held very different views of what man’s natural state was like.
Hobbes famously wrote that without society the life of a man was “nasty, brutish and short.” He believed morality was strictly a social convention, that men are amoral by nature and ruled by base instincts, and so entering into a contract with other men to form society was always a preferable choice to suffering alone. Even though Hobbes claimed that all men are equal he asserted that allegiance to a strong central authority was essential and that relinquishing individual freedom was always preferable to living in the chaos, pain and uncertainty found in the State of Nature.
The Law of Nature
Locke, writing nearly forty years later at the close of the 17th Century, viewed the State of Nature in similar terms but offered one major addition: the State of Law. Locke believed morality was a gift bestowed by God, and he considered “natural law” to be as intrinsic to mankind as his natural instincts. Locke asserted that man should have complete liberty to live as he chooses so long as he takes no action that is harmful to others. He rejected the “Divine Right” of kings to rule and believed in limited, secular government—not despite his religious convictions but because of them.
Locke's view of the social contract directly inspired America’s Founding Fathers-- particularly Thomas Jefferson. Locke asserted that men had God-given rights & that God commanded us to respect the “life, liberty and property” of others-- an idea that found its way into the Declaration of Independence with only slight modification.
Hobbes versus Locke: Natural Brute meets Natural Law
Yes, it is racist. And sexist. Sorry.
The Social Contract engendered a revolutionary step forward in human history and remains an essential and sound theory, but at root it is an inherently racist & sexist framework. Not merely in terms of its uneven application, but in its fundamental premise of the nature of individual liberty.
The Constitution defines Africans as only 3/5 human in Article 1, and every right enumerated within applies only to men. Many defenders say this withholding of liberty for all from the beginning is its only failure, and never address the fallacies of social contract theory, itself.
Over the last fifty years much scholarship has been devoted to identifying and analyzing these fallacies. The main error is the flaw at the heart of Enlightenment thinking in general: the notion that mankind possesses free will and rationality, and therefore every human is capable of making independent decisions. There are areas where this notion is absolutely correct of course, such as in mathematics and science. But it is a fallacy to extend this assumption of free will-- and therefore liberty-- to political & moral thinking.
The wealthy white men who wrote the Constitution were inspired by the wealthy white men who sparked the Enlightenment. Many were noble-- and certainly brilliant-- but their views were rooted in their own privilege. As a result they shared the same blind spot when it came to conceptions of individual liberty.
The Logical Pitfalls of Privilege
All men might be born with free will and entitled to life & liberty… but what of the women who raised them? Women were absolutely limited in terms of life choices, and even today they must sacrifice a great deal of personal liberty to raise a family. Locke and Jefferson had the luxuries of free will and personal liberty—but didn’t obtain them in a vacuum. Both were born as powerless & dependent as every other human being.
Setting aside wealth or education, they grew into men with personal liberty only because they’d been nurtured while weak and dependent. Both men claimed life & liberty as a birthright when in fact they-- like every other human who’s ever lived-- enjoyed both only because of the sustained sacrifice of others, especially women. The Law of Nature applied to-- and could be enjoyed by-- only men of privilege.
The Property Problem
The belief in man's inalienable right to property is even more interesting-- and problematic. Locke stressed man has a right to the possessions earned through his own labor, which is a sentiment that, at least in general terms, would meet with near-universal agreement. But of course the institution of slavery runs directly counter to that notion. Thus, slavery became acceptable only when those enslaved are not viewed as being fully human. And not only were enslaved Africans considered to have zero God-given right to their own property—they themselves were considered to be property of the wealthy white men who owned the land upon which they were imprisoned.
The Declaration of Independence reveals a fascinating struggle with this problem. On June 12, 1776—less than a month before their national counterparts would vote in Philadelphia-- the Virginia Constitutional Convention signed its own Declaration of Rights. Section 1 will be quite familiar to lovers of Locke & liberty:
“That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have
certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of
society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity;
namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and
possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."
Adoption of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, by Jack Clifton
Virginian Thomas Jefferson would lift & shift this language into the Declaration of Independence only a few weeks later. The glaring omission of “the means of acquiring and possessing property” from the national version showed how controversial the subject of property was. Less than a century later it would lead to civil war.
The notion of property rights was just as problematic when applied to the ownership of land. In Europe property rights were established based on what man cultivated and farmed a tract of land. Their agrarian culture & worldview led them to believe this was an objective standard, but it was not for the indigenous peoples of America who’d inhabited the land for generations. They became refugees & victims of genocide.
To be clear-- this criticism is not based on morality or cultural values, but focused exclusively on the faulty logic that undergirds social contract theory. And it's essential to clarify because Locke’s concepts of liberty & property rights are still the intellectual foundation of the libertarian right.
When today's Republicans complain that political opponents “make everything about racism and sexism”, it’s essential to remind them that these distinctions are hard-wired into their own logical positions. Identity politics are created and sustained not by outsiders, but by those who created the rules of identity in the first place. Conservatives as people might not be racist or sexist but they do embrace Originalism, a political & legal ideology that is still both.
Even so the wealthy white men running the Long Con-- and their vast armies of proxies-- have decided that the rules written by and for people just like them are not yet tipped enough in their favor. They re-write history by claiming that they have no obligation to society whatsoever, and that all taxation and regulation is thievery or abuse of their God-given rights. The logic of their central argument—and the privilege that undergirds it— is precisely the same as the wealthy white men who kept slaves and committed genocide at our nation's founding.
If it is wrong to claim that today's free market fundamentalists would endorse or support either of these hideous relics from our past, it is equally wrong for them to claim their ideology is different than that of the plantation owners who wrote their own privilege into America's founding documents.
The only real difference is that today's billionaire oligarchs want to keep every bit of that privilege while abandoning the social contract at the heart of the Constitution.